Thursday, March 31, 2011

Food is Love

We went to NYC earlier in the week, and it made me feel very nostalgic. I saw glimpses of a ghost of my former self everywhere: getting first job in a museum; going on first dates with fiancé; losing my wallet, totally freaking out, having museum security guard give me a $20 bill to get home, and random woman mailing it to me from one of the busiest intersections in the world; writing 40 page papers for grad school; going out way too often, and staying out way too late; getting sexually harassed at my waitressing job; exhilarated, scared, and a little alone.

I also remembered the first meal I ever cooked when I moved in with Scott. I think I only owned one cookbook at that time which Scott's mother had given me for Christmas the previous year. I made Chicken Tikka with all the condiments. It was the first time I used a food processor, and I remember being surprised how delicious it was to mix yogurt, ginger, garlic, and mint together.

Then, I made a cake from the only cookbook I had. It was really good, and used what I understand is a southern technique with lemon lime soda in both the cake and the icing. It needed a bundt pan which I did not have and went to the adorable and convenient Cook's Companion. I remember feeling so excited to assemble a grocery list, to choose the combination of the best and  most economical ingredients, to closely follow all the directions and try to use my best judgment, and to finally produce genuinely tasty food. I remember how much that feeling of pride is tied up in feelings of appreciation and love for those you are cooking for. I was so happy that we were living together, and I think my cake was an expression of that.

Even though I wasn't even really that good at cooking at this point, I still attempted to make cookies for my friends' birthdays. It was more than just about skill or innate ability, it was about "I really enjoy your company, and I remembered it is your birthday!" I totally ruined a batch of meringue cookies by throwing in a bunch of espresso because she was obsessed with coffee (now I would probably go with espresso powder for baking, or a coffee liqueur), but she acted like she loved them anyway.

We don't really eat desserts very much, and I have not made that many cakes. I made a coconut cake for my birthday party last year, and I've made chocolate cookies for Scott for our anniversary. Somehow this cake was our "moving in together cake". It was also the first cake I ever remember making by myself. Who could ever think that something with 7-up in it could be so symbolic of something so significant? The fluffy, zesty, juicy cake was as delicious as the moment itself.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I Can Believe It's Not Food

Some very wise last words:

Karola Saekel Craib, who joined the San Francisco Chronicle in 1955, died Monday of complications from cancer. She was 81. “Only a week or so ago Karola wrote a note — on her iPad no less — thanking her friends for enriching her life,” writes Michael Bauer. “In her notes to her daughters before her death, she included the strict admonition, ‘Never eat margarine!’ That was Karola. The real thing. No margarine; only pure butter.”
It's true. Margarine is no less caloric, usually has trans-fats that are far worse for your health than butter, and tastes awful. (Bread tastes better plain than with margarine if you need to cut calories.) I always liked Anthony Bourdain's line in Kitchen Confidential: "Margarine? That's not food. I can't believe it's not butter? I can!"

Side DIsh Tips: Lemon Steamed Spinach

Here's a great technique for a healthful vegetable side. Gently mix a healthy portion of fresh, cleaned spinach with a little olive oil, the zest of one lemon, and salt and pepper. Then steam for a few minutes in a vegetable steamer. Simple, yet very tasty...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sunday Nights with Thomas Keller

So tonight we made a great Armagnac Chicken recipe from a cookbook we have discussed in the past.

Then we were left with a lot of bones. I have been wanting to try making homemade stock for a while. It is the basis of so many dishes and sauces I can think of. And what a great way to reuse parts of foods you already have. So since we are basically acting like Julie Powell with her Julia Childs obsession, I consulted Ad Hoc at Home.

So first you want to really wash all the bones and remove all the food particles. This took me a while, but you really want to make sure you don't end up with cloudy stock. You rinse the chicken bones in cold water, and then put them in a large stockpot and cover them in cold water. You can put the pot to the side of the burner as this creates a current, and makes it easier to skim the fat throughout the process.
You gradually bring the liquid to a simmer, and continually skim the pot. Once you get it going, add a whole bunch of ice cubes which will help solidify the fat, and skim that off. Then add onions, leeks, carrots, and a bay leaf.

Again continually skimming, you let everything simmer for 40 minutes.

Then turn off the heat and let it rest for 10 minutes letting the particles settle to the bottom. Then create an ice bath and ladle the stock through a strainer into the bowl, placing it over the ice bath and stirring it occasionally.

I can't tell how it will go over in dishes yet, but it smells really good and has thickened quite a bit. I can't wait for soups, chicken pot pie, all kind of stove top dishes with pan sauces. This is really exciting and to think it came from the leftover parts of the carcass of the chicken. The gelatin from the bones is what thickens it, and it almost feels like a weird science experiment. 

I will say that peeling off all the food particles from the bones felt like a good deal of intimacy between me and the chicken. And while I didn't notice while we were carving our dinner, you can pretty clearly spot the chicken's head. I was a vegetarian for about 10 years, and this slightly freaked me out momentarily. Scott came by and ripped the head off and said "there ya go!". But then there was this big vein sticking out of the top. I was able to get over it enough to create homemade stock which we can freeze in small increments and use in tons of soup, sauces, and dishes. It's going to be great, and to think you have the bones anyway, why not make use of them?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Just like Mom used to make... via Thomas Keller

I am going to start by reiterating something Scott has already touched on, that this is an amazing book, and that Thomas Keller is a genius. I am not really that interested in cookbooks which basically tell you how to assemble things. While I will once in a while watch cooking shows, and read Rachel Ray's magazine, I don't really want to be told just to add pine nuts to everything and call it gourmet. "Ad hoc at home" is so valuable because it actually teaches you techniques, and explains why these work (which they totally do).

