Saturday, July 31, 2010

Yummy summer salad!


My friend Laretha Randolph brought me some  tomatoes from her garden. What a wonderful (and beautiful) salad they made with a little chopped Vidalia onion and leftover asparagus from last night's dinner!
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Tasty Taco Torta

We were down to the wire. It was going to be the last meal cooked in the old house, and a friend came by to bring us more packing boxes. I asked her to join us for dinner. If you recall, I was trying to empty my freezer before moving to a new house.

I had put out the last pound of ground beef to thaw, and had four tortillas. Tacos? Offering only one seemed a little chintzy. So I made a taco pie. Or taco torta. I used a couple of tablespoons of Penzey’s salsa seasoning for flavor, but a package of taco seasoning will also work. I put out bowls of toppings like you’d serve beside tacos, and extra cheese. With piña colada cole slaw (see note), it was a wonderful finale to the 25 years I’d cooked in that kitchen.


I lb. ground beef
1/2 cup onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 package taco seasoning
Four flour tortillas, burrito size
1 8-oz. package shredded cheese (cheddar, or Mexican mix)
Taco condiments: diced avocade, tomato and onion, cilantro, shredded lettuce, sour cream and salsa

Preheat the oven to 350-degrees. In a heavy skillet, over medium-low heat, cook the beef until only a little of the pink is left, breaking up any large clumps with a wooden spoon. Add the onion, garlic and taco seasoning. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally until the beef is done and the onion is tender.

Spray a 9-inch pie pan with cooking spray. Put one tortilla in the bottom. Top with one-fourth of the meat mixture, and one-third cup cheese. Repeat layers, using all the remaining cheese on top. Bake
for about 20 minutes, until heated through and the cheese is melted.

Remove from the oven and let it set for about 5 minutes, then cut into wedges to serve. Serve the condiments on the side. Serves 4.

NOTE: For piña colada cole slaw, into a food processor, put one 8.5-oz. can coconut cream (from the drink mix section of the grocery) and one 7-oz. can crushed pineapple. Purée and mix with two cups mayonnaise. This makes enough for three bags of pre-shredded cole slaw mix. It keeps well in the fridge.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A great little French restaurant in DC!

I was heading toward Eastern Market (more about that another time) and on the way from the Metro, passed this French restaurant. It was a little early for my lunch, so I went on to the market. On the way back to the Metro, I stopped in, and was quite pleased that I had. I was greeted by a charming Française, Anne, who led me to my table. I was delighted to find that there were a couple of tables of people speaking French. Real French.  Although they had an extensive lunch menu, I was quite pleased with two choices from the appetizer list.

I ordered the gazpacho to start.  Tom said "but that's not French!" But in the south of France, the influence of the north of Spain is common.  It was done in the Spanish style, thickened with a bit of bread, and garnished, as you can see, with a drizzle of balsamic reduction and sprinkles of diced avocado and crumbled feta. Delicious!

Then I ordered their avocado-roasted yellow beet salad. It was a nice combination of perfectly ripe avocado, grape tomatoes and roasted yellow beets. The dressing was a light mixture of lemon juice, olive oil, and a sprinkling of a fresh herb mixture found in most French restaurant kitchens.   This will definitely be a column in the next few weeks!
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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Wrong wine?

In a recent post, Fredric Koeppel, author of the informative and entertaining blog "Bigger than Your Head," cited a time when he was sure that he'd been brought a wine different from the one he'd ordered.

Now we have to start by saying that Fredric has a much better wine palate than I have. But I do have a few favorite wines that show up often on wine lists, so I can order knowing what I'm going to get.

I was recently in a well-known upscale Memphis restaurant. I ordered one of my old faithfuls. When I got it I was pretty sure it was not what I'd ordered. I asked and the served assured me that I'd gotten what I ordered.

I thought perhaps there was a odd bottle involved. But still, I ordered a less expensive glass of the same grape variety for my second glass. was MOST definitely the same as the one for which we'd been charged $2 more.

I didn't try to argue. Next time at that particular restaurant (if we do) we will ask to see the wine poured from the bottle!

