August 31, 2007

Spaghetti with Browned Butter

One summer, when I was in college, I worked as a hostess at The Old Spaghetti Factory in St. Louis for like 30 seconds. Really, it was more like a few weeks. And that was a few weeks too many.

The place didn't take reservations, so there was often an hour+ wait. The manager was a nut who refused to let the hostesses keep a list of available tables, so tables were always getting double-sat on busy evenings. Hostesses were responsible for getting together to-go orders, which meant venturing into the steamy kitchen. Rats...big river rats...lived under the infamous trolley car.

Like I imagine with so many restaurants, once you work there you never want to eat there again. And that's what happened with The Spaghetti Factory. Employees could eat for free before their shift, so I had my lifetime supply of the Pot Pourri, "A sampler of Browned Butter & Mizithra Cheese, Meat, Clam, and Marinara Sauces."

I haven't eaten there in well over ten-years. In fact, the last time I ate there was the night Sarah & I got looped up on red wine with dinner before getting our tattoos. For some reason, other than the tattoos, I've been thinking about that place recently. After foraging in my kitchen for dinner tonight, I decided to pay homage to OSF with some spaghetti & browned butter with grated ricotta salata...mostly because I have the cheese in my fridge I am curious about what to do with it.

And now I feel like puking.

I think I burned the butter, instead of lightly browning it. And the cheese is so dry. Thank god I have an entire bottle of cabernet to keep my palate moist!

Dinner with Friends

Last Saturday, a few friends and some of their friends came over for dinner. I chose two recipes from Ina Garten's Barefoot in Paris cookbook: Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic & Vegetable Tian (both of which I'd never made before).

I planned to have everything prepped when people got here, so that I could cook while they drank (Absolut New Orleans cocktails) and munched (roasted grapes w/cheese & crackers). But, that didn't happen. I had nothing ready when they arrived. And, I mean nothing. Luckily, I have wonderful friends who very willingly helped in the kitchen. In fact, they prepared most of the meal...making cocktails, destemming grapes, setting out cheeses & crackers, peeling garlic, slicing zucchini & tomatoes, layering three veggies artistically in a casserole (Nice work, Ashby). All I did was slice potatoes, cook the chicken, and arrange an arugula & mushroom salad. Oh, and bake two pies: Another blueberry pie like before and one with strawberries instead. Both delish, by the way. And, I have to give myself props for making the scrumptious garlicy gravy for the chicken.

So, after a couple of hours of cooking, dinner was served. Everyone seemed full, a little drunk, and pretty happy, albeit tired from having to cook their own dinners. *sigh*

August 17, 2007

Lovely Meals

Since this is my last week of summer vacation, I've been doing lots of cooking-things-I've-never-cooked-before:

Truffled Egg Toast
I've been wanting to do something with the white truffle oil I have; I bought it last October to make mushroom pate for the Halloween party, but haven't used it since. One of the recipes in Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant is for Truffled Egg Toast, so I decided to try that.

1 teaspoon butter
2 eggs
1 teaspoon heavy cream
kosher salt
fresh ground black pepper
1 slice country bread, halved & toasted
white truffle oil

1. Melt the butter in a small, non-stick skillet over very low heat.
2. Whisk together the eggs & cream.
3. Pour eggs into pan with butter and stir constantly with rubber scraper. You're making soft scrambled eggs here, so be patient. The eggs should end up creamy, like custard...not dry and fluffy.
4. Spoon the eggs over the toast & sprinkle with salt & pepper. Drizzle with truffle oil.

This was pretty good, and I'll probably eat it again. Although, the oil didn't lend that much flavor. I have truffle flavored olive oil, and I wonder if that makes a difference. Is there pure truffle oil, or is it all flavored olive oil?

Roasted Grapes
I read about roasted grapes, which you are supposed to serve with cheese & crackers, on MAC & CHEESE and decided to give it a try for Port Club yesterday.

It's pretty simple:
1. Put a bunch of seedless grapes in a pie dish. I used red grapes.
2. Pour over a couple tablespoons of vinegar. I used balsamic.
3. Bake at 450 degrees for 15-20 minutes.

The grapes, which tasted like cherries, were delicious with water crackers & smoked white cheddar. Since they are sweet, they would be best with a strong cheese like bleu cheese or goat cheese. We also tried them with wheat crackers & fresh mozzarella, but the cheese was too bland and the crackers too over-powering.

Nicoise Salad
I was inspired by this:
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I didn't follow the recipe exactly; I just remembered what it looked like and tried to recreate it.