My mom used to make "Chicken a la King". I don't know how, but it was the chicken/peas/carrots/creamy sauce flavor profile served over toast. This to me is the ultimate comfort food, and something I have been on the hunt to reinvent in my own style, made from scratch with all fresh ingredients. I have in the past fallen hard for Cook's Illustrated's chicken pot pie with buttermilk topping, and that is delicious, but once I saw Thomas Keller's chicken and dumplings soup I had to give it a try. I'll also say that the more I make soups at home, the more I realize what canned soups are lacking. In canned soups all the flavors run together. In this recipe you can taste everything separately from the chives to the carrots to the delicious soup base. And yet somehow all the elements combine to become a whole new flavor, comforting, not heavy at all, and bright like the taste of spring.

I am not even going to attempt to describe this too much in detail. I am also not even going to pretend it was quick or easy, but was it the most delicious soup I have ever had? It was definitely way up there.

So here is the dumplings waiting to be cooked. You combine the flour and water in a small saucepan, and stir quickly with a wooden spoon until the moisture evaporates enough for the flour to gain a nutty aroma for about 5 minutes. You transfer the dough to a mixing bowl where you add salt, pepper, chives, Dijon, and two eggs. Then you take two soup spoons and transfer them in a scooping motion between the spoons a few times until they look like footballs. Then you drop them in a pot of simmering water, where they are cooked 5 minutes after floating to the top. I tried one to make sure they were cooked, and even at this stage they were amazing.

Then you get your leeks, onions, carrots, and celery going in a pot with butter simmering for 30 minutes. For this he wanted a "parchment lid". I have never seen this technique before. You basically give your pot a little hat. It supposedly gets the best of both worlds letting some steam escape while not letting moisture evaporate too quickly. On the right you can see the dumplings cooking, 6 at a time, not crowded together.

After 30 minutes you add 4 quarts of chicken stock to the veggies and let that go for 30 more minutes. Throw out the little parchment hat. You also scoop the dumplings off onto a baking sheet to await their joining the soup later.

After that, you drain the soup base and discard those vegetables. Who throws out perfectly fine vegetables you may ask? Well according to our friend Thomas Keller here, the veggies give up their flavor and nutrients to the stock. They are now mushy, not as bright in color, and have lost their antioxidants. So instead, we blanche some celery. He has some really useful pictures on this point. Basically we cook them until they are just tender, and immediately throw them in an ice bath. Look at the bright green, have you ever seen this in vegetables for a soup? I haven't.
Then we put the carrots in a pot with honey, thyme, an unpeeled garlic clove and salt and pepper and cover the whole thing with cold water. We let it simmer only about 4 minutes so that the carrots are still resistant to the teeth, but are just cooked. We spread them out on the counter on some paper towels.

Now we stir in some cold roux to the simmering soup base to thicken. We combine all the elements of the dumplings, cooked chicken (we actually didn't have any chicken, so we threw in some peas instead), celery, carrots, and then add some chives, parsely, salt and pepper, and a bit of champagne vinegar.

It makes an enormous amount. We each had two helpings for dinner, and we had about 4 servings leftover to have for lunches. In reflection, the blanching of the vegetables is really key. I have never had vegetables that tasty in a soup before (especially carrots). Also the vegetables not having cooked for hours didn't lose any of their key nutrients. And it just smelled amazing, and with the Dijon and chives in the dumplings they had a bit of a kick to them. This was not your gloopy chicken and dumplings. It had all the benefits of a classic, nostalgic, flavor profile without sacrificing freshness or health. Next up, can't wait to try his chocolate chip cookie recipe. They may end up as the favors at our wedding if they stand up to the test.

Friday, March 18, 2011

What Albany Lacks

  • Caribou Coffee. I could not have gotten through my undergrad in MI without it. Coffee is smooth and non-acidic. Mixed drinks are actually half way healthy sometimes. The white chocolate is so amazing you can have them put it in everything from the smoothies to the regular coffee. Mmmm, big leather chairs fake-Alaska vibe, love it. For now, I'll just have to settle for a tasty drink on layovers at MSP Airport, and buying enough to stock up the freezer.
  • Au Bon Pain- Coffee is ok, but anyone who has ever tried the crème de fleur knows what I am talking about. (On second thought maybe it is good we don't have that).
  • Trader Joe's I'm not really the hugest fan but it was really useful in NYC where you had to shop at 4 different places anyway to find affordable but still quality ingredients for something as simple as a Greek salad. There were some things that were pretty good though, and I am actually surprised there isn't one.
  • Anthropologie What the hell? Reason to go to Boston and NYC I guess.... But do I really need a two hundred dollar dress with a swan on it? No, no I don't. So it's all for the best. 
  • Urban Outfitters The height of excitement when I used to visit Ann Arbor when I was 14. Then in NYC they were basically on every corner. Now I don't so much seeing myself traveling for the $70 ripped t-shirt made to look like its from the Goodwill.
  • Potbelly Sandwich Shop. This was taking over the Detroit suburbs just as I was leaving. Cheap, quick, toasted, good. If I were wealthy I would totally open one of these. Would be great for the college crowd.
I will say that I'm happy we finally got a Chipotle, although probably with most chains you sort of forget about them when they aren't around. Chipotle was the main thing I got for dinner when out and about in NYC, mostly because you could grab your burrito and keep walking (and get smoggy airy, people coughing, subway grit and such on your burrito as you eat too quickly so probably not the healthiest idea anyway). But I guess living in a place where you aren't constantly walking somewhere you might as well not have your entire meal wrapped up together. Also Empire Wine finally got the Saffron Infused Gin I used to buy in Brooklyn Heights, so I don't really have much to complain about. I'm probably saved something by not having to try to resist Anthropologie's prices, and the lack of Caribou Coffee just makes me really excited for the Minneapolis Airport. As a totally unrelated side note, Minnesota is also getting something else I am totally obsessed with. Ah, geographical envy!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Benefits of Modern Marriage