The Grill at Highlands Row

My sister in Knoxville is a very good restaurant chooser. I think it must be genetic. On our way back from The Great Yankee Road Trip, we stayed over with her and had dinner on Saturday night at the Grill at Highlands Row, a new restaurant that had gotten great newpaper reviews. Our experience, however, was mixed. Service of the pre-prandian beverages seemed quite slow, but it was crowded and somewhat understanable. Then we ordered. Tom and I both got salads to start. Good, but fairly standard. Cindy got the Vidalia onion soup. It was very brothy, but somewhat tart. Cindy though there might have been vinegar in it but I tasted it and think the broth was part wine. But for me the killer was that it had an overload of dried thyme. I am one of those with a sensitivity to dried thyme, particulary one often used in food service. It just tasted musty to me. But she did think the Brie croutons gave a nice touch.

Donny, my brother-in-law got the crab and corn bisque. It was, according to him, delicious, and also according to him, only needed a touch of salt.

I ordered the Carolina red trout, with a lemon caper sauce. It came with "Carolina rice" which seemed pretty much a generic version of the Uncle Ben's wild rice blend. It also came with "chile succotash." I asked the server if it was spicy and she said yes. I have a low heat tolerance level, so I asked to substitute the grilled asparagus.
Cindy and Tom both got the Highlands Special steak.  Cindy got it with béarnaise sauce, Tom with the "Pascagoula Topping," a combination of grilled onions and chopped black olives.  Both were done as requested.
Donnie got the shrimp and grits, with smoked gouda grits, and loved them!  The shrimp were plump and perfectly done.  All in all, for reasoned discussed below, he got the best deal of the meal.

Donnie's dinner was perfectly hot, as it should have been. Tom and Cindy both got food was that was little more than warm, but edible. Mine however, was cold. The plate and the fish were at room temperature. I might not have complained, but when I tasted the rice it was cold. Almost refrigerator cold. I did complain, and frankly I can't remember ever sending back a full meal. To the credit of the restaurant, the manager replaced it with a full new dinner, hot and delicious. And didn't charge us for my dinner. AND gave us a truly delicious chocolote soufflé for dessert.

Service was not the best. I think they were short of servers, which would explain the slow drink service. And it's a new place so they have some tweaking to do. But if the servers couldn't get the food out on time, they should have used the hostess and manager to run the food hot.

One more complaint: the chef has a heavy hand with spices. The asparagus I ordered to replace the spicy succotash was loaded with black pepper. Most of the dishes had some very spicy component either as a garnish or side dish. Some of it is indicated, but not all. Someone at the next table got black-eyed peas and found them too spicy. The server told him there was poblano pepper in it. Poblano isn't always hot, but it can be.

SO: would we go back? Maybe when they've had a little more time to get things right, and not on a weekend night!

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Monday, July 19, 2010

A great lunch in DC

Continuing our Great Yankee Road Trip we arrived in Washington, DC, late yesterday. It's always a challenge to decide where to eat here; there are so many great places from so many cuisines. This morning we went to see the National Cathedral, which was an awesome experience. We drove down to the Georgetown area and wandered around. We wound up choosing "Ristorante Picolo" for our lunch venue.

They have a $12 lunch special, which Tom chose, but I ordered two antipasti instead, having one as the secondo (main course). Once seated, we were presented with a little dish of very good olive oil with shredded parmesan, and good crusty bread.

For my antipasto, I chose Insalata Caprese, which was quite tasty. Perfect fresh mozzarella, red ripe tomato, a couple of chunks of sundried tomato, a scattering of fresh basil leaves, and a drizzle of good balsamic vinaigrette. For the main course, I ordered another antipasto, a roasted crab stuffed portobello mushroom, with crab demi-glace sauce. Yummy! The crab stuffing, while not "jumbo lump" was still very good quality crab with very little filler.

Tom's lunch let him choose between a salad or soup for the antipasto. He had a quite nice (although not particularly exciting) salad with a light vinaigrette. His main course was "Arrosto Misto," a combination of roasted chicken breast (two boneless breast halves)and Italian sausage. It was topped with a chunky and very well made tomato sauce, with a couple of garlic crostini tucked in the sides to soak up the sauce. He was quite happy as well.

