Tuesday, May 25, 2004

A lovely day in Boston (except for the weather)!

I always try to plan my last day, when I visit my son, daughter-in-law, and the most adorable baby in the world, so that I can have a walk-around day in Boston before flying home. The weather didn't cooperate yesterday; it was cold, grey and damp.

However, I did get a lovely lunch at Kingfish Hall . This is a Todd English restaurant (that handsome devil!), but I wondered about the fact that it's right by Faneuil Hall, a major tourist destination. I should have known. Just as Olives and Figs are wonderful places, so is this!

I got there a little early, and just enjoyed a glass of McCrostie chardonnay ($10) as I perused the list of excellent seafood dishes. That's not all they have, but that's their specialty and who am I to argue! I started with "Not Your Mother's Clam Chowder," a more elegant version than most I've had. With bits of potato, scallion and streaky bacon to supplement the generous portion of chopped fresh clams, topped with one steamer, and really cute little cracker puffs. Eventually I narrowed the main course list down to the Pasta Crabonara: Linguine with bacon, cream, parmesan and a fresh Maryland soft-shell crab, or the pesto-crusted roasted halibut.

I thought about taking both and getting a doggie bag for later, since the flight home was foodless, but the side dishes pulled me toward the halibut: a baby yellow and red tomato salad, crusty potato cake and balsamic drizzle. YUMMY. But I still wish I had gotten the soft-shell crab dish, too! The waiter could not have been more gracious if I had been a table of corporate guys on expense accounts instead of a lone female, so I tipped him generously!

Afterwards, walked the few blocks to the North End, Boston's little Italy. There's a sort of pharmacy that carries a wide variety of real Italian cooking magazines and I always pick up a few to bring back.

Then on to Mike's Pastry Shop for pastries and pistachio macaroons to bring home. By then the weather was getting threatening, so I headed it back to the airport without my usual espresso in one of the very authentic Italian cafés along Hanover Street, complete with handsome Italian hunks watching satellite Italian soccer games and rooting in Italian for their favorite team (and wondering about the unfamiliar woman in the corner, drinking espresso and reading Italian cooking magazines!). Fortunately, there WILL be a next time!

Sunday, May 23, 2004

I'm off in Massachusetts, visiting the most adorable baby (and her parents, my son and daughter-in-law). We went the first night to a Mexican restaurant, Azteca in Attleboro, MA. Might be one of the most authentic I've ever eaten in. My son, the voracious eater, had the Azteca special, which appeared to be one of everything on the menu, and took two plates to serve. The other three of us had different combo dinners. Mine had an enchilada, and the unique sauce was almost creamy and quite yummy. Then there was a "guacatorta," a sort of flatbread topped with a bean filling, shredded spiced lettuce, thick red-ripe tomato slices and possibly the best guacamole dressing I've ever had! With three excellent margaritas and a beer, the entire check was a hair over $40. Wish they would open a place in Memphis! I would love to have a recipe for that enchilada sauce...more about MA eating experiences later.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Interesting statistic: The annual per capita comsumption of honey in the US: 1.31 lbs. The amount of honey the average worker honey bee makes in its lifetime: 1/2 teaspoon. Holy cow, that's a lota bees!

Take some of that honey, cream it with softened butter and cinnamon and spread it on flour tortillas. Cut them in wedges, place on a buttered baking sheet and bake at 400 until puffed and golden, about 5 minutes. Goes great with coffee ice cream. Or mix it with equal amounts of Saga blue cheese (or any soft creamy blue) with a dash of port and stuff very ripe pears (halved and cored). Place in a buttered baking dish, stuff with the blue cheese mixture and run under a preheat broiler until lightly browned. Transfer to dessert plates and spoon any juices in the pan over the top. Yum!

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD: The Seafood Choices Alliances (Washington, DC) has unveiled the nation's best choices in terms of both taste and environmental impacts:
Wild Alaska and California salmon
American farmed caviars
Atlantic mackerel
US farmed catfish
Dungeness and stone crabs
Pacific halibut
Rainbow trout, farmed
Sablefish (black cod)
Clams, mussels and oysters, farmed

Good regional choices (not always widely available)
Nantucket bay scallops
Southern crawfish
Florida mahi-mahi
South Carolina wreckfish(of which I have never heard!)

And the five worst choices:
Beluga caviar
Chilean sea bass
Farmed Atlantic salmon
Orange roughy
Imported farmed shrimp

Interesting, is it not?

