Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Sweets and Savories, Redux

Nearly a year after our first visit to Sweets and Savories, on Fullerton near Ashland in Chicago, we returned with out-of-town guests. Monday nights are definitely the night to go — they have a seven-course no menu meal for $50 with free BYOB, which can save you a bundle and let you bring a special bottle or two from home to enjoy.

There had been some disparaging comments on Metromix about the restaurant either about the quality of the food or the service. I have to think that those people either are too uptight, i.e. food like this should be served by stuffy individuals, or are not adventurous eaters, i.e. what's risotto?. We had the same server as our previous visit and he is quirky and funny, but not intrusive. Very knowledgeable about the food and proud to work there. I'd rather have someone like that to interact with than someone completely detached who doesn't care about the food or the person being served.

That said, the food was outstanding. We started with a dish of mussles in tomato fumé with sausage (possible andouille). We all were scraping the plate to get every last bit cleaned. This was a nice starter and we opened with a 2005 Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, which was a very good Sauvignon Blanc — tropical fruit, pears, even a little apricot on the nose and continued through the finish.

The second course was very good and visually interesting. It was a seared scallop on celery root purée with chevril on top with a streak of bright yellow-orange mango coulis. The celery root was perfectly salty and the scallop had a great texture and flavor that came through clean.

The third course was probably everyone's favorite and one that I will mimic at home. It was a striped sea bass on top of saffrom-goat cheese grits with a salad of lamb's lettuce on top — very interesting, but simple too. Really perfect.

Then we had a duck leg confit on blueberry risotto finished with truffle oil. This was very good. The last time we were there they had blueberry risotto that I criticized because there were seeds in the risotto that took away from the texture enjoyment — this time that had been remedied and was perfect.

Moving toward the home stretch, the next course was a baby arugula salad with a lemon/truffle oil vinegarette with grana padano on top. Very nice transition to the sweets portion of the meal.

Next was an apricot-chardonnay sorbet. Nice palate cleanser. Good consistency.

Finally, the finish was the big dessert bang —a warm chocolate budino with chocolate ganache, chocolate sorbet and Scharfen-Berger bigs. A beautiful plate and very good finish.

For the wine, after the Kim Crawford with the sea food dishes, we had a Praxis Pinot Noir that we purchased at the Oakville Grocery in Napa based on a recommendation. It was very good — nice dark cherry notes and a smooth finish. Then we had a bottle of Amphora Dry Creek Syrah, brought by our dinner guests, that was also very good — jammy, but not over-the-top. Finally, we ended with a Quady Elysium dessert wine made from black muscat. This had an almost bubble gum flavor that is a wonderful, lively finish to any meal.

All-in-all, an incredible deal at $50 and a meal that is not soon forgotten.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Thanksgiving traditions & experiments, Part I

Being a traditionalist who likes to try new recipes and culinary ideas can sometimes be at odds with the holiday feast. This year we had a two part gorge-fest with a pre-Thanksgiving gathering in Minnesota and a more low-key dinner at home on the actual day.

For the pre-fest, we brought a few side dishes that are old favorites for me and one truffled up version of an old stand-by.

There's nothing easier than cream cheese-stuffed celery and it is always one of the things that gets nibbled on early and often. Combine one package of cream cheese, one grated small onion, a few handfuls of chopped pecans, and salt and white pepper to taste. You can add a little cream or milk to soften, but it should not be runny. Smear on deveined celery stalks about four inches long and finish liberally with paprika.

Another favorite for me, not necessarily gourmet but still damn good, is Waldorf Crown Salad. Congealed salads are not necessarily in vogue, but the sweet coldness mixes well with the warm, savory aspects of the meal. Make two six oz. boxes of cherry or strawberry Jell-o according to directions. After about an hour chilling, add one large diced apple; four sliced, deveined celery stalks (no leaves), and a handfull of chopped pecans to the Jell-o and scrape into a crown mold. Serve with "dressing" of one cup sour cream, a half cup of miracle whip and a cup and a half of mini marshmallows.

Finally, I did slow-cooked southern-style green beans but with a Italian/gourmet twist. Sautee onions until soft, add 1/4 lb. of pancetta (or bacon or ham), add green beans and cover with water, simmer for two to three hours. I finished with two tablespoons on truffle butter which really added a nice fragrant kick.