Over Christmas I had a bridal shower thrown for me in Calgary, AB and I pooled all my cash gifts together for this. Funny enough, I also have a friend who just got engaged, and her parents immediately sent her a food processor because apparently that is what one recieves when one is getting married these days. The idea that you never needed to eat before getting engaged, and the fact that most people live on their own for years before marrying in contemporary society, are things I won't argue with since it is such a superb product.

I had originally read a product review in Cook's Illustrated which stated  that the Kitchen Aid model was the way to go. We were at Different Drummer's kitchen, and  the extremely helpful salesperson said that the Cuisinart model had recently been improved with a few features. These included that the top snaps in and releases really easily with a quick release button (Easy On/Off Locking System with Push-Button Release), and the seal tight gasket system with the bowls (Exclusive Patent-Pending SealTight™ Advantage System – Seals Bowls and Locks Blades). Just by her showing it to me I could tell it was really improved. The bowls can also go in the dishwasher, which is super convenient. So I was sold, and we took it home.

 I've used it on so many things like sauces, breads, making a paste for chili, and on and on. There were things I wanted to make before that I either didn't or attempted with our smaller one and made a mess. I use it literally almost every day, and the fact that I can just throw it in the dishwasher makes it super easy. I really, really love it, and for how versatile it is, I think it might be the single most useful electric appliance you can have in a kitchen. I have seen pictures online of brides enthusiastically hugging their Kitchen-Aid standing mixers at their bridal showers and thought "really?", but the food processor with all the things you can make with it, I can actually understand the affection. Now I can only dream of all the things we could make with a pasta machine.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Have a cocktail!

I enjoy making and trying different kinds of cocktails. I like to find ways to use what we already have in our cabinet. I like to actually use recipes for cocktails since I find it's not always easy to guess in advance how flavors will interact. I also think one trick to delicious cocktails is actually measuring the ingredients.

And so since we had some tequila we weren't really drinking since we only use it to make margaritas with Mexican food, I thought I'd try something different with it.

 It is called the "Silk Stocking", and that is pretty much what it tastes like. Smooth, luxurious, with a bit of spice.

1 1/2 ounces tequila
1 1/2 ounces white creme de cacao
1 ounce heavy cream
1/4 ounce Chambord
Pinch of cinnamon

Shake the liquid ingredients with ice about 20 or 30 times. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and sprinkle cinnamon over the top.

Recently I bought some rum, not just any rum, in fact rum that is made in the Berkshires, the county that where I work. We've tried a few of their products and they are tasty, especially the gin. So I made "Havana Sidecars". The fresh lemon juice is great in this, and in a variety of different cocktails.

11/2 ounces rum
3/4 ounce Cointreau
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice

Shake the ingredients vigorously many times. Strain into chilled cocktail glass. The sour flavor in the lemon, and the brightness of the Cointreau work with the buttery quality of the rum to create an interesting drink. It's refreshing, light, and really tasty.

Cod and Spinach Roulades

I tried to make a tasty dinner from when Scott returned from his conference in Vegas. I made something from this book , which was what Scott got me for my birthday. I had only tried the chocolate mousse so far from this book which was easy, quick, and delicious. I made cod and spinach roulades. It seemed like it used some really interesting cooking styles, and I was drawn to the idea of making a mousse out of the whitefish.

First I went to the Hannaford on Wolf Road, and would like to say I was very impressed with their produce and seafood departments. For such a fancy looking dish it was actually very simple to prepare. First for the sauce you cook a few ripe tomatoes in a few sliced garlic cloves with about a tablespoon of butter. After the tomatoes have softened, you put the whole thing in the food processor, add some lemon zest, pulse it a bit, add salt and pepper, and put it aside for later. Then you cook some onion and garlic. Throw in about 5 ounces spinach and a table spoon of water, cook until the spinach is wilted. Then, you chop the spinach and add in some more lemon zest. This becomes the filling for the roulades. Then you have about 10 ounces of cod or whatever whitefish. You cut up the fish in pieces and put it in the food processor with 2 egg whites and 1/2 cup of cream. You run the food processor until you have a smooth, mousse-like texture. Then you spread out some pieces of plastic wrap about a foot long, and spread the fish in a rectangle about 3x5 inches using a spatula. You spread the spinach mixture in the middle third. And using the plastic wrap to guide you, fold it tightly and twist the ends of the plastic wrap to make like a sausage looking package. You do this 4 times. Then with a steamer tray on top of boiling water you steam the roulades for 10 minutes. You take the roulades out, cut the plastic warp off, and cut them in slices. You spoon some of the tomato garlic sauce onto the plate, and place the roulades in the sauce. We served it with rice.

