Sunday, April 29, 2007

Dinner party: Dessert

Dessert last night was a huge, smashing success! I made Nigella Lawson's chocolate, molten babycake recipe again. Everyone raved and one friend asked me for the recipe.

I love dessert, especially chocolate ones. It is SUCH a disappointment when a chocolate cake or dessert looks and sounds great but isn't. I had this happen not long ago when I was at Nana's in Durham. My friend and I shared a piece of chocolate cake but it was dry and tasteless.

On the other hand, this recipe from Nigella will never disappoint. In addition to being a crowd pleaser, it is very hard to screw up. Best of all, it is out of this world delicious. If any food could ever be a religious experience, this would be it. It's like a truffle in a bowl. In one simple dish my need for all things chocolate (cake, frosting, truffle, and mousse) is fulfilled.

That is perfection!

Dinner party: Main course

After the first course of chilled asparagus salad (see below), I served a vegetable lasagna. It was rather labor intensive. I was reminded of why I only make lasagna a couple of times a year even though I love it.

I got the recipe from an old standby from the 90's called The New Basics Cookbook. A recipe is not really needed for lasagna though. Next time I'm going to wing it on the recipe although this one was very good and got many compliments.

There are some secrets to making lasagna:

  • Buy Barilla no cook lasagna noodle as these same a tremendous amount of time and hassle,
  • Assemble the lasagna the night before so the flavors have a chance to mingle (but remember to bring it out of the fridge a couple of hours before cooking so it is room temperature-ish.
  • Home made tomato sauce is really good BUT to save time, buy a pasta sauce in a jar that you like, add some chopped garlic, a couple of pinches of dried oregano, a pinch of dried basil, and some olive oil. I don't know how much, just do it until you like the taste.

Recipe inspired by the New Basics veggie lasagna:

1. Slice 8oz mushrooms and saute in butter or olive oil
2. Thinly slice a large onion, a red pepper and a green pepper; saute in olive oil with 3 cloves of minced garlic. Season w/ salt and pepper.
3. Cut an eggplant into 1/4 inch slices. Salt on both sides and drain a colander for 15 or 20 min. Dredge in flour and brown in canola or olive oil. Reserve on a paper towl.
4. Make a bechamel sauce (any recipe) and add grated parmesan until it tastes good. Maybe 1/2c. is what I used. Season w/ more salt if needed and pepper.
5. Doctor up 2c. of sauce from tomato pasta sauce with garlic, dried basil and oregano.
6. Assemble the lasagna: Spread some tomato sauce in bottom of 9x13in pan. Arrange lasagna noodles in bottom of pan. Add in layers the onion/pepper mixture, the mushrooms, and the eggplant.
7. Top the veggies w/ half of the bechamel parmesan sauce. Sprinkle a 4oz. log of goat cheese (YES goat cheese again) on top of the parmesan. I suppose you could use feta instead. If you like, put some sliced basil on top of the cheese.
8. Add another layer of noodles.
9. Pour 2 c. of the tomato sauce on top of noodles. Add remaining bechamel and sprinkle with 8oz. shredded mozarella.

Dinner party: First course

Last night I had a dinner party, as I mentioned in the post yesterday. I like having people over for dinner because 1. cooking is fun and a form of relaxation for me, 2. it forces me to clean my house, and 3. good food makes people happy!

The first course was a chilled asparagus salad over an asparagus coulis. Asparagus is in season therefore it tastes especially delicious and it is affordable.

The recipe was adapted from Thomas Keller, the genius of American haute cuisine:

2 bunches of asparagus
olive oil
canola oil
red wine vineagar
Dijon mustard
2 radishes, sliced thinly and in julienned strips
3-4 hard cooked egg yolks, chopped
sniped chives for garnish

Trim asparagus and save the tough stemmed. Cook the spears in boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes until tender but not droopy. Remove from the water and place in a bowl of ice water. When cool, chill in the fridge.

Add the tough stems into the boiling water. Cook for 7 to 10 min until they are very tender. Drain and save a cup of the cooking liquid. Put the cooked stems in the blender w/ salt and pepper and 3T of cooking liquid. Blend until smooth. Add 1T olive oil. For a very silky smooth coulis, strain the liquid through a fine sieve like a chinois. I have a chinois expressly for the purpose of making smooth sauces like this one. Chill until cold.