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Just to set the record straight: the word "panino" in Italian (the plural being "panini") does not of necessity refer to a grilled sandwich. It means "little bread" or "roll." In cafés or bars, there will be a wide selection with a variety of fillings, beautifully stacked. Some will be on the equivalent of a coarse textured white sandwich bread, some on ciabatta type bread, some on crusty ("Italian") bread. Most bars and cafĂ©s have what we call panini presses, and can warm the sandwich if it's appropriate, and if you want it that way. In the US, it seems that the general accepted wisdom dictates that 1) panini is a singular word, and 2) it MUST be grilled. Wrong on both counts!

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Anyone who has ever been to my house for dinner knows how it will finish: with a tiny glass of Limoncello. Or at least one tiny glass! This is pretty ubiquitous in Italy, and is made in many areas. My favorite brand, available in most Memphis liquor stores, is Caravella, but none are bad. Keep it in your freezer, and bring it out just before you're ready to serve it. I serve it after the dessert and coffee, but there is nothing that says that you can't serve it with a few crisp little Italian cookies (available, of course, at Mantia's) instead of dessert. It's a little pricey but a bottle goes a long way!
A quick recipe for a nice antipasto item, or accent to roast or grilled chicken or pork: Pick up a 1# bag of frozen pearl onions at the grocery (heck, they stay good in the fridge for a couple of weeks, double it if you like!). You can, of course get fresh pearl onions and go through the drudgery of peeling each tiny little one... Throw them into a big pot of boiling salted water and bring just back to a boil. Drain and put into a wide skillet (best if you could have them all in one layer, but if you're doing two bags, it would have to be a REALLY wide skillet). Add the juice and grated peel of one large orange (wash it before grating the zest...and zest it before cutting and juicing!), about 1/2 cup good fruity extra-virgin olive oil and a good pinch of salt. Cook for about 10-15 minutes over low heat, just simmering, or until they are golden and glazed. Taste for salt. Cover and refrigerate for at least a day. When ready to serve, grind a little pepper over the top and sprinkle with minced parsley. If you have some basil around a chiffonade of basil (that means cut into very fine little strips) is nice, too.

If you are doing a buffet of antipasti, this makes an admirable addition!
An "Ask Alyce" question: What's the big deal about food temperatures? One of our blog readers had heard from a restauranteur about how ticky the health department can be about food temperatures. I can sympathize with the reader; I remember my grandmother working in the cool of the morning preparing a great big ole meal (called dinner) served to the working men on the farm at noon or thereabouts. After they were done, the fire got banked in the wood-burning stove so it wouldn't be quite so hot in the house, and plates got turned upside down on the bowls of food to keep the flies out. In the evening she took off the plates, made fresh cornbread or biscuits and that was supper. Why aren't we all dead of food poisoning?

I don't know why, but a few years in the business have allowed me to hear and read about enough horror stories to take the food temp edicts very seriously. So, food must be kept either above 140F or below 40F to be safe. Spoilable food kept in the middle of those temperatures risk bacteria growth after a short time, and after a couple of hours can become a hot house of nasty stuff!

That said, I still love the hors-d'oeuvre variés in France, or tapas in Spain, or antipasti in Italy, mostly made earlier in the afternoon and left at room temperature. I eat them with no hesitation at all and have never gotten sick. Foods with plenty of vinegar or some other acid are much less likely to grow evil critters. I certainly have no problem marinating meat a few hours at room temperature, especially if I don't have long before cooking. The flavor seems to penetrate better at room temperature.

To be safe, if you have any concerns, follow the healthy rule of under 40F or over 140F and you should have no problems!
Okay. I've had several e-mails accusing me of being a very slothful blogger lately and what can I say? They're right! We've been so busy at the shop that I've let some things slip! So I promise to catch up with your "Ask Alyce" questions a few at a time, and to get back to drawing your attention to some of the things on the web that I've enjoyed! Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!

Monday, May 03, 2004

We've had a hard time recently finding the popular Szechwan (Szechuan? Sichuan? Sichwan?) peppercorns. But until I heard on "Splendid Table" this week about the great Szechwan pepper famine I wasn't sure why!

Since 1968, the federal government has banned the import of Sichuan peppercorns, which are the dried berries of the prickly ash shrub. The Agriculture Department did not really enforce the ban until two years ago, and its effort is expected to dry up supplies soon. Some chefs and retailers say that they are unable to find the peppercorns, which are often an ingredient of five-spice powder, a common Chinese seasoning. Others say they are selling what was stockpiled before the enforcement effort began.
The details are a bit complicated, but if you can believe the New York Times, there is no good reason for the ban other than excessively broad bureaucratic classifications (a related item endangers citrus crops).