Scott really liked it. I would say what I enjoyed the most was the texture. The concept of putting the fish in a food processor with egg whites and cream makes it fluffier than you could imagine, incredibly light and airy. And although there is a bit of cream and some butter in the sauce, the roulades are steamed and so overall I would guess it's pretty healthy. I thought this was overall a really great dish - lemony spinach mixture with fluffy whitefish, topped in a garlicky tomato sauce. Elegant and delicious.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Sangria means a lot of things to a lot of different people. Blood? Red wine, sprite, and OJ? Could be......

Here's what I just made for a crowd of 10. There were leftovers, and it was quite a shindig.

1.5 higher quality box wine (I used Bota Box Malbec)
1 bottle Meyers dark rum
1.5 Gallons orange juice
0.5 Gallons pineapple juice
Several stems lemongrass, cleaned and trimmed
3 tsp cinnamon
1 root ginger, peeled and grated
juice from 3 plump limes
Chopped fruit-I used apples, pineapples, and oranges

Mix it up at least 6 hours before you plan to start your festivities.

Birthday at Bouchon

For my birthday last week, I happened to be at a conference in Las Vegas. So for dinner, we went to my favorite restaurant there, Bouchon. Bouchon is part of the empire of Thomas Keller, the chef (and useful cookbook author) whose flagship restaurants, Napa Valley's The French Laundry and New York City's Per Se, are perhaps the most lauded in the United States. Since they're also priced like it, I've never been to either. Unlike his 3-Michelin-star joints, Bouchon's menu isn't dominated by innovative concepts and idiosyncrasy. The idea is classic French bistro food prepared well. That's not an insult; classics are classics for a reason, and I love French bistro cooking. Bouchon is special because it brings Keller's attention to detail and top-quality ingredients in at a more accessible price point, and you won't complain that you've had a lot of what's on the menu before.

The meal started of with a bang. If you like cocktails, my tip is to order a Manhattan if the restaurant has a decent rye. Bouchon has Michter's -- very good, despite the departure from its Pennsylvania roots -- and while it's largely a lost art in the midst of a "generation lobotomized by vodka" the Manhattan was absolutely perfect. They also had some well-selected taps, and my friend enjoyed a Delirium Tremens, his (and my) favorite Belgian ale. Having had a stiff drink we thought a full bottle of wine from the excellent (if very pricey) wine list would be overkill, so we ordered a carafe of an a very good red Rhone from Beaumes-de-Venise. For the appetizers we split an excellent plate of homemade charcuterie with pickled vegetables and a salad with hearts of palm, cippolini onions, rhubarb, and rhubard gellee. I love hearts of palm, and the salad showed them off perfectly with the combination of tart and spice.

For our main courses, I went very simple, getting a roast chicken. As non-innovative as can be, but the beautifully prepared free-range chicken was easily the best I've ever had, and the accompaniment (forest mushrooms, fava beans, pea tendrils, pickled mustard seeds, and an au jus) provided flavorful accents. It was even better than the braised short ribs I had last time. My friend, who had already tried the chicken on a previous visit, tried the leg of lamb. The lamb was also exceptionally high quality and cooked precisely to the requested medium rare. I couldn't try the sides (spring peas, swiss chard subric, glazed trunips, and a garlic au jus) because of allergy issues, but my friend have a strong thumbs-up across the board. Especially interesting was the subric, a sort of julienned vegetable croquette I couldn't have because it was fried in peanut oil. For dessert, we were comped an order of profiteroles for my birthday. This isn't my favorite dessert -- obviously, my allergy limits my options -- but these were excellent, a substantial improvement over the mediocre creme caramel that was the only duff note in our previous visit. The homemade ice cream, in particular, was fantastic; if you aren't compelled by the other options I would recommend it as a stand-alone dessert.

The atmosphere is also a major plus. The well-spaced tables in a room tucked away in the second floor of the Venitian were comfortable. The service was as attentive and friendly as could be expected -- waters glasses were filled regularly, a napkin I dropped was replaced immediately, and there was none of the tacky upselling from servers that sometimes mars even good restaurants in Vegas (with Mario Batalli's otherwise very good Carne Vino being a particularly egregious offender.) The staff accommodated my allergy without complaint. The food might be more causal, but the service is three-star all the way.

Overall, this remains my favorite restaurant in the city that I've visited quite a bit, and indeed the second meal was better overall than the first. If you like classic bistro cooking or want to try Keller but don't have the capital or perseverance to get a Per Se reservation, I recommend that you try Bouchon.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Soup and the Single Girl

In some ways, food and music have a lot in common. Too many harsh notes can overwhelm more delicate notes. Timing matters in both as there can be an initial impression, the central substance, and then finally the lingering aftertaste. Also, food has a way of bringing one back to a moment in time or a circumstance or a whole other period of life the way a song does. It can transport you entirely, and sometimes the memory of a food can inform the experience so much that it is the memory one enjoys as much as the actual eating.

