Thursday, June 28, 2012

My Favorite Summer Cocktail

With summer's arrival and the characteristic heat and humidity it brings along with it, my beverage choices make a pretty drastic transition... sauvignon blanc over cabernet, lighter fruit flavors in lieu of warmer, spicier ones and vodka and gin instead of whiskey based cocktails.  I wanted to share a recipe for a my personal favorite summer cocktail that really celebrates seasonal, fresh-from-the-garden flavors.  To begin, you'll need to start about a week in advance of actually assembling and enjoying your beverage.

First, take ten ripe grape tomatoes and slit each one gently with the tip of a paring knife.  Place in a mason jar and cover with a premium vodka [I prefer Ketel One, however you can use whichever brand you happen to prefer].  Place the jar on a window and allow it to steep for a week.

[insert time lapse of one week]

Now that all the components of your cocktail have been prepared, it's time to assemble your drink.  Ideally I prefer to use "perfect" ice cubes (made with double boiled, distilled water to prevent air bubbles and give you a clearer cube) - start with 2-3 in a low ball glass.

In a Boston cocktail shaker, muddle three slices of peel cucumber, one lime wedge and one sprig of torn basil leaves.  Don't glaze over this step if you really want to imbibe your cocktail with flavor.  You want to make sure your extracting all of the liquids from the cucumber and the oils from the lime zest.  Once muddled, add 1.5 oz of Hendricks Gin, .5 oz of the tomato infused vodka and .5 oz of Thatchers Organic Cucumber Liqueur.  Add an additional 3-4 ice cubes and shake your cocktail vigorously for 30 seconds to create a creamy white froth.  Pour into your low ball glass.

Finally, top it off with a high quality tonic.  I'm a fan of Stirrings or Fentiman's, however you really need to try out a few to figure out which brings the notes you prefer.  While Stirrings is a big more floral undertone, the Fentiman's is a bit more lemony.

Sip slowly through a straw and allow the fresh tastes of summer to overcome you!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

An ode to one of my favorite Chefs

I would like to take a moment and celebrate a Chef who's work has truly inspired me and really demonstrates that a true culinary professional doesn't need Michelin stars or molecular gastronomy (or even a restaurant) to produce amazing food.  George Tremblay is someone who I truly see as a testament to this.

I know I've written a few times now about Tastings Wine Bar & Bistro in Foxboro, Mass, but during James' birthday celebration dinner, there were a few highlights I'd love to showcase.  As per usual, we put the menu into the capable hands of their culinary professionals [in this case, George] and opted for the "5-course Chef's Tasting" which began with a tender, slightly acidic escargot salad on a bed of arugula.

This was followed by one of my personal favorite courses... a house made duck sausage with crispy shallots served a top a vibrant beet puree.  The slight fattiness of the sausage, paired with earthiness in the puree created this amazingly unctuous mouthfeel and also paired exceptionally well with the 2005 Caldwell Rocket Science Cabernet Sauvignon.

As our third course, we were brought one of the most beautifully prepared pieces of fluke I've ever eaten.  When it comes to seafood, I'm an advocate of simple preparation and a focus on balance of extreme flavors - which this dish demonstrated beautifully.  

For our fourth course, which was decidedly my favorite (and not only because it was served in a skillet... I do love skillets), was a tender, perfectly seasoned play on "corned beef hash" prepared with a braise short rib, horseradish aioli and a silky egg yolk.  Well cooked short rib may very well be one of the quickest paths to my heart...

While it was James' birthday, dessert may have been a bit more geared to my taste - duck liver mousse filled beignets, confetti birthday cake with foie gras icing and bacon ice cream.  Initially, you may be cringing... as did James... however, I would like to preface your preconceptions with the thought that none of our dessert flavors even remotely resembled organ meats.  The foie gras and duck liver mousse really just contributed a textural component to create a creaminess that you typically would never experience in a traditional butter cream icing or pastry cream filling.  

Unfortunately for us, this was our final Chef's Tasting dinner prepared by George... he's left to pursue other culinary adventures with Roxy's Grilled Cheese.  My initial response was a bit of shock... upscale farm to table dining to a food truck seemed like an interesting transition but being that I'm a culinary stalker, I wanted to see what the hype was about and I stand by my opening statement.  You do not need a restaurant to produce amazing food.  

We are actually talking about the best grilled cheese I may have ever had... and as someone who considers herself a try connoisseur of the grilled cheese... that's no small statement.  On our most recent venture to Roxy's, we opted for a "Green Munster" [munster, guacamole and bacon], a "C.L.B.T." [confit chicken, arugula, tomato, Vermont cheddar, bacon and truck-made ranch dressing] and the most flavor-packed rosemary truffle fries you can imagine.  

I consider making the perfect grilled cheese an art, one which Roxy's has perfected.  Although we will truly miss George's culinary innovations during our special occasion dinners [and henceforth have begun the search for a new go-to restaurant], I get it... and wish him nothing but the best of luck in his new endeavor.  

