Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Gone fishin'

Not really. But I am unplugging myself for a couple of weeks in order to focus on writing for one book and researching for another. Unplugging the wi-fi and turning off the cell phone may seem drastic, but it can be hard to focus otherwise. I hope I don't break out in hives, a cold sweat and tremors as I withdraw.

Talk to you again soon. In the meantime, happy eating!

Monday, July 28, 2008

La Vaquita burritos

Hankering for some Mexican food, I decide to try a chicken burrito from La Vaquita. It is a little shed, formerly a dairy, on Chapel Hill Road that turns out amazing Mexican food. There is no seating. It's a walk-up kind of place and not exactly fast.

I've not had anything there that didn't knock my socks off. The burrito proved no exception. The place is so good that I have to resist stopping, because when I do stop I eat like a glutton. It's embarrassing and unhealthy!

The burrito was huge. The chicken had chipotle seasoning but it wasn't overpowering or too spicy until I dumped hot salsa over it. The burrito also had rice, corn, green pepper, onion and red beans in it. La Vaquita served a couple of different salsas with it. One was a chunky, mild tomatillo salsa. The other was a smooth, fiery chipotle salsa. Both were delicious. I burned off a few taste buds with the chipotle salsa, but it was worth it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Very Weird FOOD

I dare someone to buy this: lobster ice cream!

Let me know how it tastes.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Chocolate chip cookie heaven

I delight in other people's culinary successes. A new friend of mind in Greensboro recently tried a chocolate chip cookie recipe from the NYT food section and shared it with several of us. I had read the article and accompanying recipe when they were published a couple of weeks ago.

The article recommends two things the my friend and I agreed were key to the cookies' success: 1. the dough chills for 36 hours, and 2. just before baking the cookies get a sprinkle of sea salt. Now I don't know about you, but 36 hours is a LONG time for me to wait on chocolate chip cookie. Left to my own devices, I would not be able to do this. Therefore I'm happy that I tried the fruits of my friend's labor.

The 36 hour chill results in cookies with a deep, rich flavor. The eggs and butter have a chance to work some cookie magic: the baked cookies are crisp on the edge, goey in the middle, and the in between layer is somewhere in between. The sprinkle of salt makes perfect since because salt is a flavor enhancer. On top of the cookies, it brings out the flavor of the chocolate.

Here is the divine recipe for chocolate chip cookie heaven:

Time: 45 minutes (for 1 6-cookie batch), plus at least 24 hours’ chilling

2 cups minus 2 tablespoons (8 1/2 ounces) cake flour

1 2/3 cups (8 1/2 ounces) bread flour

1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt

2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter

1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar

2 large eggs

2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract

1 1/4 pounds bittersweet chocolate disks or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content (see note)

Sea salt.

1. Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

2. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.

3. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside.

4. Scoop 6 3 1/2-ounce mounds of dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day. Eat warm, with a big napkin.

Yield: 1 1/2 dozen 5-inch cookies.

Note: Disks are sold at Jacques Torres Chocolate; Valrhona fèves, oval-shaped chocolate pieces, are at Whole Foods.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Rockwood Filling Station: Pizza

The new Rockwood Filling Station Neapolitain Pizzeria opened Wednesday evening on University Dr. sandwiched neatly between Q Shack and Nana's. Yes, Scott Howell is behind it. So is the former Nana's bartender John. I love Scott Howell. He can cook. John is really great too. He was my favorite bartender in town. Now he is my favorite pizza guy. I'm sure the front of house will be excellent in John's capable hands.

Opening night for a restaurant is crazy for everyone involved, and I had a front row seat at the bar. They don't have a liquor license yet so everyone was drinking water or tea or BYOB wine. The old filling station that was also a dry cleaners has been transformed into a darling place. The floors and bar are poured concrete. The walls are a warm yellow beige with bright things on the walls. A large glass wall separates the kitchen from the bar, so it's easy to see the pizzas being made and put into the giant pizza oven. The oven, according to the menu, is over 700 degrees hot, and I was worried someone might get burned! Scott was there making pizzas. He looked focused and happy from my vantage point.

The vibe was good. While I'm sure it was stressful, all of the staff seemed happy and enthusiastic.

I was not really hungry but I felt I must try a starter as well as a pizza. I had the baked meatballs for my starter. Now the menu doesn't say this but the meatballs are made with pork, beef, and duck. DUCK. Duck meatballs! Yum. The meatballs were perfect in every way and served in a simple but flavorful tomato sauce. Run to get some.

I ordered the white pizza for my dinner. It was topped with ricotta, fontina, caramelized onions, and spinach. It needed salt and some garlic. John told me they were working on getting the seasonings just right and the need for more salt was common feedback opening night. The pizza crust was fairly thin, which is how I like it, and ever so slightly burnt around the edges. I look forward to trying the other combinations like the veggie pizza, the pizza margherita and the eggplant pizza.

I kept an eye on everything that came out of the kitchen. The salads looks delicious and I cannot wait to try the antipasti platter. It featured what looked like roasted peppers, proscuitto, cheese, olives, and a deviled egg. I saw milkshakes, ice cream and cannoli go by. Every plate that went back into the kitchen looked licked clean. I took home leftovers, but I would have eaten every bite had it not been for stuffing myself with meatballs. Meatballs with duck!