For the vinaigrette, whisk together 1/4 c. red wine vineagar, 1/8c. Dijon mustard. Add 1/4c. canola oil. When emulsified, slowly whisk in another 1/2c. canola oil.

To assemble the salad, place 2T asparagus coulis on each plate. Top with 4 or 5 spears of asparagus. Drizzle each plate w/ 1T vinaigrette. Sprinkle chopped egg yolks and some salt across asparagus spears. Sprinkle radish on top of eggs. Garnish each with snipped chives.

This salad is very beautiful. It is a layer of colors: green, rose (from red wine vinaigrette), yellow, white and magenta, and green. It is so easy. The hardest part is slicing up radishes into julienned strips.

I think the dish was a success, especially for a vegetable! Everyone ate it and remarked at how pretty and tasty it was.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Setting the table: glasses

I had a dinner party tonight. More on that later. First I want to make a note on setting the table with glasses before I forget and have to look it up again! My source is the French cookbook La bonne cuisine pour tous. It is a wonderful resource if you can read French. My friend's mom gave it to me when I lived in France.

Glasses from left to right: champagne glass, water glass, red wine glass, white wine glass. Coffee cups and saucers do not go on the table because at the end of the meal, one invites the guests to retire from the table to the sitting room. The coffee and after dinner drinks are served at this point.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

An Italitan shop: Capri Flavors

I don't venture to Cary too often, but one of my stops there has been Capri Flavors. It is a wonderful Italian market that carries items shipped weekly from Italy. They sell a variety of delicious Italian cheeses. The gorgonzola is the best to be found in the area! There is a myriad of dried pasta, sauces, oils, olives, capers, sausages and frozen wonders like lobster ravioli, canoli filling, and who knows what. I'm sure the bounty depends on the week.

I bought several cheeses and salami for a plate of antipasta for a party. I also bought salted capers which are preferable to the ones in brine. I was most delighted, however, by the frozen lobster ravioli. It was quite simply divine. Since childhood, I have adored ravioli. Any time we'd go to an Italian restaurant, I'd order ravioli. I've branched out slightly since then, but I am still very interested when I see ravioli on the menu!

I fixed the lobster ravioli for my lunch today (in part because there was nothing else to eat) with some butter, parmesan, and crab meat. The filling was rich, creamy and smooth. It was like lobster bisque wrapped in dough! YUM. The crab was overkill. I should have left it at butter and ravioli.

As if the market wasn't enough, Capri Flavors offers cooking classes. I took my team to one of these cook classes as a "team building" event. It was their idea. So much better than bowling, baseball, or laser tag! The store owner, Titina, gives the cooking class. We learned to make the best tomato bruschetta (lots and lots of olive oil and a shocking amount of salt), veal saltimboca, a pepper gratin, and a dessert of vanilla ice cream w/ espresso and brandy poured over it. When peppers and tomatoes are in season, I'll try these at home.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Crab and grapefruit salad

Here is a recipe very healthy and refreshing salad for spring:

1. Peel a grapefruit and put 4 or 5 sections on a plate
2. Arrange a mound of cooked, lump crab meat on the plate w/ the grapefruit
3. Dice half an avocado and sprinkle over crab
4. Make a vineagrette of 1/4 c. olive oil plus 1/2 t. lemon juice and 1/2 t. lime juice and drizzle it over the crab, avocado, grapefruit
5. Sprinkle with snipped chives and salt and pepper

On a hot day, this requires no cooking and it takes about 3 minutes to prepare start to finish. I would have never put a grapefruit w/ crab meat but it tastes great! The original recipe I saw had orange juice added to the dressing and had asparagus instead of avocado in the salad. I'm sure that would be great too. I love asparagus but I love avocado even more. And I never keep OJ around. Empty calories. Peel and orange instead...or a grapefruit.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Buy local, eat local

If you want to stick it to the man (and reduce your carbon footprint), buy local and eat local.

