Saturday, December 31, 2011

The You Suck Awards: 2011

It seems everybody is putting out lists before the year wraps out in a few hours. But instead of "bests" I'm going with worsts, because I'm a pill. Swallow. I present to you the 2011 You Suck Awards.

For those that can't hardboil an egg.
10. Unitasker kitchen tools: Everybody who spends a good majority of their free time in the kitchen dreads the inevitable gifts from friends at birthdays or Christmas that will result with another piece of clutter lying around the kitchen that a) either never gets used because it's for a specific dish that you never make or b) kind of assumes that you're a flaming moron. Kitchens are inherently hard to keep tidy, because you have to have a lot of clunky tools that aren't exactly shaped for neat storage. But man, some of those tools that they advertise as "As Seen on TV" are just amazing. So at number ten, we have meaningless kitchen unitaskers. Need an example? Consider Eggies. For people that can't peel or cook hard boiled eggs.
You're not allergic to gluten.
9. Gluten free diets: Now, I really do feel for the poor people that have a serious, uncomfortable gluten allergy. That sucks, and I'm right there with you. But the assholes that seem to have penetrated restaurants lately that proclaim that they either a) have a gluten allergy when they actually don't or b) are simply on a gluten free diet where they avoid anything that might have a hint of gluten, carbs, or flavor are really driving me up a frigging wall. I know I shouldn't care that much about what people do with their lives, but this is a hell of a fad. I know it's hard to lose weight, but this has sparked a gluten free revolution that's showing up on menus and all over packages at the grocery store. Again, I'm sorry for those who have a serious allergy. To the rest of you, you're fat because you had that extra bag of Snickers. Leave gluten out of this.
8. The Cheesecake Factory: Why do people love this restaurant so much? It's a chain restaurant that brings in a whole heap of their pre-prepared food and then warms it up. I've heard tell that they treat their employees like crap, and frankly I could never tell during my one visit who my server was anyway. None of the food trips that crucial line between mediocre and good, and everything is a little pricey for what it is... just enough to make this a "going out to eat" occasion, I guess. PS - If you're going to call yourself Cheesecake Factory, you should make a frigging end all be all of cheesecake. But I've had and made better. PSS - The cheesecake and the gluten are getting to your thunder thighs.
Howard Dean impression
7. Guy Fieri - What the f*ck? Sure, I admit that I watch Dx3 because there's basically nothing else on on Food Network. But that voice? That hair? Those flippy floppies? It has to end somewhere. I recently watched some sort of a reuinion special where he dug up a recipe for red neck sushi. This is insulting to both red necks and Asians, and I will tolerate it no more! The bleach blond phenom is also going to be hosting a show with my other favorite "can live without" personality, the one, the only Rachel Ray, featuring has been celebrities in a cooking competition. It's a drinking game waiting to happen.
6. Finicky eaters who get grossed out at dinner and basically ruin the meal for everyone: We all have people we have been out to dinner with who get grossed out at various things and then proceed to tell everyone how disgusting everyone else's meal is. Whatever it may be that has set them off: tripe, liver, bacon, raw fish, roe, or lobster tomalley, just to name a few greatest hits, they are going to say that they are going to sit there and just enjoy their own meal, but they never ever do. There is a grimace, then some fun fact about how whatever you're eating is bad for you, then the inevitable "oh, it's just not for me." I can't eat like that! I've had people completely ruin a beauteous thing like a lobster dinner or some grandma-slaved-over tripe tacos, and I say now, no more. No more restaurants or special meals ruined by people that just aren't adventurous or willing to inhale a few extra calories. Oh, and to boot, I also really hate it when you're eating a delicacy that comes at a high price, and then somebody tries it, thereby taking away from the amount of whatever thing you're eating that you really love, proceeds to make a face, and then out comes the "well, at least I tried it." Thanks, asshole. You just ate a quarter of my caviar that I get about once a year if the market went up.
5. Truffle oil drizzled over everything: Ever walk into a restaurant, fancy or aspiring to be fancy, and all you can smell is truffle oil because it's basically drizzled over everything? Yo, 2003 called and it wants its frigging fad back.
Fake cheese
4. Vegan (fake) cheese: If you read any of this blog, you know that I love vegetables, and am totally cool with cooking things that taste like the way that they're meant to taste. Asparagus at the height of spring time, or sweet English shelling peas, fresh tomatoes, fantastic potatoes, etc etc. My biggest problem with vegans and vegetarians is that a lot of time they are obsessed with things made to mimic the flavors of food. Like fake cheese, which I made a deadly mistake of grabbing instead of the real mozzarella in the midst of putting together a basket of ingredients for a lasagna. Fake shrimp is another big you suck ingredient. Guess what? If you're craving cheese, you should eat cheese. Your body is telling you to eat a little cheese. And you ruined my god damn lasagna.
3. Cupcakes: Cupcakes are fantastic! So fun! I really loved them in 1985 when my mom would bring Better Crocker mix with confetti frosting treats to birthday parties to feed the hoards of other sugar craving brats that I hung out with. Guess what? That was 1985! And despite being cake, and occasionally a lovely throwback treat, the  cupcake craze a couple thing has really run its course. They're not that frigging interesting, and definitely not interesting enough to justify the need for a show called "Cupcake Wars" on Food Network. I swear to god, it's either Cupcake Wars of that Fieri jerk off 24 hours a day.
Kid judges? Really? When I was
a kid I ate mud and thought it was
2. Cooking competitions featuring kids as the judges: Every person on the planet knows that when they themselves were children, their palates were not nearly as trained as they currently are. Kids are finicky, and they crave one thing: sugar. Have you ever noticed that when the kids are brought on Top Chef, the chefs basically cook either chicken tenders or a big bag of marshmallow sugar coated, "destroy the museum" rampage fuel? You know what I'm talking about. That's why kids should not be judging these competitions, and I'm sure they're brought on the shows for one of two reasons a) Mom and dad think their kid is a future Guy Fieri b) to royally piss off the chefs that have slaved over sodium alginate and sous vide machines for the past few weeks in order to barely get the better hand over one of the Voltaggio brothers, only to discover that the guest judge is my little nephew who hates everything but apple sauce, gummy worms and chocolate.
Yo, kill yourself.
1. Classic, regional sandwiches served on a brioche bun: Got a sandwich that means something to someone? Slap it on a brioche. Instantly trendy and way mo' better, right? Lobster rolls? Check. Better add some avocado spread, just in case. French dip? Get it in a brioche. Pass me the truffle oil. Cheeseburger? You got it; brioche, it is. Nice and stale and toasty. Let's not forget po' boys and cheesesteak, and hot dogs, and pulled pork. These have all fallen victim to the "put it on a brioche" trap. Just so that we're clear on this, brioche is delicious, but only when it's very fresh. And I would be hard pressed to find a restaurant that's throwing a dish that people will fight to the death over onto a brioche, and see them actually baking up their own brioche. Brioche that is not minutes from the oven sucks balls! It's yucky! It ruins our precious, beloved lobster rolls, which have their rightful place in a split top roll somewhere far far away... probably held at knife point by other brioche that are really angry about being so stale and left for things like Gordon Ramsey's bread pudding. He's so mean. Stay clear of the brioche. Do our local sandwiches proud, and avoid yourself the douchebag badge of suckage.