Other dishes included an organic, free range turkey from Thief River Falls, MN; oyster and non-oyster stuffing and dressing; giblet gravy; mashed potatoes; sweet potato casserole; hot rolls; and pumpkin pie.

We had so many great wines including a Le Mistral from Joseph Phelps. The Mistral surprised us when we tasted it on our trip to Napa last January. It was very complex and drinkable right out of the bottle. I highly recommend it. The dark fruit was present on the nose and carried through the finish, which lingered nicely without being overly cloying or too acidic. Natalie's sister's in-laws used to own a wine shop and have great taste in wines (and great palettes). They brought a number of very nice wines to share, none of which I had the foresight to note their names.

More to come on the "real" Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Quick, easy and good

First off, thank you to my mom for the shout out on her blog, Alabama Kitchen Sink (, which seems to be gaining a lot of regular readers. She has influenced my cooking more than anyone else (although my grandmother Mattie comes in a close second).

Striving for good, home-cooked meals is an ongoing challenge. We turned to the time-tested crock pot last night to help us make an easy, time-saving dinner. I don't have any research to back this up, but I have a hunch that people in my age group and younger (late twenties, early thirties) don't cook with the crock pot. That's a shame because time is something no one has and time is the one thing, in my opinion, that can make the biggest difference in a good to great meal (see my ragu bolognese).

That said, I found a really nice pork roast on sale at our local Italian grocery Prisco's and Natalie seasoned it with Magic Seasonings in the morning, added a can of diced tomatoes and nearly a full bottle of store bought barbeque sauce (in this case Famous Dave's sweet sauce). Leaving it on low for the day resulted in falling apart pork barbeque that was better than all but the best purveyors of true barbeque.

We paired it with the rest of the greens (turnip, collard and mustard) prepared in the same manner as my previous post and homemade sweet potato chips. Using our deep fryer, which I know not everyone has, and our mandoline (one of Natalie's favorite kitchen tools I think), the chips were quick, different and went perfectly with the meal. I just deep fried them, let them rest on a plate covered in paper towels to drain and seasoned with a pinch of kosher salt. I was going for a sweet potato version of the saratoga chips that are popular in Cincinnati barbeque restaurants like Montgomery Inn, which has the best sauce I've ever had.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Truffle dinner

Going to New Orleans definitely inspired my culinary creativity. Having a great Italian grocery close to us now has helped fuel that as well. Sunday night I set out to make a southern, Italian, French-influenced dinner.

I made:

• Thick cut double pork chops in a truffled Montepulciano d'Abbruzo-shallot reduction
• Truffled shallot-parmigano-reggiano risotto
• Wilted and sautéed turnip, mustard, and collard greens with garlic, Barilla academia prosciutto crudo and finished with black truffle oil
• Sauvignon Blanc-poached anjou pears filled with bleu cheese and broiled

Everything came together nicely and wasn't actually over the top truffles.

For the pork chops, I coated in Magic salt seasoned-flour, pan fried in truffle butter and a little olive oil and to brown and finished in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes. For the sauce, I removed the pork and added one finely diced shallot to the pan, put back on medium-high flame and sauteed. I added about a tablespoon of truffle butter and a cup of the wine and wisked until reduced by about a third.

For the risotto, I made a cup of risotto with one cup of sauvignon blanc and four and half cups of chicken stock. I started with cooking one finely diced shallot in truffle butter and olive oil. I then added in the risotto and stirred constantly until all the liquid in the pan was absorbed and the risotto started to turn a little chalky. I then added a cup of wine and stirred until it was absorbed and then started adding the stock a ladel full at a time until the risotto was appropriately cooked. You should start tasting it after three cups have been absorbed to make sure it isn't overdone. At the end, I added about a half cup of grated parmigiano-reggiano and stirred. When I plated, I drizzled a little truffle oil over the risotto and served with more grated cheese. I used, and like using, a heavier gauge pan like Le Creuset for making risotto so it doesn't burn as easily while you're running around working on other dishes.