When I lived by myself in NYC for years between college and grad school, I went to museums, the opera, plays, read Russian novels and historical biographies that were over a thousand pages. I was a Midwestern suburban girl in a crazy city I didn't belong in, and looking back I don't now who I'd be without that experience. That studio apartment in Queens with barely any furniture (what there was I had gotten for free from the hallway of my building), was in some way one of the most important locations of my life. I became the independent, critical thinking adult I was meant to be there. One thing that apartment and that whole lifestyle didn't have was remarkable food, at least until I met Scott who showed me what a head of garlic looks like. Upon seeing this head of garlic I didn't know what to do with it, but what can I say is that the way to a girl's heart is through her stomach. What that apartment did have was Campbell's tomato soup. While I know now that tomato soup is probably insanely easy to make, and that canned foods can often times have high levels of sodium, at that time in my life I didn't know the first thing about cooking and I was a creature of habit.

Tonight I made a dill Havarti grilled cheese (which my former self probably couldn't have managed) and Campbell's tomato soup. There is nothing quite like it. Even now after I've been to Peter Luger, Balthazar, great little family owned restaurants with really fresh food, eaten at a restaurant on a farm where they grow the ingredients, made things that have taken days and required multiple shallots and several types of alcohol, mastered several different kinds of homemade bread, there is still nothing like something so simple that takes me back immediately.

It is remarkable that a food product has the power to remind me so much how far I have come in terms of my personal life, career and sense of community, and also to remind me of the girl who thirsted so much after knowledge, and loved difficult, enormous books, and who burned with curiosity about countless ideas so much that she would often times not sleep until she finished what she was reading. This is a girl who doesn't really have a prominent place in the 9 to 5 work world. And I can thank the delicious, tangy, simple Campbell's tomato soup for never letting me forget her, what she wanted from the world and from herself as a person. I can thank the soup for helping me notice what a huge contrast there is between now and then, and therefore making me appreciate that my house now has furniture, and that I actually know what to do with a head of garlic.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In Non-Capital Region Dining News

It's really sad to see that Convivo -- a wonderful Italian restaurant in Manhattan's Tudor City -- has closed. While not outrageously expensive by Manhattan standards, it was definitely special occasion dining for us -- but the couple of times we went the occasion was definitely special. Fortunately, none of our favorite restaurants here have suffered the same fate; I don't want to write a similar post again for a while.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Barnsider

For my birthday, we went to the Barnsider just off of Wolf Road. I wanted to have steak for my birthday, and they usually have a coupon in the paper where you get 50% on your birthday. It gets points for having an original vibe when you walk in, because it seems much more like a hunting lodge Gaston from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" would hang around in, rather than a place that is around the corner from Colonie Center and Fuddrucker's. It felt very cozy with their wood captain's style chairs and fireplaces. I started out with a glass of Malbec which was pretty good. Then we visited the salad bar which comes with every entree. It was a bit of a disappointment. It seemed like they only had iceberg lettuce, and maybe romaine, but not any of the healthier versions of darker greens like spinach or mesclun greens. A lot of the vegetables tasted like they were canned. Of course you could have as little of the salad bar that you wanted, but to say it is free with entree doesn't really count because I am sure what they mean by that is that it is already included in the price. So if you are already paying for it by ordering an entree, I might rather have just a small salad of balsamic vinaigrette and more nutrient rich greens, rather than the chance to make my salad out of a large variety of more substandard ingredients.

Then for appetizer we had Clams Casino. It was clams baked in the half shell with red and green peppers, onion, bacon, and bread crumbs. These were totally birthday dinner worthy. Then, I got the Beef Wellington. According to their menu it is "the standard of excellence". It was very good. "A seared center cut tenderloin topped with mushroom duxelle, wrapped in flaky puff pastry and roasted medium-rare to medium. Served with a roasted shallot and port wine demi-glace." We made Beef Wellington for Thanksgiving in 2009. It was the Cook's Illustrated recipe, and it took us four days. I love the combination of the juiciness of the meat and the crispiness of the puff pastry. The shallot and port wine demi-glace was really great too. I'm not exactly sure what Scott got, but I think it was the New York Strip Steak. I think he added sauteed mushrooms and onions, and also Bearnaise sauce. His was equally as good as mine. It's not as if it is the best steak you have ever tasted, but after discovering this I can't imagine going back to Outback again. They even pretty much listened to my "med rare" and his "rare" requests. We didn't get any dessert because I was stuffed, stuffed with birthday beef. For the price and the quality of the meat and seafood I would recommend it, even if the salad bar is surpassed by both the one at Ruby Tuesday's and at the Slingerlands Price Chopper.

UPDATE [by Scott] Ms. Garlic's recollection is correct. I had a strip loin steak with the onions and mushrooms. The only flaw is that it didn't have the kind of deep char you would get at a Peter Luger. But given the much lower price point, that's forgivable, and the steak was otherwise superb: very tender, well-seasoned, cooked perfectly to rare (which isn't always easy to find at a mid-priced steakhouse.) I also found the salad bar very underwhelming -- and I like salad bars -- but given that it comes with no additional charge you can live with it, because the steak is an excellent value.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

New World Bistro

The New World Bistro has quickly established itself as part of our regular rotation. We went with two more couples for dinner on Friday. We all ordered off the special Mardi Gras menu, which limits the use of this review somewhat -- evaluations of more regular menu items (I especially recommend the Egyptian sweetbreads) will have to wait. But everyone was satisfied with the meal, which featured the fresh ingredients and big flavors that characterize New World at its best.

