Saturday, April 26, 2008

Asparagus: A true harbinger of spring!

I knew spring had arrived last week when I found asparagus for forty-nine cents a pound in a local supermarket. Although asparagus is available year-round, it is at its best and most affordable this time of year.

My favorite way of cooking asparagus is roasted. Break off the woody ends and save them for soup if you like. Spread the spears in one layer on a baking sheet, drizzle with a good fruity olive oil and a sprinkling of kosher or sea salt, and roast at 400o for 7 to 10 minutes, depending on their thickness. Serve warm or at room temperature as a vegetable side dish, or atop a bed of salad greens with your favorite vinaigrette.
Another thing I like to do is make a flan, sort of a quiche without crust. I recently did this for a casual supper with friends, but it would also make a lovely first course with a tangle of arugula on the side, or as a brunch main course with some sort of fruit salad.
I made individual ones in tart pans, but it is easily made in one baking dish and cut into squares to serve, if you like. You can vary the cheese to your taste. I used a soft goat cheese, but if you prefer, shredded gruyère or fontina would work beautifully.

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SPRING ASPARAGUS FLAN

1 lb asparagus
1 large lemon
3 tbsp butter, plus extra for buttering the baking dishes
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tbsp fresh tarragon, chopped, or 1 tsp dried
6 eggs
1 cup half-and-half or whole milk
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp white pepper
2 cups shredded fontina or gruyère, or 6 oz soft goat cheese, crumbled
Additional tarragon springs, or minced parsley, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350o. Break off the woody lower stems of the asparagus. Place the spears in a glass or ceramic baking dish with a splash of water. Cover with plastic wrap, leaving one corner open to vent. Microwave for 4 minutes, or until just crisp tender. Let cool.

Remove the zest from the lemon in thin strips and set aside. Squeeze the juice from the lemon and reserve.

In a skillet, over medium heat, melt the butter. Cook the onion in the butter until very tender, but not at all browned. Add the tarragon, stir a couple of times and remove from the heat.
Divide the onion among six buttered baking dishes.

Cut the asparagus into 2” lengths. Reserving the tips, divide among the baking dishes atop the onions. Sprinkle with your cheese of choice.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs, cream or milk, reserved lemon juice, salt and pepper until well combined. Pour over the asparagus. Arrange the reserved tips on top. Place on a baking sheet and cook for about 20 minutes, or until the top is lightly browned and the filling is set. Garnish with the lemon zest and tarragon or parsley and serve while still warm. Serves 6.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Another Louisville restaurant

Once again my sister and I went to a new restaurant in Lousiville...well new to us at least.

The restaurant, Avalon, has been around for about 5 years, and has an excellent reputation. It is in the Highlands area of Louisville, which is the home of many original independent restaurants, cafés
and coffee shops. We were out grocery shopping for our mama's 88th birthday dinner, and stopped for lunch. It was a beautiful day, and the patio was sunny and inviting.

First, the food: I must say that the lunch menu didn't seem particularly exciting or inventive to me. We each ordered a cup of the crab & corn chowder with bacon. If there was bacon in it, the taste wasn't discernible, and the crab appeared to be the very inexpensive snow crab meat. At $6.90 for about 4 ounces, I expect a jumbo lump or two.

We split the "Shaved Peppermill Turkey Breast, Hoagie Roll, Granny Smith Apples, Bacon, Swiss Cheese, Garlic Mayonnaise." Although there was nothing wrong with it, it was indeed, pretty run of the mill. The fries were good, though, crisp shoestring fries, and plenty of them.
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The service was equally spotty. Although our server was a charming young lady, she was not able to open our bottle of wine without assistance from another server. We got our food but had no napkins or flatware, and it took several tries to get her attention to bring them. We asked the young man who appeared to be the manager to take a quick picture of us on the patio. He said he was busy but would be back. He never returned.

Now I must be fair: We looked at the dinner menu and it looked infinitely more inviting than the lunch menu did. We will almost certainly go back for dinner when we have the time. I'll report back!

Please note: The patio picture came from the Avalon website, since the gentleman didn't take one of us to show you. I took the food picture. I think I had the camera settings set wrong for the bright sun that day.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Win a Prize for Pasta!

Italy Magazine, published in England is sponsoring a spring pasta recipe contest. For more information, or to post your favorite recipe, the full information is on their website.

The website is also a gold mine of information about traveling and eating in Italy. If you're planning a trip there anytime soon, you'll love this site.

I wanna be there, too!

For three days in July the Robert Mondavi Winery sponsors what looks to me like a wonderful program for lovers of food and wine, Taste3.

To quote their website: "TASTE3 brings together more than forty of the most compelling writers, thinkers, chefs, winemakers, journalists, artisans, and executives as speakers and hosts, joining 400 attendees who are every bit as tapped-in. TASTE3 will thrill, tantalize, engage, intrigue, provoke, and inspire both its audience and its speakers. The single-track program is broken into themed sessions filled with hard-hitting, engaging short-format presentations. Sessions are interwoven with breaks with networking opportunities and interactive exploration.