And that concludes our You Suck Awards of 2011. Happy New Year, folks. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dry Cured Duck

Another small step for
So, Christmas is over and Santa Claus brought yours truly a whole heap of new cookbooks to explore and drool over.
Christmas Eve's crown roast of
We've also experienced some serious feasting! A good bit of extra padding feasting, as it were. There was a roasted crown rack of lamb, covered in a compound butter of garlic, parsley and thyme. There was a fluffy rice pilaf, which I make almost every year in honor of my lovely Armenian grandmother, chock full of delicious pine nuts and sweet chopped, dried apricots. Then, my amazing in-laws set up a feast of my favorite spinach dip ever, plus introduced me to a family tradition of meat fondue. My own talented mother, awesome as ever, made a sweet potato pie for the books, and then there was also apple pie and cheesecake. Overall, it was all delicious, and I am thankful as ever for another wonderful winter holiday.
Dry curing ingredients
There were a couple new contributions I made to this year's feast that I'd say are going to become "look forward to" favorites for years to come. Now, when looking for new recipes to introduce at family feasts, I seek out dishes and appetizers that are easy, and a little different. How many people do you know that dry cure their own meat at home? I don't know any. And it's definitely something I wanted to try, and thought people might enjoy. Frankly, it's also something that can only get better with additional experimentation. Hell, it might become my new years resolution... dry curing lots and lots of meat.
For this particular adventure, after much searching for basic recipes where the general logic of curing meats might shine through and produce results, I settled on a recipe for "Duck Prosciutto" by Bon Appetite.
Curing mixture
Since my local butcher, the good folks at New England Meat Market, didn't have the two 1 lb duck breasts the recipe called for, I opted for four 1/2 pound duck breasts that were available in the freezer section near the meat counter. I cleaned each of the breasts, cutting off bits of meat that looked like it had a little sinew running through it. I also tried my best to trim a bit of the fat off of the one side of each breast, so that what looked like 1/4 inch of fat was reduced to about 1/8 of an inch.
Now to prepare the salt mixture. Just like the recipe called for, I smashed up 5 juniper berries, procured at the Pickle Pot down by Pickering Wharf in Salem, MA. (If there is any spice you need, but can't find, or are simply looking to wander around a store that smells a bit like exotic far away places, you should take a drive down to the Pickle Pot.) I also gave 3 bay leaves and a teaspoon of peppercorns the mortar and pestle treatment. With these ingredients smashed up, in a large bowl, I added 1 1/2 cups of kosher salt, and a cup of dark brown sugar.
Duck and curing mixture
That's really as hard as it gets. Mix and combine. At this point, it was just a matter of spreading out four sheets of plastic wrap, placing about 3/4 cup of the salt mixture on top of each, adding a duck breast on top of each salt pile, and then topping off each with an equal amount of the remaining salt mixture. Tightly wrap the breasts with the plastic wrap, place on a disposable cookie sheet just in case they drip, and place in the fridge for seven days. There's no turning. There's no re-wrapping. It's done. You just have to wait.
I'll admit that I was nervous, especially as the days progressed and the meat appeared to shrink up a bit. The curing mix actually began to get a little wet, mainly from the meat releasing its moisture. But I waited it out, and by the seventh day, which was Christmas Eve, these babies looked really promising.
Wrapped and ready for the fridge
Time to try. Unwrap a duck breast, and use either a toothbrush, or a mushroom brush, or paper towels, or any combination of the above to brush off the remaining curing mixture. You want to get as much salt off of the duck breast as possible, and despite any urges to, the recipe specifically states to not rinse the duck breast. After cleaning off the duck breast, take a sharp knife and thinly slice the meat.
Sliced duck prosciutto, dry cured
For a first try, and a foray into a world that takes a hell of a lot of practice and patience, I thought the duck breast ended up pretty darn flavorful. Unfortunately, it was a touch salty, which may have resulted from the fact that I had used smaller duck breasts. (Learning experience: seek out those bigger breasts... that's what he said.) The flavor of the juniper berries and the bay leaf gave the thin sliced meat a bit of a spiced punch. It was sweet and earthy. It was also still pretty darn tender, pulling apart between ones teeth with ease. I definitely recommend giving this easy recipe a try, and I'll be giving it second and third tries, reporting on the progress each time.