We started with a round of drinks -- New World makes very good cocktails and has some interesting taps. Of particular interest is the fact that Chatham Brewing makes a special IPA for New World, which is superb.

We did the appetizers family-style. We had stuffed oysters three ways and a fried oyster cocktail for the table. No individual could try anything but everyone was pleased by the agreeably briny oysters inventively prepared. I regret not being able to try the oyster and artichoke soup; I may have to try to make that myself.

For the main course, three of us had a nicely spicy jambalya. As is often the case at New World, vegetables take a more central role: compared to the classic recipe, the New World version has less shrimp and sausage and added okra(more common in gumbo) as a replacement. To me, this is a good thing, although since okra is an acquired taste others' mileage may vary. Certainly, if this was a regular menu item it would go toward the top of my list. Another diner had a beautifully blackened catfish with (I believe) a remoulade sauce, for which he had very high praise. Another diner had the vegetarian version of the jambalaya with seitan. Finally, the only friend to order off the regular menu got the Vietnemese salad (based on noodles, greens and cabbage) with tofu added. Given my severe nut allergy I can't vouch for it, but she was impressed.
(Vietnamese Salad with Tofu)

(Jambalaya with Gulf Shrimp and Andouille)
(Blackened Catfish with Bearnaise sauce)

The atmosphere of the meal matched the quality of the food. Being a larger group allowed us to avoid the worst part of the New World experience (the number of cramped, tightly-spaced two-tops), and the always-friendly service was remarkably efficient for a packed Friday night house. We'll be back for a review of a more representative meal, but New World remains one of the best combinations of price and quality in the capital region.

Small Luxuries in Life

With my gift cards from my bridal shower I purchased a milk frother. I really underestimated how much I would really grow to love this item. I have consumed black coffee with nothing in it since I was 16 years old. My parents drink black coffee. My grandma drank black coffee. I worked at a coffee shop for years and never once put anything in the coffee. Somehow I thought this might be nice. You heat up some milk in a saucepan, pump the frother 20 times, and it takes ordinary to extraordinary in seconds. Put half coffee, half the frothed milk, top with cocoa powder or cinnamon, and it really starts to feel like a weekend. It makes the moment on a Sunday morning where you are hanging out reading the paper all that more enjoyable. And all for the reasonable rate of $30, I'd say being able to turn "I'm running out and really would just like to be woken up as fast as possible" into "Wow, life is pretty good and I am grateful to have this moment", it is totally worth it.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Dessert in the NY/MA/VT Tri-State Area

I'll start out by saying I'm not the biggest fan of dessert. Unless it's something that sounds really interesting that I have never had before or is key lime pie, I could pretty much take it or leave it. However, there are some exceptions to that rule.
  • Cheesecake Machismo I think that it is run by a husband and wife, and it has an adorable little location, astroturf and all. Everything we've ever had there has been amazing, though I recommend the Tiger Stripe and the Chocolate Chip Fasciana. You can get cheesecake from here and many Capital Region restaurants (Mangia, Cafe Capriccio, El Mariachi right next store), but you really need the whole experience complete with Hula girl figurines and kitschy posters. You can get a slice of cheesecake and a beverage for $5, and the slice is big enough to share.
  • Bettie's Cakes Nothing has increased the probability that we go to the movies at Colonie Center on a Friday night than this popping up in the food court. They get points for being nice about Scott's nut allergy. Plus they usually have some crazy flavor of the day like coconut cream pie cupcake, which I had that was a coconut cake, coconut frosting, and Bavarian creme filling. Although I may say that the cake is just so good, you probably could just go with the vanilla like Scott did.
  • The Apple Barn This is between Williamstown, MA and Bennington, VT on Route 7. Apple cider doughnuts, need I say more? Also fills all your VT made product needs like cheese and maple syrup. Mmmmm.
  • Indian Ladder Farms Also get your delicious apple cider doughnut fix closer to Albany, where we didn't know for a long time they actually serve lunch too. The lunch is also great with all local ingredients, and mulled cider to drink along with it. Whether it's eating half the bag of doughnuts or petting the cow, I don't know why but this place makes me genuinely happy.
  • Bread Euphoria This place is a bit of a hike from Albany, but Northampton often has interesting musical acts, and things going on at the museum at Smith. Again, I'm not the biggest dessert person, but at this place they really get flavors from natural ingredients and good techniques rather than just sugar. Freelance photographers we work with come from Northampton and bring us pastries from there once a month, and I am already starting to think about the fruit and nut scone I am going to consume Tuesday morning. Mmmmmmm, I think it has ginger in it or something, and flax seed. Who knows, it is amazing. My intern and I also stopped in there on a way to an art handling workshop in CT and they also serve pizza and croissants stuffed with things like spinach and ham and cheese. It's so good we were driving home, spotted it, and actually did a u-turn to go buy pastries.
  • J&S Watkins These are the people baking our wedding cake. Also they supply cakes to Peaches Cafe in Stuyvesant plaza. They gave us boxes of samples to try for the wedding, and for now red velvet with cream cheese frosting, and black satin and mocha filling seem like great ideas.
So there's some options, and if done of those seem suitable, well you can just go to New World Bistro and order an ice cream sandwich.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Poached Salmon with Herb Caper Vinaigrette