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Grapefruit and Kaffir Lime? Yes, Please... just hold the Cat Pee

I wanted to take a moment to share one of the most delicious wines I've tasted in some time with you all.  I'm a huge fan of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs... acidic, citrusy, slightly grassy... but sometimes they have these unpleasant tinges of asparagus or well, cat pee.  Yes, cat pee is an acceptable wine term and is often used as a descriptor in defining the aroma of my favorite summer varietal.  Since my first sommelier course, I've managed to wrap my brain around adjectives such as barnyard, pencil shavings and wet cardboard to describe the bouquet of my wine, however cat pee still alludes me.

In the world of New Zealand SB, you have your major players... Cloudy Bay (the undisputed benchmark), Kim Crawford, Serasin, Saint Clair, Whitehaven, Matua, and I can go on and on.  Each as their strengths and numerous aspects which make them quite delectable paired with a crisp garden salad on a hot day, however they all share that afore mentioned back note that I'd rather not continue to discuss.

But alas, I've discovered a small batch producer out of Marlborough, the heart of SB country, that has managed to capture everything that is incredible about New Zealand SB's without any of the characteristics that aren't.  Astrolabe Wines has extracted a bright, balanced, complex wine with strong notes of grapefruit, gooseberry, lemongrass and kaffir lime.  Although their "Voyage" SB isn't the easiest  to come by, it's completely worth the search.  Also, at under $20 a bottle [retail], it's an exceptional value.  If you happen to be in the New Hampshire area, check out the Copper Door in Bedford for a bottle.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Comfort food, elevated

Today, I wanted something warm, comforting and familiar, but still packed with interesting flavors.  While I openly admit that this isn't my most well presented dish, it was certainly delicious and hit on all the notes I was looking for in my lunch.  I started with 1/4 cup of Bob's Red Mill Grits prepared in 1 cup of boiling water with a pinch each of salt, pepper and herbs de provence and 1 teaspoon of truffle oil.  Make sure you season your water before it comes to a boil, otherwise your grits won't pick of the flavor.  Sauté 2 cloves of roasted garlic and 2 tablespoons of minced fresh shallots in 1 tablespoon of olive oil (I used an organic butter infused olive oil from the Boston Olive Oil Company and it worked beautifully) until they're caramelized.  Add them to your grits and continue stirring.  In the pan you used to cook your garlic and shallots, add one large egg, cooked to your liking.  

I'm going to segway for a moment to the importance of cooking with good eggs.  If you can, always use local eggs.  The fresher they are, the fluffier the whites and the bigger and more unctuous the yolks will be.  There are plenty of places on your grocery list to save, splurge on good eggs.  

I prefer an over easy egg over my grits, that way the warm liquid yolk pours over the creamy grits and creates an amazingly silk texture.  Just before your egg is done cooking, crisp a slice of pancetta or capicola in the pan to create a salty chip.  Layer it in your bowl and top with your crisp and chopped scallions.  

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Outside the Box Cooking

If you’re seeking an easy summer dinner option that’s minimal effort, satisfying and uses whatever you happen to have sitting around your fridge or pantry, consider the grilled flatbread. 

Having worked in professional kitchens most of my career, I’ve been spoiled with ovens that will peak to over 700 degrees when developing the perfect, crispy thin crust.  Unfortunately, my home oven (as is the case with 90% of residential ovens on the market) tops out around 500.  Enter a culinary epiphany… the BBQ grill.  Given the appropriate amount of time to preheat, mine peaks out around 650 degrees… not quite a commercial brick oven, but still a significant improvement over my other option. 

Now that we’ve dealt with the issue of how to cook your flatbreads, let’s tackle the more obvious issues of components.  You have to start with a good foundation.   This means your dough.  If you have the time, by all means, make your own dough from scratch.  I’m including my favorite dough recipe at the bottom of his post to give you a basic idea but ultimately, it comes down to personal preferences (I love a crispy thin, neapolitan style crust as compared to a yeasty, traditional crust).  Using a bread maker is also a great option to help with timing issues (think, set it and forget it) and most come with recipes that work well for that particular model.  If you need to use a premade, store bought dough, it may take some trial and error to find one that’s to your taste.  I’m a fan of Trader Joe’s Multigrain and Portland Pie Company’s Garlic dough. 

You’ll want to stretch out your flatbread into approximately 6x10” ovals, that way you can fit 3 comfortably on a standard grill top.  Lightly brush both sides with olive oil (or spray with a misto) and grill for about 2 minutes on each side to give your crust some structure.  You don’t want to cook it completely, but just get a good base going so your dough wont absorb any moisture from your toppings and will stay crispy. 

When topping your flatbreads, the sky is really the limit.  It really just boils down to what you like in your flavor profiles.  Personally, a good balance of sweet and savory usually does the trick for me.  Really, you can just utilize whatever is in your fridge that you’re looking to use up.  Some of my favorite combinations are a traditional margherita with quick roasted tomatoes (slice them up and toss in a non-stick skillet with olive oil, sea salt, pepper and basil), buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil chiffonade and the “fig and pig” made with fig butter, sliced Turkish figs, prosciutto, pancetta and shaved parmesan.   Again, it really boils down to whatever suits your tastes and your kitchen inventory.  