::sigh:: Now just waiting
until it's the season for
one of these again...
2 1-pound boneless Moulard duck breasts with skin (because I couldn't find duck breasts this large, I went with 4 1/2 lb duck breasts)
1 1/2 cups kosher salt
1 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
5 juniper berries, cracked
3 bay leaves, crumbled
1 teaspoon coarsely cracked black pepper
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Rolos, Pretzels, Reeses: The Ultimate Stoner Cookies

Tis the reason for the season.
Just like it sounds, the ultimate stoner cookies. They're so easy, it should be illegal. And yes, even a stoner can do it. There's really not any cooking involved. More like assembling and melting and a little more assembling. So get ready and turn your oven onto 350 degrees. When it's preheated, you're ready to go.
Step 1: Assemble your pretzels on a baking sheet. I like to use the little round ones that have the criss cross pattern throughout. They provide the best stable base for the cookie when you get to step two.
Step 2: Place a single rolo on top of each pretzel. 
Step 3: Place the baking sheet into the oven for five minutes, just enough so that the Rolos get a little melty and soft.
Step 4: Take the baking sheet out of the oven, and lightly press a single Reeses piece onto each rolo, just enough to squish it a little bit. You are done.
These cookies are salty, crunchy, sweet, kissed with the strangely addictive Reeses peanut butter somethin' somethin'. In other words, they're perfect. Every single time I pass by them in the kitchen, I must pop one. And then another on the way back. Before you know it, you're out of cookies, Santa is pissed at you, and you're off to the store in a frenzy to buy more Rolos. But now the entire world has caught onto the craze, and there's a rolo shortage, so you find yourself driving to another store down the way only to discover the same scenario. Now you're out of gas, and haven't paid AAA in months because all you can think about are these damn cookies. And so on, and so forth. 
So before this plays out, make these cookies. They're a huge hit.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Cafe Polonia

Cafe Polonia came to Salem a few years ago, and boy was I excited. Now, Polish cuisine may seem a little bit out there. How many times have you looked up at your spouse with a moment of euphoric "aha" sentiment and shouted "I need a dish of hunter stew and I need it now!" Well, neither had I. But Polish cuisine is comfort food at its finest. A cold winter day, a steaming hot serving of smoky sausage, served over a delectable heap of meaty, spiced sauerkraut will cure that chill that is seemingly unshakable. Add a good dark beer, and you've got a recipe for building a little bit of bulk to last you through the winter...and believe me, that's a good thing. The little cafe sandwiched among a fairly recently formed restaurant row on Washington street is a gem of homestyle meat and potatoes deliciousness.
Cafe Polonia's Intimate Dining
It's a pretty small restaurant. Maybe about twenty little tables, and lots of natural light. The blond wood and Polish decor is a little kitschy, but simultaneously completely welcoming and adorable. The restaurant glows at night, and the fast, friendly service makes you feel like a regular from the first second that you walk through the doors. On busier nights, they even occasionally have an accordion player, busting out polka tunes or holiday music. Unfortunately, I've been in the restaurant on a weeknight, and felt like it wasn't getting its due. There aren't enough people coming here, especially considering that they've got the most undeniably delicious food stuffs that anyone can find in Salem... and good beer! Good, delicious, interesting imported beers in fact. Just the other day, the bigger half ordered and enjoyed a Zywiec porter from  Bracki Browar Zamkowy in Poland. I'd recommend a couple of these to wet your whistle.
Blood Sausage Appetizer
But what to order as far as food? To start, there are many options. You may want to go for the salmon and caviar potato pancakes. The potato pancakes are a delicious savory, crispy platform to sink ones teeth into, complemented by the individual pop of each teeny orb of caviar, and of course the briny saltiness of a slice of cold-smoked salmon. But if you're game for something, well, a little more gamy, the blood sausage appetizer is fabulous and enough to share between four people if you're light eaters, or to split between two if you're my type of eater. The blood sausage is minerally and earthy. It has the rich flavor of liver, and of course that irony meat eater payoff of the blood that they use for the hearty appetizer. It's amazing to spread onto the rather dense, thin-sliced bread that they provide for every table. I'm also a big fan of the schmaltz spread that comes with the bread. A little blood sausage, a little schmaltz and you've got yourself a real kick of a teaser to bring out the better part of your appetite.
The Polish Plate
So what to order for a main? Well, we've gone several times as it's thankfully located a drunken stumble from where we live, and have found that the one dish that at least one person of your party should order is the Polish plate. I order it just about every single time. I think one other time I ordered the duck main entree, and it was a mistake on my part. While it was delicious, I stared longingly across the table at the Polish plate, ordered by a fellow diner. The polish plate is four fold.
Kielbasa on Hunter's Stew
First, you've got a kielbasa sausage, smokey, and grilled to perfection with a classic snap of the skin.
Amazing Pierogies
Next, you've got the selection of pierogies. Order them pan fried, because if you've ordered this dish, you aren't concerned about the extra calories (and you shouldn't be... you're perfect just the way you are). There's one stuffed with shredded pork, another stuffed with lightly pickled, tangy sauerkraut, and another stuffed with silky smooth potato. Finally, the pièce de résistance of pierogi land is the sweet cheese dumpling. It's savory on the outside, crispy and panfried with butter, but then there's the creamy cheese, touched with a hint of sweetness throughout. What an amazing pierogi. Come to think of it, if you are going to order an appetizer for a table of picky eaters, you might want to request a whole bunch of these cheese pierogies. But I digress... onto the rest of the Polish plate.
Stuffed Cabbage
Third, you've got the best version of stuffed cabbage that I've ever had. You know you've had stuffed cabbage that could second as a duck pin bowling ball. These damn things are light, a perfect mixture of fluffy rice and savory pork packed just tightly enough into a softball-sized satchel of blanched green cabbage. To add insult to injury, they smother the entire stuffed cabbage in a tangy, super smooth tomato sauce.
Hunter's Stew
Finally, I know it's difficult to get excited about sauerkraut. But this is the ultimate sauerkraut dish. The hunter stew that they serve across the entire platter of the Polish plate is amazing. Some of the best sauerkraut you've ever had has been stewed with large chunks of pork, juniper berries, clove and other spices. it's savory and porky, and of course tangy. The warmth of the stew really takes away the boredom of the winter and serves to refresh your palate as you nibble on all the other offerings.
Cafe Polonia is a gem of Salem, and we need to rally around this restaurant as having wonderful, homey, warm-you-up cuisine. Everything they serve there feels home cooked and cared over. Nothing is fussy, and anyone I know could find something they would fall in love with on this menu. Please give it a try, and become a regular. I'll see you there.