For the greens, I triple washed them since they can collect sand, especially the turnip greens. I then blanched them for about three minutes in salted boiling water. I drained them and immediately ran cold water over them to stop the cooking. I then melted a little truffle butter with olive oil in a nonstick pan and sautéed about a teaspoon of minced garlic and two diced slices of prosciutto crudo. I then added the greens back in, tossed and cooked down until the mixture was incorporated and there wasn't any liquid from the greens in the pan. It helps if you squeeze the water out of the greens once they've cooled before sautéeing them. Again, I finished with a little truffle oil on top.

Finally, I peeled the anjou pear and cut in quarters. I took out of core, stem and made a small indentation in each. I then poached them until cooked through in a cup of sauvignon blanc. When they were done, I filled the indentation with the bleu cheese and put under the boiler until golden. This doesn't take too long.

This meal was my adaptation of a meal I had at Peristyle in New Orleans (see previous post). I don't think the plating looked nearly as nice (sorry, no picture), but I think the addition of the truffles helped add another nice flavor component. I highly recommend going to Peristyle when in the Big Easy.

New Orleans, part II

Saturday, I wanted to show Natalie some of the classics of New Orleans eating, not necessarily the top class stuff. We had breakfast at Café du Monde with beignets and café au lait. I think Natalie was initially unsure about the massive amounts of powdered sugar and questionable cleanliness. I think she enjoyed her mounds of fried dough and sugar though.

After doing a spot check for powdered sugar (we did pretty well), we headed out to explore a little bit. We walked through the French Market, checking out Aunt Sally's pralines. I managed to try a dime-sized sample even though I was experiencing minor sugar coma. They are a great gift for people back home, which I ended up doing for my coworkers.

We wandered into a little Irish pub across from Preservation Hall and having a few drinks (Abita for me, bloody marys for Natalie) before heading the the mecca of muffalettas — Central Grocery. Located on Decatur, not far from Café du Monde, by 12:30, there was already a long line out the door and up the street for their signature sandwiches. The line moved pretty fast and was infinitely more satisfying than any roller coaster or other attraction where you wait more than a half hour in line. After only about ten minutes outside, we made our way through the door and into the old-school Italian market. It was kind of fun to spot gourmet imports we recognized and check out unusual new ones. They have a little counter in the back and you can buy soda or beer, so we snagged a seat to go with our whole muffaletta. A whole sandwich is more than enough for two people and could probably feed four if you add chips. A muffaletta is a salami, ham, mortadella sandwich served on a round, flat Italian loaf with a piquant olive salad slathered on. It's got to be the best sandwich going.

A muffaletta can take it out of you, so we headed back to the hotel to rest/allow me to watch the Tide get destroyed at home. Later on we went to Harrah's Casino before we went to dinner. Harrah's took our money, but it's a fun atmosphere and much bigger than other non-Vegas casinos that I've visited. They actually have a bit of a culinary draw in Todd English's new restaurant, Riche, and a John Besh Steakhouse.

Going to Galatoire's for dinner put us in the same grand dame mode as with Antoine's. The jacket-required dining rooms smell of old money and southern gentility. The food was very good as well. I had a veal chop with marchand de vin sauce and their version of the souflée potatoes (Antoine's was better on that account). Natalie had fish and said that she preferred Galatoire's preparation. We split a banana bread pudding for dessert that was light and incredibly rich at the same time. We drank a nice Morrelino di Scansano from southern Tuscany (it was something like Pezzole I think).

Sunday, Natalie had to head back home and we missed our brunch reservations at Court of Two Sisters. Unfortunately, finding coffee after 11 in the CBD was not easy and we ended up grabbing a bit at a dive around the corner from Canal.

That night I ate at GW Fins with business associates. It was very good with a good Coppola Claret and I had the John Dory meurniere with crab on top and a decent restaurant caesar salad. Forgoing dessert, instead I ordered a nice grappa di moscato.

Monday evening, I ate at one of my favorite lower end NOLA restaurants — Acme Oyster House. I always get the same thing: smoked sausage poor boy (po boy) with hush puppies. Good as ever with a cold Abita seasonal beer (they called it harvest I think).