I must try the cannoli. Not only is cannoli one of my favorite desserts, but also cannoli is a good indicator of a restaurant's attention to detail. Yes, it all hangs on the cannoli, but that's another story.

Give the place a few weeks before you go. Once the staff settles into a routine, the liquor license shows up, the salt and pepper shakers arrive, the cash register software becomes familiar to all, and the flavors and seasonings get adjusted, this place will be great.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Metro 8 Steakhouse

Wednesday night a friend and I went to Metro 8 Steakhouse on 9th Street. The restaurant has been opened a couple of years but I'd not been. The space where it is located has been home to numerous unsuccessful businesses so I'm glad Metro 8 has managed to do well there. It's a great location. I have heard that the rent there is outrageous, hence the high turnover in businesses in the past. Or it could be that the place had strange feng shui. Who knows. The space itself is a little awkward in shape but the owner has fixed it up nicely.

My friend and I shared a starter of provolone topped with sliced tomato and dried herbs (maybe thyme, basil, and oregano) and baked under a broiler until it was a hot, oozing, cheesy mess. I love melted cheese, but it was kind of messy. Don't share this with anyone you don't know really well!

Since Metro 8 is a steakhouse it was only fitting that one of us ordered steak. My friend ordered the churrasco which is a thinly cut skirt steak. It was delicious and I would order the 8oz steak the next time I go. The skirt steaks are the least expensive cuts on the steak menu. The filet mignon is $28. I am curious to try it, but if I am going to eat an expensive steak, I will either cook it myself or go somewhere like Nana's or Magnolia Grill where I would get excellent service (usually) and a knowledgeable recommendation on the wine list (always). I'm sure that is entirely unfair on my part, but that's my preference. If I had an unlimited budget and a zero cholesterol in my arteries, I'd love to try filet mignon at all the top restaurants and steakhouses. Wouldn't that be fun? I can hear my arteries clog just thinking about it.

I ordered the herb encrusted, sushi-grade tuna. The herbs included a very healthy dose of rosemary, and it was topped with a balsamic reduction. I enjoyed it but the rosemary and balsamic reduction perhaps overpowered the tuna. Tuna doesn't need much to be fabulous.

For dessert we shared what was called a chocolate soufflé, but it wasn't really a soufflé. Soufflés are light and puffy and look like this picture. What we had was what I would call a chocolate lava cake, and it looks like this picture. Gooey, molten, chocolate lava cakes are really easy to make and taste better than just about anything. Chocolate soufflé is wonderful too but it's difficult to do correctly. So I'm not complaining here because it was yummy. It was, however, not what I was expecting based on the menu.

The service was decent and charming though not top-notch.

Other things on the menu looked interesting like the pork chop, the crab-stuffed shrimp, and the lobster ravioli. I will definitely go back to try those items.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Smoked salmon heaven!

I'm just back from a three day weekend in Seattle. It's a bit far for only three days, but I wanted to go see my aunt for her 60th birthday.

The famous Pike Place Market is a sight to behold. It's a huge, I mean HUGE, market downtown by the water. There are a lot of tourists milling around and I'm sure the prices are high, but it's so much fun to wander around. I could spend days looking at all of the fish and seafood, flowers, cheeses, veggies, and other things.

I especially liked fish market stalls with all kinds of beautiful fish, especially salmon. I'd love to buy a whole on someday and poach it for a party. Wouldn't that be fun? The Alaskan crab were the size of dinner plates and the lobster tails were a foot long.

My aunt took me to a local fish market Tacoma, where she lives, so I could buy some smoked salmon. I also picked up a smoked salmon dip that I plan to recreate somehow. I much prefer that Pacific smoked salmon to the Atlantic smoked salmon which seems to me slimy more often than not. My favorite way to serve any smokes salmon is to put it in a plate, sprinkle with lemon juice, season w/ pepper and salt, and possibly garnish with chopped capers. I like it served with crackers and butter. Cream cheese is good too.

Monday, July 7, 2008


We need good donuts badly in Durham. I was excited when Dunkin Donuts opened but sadly their donuts are not worth the calories. If I'm going to clog my arteries and fatten myself up with fried dough, it had better be GOOD. Some people like their coffee. It's adequate in a pinch but I'm not driving out of my way for it.

I have been known to embark on the 20 mile drive down to Raleigh for Krispy Kreme however. I wish we had a Krispy Kreme closer because not much can beat the KK plain glazed donuts hot off the donut press. KK plain glazed donuts cold are a let down by comparison.

The donut chain that I like much better than KK or DD is Daylight Donuts. Someone brought these into work last week after I harangued him into not bringing bagels or Dunkin Donuts. The old-fashioned glazed donut and the glazed chocolate cake donut are really yummy. I also like the Daylight Donut web site.

Are there any other donut places out there that I've missed? Why aren't donuts more popular in the South? Are we too busy eating biscuits? Seriously, we fry anything and have no compunction about eating grease three times a day. Would someone please open up a donut shop in downtown Durham?