Cafe Polonia
118 Washington Street
Salem, MA 01970

Sunday, December 11, 2011

East Side Pockets: A Providence Institution

Falafel and Chicken Combo Wrap
 My bigger half is a proud Rhode Islander and experienced a youth where he basically played in a band and hung out 24-7 in Olneyville. Living the dream, as it were, comes at a cost... basically you're not getting your vitamins from the bucketloads of Baccardi mixed with koolaid packets that are characteristic of being young and throbbing with awesome. But every so often, he would fall into the "I need subsistence" trap, and find himself guided by a power which nothing could thwart to Thayer Street in order to get a combo pocket with falalfel, chicken and all the toppings from East Side Pockets. 
Now there are three specific elements that make this a divine, godly, pipe-bomb-sized wrap of a sandwich.
First, there is the falafel. Many a Brown University grad has waxed poetic to me about how the thing they miss most about Providence is indeed East Coast Pockets. The falafel there is just that good. It's light and fluffy on the inside, and exemplifies the ideal of crispy on the outside. The fluffy inner texture is nutty, and touched with the flavor of many herbs, which I'm sure that the take out phenom will never disclose. As it collapses within ones mammoth jaws, there is a texture and flavor explosion with the crunchy outer area giving way to the pillowy delight within. Yes, my friends, several perfectly fried falafel fill this sandwich.
Quality and Quantity ::Tear::
Second, because my folk are neither dieters nor vegetarians, we choose a meat to complement the falafel. The chicken grilled on the flat top, even more so it seems when the restaurant is busy and bustling, is moist, juicy, and perfectly cooked. It oozes a savory juice into the heart of the wrap and adds that familiar satisfying chew that you can really only achieve via a meat. For these reasons, the chicken is a necessary ingredient that you must add to the falafel wrap and make it a combo.
Third, you must have all the toppings. You can order at East Side, packed with a line of hungry college students and Providence hipsters, either like a local, "with everything" and move on... or not. If you do not, and you stand staring, slack-jawed like a one of those soccer moms who will never be cool (there are plenty of cool soccer moms, but you know the ones I'm talkin' bout), you will be impatiently guided by the semi-frenzied staff through each and every one of the ingredients. Know the toppings before hand if you're picky, and order everything if you're smarter than the average bear. Why? Because they're all an essential part of this sandwich. There is hot sauce, which can be described as a medium spicy and tangy. Then there are your veggies: lettuce, onions, and tomato. Then the real sauces. There's a wonderful zesty tabouleh, a lemony tahina, which I think is a combination of sesame flavors and citrus, and the famous creamy and tangy yogurt and cucumber sauce. The three sauces bring a nutty, earthy, herby, pinch of sour mix to the sandwich. Finally, what party is complete without a few honkin pickle slices? That's right. The pickles are also loud and clear in the sandwich.
Amazing flavor!
Wrapped so tightly that you couldn't fit an extra ounce of anything, one is invited to peel off the foil and paper from the wrap, as to inch your way down the mammoth tube of plenty. Every flavor is magnificent. The fluffy, signature falafel, and the satisfying chicken, mingled with sauces that play upon each other to give you something citrusy, tangy as a sour cream, smooth as a yoghurt, and fresh as all the herbs of summer, at the end hitting you with the sour of the pickles and the poke of the hot sauce.
If I said this sandwich was in my top five, I'd be lying. After much inner debate, it doubtless makes the top three. So remember, if you're hungry, you best head to Thayer Street, and get the falafel chicken combo with everything.