TASTE3 is presented by Robert Mondavi Winery. In the spirit of founder Robert Mondavi’s vision, passion and leadership, TASTE3 aims to push the exploration and marriage of wine, food and art."


You can find all the information you need, plus highlights and videos of last year's session at the Taste3 website.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Roman restaurant to put on your list

As many of you may know, I'm heading to Italy in late September. I'll spend most of the time in Umbria but I hope to get a day or so in Rome as well. One of the things I want to do is have dinner at Montevecchio. I heard Sylvia Poggioli do a report on it back in the fall and went looking for it on the NPR website, where I found this picture and lots of information. If you're heading to Rome any time soon, you might want to check it out.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A truffle tree of your very own?

Anyone who has priced real truffles in the past few years has had sticker shock that makes gasoline prices seem reasonable. And it has become worse as the dollar skids in value on the international market. Last year they were as much as $3000 per pound on the retail market.

So why not adopt a truffle tree of your own? Risky, yes, but the potential rewards could be enough to seduce truffle-lovers who can affort the investment. Perhaps.

An enterprise in Gascony, France, has planted several hundred trees and is offering an adoption plan. You get your very own tree, and once (or if) it begins producing truffles, they are all yours, to keep or to sell on the open market. You get a picture of your tree, and can visit it any time you like.

The $64,000 question: When will the first truffles appear? How many? Some say as early as year three. Dr Khanaqa, a leading truffle expert, suggests between 150g and 450g per tree in year four, after which it should build up over the next twenty five to thirty years. A more conservative outlook goes with the majority view that harvesting should begin between five and nine years from planting. But truffles are unpredictable. One tree may produce a bumper crop while its neighbour does little or nothing. It’s this area of uncertainty that makes the whole concept intriguing.

For more information, or to adopt a tree of your very own, you can visit the truffière website.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Summer road trips!

Doing a little web-surfing the other day (something I don't have much time for lately) I came upon an article about various food-related museums. Who knew that there is a museum devoted to Spam? Or to Jello?

I'm not sure any of them are worth a dedicated trip, but if you happen to be in the area, take pictures and we'll publish them here!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Curried Lamb Ragout

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I love lamb, but I have friends who don’t. Or at least they think they don’t. Recently I asked a friend if he liked lamb and the response was a semi-doubtful “Sure, I guess so.”

I had been to the grocery and found lamb stew meat on sale and snapped it up. Then the question of how to cook it arose. I had seen a recipe for an Indian lamb and lentil recipe. It had a long list of spices involved, but I thought I could do quite well with a good commercial curry powder.

I’ve been on a butternut squash kick lately, so that had to go in, and I used canned black beans instead of lentils.

Many Indian dishes are served here with garnishes such as toasted coconut, minced cilantro, raisins or a sweet fruit chutney. I used an almost-green banana to make a rather unique chutney that perfectly complemented the dish. We all wished we’d had more of it, so I’ve doubled it.

When I first made it, it was a bit too soupy for my taste, so I’ve cut down on the liquid. The result is a nice stew consistency. I served it with grilled pita wedges (instead of Indian naan bread) and a salad.

This will make a great dish for company or family. And my doubtful friend? He loved it!

CURRIED LAMB, BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND BLACK BEAN RAGOUT

2 lbs lamb stew meat
4 cups chicken stock
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon curry powder (see note)
1 teaspoon ground cardamom (optional)
1 small (about 3 pounds) butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1” cubes
2 16- to 20-ounce cans black beans, not rinsed or drained
2 bananas, very firm, almost green
Juice and zest of two limes
1 bunch cilantro
1 small jalapeño pepper, finely minced (optional)

Put the lamb, stock and bay leaves in a large non-reactive sauce pan or Dutch oven. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer until lamb is almost tender, about 45 minutes.

In a medium skillet heat the butter and add the garlic. Stir a couple of times, then add the onion and sauté just until translucent. Add the curry powder and cardamom (if using) and stir a couple of minutes. Scrape this into the lamb mixture, add the butternut squash and continue to simmer for another 10 minutes. Add the black beans and cook until lamb is completely done and the butternut squash is cooked through but still firm, about 10 minutes more.

Meanwhile, peel the bananas and cut them in half lengthwise. Slice crosswise about ¼” thick. Toss with the lime juice and zest. Add 3 tablespoons minced cilantro. If you like spicy foods, add the jalapeño pepper.

When ready to serve, ladle the ragout into flat soup plates, garnish with the banana mixture and additional whole cilantro leaves. Serves 6 generously.

NOTES: Whether to use hot or mild curry powder is your choice. I used mild, but I’m a bit of a wimp about hot foods, and found the jalapeño in the chutney to give just enough heat for my taste.