First of all, get out of Macaroni Grill , California Pizza Kitchen, and (gasp) Sullivan's. You want Italian? Go to Pop's or Cinelli's. You want pizza? Go to Peppers. You want steak? Go to Bin 54 or Angus Barn. All of these are locally owned businesses. Don't get me started on Starbucks! Suffice it to say that there are lots of options for much better coffee.

Second, change your eating habits. Don't buy strawberries in February or tomatoes in November. If you must have these things get them canned or frozen. Better yet, can and freeze them yourself when they are in season so you will have them year around!

Third, simply pay attention to where your food comes from. It is usually on the label. I nearly DIED when I discovered that a tin of gorgeous lump crab meat I bought at the butcher (at least it was Red and White, a local butcher shop) was from China. CHINA? My brain reels at the thought. I wonder what kind of dodgy environmental practices resulted in this can being in the butcher down the block. Not to mention the fact that crabs are basically bottom feeders and I don't even WANT to think about what they are feeding on in the bottom of the South China Sea! Have a bit of mercury and other toxins w/ your salad, please.

Finally, do your shopping at the local farmers' markets. We are lucky to have so many good options. At the Durham farmers' market, you can get fantastic cheeses, meats, and vegetables. It's all local and it's all organic. Sure it's more expensive than Food Lion, but you get what you pay for in terms of quality and freshness. WholeFoods is a travesty to local business compared to Wellspring of yesteryear, but you can find a few local items there: Counter Culture coffee and Celebrity Farm Dairy goat cheese. Come to think of it, I might just join the Durham Food Co-op given how I am anti-corporate grocery at the moment.

I am going to attempt these things over the summer, at least for the fresh groceries I have to buy. I might even try to can some tomatoes!

If every person who could afford it, made an effort to buy and to eat local as a regular practice, the likes of Super Target and Super Walmart would not be taking over the world with their ghastly produce sections!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Spinach, feta and pinenut tart

My friend requested my assistance for a party this evening. She was in need of a vegetarian main course. I made this spinach pie inspired by the the Greek dish called spanikopita. My sister-in-law found this recipe on another blog called Je Mange la Ville, but it was first printed in Gourmet, Nov 1998.

The spinach pie was a huge success. Next time I might add a little garlic though. Phyllo dough makes anything fabulous. It requires delicate handling so the thin sheets don't tear (keeping the dough covered w/ damp paper towls helps a lot), but it is worth the trouble and, unlike puff pastry, it is basically idiot-proof. The pie was made with six sheets of phyllo. Between each layer was melted butter and grated parmesan. YUM! The toasted pine nuts lend an earthy flavor and a nice bite to the dish. I also used Bulgarian sheep's milk feta because it actually has flavor. Domestic cow's milk feta is dull by comparison, plus real feta is made w/ sheep's milk.

The blog Je Mange la Ville has some great recipes on it. Michelle, the blogger, and I must be kindred spirits: same age, two cats, studied French, love food, read cookbooks. Check out her web site. She's been at this longer than I have and she has pictures of the food as she prepares it!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Piazza Italia: new Durham restaurant

Piazza Italian opened in Brightleaf Square recently in the old Millenium Music space. A friend took me there for my birthday a few days ago.

The space is rather barn-like but they have done a decent job in making it feel warm and inviting. The exposed beams and brick lend the place some charm. The chairs are the most comfortable dining chairs! I could almost imagine sitting there for a very long evening meal. ALMOST. Unfortunately, the food wasn't that great. I had veal parmesan with a side of fettucine alfredo. My friend had chicken parmesan with a side of spaghetti with tomato sauce. We both thought the meat was overly breaded and too dry. My veal was tough. This is the second time my friend ate there. Last time he ordered the lasagna. He recommends the lasagna over the chicken parmesan.

Maybe I will give this place one more try to see how they execute on the lasagna.

The highlight of our meal, besides the comfy chairs, was dessert. We orderd rum raisin gelato. It was great: smooth, creamy, rich! The cafe at the front of the restaurant sells a huge variety of gelato. It will be worth stopping by for a gelato when the weather warms up.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

12th Annual Farm Tour

If you don't have plans for the weekend, you might consider the 12th Annual Piedmont Farm Tour held in Orange and Chatham counties. The tour features 34 sustainable farms that are managed to be environmentally and socially responsible.