The Dorrance: Providence, RI

Glen, watching over the Dorrance
A while back, my friend Jesse, who you may remember from such posts as Jesse's ACK Daic, was pretty darn hyped about a new restaurant venture he would be participating in. As the summer came to a close, he would be stepping into a new role as the bar manager for a restaurant opening up called "The Dorrance" in Providence, Rhode Island. Not only was he excited for the opportunity to truly orchestrate the ultimate bar, featuring creative, diverse, and classic cocktails, but he also had chills running up his spine regarding the chef that had just signed on. Chef Ben Sukle and Executive Sous Chef Edward Davis had previously worked together at another Providence institution known as La Laiterie, and Chef Sukle brings another interesting resume element to the table through his three week experience over at Noma in Copenhagen. Basically what Jesse was so titillated over was the possibility to have refined cocktails, paired to delicious, modern dishes. The space itself was also pretty darn cool, the way he described it, with cavernous ceilings, a vault room, a second floor balcony, and various architectural touches including sculpture work over the entrance by Daniel Chester French.
So, time has passed, Jesse has been working nonstop, and the Dorrance has received some great press from the Providence Journal. Being the good doobies that we are, the bigger half and I agreed to come down to Rhodie yesterday in order to help his mother put up her Christmas tree, and decided that this would be an opportune time to pay a visit to the Dorrance.
At first glance, this place is gorgeous. It's obviously been renovated to bring out specific details in the architecture, but it also has this sort of old school Providence thing that keeps things upscale, but makes it simultaneously familiar and well... less snooty, I guess. Jesse gave us a quick tour of the space, which was broken up nicely by that wonderful long stage of a bar, and the grand upstairs space. That particular night, in the somewhat cordoned off event space to the right of the bar, there was actually a dual Pogash book launch party going on, featuring Mr Boston Bartender's Guide 75th Anniversary Edition and Bloody Mary. Yet another sequestered private table that they reserve for private events and dinners could be found all the way to the left of the restaurant, slightly toward the back. All in all, the entire restaurant didn't seem as cavernous as I had originally thought it might be, mainly because someone took the time to break up the space in a way that still makes each area feels intimate.
Jesse and the Perlini
The Vesperlini
Passion fruit Cocktail
After our short tour, Jesse seated us to the far right end of the bar, and eagerly asked what we had wanted to drink. You know what makes a great bartender though? They know you. They know you either because you're their friend, or because they kick so much ass at the bar that they remember your favorite spirits, and kind of have an incling of where you're going to go as far as food. Mr. Hedberg is nothing short of the best bartender in Rhode Island, a sentiment that I've heard over and over again from people that have become his regulars, plus I've seen it all go down in the Rhode Island Iron Tender competition a year or so back... i.e., there was no competition. It was a massacre. This all makes Jesse more than qualified to pick out a drink for me that I know I'm going to like, but may have not had the insight to order on my own, or even better, he might have something special up his sleeve. So the bigger half and I say "we surrender" and the man in the apron whooshes down the bar to retrieve a device mentioned in the ProJo article, called the Perlini. Using the device, he is able to introduce carbonation into a cocktail, and with this he creates one of the most interesting martinis I've ever had the pleasure of drinking: a Dorrance original, known as the Vesperlini. The martini itself is a mix of Citadelle gin, Sobieski vodka, Cocchi Americano, and dandelion burdock bitters. But it's the slight carbonation that results from shaking the drink in the Perlini that adds that extra zing to what would have been previously just a wonderful martini with interesting bitters. This was a great cocktail to begin a meal. The bigger half received a slightly less potent cocktail that featured house-made passion fruit syrup, bitters, and rum, among other items that I can't remember. This was a drink that I don't think actually appeared on the menu, but as is often the case with Mr. Hedberg, the unique combination of passion fruit syrup and all those bitters came to him "in a dream."
With our cocktails safely in hand, the food began to emerge from the kitchen, and as with the drinks, we simply told them to bring what they thought were their greatest hits. The constructed menu was delicious.
1. Ceviche. This was among the best ceviches that I've ever had, featuring a delicate white fish, my bigger half says blue fish, and a generous helping of bite size scallops. The tangy sauce was a combination of lime and other citrus, as well as tomatillo, and a hint of chilis. The acidity-cooked seafood was succulent, tender and fresh, while the chef also took care to add sweet potato chips for crunch and various microgreens and a topping of red saffron for additional texture and flavor. This dish, as a starter, hit all of the marks, tangy, sweet, bigger, savory with crunch and a beautiful presentation. I would order it again.
Cured Bonito Special
2. Cured bonito. An item not normally on the menu appeared. House-cured bonito, thinly sliced, and delicately placed over tender baby endive leaves, scattered with shaved radish, and spotted with what Jesse later told us was a reduction of lemon and olive oil to produce a kind of aioli. Another delicious dish. The cured bonito was briny and salty, with the texture of what you might imagine the world's most delicate air dried fish jerky to be. Each bite combined with the sharpness of the thin radishes, and the only slightly bitter flavor of those little raw endive leaves gave the dish a complex profile, all brought together with the creamy lemon sauce. This is a dish I have not had before, and worked perfectly together.
Hen of the Woods
3. Hen of the woods. Another show of the chef's desire to combine flavor forward ingredients in new ways. The plate arrived with lovely sections of broken apart, roasted hen of the woods mushrooms. In addition to the mushrooms, there were cubes of wonderful sweet, roasted pumpkin, and all of this was placed over a smear of a yogurt-like cheese called labne. Generous dots of house-made mayonnaise, and scatterings of tangy, sharp pickled mustard seeds brought the entire dish together. A little bite of mushroom topped with a tiny piece of sweet pumpkin, a little smear of the yogurt cheese, and a few individual beads of pickled mustard seeds, and again there is a flavor combination that no one could have anticipated would produce such a symphony of sweet, earthy, savory, dairy and pickled tang.
Baby Sweet Potato