1. Put a handful of arugula in the bottom of a large bowl.
2. Top with 2 sliced, boiled new potatoes. I uncooked them just a bit, because I like the firmness.
3. Add a handful of fresh, steamed green beans.
4. Add a few halved green & black olives. I used the kind with chopped garlic that you can get at the bulk olive section of the grocery store.
5. Sprinkle with 1 hard-boiled egg that you've pressed through a sieve.
6. Coat a tuna steak with cracked pepper & kosher salt. Sear in a non-stick pan with a bit of olive oil, about a minute per side. Remove from pan & let rest.
7. Make a classic vinaigrette by whisking together 1 tablespoon of dijon mustard with 1/4 cup of balsamic vinegar and a pinch of salt & pepper. While still whisking, drizzle in 3/4 cup of olive oil.
8. Slice the tuna and layer it on top of the salad. Spoon over the dressing to taste.

I have to brag about how freakin' tasty this salad was. I lingered over it for about an hour... enjoying the warm potatoes that soaked up the dressing, the crunch of the fresh beans, the salty garlicy olives, & the peppery tuna. I will definitely make this again.

Eggs Benedict
I was a little nervous about making this, because in her book Julie Powell talks about how difficult it was to poach a perfect egg and how her hollandaise kept breaking. I was also worried about the timing of it. So, here's what I did this morning:

1. Toast the English muffin (I used whole wheat) & put on a plate.
2. Fry the Canadian bacon in a pan coated with cooking spray. Place on top of the muffin halves.
3. Bring a skillet of water with 1 tablespoon of white vinegar to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer.
4. While the water is getting ready, mix 3 egg yolks, 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice, 1 tablespoon of warm water, and a pinch of salt & pepper in a blender or food processor.
5. Carefully crack two eggs into small bowls. When the water is simmering, slowly pour each egg into the skillet. Leave them alone for 3 minutes, then remove them with a slotted spoon to a paper towel covered plate.
6. Finish the sauce by blending in 1 stick of hot melted butter. SLOWLY drizzle it in while blending.
7. Put the eggs on the muffins, spoon over some sauce.
8. Marvel at how much of a culinary genus you are.

I don't know what I was worried about. The eggs were perfect...nice shape, firm whites, runny yolks...and the sauce held together just fine. I plan to try it again next week, adding spinach and artichoke bottoms...a recreation of the Eggs Sardou I once ate at Commander's Palace in New Orleans.

And, finally, tonight I'm going to make...

Chopped Salad with Spicy Grilled Shrimp
Here's the plan:

Chopped fresh cabbage, fresh tomatoes, fresh bell peppers, corn off the cob, red onion, avocado, crisp bacon, black beans (maybe), & homemade creamy arugula dressing (using the green goddess recipe, but substituting arugula for the parsley) topped with shrimp coated in olive oil & Emeril's seasoning then seared in a non-stick pan.

August 15, 2007

Foodie Fieldtrip

Call it what you will - Girl's Day Out, Afternoon Adventure, Foodie Fieldtrip, Whatever - I spent the last several hours in St. Louis in Culinary Heaven. After making plans to meet my friend Margaret for lunch, I decided to go to a few places in the city that I've heard about but never been.

I started with breakfast at the London Tea Room on Washington Ave. It's an open, light space with exposed brick, lime-green walls, wood floors, and white marble tables. The tea was brought to my table on a linen-lined tray in mis-matched blue & white china.

I tried a small pot of the Lapsang Souchong, which is said to have been Winston Churchill's favorite. The tea had a very smoky aroma, reminiscent of a campfire. It was not subtle and lingered in the mouth & nose, but not in an unpleasant way. I sprinkled in some raw sugar, though I think it would be good with honey & lemon to off-set the robust smokiness. It was so interesting, that I bought a 1/4 pound and gave Margaret half to try (with a little strawberry fairy cake). I also ate a warm almond scone that was round & biscuit-like with clotted (aka Devonshire) cream. The cream is like unsalted butter. I think it would have been better with jam, too. Next time, I'd like to try the green chai or the high tea service.

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Next was lunch with Margaret at Wasabi, my favorite sushi place. We shared four rolls and caught up on each other's lives. I haven't seen Margaret in over a year and it was nice to chat.

After lunch, I drove to Whole Foods...a place where I like to treat myself every once in a while and where I obviously need to be chaperoned. I bought black figs, spelt pasta, san marzano tomatoes, ricotta salata cheese, goose liver pate, albacore canned in olive oil, green olives with cardamom, rice crackers with tamari, breakfast sausages with blueberries & maple, a loaf of country bread, broccoli rapini, some organic heavy cream, a nice tuna steak, and a couple 6-packs of beer I'd been wanting to try (Hoegaarden & Bell's Two-Hearted Ale). I have some lovely meals planned for the next week.

Note: Drinking English tea out of a china cup makes me use adjectives like "lovely."

I ended my little afternoon adventure with a visit to Jilly's Cupcake Bar, where I purchased four treats: a PB & "J"illy, a S'murtle, a Bee Sting, & a Ja Love. I couldn't decide, so I just got all of the ones that looked good to me.

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Despite still having tons of work to do before fall classes start on Monday, I don't feel the least bit of regret over "wasting" the day (or the money). Instead, I feel recharged and ready to tackle the challenges of a new semester.