There are still some available but apparently when they're gone, they're gone until or unless something changes, when existing legal supplies are depleted, that will be the end. Lynn Rosseto Kasper recommends firing up a peppermill with regular peppercorns, whole all spice and a touch of dried lemon peel as a substitute. I'll give it a try and report back!

Monday, March 29, 2004

The "Ask Alyce" question of the day:
What's the difference between black and white pepper?

Well, both are berries from the same tropical plant. The black are picked when not quite ripe, and dried. There are many varieties available, from the common plain "black peppercorn" to Tellicherry or Szechwan, both of which are more flavorful than the common grocery variety.

The white are ripe berries that are soaked in water, with the hull, or dark outer covering, rubbed off before drying. Although there is a difference in taste (I personally prefer the taste of the black, a bit more pungent than the white), the bigger difference is aesthetic: many chefs think the white pepper looks better than black on light-colored dishes, such as cream sauces, poached or baked fish, or light meats.

As long as we're talking about peppercorns, we might as well talk about the green ones, which are the very under-ripe berries, usually preserved in brine, although they are also available freeze-dried. And pink peppercorns aren't peppercorns at all, but from a completely different plant. Pungent and slightly sweet, they too are available either brine-packed or in the more common freeze-dried form.

Whatever your choice, all peppercorns are best freshly ground. I have individual little peppermills for the table at home, with a mixture of all four types of peppercorns. For cooking, I have one mill with black and a smaller one with white peppercorns. Whatever form your peppermill takes, please make sure to clean it frequently!

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

There have been so many articles lately that tout chocolate as not only good, but good for you! Darker chocoloate is better than lighter and active ingredients called flavenals act on "bad" cholestrol to reduce it. So you have our permission to indulge in any of the wide variety of chocolates we keep in stock! For a fun view of chocolate facts and trivia, plus some interesting looking chocolate products, Cocoa Pete's Chocolate Adventures is one place to look!

Friday, March 12, 2004

If you speak French, you might like to take alook at Supertoinette , a web site with tons of French recipes, cooking forums, and menu ideas. Even if your French is just remnants of high school classes, you still might want to check this out! I've gotten several interesting recipes. The really fun ones are the ones put forth as "real American" and the ways they deal with it. The pimento cheese was a riot, but now I can't seem to find it to point you toward it. At any rate, this can be a fun few minutes!
Some news from Mantia's: A cooking class: On Thursday, April 18, at 6:00 PM, "Southeast Regional Cuisine," with Jeffrey Dunham, Executive Chef of the popular Grove Grill. From the Carolinas down, a new style has evolved using new twists to traditional dishes. Chef Jeff presents exciting new dishes, with "themes and variations," to brighten up your winter dinners. The cost is $30 per person with advance reservations required.

A wine tasting: On Friday, April 19, John Adams, of Star Distributors, will present "New Wines from Spain." One of the latest hot spots culinarily, the newest wines coming from Spain are excellent. As always, Chef Patrick Hopper will prepare wonderful tapas to accompany the wines. The cost is $20 per person.

And another function with Chef Bubba: This is one we have promised for a LONG time: a cook-off, Iron Chef style. Or maybe we should call it "The Teflon Chef"!!! On Saturday, March 20 it's finally going to happen. Since Big Mike's mother, Billie Whitfield, has developed problems requiring kidney dialysis on a regular basis, we have decided to make it a benefit with all profits going to the National Kidney Foundation of West Tennessee in her honor.

At 6:00 PM, each of us will be presented with a bag of groceries, purchased jointly by Darlene Pruett (Mike's wife) and Joanna Martin (our day manager). We will have a set time (yet to be decided) to come up with and prepare a full dinner menu.

We will have two levels of participants: Each of us will accept two assistants, who will be asked for a donation of at least $75 each. In addition, we will have the "audience" who will be asked for a donation of at least $50 per person. During the cooking we will serve appetizers and wine, and at the end, everyone gets to taste it all, and vote for the best. (We haven't come up with a prize for the best...or maybe a forfeit for the loser?) More details will follow, but we will begin taking reservations at once. This is definitely reservation only, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it fill up within hours!

For more information on any of these events, or for reservations, please call 762-8560.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

I ran across some good basic advice on How to Host a Wine Tasting Party that I thought you might be interested in. Take a look, and then call us for your cheeses (for, as they mention, later!). It is generally accepted among wine lovers that all wines taste better with cheese. The French say "Sell wine on cheese, buy wine on bread" which reflects this sentiment. If you need some ideas on wine selections for your tastings, e-mail us (see the link "Ask Alyce") and we'll have our Elizabeth Mall, a certified sommelier give you some suggestions!