One of my favorite spots on the tour is the Celebrity Farm Dairy. It is a goat farm that produces goat cheese. The goats are charming and usually there are baby goats running around this time of year.

Piedmont Biofuels is also on the tour. This "farm" does research on biofuels and produces small quantities of bio-deisel.

I love to go on the tour to pick up organic produce. One of my favorite greens is in season right now: rocket, aka arugula. I try to pick up a large bag at one of the farms to take home to make rocket pesto which is so good that I could eat it w/ a spoon!

This year the farm tour will also feature a couple of Chatham Co. wineries for the first time. I am hoping to hit those.

The tour costs $25 per car and it is a tax deductible.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The best Chinese: Pao Lim

My favorite Chinese place in the Triangle is Pao Lim on the Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd (aka 15-501 Business).

The food is primarily Chinese with some Thai and Indian dishes. Everything I've ever had there is beautiful and delicious. I especially like their mu shu pork, mu shu vegetables, lemongrass tofu, and salmon with greens. For starters, try their dal soup. I usually also get brown rice and jasmine tea.

I like the fact that not all of the food is fried and swimming in thick sauces. They do not use MSG according to a menu I saw and the food is freshly cooked to order.

The big bonus to Pao Lim is that I can walk there from my house!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

NYT Brownie recipes

This is a good week of recipes in the New York Times. Often the recipes are too frou frou or esoteric even for me. And that's saying something!

Imagine my delight to see three, yes THREE, brownie recipes accompanying an article by Julie Moskin called "Simple Pleasure, American Style." The article is a delightful essay on the history and development of an American original: the brownie. As we've become more sophisticated, so have our brownies. Once they had only a scant 2 ounces of chocolate. That's not enough chocolate for anything! Happily progress has led us to prefer 70% bittersweet Caillebaut and Sharffenberger.

The NYT archives articles after a week and they charge a fee for accessing archive materials, so print your brownie recipes now. I'm going to try the recipe that verges on chocolate truffledom first. Hopefully I will try all of them eventually.

The problem w/ making a pan of brownies is that I am tempted to eat them singlehandedly!

Monday, April 9, 2007

Lunch in RTP: Part 6

Confusion Japanese Restaurant: I love saying "let's go to confusion" first of all. Confusion has a very good and very unusual Japanese luncheon buffet, including sushi. They make everything fresh. The only thing that comes out of a can is some sweet corn they put in a salad. At least this is what they told me. My favorite thing was a spicy daikon salad.

Smithfield BBQ: finally good NC 'cue in the Park! Actually it is Morrisville at Davis Dr. and Morrisville-Carpenter. I have heard they even have good fried shrimp though I've not tried it myself. I cannot go there and not get the pulled pork, slaw and hush puppies! MMM. Speaking of hush puppies, I'm so glad I live in the South. You know there are whole parts of the country where you cannot buy a single hush puppy!

India Palace: The best Indian buffet in the Park is located on Airport. Decor is not as elegant as Saffron but the food is better. It tastes fresher. The place is hard to find. It's on Airport in a little strip mall on the left behind the gas station before Hooters (if you are coming from I-40).

Hilton: I never thought I would say this, but the Hilton Hotel on Page Road has a surprisingly good lunch buffet where the food, including desserts, seem to be homemade. One of my colleagues and I went on a business lunch there w/ a candidate in town for a job interview. The menu is different everyday. In addition to the food, this hotel is apparently the best, most civilized option in RTP.

Salsa Fresh: On Davis Dr. just off of Morrisville-Carpenter has great burritos as I mentioned before. I recently tried their tamales. They were outstanding and easily the best tamales in the triangle! Unlike your average Mexican restaurant tamale which looks like it was preserved in can in 1985, these tamales are bright yellow flecked with red pepper andfilled with chicken that actually looks like, um, chicken! They make them homemade every week. I've actually made tamales myself (big, multi-person job) so I can attest that the ones at Salsa Fresh are the real deal. YUM! For those of you who have an issue w/ transfat, tamales are made with LARD so consider yourself warned. IMHO, a little lard never hurt anyone. Just don't eat tamales everyday!