I live vicariously through a new blog I found devoted entirely to the pursuit of donuts in New York City. What a dream to have so many options for fried dough!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

More fun with eggs: Crème brûlée

After going crazy last week with the meringues and custard experimentation, I ended up with 5 bright yellow, free range, happy chicken, egg yolks in the fridge. I also had some heavy cream left over from the custard. Not wanting to waste the pretty (and expensive) egg yolks, I ponder for awhile what to do with them. Crème brûlée fit the bill exactly.

Well almost. The recipe called for 6 egg yolks. I really did not want to break another egg because then I'd have one left over white. And, I don't know about you, but I think egg white omelets are gross. I decided to live on the edge and attempt it with the 5 yolks and 2 cups of cream instead of 2 1/2 cups.

Crème brûlée is a perfect recipe: uncomplicated yet totally sophisticated. The earliest known printed recipe for it is in a French cookbook from 1691 by Francois Massialot, chef to the Duc d'Orleans who was the brother of the Sun King.

I used a recipe from Mark Bittmann. Something went slightly wrong in my execution because the cream and egg yolks didn't set up as firm as they were supposed to. I wonder if this had something to do with me only using 5 yolks. I would have bet on that, except I noticed that I had different results depending on which ramekins I used. My old Fire King ramekins didn't do as well as the newer ceramic ones.

My other issue was when I put the ramekins under the broiler to "burn" the sugar. I recall that the crème brûlées I've eaten in restaurants were a nice combination of cold, creamy custard and warm, browned, hardened sugar. It's a nice contrast of flavors, temperatures and textures. Well, putting the ramekins under the broiler to brown the sugar made the entire dish hot. Next time I will definitely use the kitchen blow torch that my brother and his wife gave me years ago. The little blow torch is the key to browning the top without heating the entire dessert.

I wounldn't have called this attempt in the kitchen a success except my friends did eat every last morsel and nearly licked the ramekins clean. What's not to love about vanilla flavored, sweetened cream enriched with egg yolk?

I plan to try this recipe again. If I get it right, I'll post the recipe.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Separating eggs

Separating eggs gives me fits. Invariably I get hasty and accidentally end up w/ yolk in my whites. That spells R U I N. Egg whites will not form peaks if even of trace of yolk or shell remains.

Here is how to do it with minimal risk. First wash your hands and put next to you a damp cloth or paper towels for your hands.

Set out three bowls: 1 to hold the whites, 1 to hold the yolks, and a smaller one into which you will separate the whites . Crack egg gently. Then open the egg into one of your hands. Gently spread apart your fingers and let the egg white spill into the small bowl. Once most of the white is in the bowl, put the yolk in the larger bowl reserved for yolks. Scrutinize the egg white for shells or drops of yolk. When satisfied that your egg white is perfect, pour it into the larger bowl reserved for egg whites. Do this to each egg. Now the beauty of this method is that you can screw up one egg white without ruining the previous 5 you've separated successfully.

If you want, use an egg separator. I find those slow. You can also separate the egg by juggling the yolk back and forth between the halves while the white drips down. I can't do this. Shells are sharp and easily break the yolk. Fingers generally do not have sharp edges, and while it is a mess, it works.

Meringue: Îles flottants (floating islands)

After rescuing custard from the jaws of defeat, I used it to make a traditional French dessert called Îles flottants which comprises poached meringues floating in the chilled custard.

To make the dessert, first make the custard (see below) and chill. Then toast some sliced almonds for garnish. I am always forgetting garnishes but I did not forget the tasty toasted almonds. MMMM! Then take 6 egg whites (left over from separating the yolks for the custard) and beat until creamy in a standing mixer. Next add a cup of sugar. Beat in mixer until stiff, shiny peaks form.

Divide custard among 8 bowls. The recipe serves 8 easily.

Put 5 cups of whole milk in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Drop meringue by 3 tablespoonfuls into the milk. Poach for 30 seconds on each side. Remove to bowls putting 2 poached meringues in each bowl. Sprinkle almonds around the custard. Serve.

For extra fun, make some spun sugar by bringing to boil 1 c. sugar and 1 c. water, stirring ocassionally. While it is boiling, oil a large sheet of waxed paper with butter. Boil the sugar until it turns caramel. This happens magically all of a sudden when the sugar reaches the right temperature. The sugar is actually burning but don't worry about that. Take it off the heat stirring constantly. When you pull up the sugar w/ a spoon, a ribbon should form. Once that happens, dip a fork into the sugar and drizzle all over the waxed paper until you've used all the sugar. It will look like a caramel Jackson Pollock painting.

When Jackson Pollock cools, you'll be able to peel it from the waxed paper and break it into pieces. A nice piece of Jackson Pollock looks pretty with the floating custard.

This recipe is easy and inexpensive except for the vanilla bean and the cream in the custard. I wonder if it is possible to use whole milk only in the custard. I think it would work since the egg yolks are the thickening agent. And by all means, use vanilla extract. If you do buy a vanilla bean, don't forget to save the pod to put in a jar of sugar to flavor it.