So my coworker walked in today and mention how her doctor was mad at her about her diet. She basically doesn't like seasonings, only likes ground beef and sugar, and eats whole bags of M&Ms and whole cartons of ice cream. I was sort of like "well what about oatmeal?" hates it. "chicken breast?" hates it. "seafood?" no way. I did agree to help her exercise at lunchtime. I watch her dogs for her and she has junk food in her house I didn't even know existed like Oreo sticks that come with a container of frosting to dip it in. In some way being at her house is very exciting to me since we don't have any of that stuff at our house. I usually get very sick to my stomach, and regret it all - Coldstone ice cream cakes, Pecan Pie flavored chocolates, frozen pepperoni pizzas and all the rest of it. I also watch about 12 hours of Bridezillas when I am there, so pretty much every aspect of it is totally unhealthy. So in my dear beloved coworker's honor with her cholesterol problem and all, I decided to make something really healthy for dinner.

First I made some bread. It is a Mark Bittman recipe from How To Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food. It's his quickest yeast bread. What I really love about this recipe is that you can get all the benefits of fresh bread (it's warm, it's steamy, it makes the house smell amazing, it's as fresh as possible) without the usual downside of it taking 4 hours. Sure, it does not have the really crusty crust or fully developed flavor as many other bread recipes, but I started it at 7:00 and it was ready to eat when we ate dinner at 8:30. If you have the freshness and the warmth, you don't totally notice what it's lacking, especially if you mix in some fresh herbs or olives and sprinkle some sea salt on top. Basically you just put flour, yeast, and salt in the food processor add warm water and a bit of olive oil, shape it either into a loaf or a round, let it rise covered as you preheat the oven. Then, you use a pizza peel to lower it onto a pizza stone, and in about 45 minutes you have delicious, steamy, homemade bread. It's really great to think that from scratch bread doesn't have to just be for weekends.

Then I made the poached salmon.
We love this recipe. It's from Cook's Illustrated. We've made it for Scott's parents in Brooklyn and in Canada. I made it for my mother when I went home for my future Matron of Honor's housewarming party. It's very healthy and very delicious. What you do is cut a lemon into 8 to 10 1/4 inch slices and arrange them in a skillet. You add some shallots. You chop up some tarragon and Italian parsley and and throw the stems in the skillet. You put in some dry white wine and water. You put the salmon on top of the lemon slices. You put it on high, get to a simmer, cover, put it on low and walk away for about 11-16 minutes. The lemon slices keep the bottom from getting overly done and the wine and the water make sure it's very moist at the end. You take the fish off the heat, tent it with foil, reduce the cooking liquid and then make a very delicious sauce with shallots, the chopped herbs, honey, capers, olive oil and salt and pepper. You drizzle the sauce over the salmon, and voila, with a nice green salad you have a totally delicious, totally healthy dinner that took barely over 20 minutes. I paired it with a white Alsace wine. It's crisp and slightly sweet to echo the flavor of the honey in the vinaigrette.
It is truly a bummer my coworker cannot appreciate things such as this that are good for your heart and also delicious. I wonder if it has to do with what you are fed when you are young. If all you eat is things that taste greasy, or sugary, the absence of that tastes bitter or weird perhaps, but if you open up your mind to new tastes and experiences, poached salmon with herb caper vinaigrette can be quite the delight.

Wine Bar on Lark St.

When we lived in NYC, we used to frequent a really intimate and comfortable wine bar in Astoria. I love the whole feel of wine bars, the relaxing ambiance, the sophistication that surrounds being able to try a variety of wines. So it was no surprise when we moved to Albany, that we were very excited to try the Wine Bar on Lark St. First off, let me discuss the setting. They have three fireplaces. Especially if you can't find parking and are braving the harsh winter, there is nothing more enjoyable than coming in to the all surrounding warmth of 3 fireplaces. It is like drinking wine under a down comforter. Fabulous. And then in the summer, they have a beautiful patio. It has fountains and greenery hanging from above. If you squint you could believe you were in France. Of course, the patio also has the scents of the kitchen hitting you in the face, which contrary to what you might expect don't always smell that good, but still, near perfect, beautiful setting.

They also have wine specials for $5 which I think are in effect all day Monday and before 7:00 other days. A lot of these are very delicious including a Chilean Cabernet, a  Loire Valley Vouvray, and a few other really tasty varieties. The real fun for me is being able to try a glass of many different varieties so that I might have an idea of what to buy when I get to the wine store. Their list is humongous and you could try something different every time you visit. The staff is also incredibly knowledgeable, and honest and will really let you know in advance what something tastes like. It always seems like the same people working there, and I love that they are unobtrusive and attentive at the same time. I have more than a few times tried something there, and went on to buy it in the store. So in that way enjoying their beautiful ambiance, friendly staff, and warm setting can also be educational.