4. Baby sweet potato. I am a complete sucker for the sweet/salty thing. All about savory things with a touch of sugar or that fine dark chocolate with a touch of sea salt. But sometimes dishes can go above and beyond. New England sweet potatoes, especially now that the season is over, are bursting with sugar and sweetness. They're delicious, and as the farmers market makes its desperate last stand, I plan to buy up a few of the potatoes for storage to prepare during February when I'm deep into my cooking doldrums. But the chef at the Dorrance has found a way to elevate our wonderful, tiny baby sweet potatoes by roasting, cutting into bite size pieces, and then adding two other elements to introduce salty punches. There were the wonderful, crisp squares of tasso ham that applied heavy smokiness and salty, savory notes to the dish. But then, in conjunction with this, they had dotted the dish with small clumps of cold-smoked salmon roe in order to fully compliment and enhance the smokey tasso. As a sauce, the chef added dots of sour cream, because what else, let me ask you, would you intuitively serve with a baked potato of any kind? This was my favorite dish of the evening. Not only because again it had brought in all manner of taste profiles, and done so in an interesting way, but because I just thought that the combination of flavors was so familiar, and yet elevated. Plus, I have a soft spot for ikura... and to smoke ikura? Be still my heart. Jesse let us know that this dish, this technique of combining flavors was something that Chef Sukle had concentrated on during his time in Noma.
At this time, I was onto my second cocktail, an excellently prepared Negroni. Erik opted for a sherry spritzer of sorts, which always goes well with food, as it's a fairly light beverage. But it was now time to move onto the larger plates section of the menu. We would be starting with a fish course, and then move onto duck and steak.
Roasted Blue Fish
1. The fish course: I love blue fish. I'd love it as a kid when my dad would come home with a big blue, taller than I. The trick, however, to cooking blues is that they get really fishy and oily with the longer that they are out of the water, so freshness is key, otherwise you end up with something that will repel many a diner. I was not prepared for the elegant blue fish dish that appeared before us at the Dorrance. A perfectly roasted fillet of fish arrives at the table, topped with the most crispy of skin. The white flaky flesh was moist and fell apart with each application of the fork. The fish itself was served with roasted royal trumpet mushrooms, one of my favorite meaty mushrooms, nicely scored, and divinely savory. Then there were about three little neck clams, two of them extracted from the shell, and one left in the opened shell, and all topped with a clam broth foam. Interspersed with the foam and smeared strategically on a plate was a lovely nutty, garlicky romesco sauce, and then for a vegetable element, he had added the perfectly wilted leaves of endive. The combination of seafood flavors, roasty, delicate, and above all, honest, was simply remarkable. If you love local fish, this is your go-to entre.
Prior to the meat courses arriving, Jesse arrived with two wine glasses, and gave us each a little pour of a nice Pinot Noir to accompany the red meat that we were about to enjoy. Yet another sign of a great bartender who knows his chef, and the flavors that can only be enhanced by a nice glass of wine.
Roasted Duck
2. The duck. Duck is one of those meats that I don't typically enjoy at home, because I rarely see it in stores to prepare for myself. So when it's on a menu, I consider it a treat. The duck breast was seared to produce a crispy skin, with a nice unctuous layer of fat, and roasted to a perfect, red rare. Duck is an irony, rich meat and unique from other poultry dishes that are perhaps a bit boring. This chef chose to thinly slice the breast and serve over a puree of quince, a nice fruity flavor that departs from the typical cherry or cranberry red wine sauce that I think can occasionally overpower the meat. There were also matchstick pieces of kohlrabi, which has the appearance and texture of a crisp granny smith apple, but the flavor of the freshest cabbage. Finally, he added a few perfectly roasted baby red beets, and a small pile of seeds and grains, including lemony poppy seeds that really added a nice crunchy pop to every bite of duck. What a wonderful entree.
Sirloin with Carrot, Marrow Jus
3. Our final savory main course was a classic preparation of sirloin steak. The roasted steak was served medium rare, perfectly deep pink, with a wonderful char on the outside, and cut into medallions, making the dish easy to share. The star of the dish was the sauce that the chef chose to accompany his meat: a lovely carrot, marrow jus, which was rich and borderline sticky from all the fat, but hit you with the lovely sweetness of carrot throughout. Roasted onions and carrots were also artistically placed on the white plate over a silky smooth, elegant potato sauce that features one part potato to one part pure butter. Steak and potatoes never had it so good.
God damn what a meal. At this point we knew that there was no way to walk away from the decadence just enjoyed in Providence without having a look at the dessert menu. Plus, Jesse had promised a very unique original beverage that he had been saving just for us. So we decided on the parsnip panna cotta entry, which sounded delicious, and waited for Jesse to make boozy magic.
Parsnip Panna Cotta
The parsnip panna cotta was incredible. The silky, jiggly pudding was perfectly molded, and so delicious I was slightly upset that I hadn't ordered my own despite being a little overly full (mark of a true glutton!). It melted in the mouth with hints of vanilla, and the sharpness of sweet, peppery parsnip. There were also bits of housemade granola, that tasted faintly of dulce de leche, along with bottle cap sized ginger snaps, and little rounds of poached apple. Every bite of crunchy cookie, delicately poached fruit, and the creamy, only slightly sweet panna cotta was a lovely way to end a meal.
Jesse's Smoky Negroni Smith
And then Jesse hit us with the big show. That bastard. He's really outdone himself. In a sealed sous-vide bag, he approached us with a concoction that included blood red/orange liquid and what looked like charred bits of wood. He explained that the mix inside of the bag was very similar to what we would find in a classic Negroni, but he had taken the extra steps to char apple wood in a metal pan, place this along with the drink ingredients into a sous-vide bag, and intensely suck all of the air out of the mixture. Ideally what he wanted to do was force a sort of oak barrel dry aged flavor on the drink itself. And what was produced was nothing short of genius. He calls it the Negroni Smith, largely influenced by the fact that apple wood is being used, and after straining through a little sieve and pouring into a glass with a single large ice cube and the zest of an orange, we were hit the best after dinner cocktail that I've ever had in my life. It was so smoky. The bitters and the gin played beautifully on each other, all flavor notes kissed by the lovely charred flavor of those sacrificed apple wood chips. Sure, this is a boozy drink, and goes above and beyond your typical digestif. But god damn it was good.
The meal that we had at the Dorrance exceeded expectations. It was easily the best meal that I've had in Providence. If it were located in Cambridge, it would definitely be a major part of the food scene there, giving all other heavy hitters a little healthy competition. But because the restaurant is located in Providence, uniquely preserves the history of the neighborhood, and takes pride in being both old school in decor and playfully flavor forward in food and cocktail, I would be shocked if the Dorrance doesn't grow in popularity to become the most talked about restaurant in Providence, and later, New England. What an incredible meal.