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

The French defend the Big Mac? Who would think it! Check out Le Big Mac !

Monday, March 08, 2004

Well, what was I thinking! I posted the information about Tasting Places, and completely failed to mention the class experience I had last year in Florence, at La Divina Cucina. My travel companion and I met Judy, an American who has lived and cooked in Florence for many years, at her appartment, just across from the Florence Central Market. After an early morning wine/munchie pick-me-up, we toured the entire market. She knows absolutely every vendor there, and we had a great time just doing that. (I have some very interesting photos; if you are interested, drop by the store and I'll share them, with some of the stories.) Then after we decided what we wanted to try to cook, we shopped for food, wine and bread, and then cooked and ate all afternoon. When we were finished, she took us to shops to find cooking implements we wanted, and seeds for some of the vegetables and herbs not available in Memphis. Altogether a most agreeable day, and I highly recommend it!

Friday, March 05, 2004

Just a thought: folks often ask about places to study authentic regional cookery in an English-speaking environment. I went to a week-long class in Orvieto a few years back, arranged by Tasting Places and enjoyed it hugely. Check out their site for numerous classes all around Europe and in Thailand. If you are willing to take a chance, they have great deals on last minute classes. Right now they are featuring a cut-rate deal on a long weekend in Tuscany. I wish I could go!

Thursday, March 04, 2004

I just received an e-mail asking if there is a way to leave comments on this blog. Well....no there isn't! However, if you will go to "Ask Alyce" and send us an e-mail, we will post all appropriate ones, and answer any questions. Thanks for your interest!
Harvested in Tuscany in October, fennel pollen is a typical ingredient of Tuscan dishes. It is traditionally used in salami and cured meats, or as a rub for pork and poultry. The aroma is sweet and pungent, and the taste is yummy.

Mix with sea salt and sprinkle on chicken, firm-fleshed fish or pork, or mix with olive oil or melted butter and brush or drizzle on roasted or grilled vegetables or potatoes. It is also a treat added to fish soups instead of saffron. I first heard of it in Faith Willinger's Italian vegetable book, Red, White and Greens, but was unable to find it in the US. Last year in Italy I found some and have been hoarding it. Now I have found a source, and I have brought in a few bottles. Although quite pricey, a little goes a long way. For more information, here is an interesting article.

Here are a couple of recipes to inspire you:


2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup shallots, minced
1-1/2 tsp fennel pollen
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and white pepper to taste
1 lb purchased fresh tortellini
In a medium skillet, hear olive oil and add garlic and shallots. Sauté over medium-low heat until soft but not browned, Add fennel pollen, cream and parmesan cheese. Heat to a simmer and let reduce by about 1/3, or until you like the thickness. Taste and add salt and white pepper to taste. When sauce is almost ready, cook the tortellini in plenty of boiling well-salted water. Drain and add to the sauce. Stir to combine, put into warmed flat pasta bowls and add more Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.
3 tbsp fennel pollen
1 tbsp sweet paprika
2 tbsp kosher or sea salt
1 tbsp fennel seeds, crushed
1/4 tsp celery seed, crushed (optional)
1 pinch cayenne or crushed red pepper
Place all ingredients in a jar and shake well. Sprinkle of fish filets, pork chops or chicken breasts before roasting. Also great on sautéed veggies. Keep in a dark place and it will last up to a year.

Here's another idea, not exactly a recipe: Mix fennel pollen and olive oil (say about 3 tbsp fennel pollen, and 1/4 cup olive oil). Separate the skin from the breast of a nice fat capon or roasting chicken and very carefully smear the pollen-oil mixture all around under the skin. Use any remaining oil to smear over the thighs and legs. Sprinkle liberally with salt and roast as usual. Be sure to deglaze the pan with a little water or white wine so you don't lose any of the great flavor!

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

With luck, this will be a series of thoughts about cooking, eating, and the world of food. We'll be reviewing some of our own functions, telling you about new products at Mantia's. We'll be talking about new trends in the culinary landscape and more! We will also be responding to some of your questions sent to our web site. I'll be suggesting information on interesting websites and still more!

Today's question concerns "bouquet garni." Although this is indeed available dried in bottles, I much prefer to make my own. The classic combination is parsley, thyme and bay leaf. You may wish to add other herbs, either fresh or dried, depending on the other ingredients in your recipe. The "bouquet garni" can be tied together, or into a square of cheesecloth. You can also use a tea ball, that little aluminum gizmo, pierced with a screw on top hanging from a chain. Then when you have finished simmering your broth, soup or stew, you can easily remove and discard it.

More, later!