Thin Crust Pizza Dough

  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon pure olive oil, 2 additional teaspoons reserved
  • 3/4 cup warm water
  • 2 cups bread flour
  • 1 teaspoon fast rise yeast
- Place the sugar, salt, olive oil, water, 1 cup of flour, yeast, and remaining cup of flour into the work bowl of your stand mixer
- Tear off a small pieces of dough and stretch into a flat surface.  Hold it up to a light source, if the dough is transparent, it's ready - if it tears, kneed for an additional 5-10 minutes.  (To give credit where credit it due, thank you to the brilliant Alton Brown for this technique). 
- Roll dough into a ball, coat with remaining olive oil, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 18-24 hours before using.

- Using the paddle attachment, start the mixer on low and mix until the dough just comes together, forming a ball. 
- Attach the hook to the mixer and knead for 15 minutes on medium speed.

Long Time, No Blog aka Hidden Gems of the Grey Lady: 2012 Edition

So first and foremost, I need to apologize for the string of “backlog blogging” you’re about to encounter.  Life ran away again and as a result, my poor little blog was among the first to suffer.  New career, new house, new dog… oddly all of which I have found to be quite time consuming.  That being said, I’m back with a plethora of culinary inspiration and amazing finds that I’m elated to share. 

So to continue last year’s mini series “Hidden Gems of The Grey Lady,” I would like to add a 2012 installment… American Seasons.  While on the island, we of course visited all of our favorite mainstays: Corazon del Mar, The Straight Wharf Fish Store, Petticoat Row Bakery and Ambrosia, but I made it a particular point this year to find someplace new as to keep the series going strong with new annual additions.  Unfortunately, this was a solo culinary adventure as James was at a business dinner and I was left to my own devices. 

American Seasons is a quaint little gem tucked in the back residential streets of the historic district.  At first glance, one could easily miss the rose and ivy covered, single story building.  The restaurant is currently celebrating it’s 25th year of operation and it’s easy to see why they’ve had such a fantastic run so far. 

The Executive Chef and Owner, Michael LaScola, is a true culinary innovator who takes familiar and comforting flavors, but finds new and creative ways to deliver them to his guests… be it lesser known cuts of meat, unique cooking techniques or unexplored combinations.   Having read several reviews of Chef LaScola’s work prior to my visit to Nantucket, I was definitely excited to be able to try his creations first-hand. 

My evening began as I approached the bar, being a solo diner, I never like to take up a table that could be used for a larger party (the restaurant manager in me prevails once again).  Unfortunately, the bar was already filled with a larger group waiting to be seated and despite my insistence that I didn’t mind waiting, the manager very graciously sat me at a comfortable corner banquette in the bar area.  Adding to the excellent service level, was my server Brittany who was both attentive and knowledgeable through my meal. 

I began with a basil and grapefruit infused martini which sung with bright, intense but not overpowering summer flavors.  Immediately following it’s delivery, I was visited by a steward offering my  a choice of bread from the evening’s selections: a herbed focaccia or pretzel baguette, of which I selected the latter which was fresh, warm and made the perfect salty accompaniment to my first round of dishes. 

The restaurant offers a “small plates” menu along with their traditional dinner selections, many of which are smaller portions of their appetizers and entrees.  This gave me the opportunity to sample five of their dishes, even though I was dining alone and still maintain a reasonable dinner bill. 

My meal started with a carrot bisque topped with a cream cheese flan and puffed quinoa which boasted a silky, balanced creaminess with the sharp crisp of the grain.  The sweetness was definitely present but not cloying and truly celebrated the seasonal flavor of the vegetable.  Following was a cheese course of locally crafted burrata with fresh apricots and pistachios.  The light, creamy texture truly complimented the saltiness in the pretzel baguette and played well off the apricots to once again, put forth a truly balanced dish without any one flavor overpowering another.  Next, my meal progressed to a terrine of foie gras and rabbit soaked in Italian grappa.  The meat blended together to form an unctuous, rich harmony and my only regret was ordering the small plate as opposed to the full appetizer portion.  Following was a cast iron crock of the smoothest, creamiest white corn grits I’ve ever eaten topped with a green onion gravy and chopped scallions.  Texturally, this dish could easily turn a non-grit lover into a believer.  I do have to note that they were ineptly called “grits”.  Finally, I rounded out my meal with a culinary epiphany that I’m almost angry it took me over 30 years of existence to discover… Crispy Pigs Ear Fries.  These delicious, thinly sliced, crunchy strips of bacon-y goodness came cleverly presented in a paper cone, lightly dusted with chili powder and served with lime wedges.  Being a self-professed bacon aficionado, these truly are a pork-lovers dream.  Paired with a glass of slightly smoky, ripe, juicy Educated Guess Pinot Noir from Napa Valley, it played well into what I’m dubbing the them of my meal… balance. 

Unfortunately, I did not save room for dessert, although their seasonally derived offerings all sounded spectacular. 

If you have the opportunity to visit Nantucket, the is truly a must visit location for any foodie looking for a unique culinary experience in a relaxed, yet refined ambiance.