The remaining standout meal came dining solo Tuesday night at Peristyle on the edge of the quarter. It was quiet to say the least that evening, other than the raucous table of four elderly men telling cheesy off-color jokes, but that contributed to the tableau. I ordered a glass of a nice French syrah and the wild mushroom tarte to start. The tarte had a base of cheese (parmigano I think), carmelized onions and a nice variety of sautéed wild mushrooms. The tarte itself was not overly buttery, but had more of a rich pizza crush consistency (I considered this to be a good thing). The plate had a circle of pesto on the outside rim, which was a nice dipping sauce. For the main course, I had a muscovy duck breast with a red wine reduction sauce and sautéed kale with friséed carrot shreds and a pear hockey puck stuffed with Point Reyes bleu cheese and bruléed to perfection. This meal, more than any other, has inspired me since my trip to NOLA.

To me, New Orleans is America's pre-emminent culinary capital. Like Bologna in Italy, New Orleans cooking exemplifies the terroirre while incorporating flawless techniques. There are many great restaurant cities (Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas come to mind) and many great regional cuisines (southern/midwestern barbeque), but no other can combine the variety and high skill of New Orleans. The city needs our help to survive. Our waistlines may suffer (though with the walking you'll do this is negligible), but our palettes and memories will be all the richer.

New Orleans gastronomic adventure

Natalie and I headed down to New Orleans ahead of a conference I was attending. She had never been and I hadn't been back since Katrina. The city seems to be making great strides toward normalcy in terms of infrastructure, especially in the touristed areas. The St. Charles streetcar isn't running yet and there are some large hotels still closed, but we found the city to be largely operational and the people there hungry for tourists and anxious to share their Katrina-related stories. Without prompting nearly every conversation with residents there inevitably turned to Katrina, which is understandable. The prevailing consensus though was that for the city to truly rebound people need to come back to visit — to enjoy the fine dining, the great music, the hurricanes at Pat O'Brien's, etc. We found a great deal for the hotel on Hotwire — staying a few blocks from the French Quarter at the Intercontinental.

Since Natalie was only there for a few days, we really went all out on the meals. I pretty much had every meal planned long before we visited. Within an hour of stepping off the plane Thursday night, we were dining at Antoine's, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the city. This is old, grand New Orleans at its best. Since they invented the dish there, we split oysters Rockefeller. It wasn't what either of us thought it would be, but it was quite good. More of a spread than oysters by themselves. We both had trout for our entrées — mine fried, Natalie's grilled. You have to order vegetables on the side and we enjoyed very fresh asparagus with butter and their souflée potatoes which they somehow manage to inflate little potato puffs that are light but very satisfying. We had a nice California Sauvignon Blanc (Markham I think) that was typical but appropriate for the meal. Instead of dessert, we just had café au lait before heading to Pat O'Brien's for a couple of hurricanes (tropical rum punch).

Friday was going to be our culinary overload day. We skipped breakfast and started with the most amazing lunch (at Restaurant August) I've had since our honeymoon (da Galetto in Camigliano, Italy). Restaurant August is in the central business district and is fine, fine dining. We had a noon reservation so we had the chance to say hello to the chef, restauranteur John Besh. Everything was perfect — from the setting to the dining room to the service. The food was out of this world. They have a great wine list and we had another Sauvignon Blanc, this one French, I forget the vineyard. They started us with an amuse bouche, not lagniappe as Natalie noted, of a truffle-seafood zabaglione with Louisiana caviar served in an egg shell. Very, very rich, but such wonderful flavors. For starters, I had the organic greens with Point Reyers bleu cheese with a pumpkin oil vinegarette and pumpkin seed brittle. Natalie had the fried oysters with a bleu cheese dressing. For our main courses, Natalie had the redfish with califlower slices forming a tower with a califlower foam at the base surrounding with crab hiding in the foam. I had the trout with brown butter sauce on a celery root purée and celery green salad on top. We finished with a buttermilk panna cotta with berries cooked in red wine and white chocolate cornbread biscotti. Stunning meal.

We continued the over the top theme with dinner at K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen. I have long been a fan of K-Paul's and they didn't disappoint. I had the rabbit appetizer with the creole mustard sauce and the stuffed pork chop. Natalie had the blackened beef tenders in debris sauce. We had a zinfandel, again can't remember which, that went well with the meal. We waddled out of there and hit Preservation Hall for some jazz before calling it a night.

More to come...