The Dorrance
60 Dorrance St
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 521-6000

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bok Choy Salad: A Pot Luck Favorite

I shouldn't be disclosing the recipe for this salad. It's too easy, and everybody who brings it to a pot luck is instantly deemed a genius. It's not necessarily an elegant salad, or a fancy ingredients salad, but that's the beauty of it. My mother had tasted it at a local annual family reunion of a close family friend, prepared by either a grandma or a caretaker of the local retired priests or Mary Magdalene or somebody equally as holy. She inquired as to the recipe, and then brought the dish to Nantucket this year for our own little family reunion and as it so also happens, my annual birthday bash. When she said she was going to be bringing a bok choy salad, I tried to hide my inner WTF. But when it comes to food, my mother has excellent taste, and if she thought the salad was the end all be all of bok choy salads to bring to a party, I trust her to the ends of the earth.
So the preparation, like I said, is simple. Here's your entire recipe.
FOR THE DRESSING:1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Combine all ingredients and whisk together. Let sit in the refrigerator overnight so that the mighty amount of sugar has a chance to fully dissolve. 
FOR THE CRUNCHY BITS:1/2 stick of butter
1 package of ramen noodles (just noodles)
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
3/4 cups sliced almonds
Now, I tend to substitute out different nuts or seeds that I have on hand, because basically anything works really well in this salad. So in this case, I melted the butter in a large frying pan, and waited for it to smoke. I crushed up the ramen noodles, and because (again) I had them on hand, I added 3/4 cup of pine nuts and a 1/2 cup of crushed walnuts. Fry up all the crunchy bits in the butter, and when nice and brown, remove and add to a plate with a paper towel to drain a little bit.
FOR THE VEGETABLE PIECE OF THE RECIPE:Take about a head and a half of bok choy, and roughly chop. You can substitute out basically any greens. If you like spinach or romaine, use either one. However, I really love the bitter leaves on raw bok choy, and they work particularly well with the sweet salad dressing.
Roughly chop whatever greens you decide on, and toss with the crunchy bits and the dressing immediately prior to serving. 
Bok Choy Salad
The salad is crunchy. It has the previously mentioned play between bitter greens and a sweet, salty salad dressing. Those ramen noodles, college ramen noodles, never had a better use. It's really just a fun, easy salad that is welcome at any party, despite even the most picky of eaters. Please give it a try. 

Anticipating Santa: Chocolate Chip Cookies

Tis the season: for cookies!
Chocolate chip cookies, even from a store bought tube of dough, are delicious. They're welcome at any party, and they're a reminder of good memories from home. Or reminders of Santa Claus. Or reminders of basically anything wintery, warm, and reminiscent of wonderful smells that can and have wafted from one's oven. I went on a little cookie bend the other day, searching out the best recipe for chocolate chip cookies. And boy oh boy did epicurious deliver on this one.
Consistency perfection
This recipe from Gourmet (RIP) is the best recipe for chocolate chip cookies that I've ever made and subsequently consumed in a big way. It was pretty darn easy to prepare, all thanks to my measure before hand system. If you measure out all your ingredients, separated in steps before hand (ex. put all of your sifted dry ingredients together in one bowl before you add anything else) making anything gets about 50% easier. Organization and preparation is so key. Plus, it makes everything less devoid of frantic "where the hell is the baking soda because the eggs are whipping too long"moments. So, sift together your dry ingredients, follow the instructions to beat together your wet, and then combine on slow speed, adding your precious chocolate chip morsels at the very end. I know you're not supposed to eat raw cookie dough, but if you trust your eggs, I promise you it's a very tasty, slightly salty batter.
Ready to bake
A few minutes later, on individual baking sheets with parchment-lined paper, the cookie dough was spooned in large lumps, a little less than 1/4 cup each and separated by approximately three inches of space. (Take care to separate them quite a bit because they will spread and flatten out more than the small, preformed cookie dough cylinders that you buy from the store.) The recipe also instructed to flatten each mound with the palm of ones hand so that it's about an inch thick, and maybe two to three inches in diameter. You know that they're going to be big cookies. And in this case, go big, you've got January through May to look hot in a bikini again. Plus, people tend to feel more loved with big honkin' cookies... just sayin'. 
Chocolate chip cookie glory
Thirteen minutes into the oven and each cookie had spread out, revealing crispy golden brown edges, and a soft, chewy center. They're lovely and large, picture perfect cookies. But none of this compares to the initial and flowing aroma escaping the oven, baked brown sugar goodness, and then the incredible sweet flavor that emerges from the first warm, soft bite. These cookies are soft, buttery and chewy. They're somewhat molasses tangy as a result of the abundant use of brown sugar, and also have that lovely occasional kick of salt, appeasing my need for salty-sweet treats. Don't forget those chocolate chips... still melty in the middle. 
I baked over two dozen cookies, and truth be told, there's not a single one left sitting on the counter. This recipe is a winner, and I implore you to give it a try.