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Deviled eggs for Easter

Eggs are an ancient symbol for new life so it is only appropriate to serve deviled eggs, a.k.a. eggs mimosa, at Easter. Just for fun look up "deviled eggs" and "Easter eggs" on Wikipedia.

My friend Heather gave me a wonderful recipe which includes cajun spices in the mashed yokes. Here is the recipe for these cajun eggs also called zydeco ya-yas:

6 hard boiled eggs peeled, halved and the yokes put in a bowl

Add to the yokes:
1/4 c. mayonaisse
1 T plus 2t Dijon mustard
1 1/2t cajun seasoning (either buy at a store or make by combining 1T plus 1 1/2t paprika, 1T garlic powder, 1 1/2t onion powder, 1 1/2t cayenne pepper)
1/4t Tabasco sauce
salt and black pepper to taste

Mash until combined and spoon into the whites. Sprinkle w/ paprika and snipped chives.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Maximillian's in Cary

A couple of weeks ago I had dinner at Maximillian's with some business colleagues. I don't usually trek to Cary from Durham but with a bit of arm-twisting and a recommendation from someone that Maximillian's is worth the trip, I decided to go.

Maximillian's claims "exceptional service. adventurous menu" on it's website. I would agree that the menu is adventurous. It featured items like voodoo mahi and leg of duck. The presentation was fantastic. All of the dishes were beautiful. I had a grilled mahi salad. Now that doesn't sound very exciting but it was light, refreshing, and enough to eat at 9pm (I don't believe in heavy food late at gives me bad dreams). Everyone thoroughly enjoyed their meals. For wine, we had shared some bottles of Earthquake zinfandel. It was smooth and not overly sharp as some zins can be.

Regarding the service, it was above average but not exceptional. My standard for exceptional service in the Triangle is Fearrington House. Their service is perfection. To claim exceptional service in light of places like Fearrington House or even Magnolia Grill is a risky value proposition!

The waitress was fine but she was awfully young and not terribly knowledgeable. She was overly friendly, and I prefer more discretion. Plus I'm not sure she'd eaten any of the food. If I owned a restaurant, all of the wait staff would have to try every wine and every dish. They need to know it so they can make recommendations!

In addition, the waitress STACKED our plates at the end of the meal when she was clearing the table. Ok, so stacking dishes may not be the end of the world, I will grant, BUT I have this pet peeve about stacking dishes: if you stack dishes, it makes washing them harder because God only knows what gets stuck on the bottom.

Plus, I always think of my friend Sally who told me that her grandmother's housekeeper used to interview help for big dinner parties and she asked them, "Are you quality or do you stack?" What a question! Who is going to say, "Oh, I stack," after that?

Once I heard that tale, I reformed my lowbrow ways and became quality. No stacking of dishes at my house!

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Two Buck Chuck

Trader Joe's, my new favorite place, is particularly well-known for it's bargain wines and especially for the Charles Shaw wines sold for between $1.99 and $4.99 depending on location. Some wine critic cleverly coined the name Two Buck Chuck for the Charles Shaw wines.

The company that makes these wines uses surplus from the California wine industry. And they market the wines as "extreme value" (instead of CHEAP).

Intrigued, I picked up a bottle of Charles Shaw cabernet sauvignon at Trader Joe's. Two Buck Chuck is surprisingly drinkable. It was very sharp when I first opened it but it benefited from being poured in the glass and left to sit out for a while. It certainly wasn't a complex wine but it is easy enough to drink.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Quick cinnamon rolls

This is the strangest recipe I've seen in a while but it is very good and very quick. My friend who is a home economics teacher gave me. Every time I've made it the entire batch gets eaten. What's not to love about gooey, buttery cinnamon rolls?

Quick Cinnamon rolls:

Buy 1 doz. Rhodes frozen cinnamon rolls. Put in a pan the night before. Mix up 3/4 c.vanilla ice with ¾ c. brown sugar, ¾ c. white sugar, 1 stick margarine or butter. Bring to boil for one minute. Pour it over the frozen cinnamon rolls. Place them in a cold oven for 6 to 7 hours or overnight. Turn on oven and bake at 350 for 25-30 min. Ice w/ icing that comes with it.