August 10, 2007

Port Club

Each Thursday, a group meets at the winery for a couple hours of good wine, good food, and good company. As a winery employee, I was automatically initiated into the Port Club, which is made up of most residents from a nearby gated community. It’s a close-knit group of people, the kind of people you want on your side because if they like you, they will do just about anything for take home boxes of dirty wine glasses to run through their dishwasher to save you from hand-washing them all, and bringing you plates of food while you’re working on a busy weekend.

Each week, the Port Club members bring home-cooked goodies to share over several bottles of good red wine. Sam is known for his chicken wing gumbo, peanut chicken lettuce wraps, almond cake, and pate (though, I have yet to try the pate). We’ve enjoyed Dan & Sharon’s pasta salad and Mexican layered dip. Ron & Gloria’s chicken salad, tomato bruschetta, and prosciuto-wrapped asparagus. We’ve eaten an array of cheeses, sausages, and crackers.

Cooking for the Port Club is a somewhat intimidating experience. These are good cooks, retirees who have all afternoon to prepare things like gumbo and pate. They relish their culinary creations, oohing & aahing over each bite, describing how it lingers on the tongue and discussing how it goes with different wines.

The first recipe I shared with the Port Club was my feta bruschetta, a mixture of roasted red peppers, caramelized onions, fresh rosemary, feta cheese, and olive oil that was eaten on sourdough baguette toasts. It went over well enough that I was encourage to share other recipes.

Last week, I made baba ghannouj, something I have never made before. After roasting a couple eggplants, squeezing out their squishy flesh, & blending it with garlic, lemon, sesame paste, and olive oil, the finished dip was delicious and had a nice smooth texture when it was still warm. Once chilled, however, it firmed up and lost its creamy spreadability. Sam was the only Port Clubber there that day, and I don’t think the cold, gelatinous goop impressed him at all.

I had to redeem myself this week, so I made the artichoke-stuffed bread I’ve been eyeing on Bake and Shake. The French loaf I bought was rather large, so I decided – at the last minute – to double the filling recipe to ensure that I had enough. So, I chopped up two cans of artichoke hearts, fried up 8 strips of bacon, sauteed an onion, then mixed it all with mayo, sour cream, cheddar, parmesan, garlic, oregano, & a few shakes of Tabasco. I spread this heart-stopping filling into the hollowed-out loaf, topped it with roma tomato slices, and baked it for 25 minutes. I placed the still-hot baking sheet on my passenger seat, then headed up to the winery.

Upon my arrival, I was poured a glass of Meeker Pink Elephant (a deep red rose with a dry but fruity taste) and the bread – crusty on the outside & creamy on the inside – was cut into pieces immediately. Oohs & aahs were uttered. The entire loaf was, much to my delight, devoured before the night was over.

Personally, I thought the filling was too much; it was so thick and rich. I thought that it would have been much better simply schmeared on the top of a sliced loaf before baking. So, when I got home that evening – feeling swirly from drinking glasses of a 1999 Meeker Petit Verdot, Hahn Cab Franc, Meeker Barberian, Meeker Petite Sirah, Meeker Carignane, a bubbly Bouvet, and Mackeson triple stout (which, by the way, is absolutely delightful with chocolate cake) – I had another go at the artichoke bread. I tore off a piece of the French bread top, the part I had sliced off of the original loaf, and topped it with a rather thin layer of the artichoke spread (note to self: there is no need to double the filling recipe, unless you want tons leftover...which might be tasty stirred into scrambled eggs in the morning). I baked it in the oven until the bread was crisp, then stuck it under the broiler until the top was browned and bubbling.

Ooh. Aah.

August 6, 2007

This is just to say

I have eaten
the pie
with friends at
the winery
and they
all thought the
was delicious
Forgive me
if you didn't
get any
it's all gone

August 4, 2007

Dugalicious Housewarming Cherry Almond Porch Cake

My BFF, Sarah (aka "Duga"), just moved into a new house. I baked this cherry almond cake and took it to Sarah and her family at their new place (because I wanted to bake something and her hubby really loves cherries).

I had to pit a cup and a half of bing cherries. Easy, I thought. No sweat. I'll just squash them with a knife like I would pit olives. Uh, not such a good idea. Red juice squirted in every direction, onto my favorite blue tee-shirt with skulls. Damn. Instead, I gingerly cut each cherry in half and popped out the pit with the tip of a knife. A not clean job. My kitchen looked like a crime scene:
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The batter is really thick and fragrant, with almond & vanilla extracts and ground almonds. It barely covered the bottom of a 10-inch springform. I arranged the cherries on top of the batter before baking:
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They were supposed to sink and be invisible in the finished cake, but mine didn't turn out that way:
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Still, it was pretty delish...very moist, almost wet, and dense:
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Too bad I dropped the leftovers on the porch when I got home. I almost baked another one that night.