3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips (16 ounces)

Recipe from Epicurious:

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 375°F. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment or wax paper.
Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl.
Beat together butter and sugars in a large bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until pale and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Lightly beat 1 egg with a fork in a small bowl and add 1 3/4 tablespoons of it plus 2 remaining whole eggs to butter mixture, beating with mixer until creamy, about 1 minute. Beat in vanilla. Reduce speed to low and mix in flour mixture until just blended, then stir in chips.
Scoop 1/4 cup batter for each cookie, arranging mounds 3 inches apart, on 2 baking sheets. Flatten mounds into 3-inch rounds using moistened palm of your hand. Form remaining cookies on additional sheets of parchment.
Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until golden, 13 to 15 minutes. Transfer cookies to a rack to cool and continue making cookies in same manner using cooled baking sheets.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Lasagna and the "F***ccccckkkk" moment

I don't make lasagna often, because I'm not in the habit of feeding an angry mob (nothing quells an angry mob better than heaping helping of lasagna). However, the bigger half has been working double shifts lately, and I have a feeling that he'll be most appreciative of a savory baked saucy, meaty, cheesy pasta dish. Plus, there will be plenty of leftovers for him to take a bit to work, and that'll save him from eating cheap take out or worse, fritos upon fritos upon fritos.
So, I started out with a recipe from Anne Burrell, who I've adored since she's been only that sprite of a sous chef for Mario Batali on Iron Chef America. Since she's matured into other TV shows, and as simple or as fancy, whatever the dish she sets out to make, it always looks like something pretty darn decadent and delicious.
Simmering tomato sauce
For my own tomato sauce, I started out with two double sized cans of whole plum tomatoes, as well as another smaller can of the same kind of tomatoes. What can I say... they're what I had on hand, and I want leftover sauce to freeze for a later date even after I'm finished with the lasagna. At 11 am, I chopped up four cloves of garlic, and a whole onion, and let those cook with about two tablespoons of olive oil in a large dutch oven. When those turned translucent and had cooked down nicely, I added about a quarter cup of red wine. Then it was time to rip up the tomatoes. Not sure why, but I always rip up each tomato with my hands and drop them into the sauce. I also use the juice from the can, adding as the tomatoes cook down. So every half hour, I check for salt and pepper levels and give the low simmering sauce a stir. The sauce cooked for about four hours, and because I wanted a smoother sauce, I went ahead and gave it a good whirl with an immersion blender near the end. Nothing like a home cooked sauce to elevate any pasta dish. Seriously, ragu sucks. Prego sucks too.
Sweet Italian Sausage
Sauteed Mushrooms
Sauteed Kale with Garlic
Ricotta and Parmesan Filling
While the sauce cooked, I went ahead with 90 percent of Ann Burrell's recipe. That's right, frying up the Italian sausage, then separately the mushrooms, and because zucchini is no longer seasonally available, I went for some flat leaf kale, which I picked up from the Kimball Fruit Farms stand at the Dewey Square Farmers market. I also prepared her cheese filling with 2 cups of Narragansett Creamery ricotta, a chiffonade of basil, 1 cup of grated Parmesan, 2 eggs and a little salt. Oh, and of course, I also parboiled a box of lasagna noodles.
Layer of sauce, followed by noodles
Layer of cheese filling plus noodles
Sauce, meat, mushrooms, kale,
followed by layers of cheese/noodles
Baked up lasagna
Time to build the castle. A layer of sauce, layer of pasta, layer of the cheese mixture. Another layer of pasta, sprinkling of sausage, mushrooms, and kale, and then a heaping layer of mozzarella cheese and a sprinkling of grated Parmesan. Another layer of pasta and cheese mixture, and then another layer of sauce, sausage, mushrooms, kale, mozz and parm. A final layer of pasta, sauce and the remaining mozz and parm. Cover with foil, and into a 350 degree oven for an hour and 15 minutes. Uncover the foil, and cook for another 15 minutes. Let stand for twenty minutes to cool.
Tha f*ck is this?!
Man, what a lasagna day. It literally took all day to buy and build and make the sauce and then bake. But while it was baking, I happened to look down in the trash bag before taking it out. And here's the "oh f*ck" moment. I was using some kind of gluten free, dairy free mozzarella cheese substitute. WTF! When I went to the store this morning, I actually looked for those round mozzarella balls so that I could grate them myself. When I didn't find those at my little grocer, I picked up a pre-grated packet of what I thought was mozzarella without a second thought. When I brought it to the register, along with the rest of my dairy fest, the lady asked if I had seen the other mozzarella. Hell, she even walked me over. I saw that the pack she showed me said "skim milk" and thinking that I wanted a full fat version (sue me... I'm an asshole that didn't know mozz is made with skim milk), I turned the real mozzarella down. God damn, I am a FOOL!
Bah. Lasagna with fake cheese.
Would have been great with
real cheese. 
Now the real test will be to see if the taste is that bad. And the verdict? Well, after a few bites, you could definitely notice that something was off. The cheese didn't stretch the right way. Hell, the way it melted even looked a little funny. I could have just kept my mouth shut, because it was good. But I knew the truth, and so I went full disclosure on the bigger half. He said he thought something tasted a little weird, and that the lasagna would have been bomb had it not been from the weird cheese. Ugh. I could chalk this up as another reason to severely dislike vegans, and their prominent display of fake cheese next to the olives and sun dried tomatoes. But I'll take the fall on this one. I didn't read the full label of "Mozzarella Style Shreds." Boooo.
The lesson here is to always read the full label of your ingredients, and feel free to use this recipe, but please, dear friends, stay dairy rich, and go for the real mozzarella.