I haven't eaten there that many times. I did have the seared chicken with papardelle, cream sauce and pine nuts that was really delicious. I have also had a few times the Tuna Nicoise salad and all of the ingredients seemed incredibly fresh. The marinated olives were amazing. I also tried a few times the quartro of dips which include hummus, a goat cheese/red pepper dip, and some kind of olive tapenade, and those are a great complement to your wine. One time we went and only ordered a sequence of small plates including specials like Jerk style short ribs and a goat cheese caramelized onion tart. We don't seem to go here especially for dinner, and I think part of that is you cannot make reservations. This is fine if it's spur of the moment, or you get there really early. I also understand why this is because at a wine bar you don't know how long parties will stay there, but it makes it less of a dinner destination for us. But the wine list is definitely great, and if you feel like something while you are there you will not be disappointed by the food.

One problem in addition to it not being possible to make reservations is the seating in the front of the wine bar. I have met people there a few times and ended up sitting in the very front next to the curtain where people enter. If part of the charm is the three fireplaces and the warmth of it, then why put people half outside? I say get rid of the seating and make people wait for open tables that don't get a gust of freezing air every time someone enters. It's not comfortable, and I'd not really the type who would ask to move, but come on, no one can think that is a great location. You might as well reopen the patio in the winter if you are going to have three tables right in the entry space.

Overall: I love it. This place is classy, casual, and comfortable all at the same time. If Albany didn't have a place like this I would be agitating for one. It really fills a niche for socializing in Albany that the more masculine Mahar's and the busy and loud Justin's don't fill (even if there are good things about those places too).

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Spaghetti With Lemon

Tonight's dinner is good weeknight meal: cheap, filling, tasty. The process is simple. Cook pasta in salted water as per directions. Just as it's al dente, reserve a cup or so of the cooking water. (This is the key step: it allows you to make the sauce with much less cream than the classic recipe.) Return the pot to medium heat (use another burner if you have an electric stove), sautee a shopped shallot (and, if you like, some fresh or frozen peas) in a tablespoon of olive oil. Stir in the reserved pasta water an a splash of cream or half and half (no more than 1/3 of a cup). Cook for 1-2 minutes, remove from heat, and stir in the zest and juice of 2-3 lemons, basil, and if you like a drizzle of olive oil, and stir to coat well. Serve with a little Parmesan or Romano, and a green salad with a vinaigrette. (All these portions assume a pound of pasta; if you're just a couple and don't want leftovers, reduce the portions accordingly.)

We accompanied the meal with a bottle of Elisabetta Geppetti Morellino di Scansano, a lovely Sangiovese blend available for less than 15 bucks at the invaluable All-Star.

Not bad for a weeknight! And plenty of leftovers too.

The Working Women's Guide to Breakfast

With as much joy we take in the planning and executing of dinners at our house, for me it is not the case with the weekday breakfast. Sure I really love steel cut oats on the weekend, and have been fatasizing for months about making this recipe from the Silver Spoon cookbook where you carve out tomatoes and roast them with olive oil and cook an egg inside the tomato, and snip some herbs on top at the end, but with weekdays it is so much more about finding the cheapest/healthiest/easiest way to not make my stomach noticeably growl during my 11am staff meeting. I get up at 6am, commute from Albany to the Berkshires, and am just lucky if I can get some combination of boots/tights/pencil skirt/sweater to look good together and have eyeliner in place, so forget about anything that takes any time or effort. I will mention that the best breakfast is leftover cold pizza (preferably from Lou-Bea's), but I know pizza is not an acceptable breakfast food and that is ridiculous.

So here are some options in order from least desirable to most desirable:

  • Special K cereal bars First off, the fact that the main selling point for something is that it is only 90 calories doesn't say much. You know why these "100 calorie packs" are 100 calories? Because it's two Oreos. I once spent an hour trying to open a "50 calorie" pack of prunes to find that it literally had one prune in it. I spent more calories opening the thing. No thanks. Also none of the flavors were that good. I never tried the chocolate, because the only time I think I'd have chocolate for breakfast would be the day after Valentine's day and I have a huge heart-shaped box at my desk and can't help myself. The vanilla, blueberry, strawberry are ok. Just ok. One good thing about them is that you can leave them in your purse and they never actually break (although if you think about that isn't a selling point either). Overall, not tasty, doesn't fill you up, by the time you get to work you forgot you ate anything for breakfast. What's the point, eat a celery stick. 
  • Special K shakes Since we are getting married in 3 and a half months and I want to make sure I don't gain weight and can fit in my dress, I had these for a few months. The magic thing about them is that they really fill you up. You have one of these you are not hungry the entire day all for 180 calories. Are they tasty? No, but chilled you can get through it. Are they cheap? No, $7 for 4 seems like a lot. Do you actually lose weight? Maybe a little but go back to real food, and you'll go to the same weight you were. Also, try them for a while and you will dread them, and do anything for real food. Also, I had such skin problems when I was consuming these. I don't usually do, but no matter how much I scrubbed my skin I broke out. Stopped drinking them and problem solved. Overall, definitely puts off the feeling of hunger for hours on end, but destroys your skin, are expensive, and after a while are just disgusting. You grow to dread them.
  • Nutri-grain bars. Complete mediocrity. Not bad, not tasty, not expensive, not unhealthy. This is what I am having for breakfast now. Not impressed, not repulsed. 
  • Rock Hill Bakehouse bread. It is sold at most Capital Region Hannafords and some Price Choppers. Full flavor inside, with a real crust. Sourdough is my personal favorite.
  • Bella Napoli Bread. They have locations in Latham and Troy. By far, my favorite bakery in the area so far. Fluffy, crusty, delicious. Give me a hunk of their bread for breakfast any day!