I had a glass of Mezza Corona pinot grigio, and Tom had two imported beers, and the total bill for a lovely meal with plenty of food was $54, quite reasonable, we thought, for the quality and quantity of our lunch!
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Friday, July 02, 2010

Farmers' Market Eggplant

I am off work every other Saturday, and most of them, in the summer, you can find me wandering around the Agri-Center Farmers’ Market looking for treats to cook for my friends.

One of the vendors almost always has the most adorable little eggplants, both the traditional black, and ones with a creamy white skin. Each is the perfect size for an individual serving. I had to have them.
When I was growing up, the only way my mom ever made eggplant was to dip slices in an egg wash, then in cornmeal, and fry it in vegetable oil, or even better, bacon fat. (We cooked a lot of things in bacon fat back then; I’m really truly sorry that now we know how bad it is for us!) Although I liked it well enough, it wasn’t something I would have gone out of my way for.

Then, when I spent several summers in the South of France, I tasted many new ways of preparing it and loved them all. Most involved tomatoes and of course, garlic. Ratatouille, a braised medley of eggplant, zucchini, green bell peppers, onion, and tomato became a staple in my summer kitchen when I got home.
So what to do with these cute little ones? Taking a little inspiration both from the French and from my childhood, I minced up herbs, garlic and really good applewood smoked bacon, slathered it over the top and baked it on a bed of tomatoes.

It was delicious. I set each serving on a bed of pasta, made a salad with a good balsamic vinaigrette, and dinner was done.

Any leftover eggplant can be chopped, combined with the remaining tomatoes and saved for a pasta topping another day, or folded into an omelet. I think it would also make a great filling for a quiche.

If you don’t want to head out to the Farmers’ Market, you can use the slim oriental eggplants, or split one large eggplant and then divide into servings after baking. You’ll need to add about 15 minutes to the baking time if you do one big one.

I have fresh herbs growing right outside my back door and used both basil and oregano. If you have to buy fresh herbs at the grocery, you can stick with just oregano if you don’t want to spring for both, and the results will still be well appreciated by your friends.

3 small eggplants, about 6" long
6 slices good quality smoked bacon, chopped
3 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 tbsp fresh basil, packed
2 tbsp fresh oregano, packed
1 tsp salt, preferably kosher or sea salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
3 tbsp good fruity olive oil
4 large red ripe tomatoes (or 2 15-ounce cans diced tomatoes)
2 tbsp olive oil to grease the baking dish

Preheat the oven to 350. Wash the eggplants and cut in half from stem to blossom end, leaving the stems on. Score about 1/2" deep without cutting through the skin at the edges.

In a food processor, combine the bacon, garlic, herbs, salt, pepper and 3 tablespoons olive oil. Pulse to blend well, but don’t puree completely. Or place all the filling ingredients on a chopping board and chop very finely by hand, then scrape into a bowl and mix in the olive oil. Divide this mixture among the eggplants, spreading it thinly on each all the way to the edges, pushing some down into the scored areas.
Wash the tomatoes, core them and diced them coarsely. Work over a bowl to save all the juices that drip out while cutting.

Use the remaining olive oil to grease a 9- by 13-inch casserole. Cover the bottom with the tomatoes. If using fresh tomatoes, sprinkle lightly with salt. Place the eggplants on top. Cover with foil and bake for about 45 minutes, or until the eggplant is soft. Remove the foil and bake an additional 15-20 minutes, or until the bacon topping is well browned and crisp looking. Serve the eggplants on a bed of pasta and drizzle the tomatoes from the bottom of the pan over it all. Serves 6.
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The perfect summer dessert!

We are in the process of moving into our new house. There are boxes and crates stacked shoulder high everywhere, waiting to be unpacked. I've rearranged the furniture half a dozen times. So it was quite welcome when my good friend Marti Laslavic and her husband offered to bring us dinner. After a delicious dish of veal, pasta and roasted vegetables, we had a dessert that was quite yummy and a lot of fun.
Marti took the caps off good sized strawberries and pulled out the soft core.
She passed around a bottle of that great coffee-flavored Mexican liqueur, Kahlua. Each of us filled the berry with it.
A fluff of whipped cream finished it off.
Look how cute, and tasty too! The really fun part was eating it without dribbling down the chin, or arm.  Definitely a keeper!
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