Sunday, October 21, 2012

Take that S. Truett Cathay!

I think it's wrong to tease people.  I've never been a fan of dangling a carrot in front of someone, knowing that they're never going to be able to reach it.  Frankly, it's just plain rude.  Much like Chick Fil A advertising during Sunday football games.  I get it, your a company that embraces Christian values and wants to give your employees Sundays off as "family" time.  Heck, I even respect it (despite the fact that the only time I really crave your food is on Sunday), but if you're going to be closed, don't air your commercials during halftime on Sunday afternoon.  It just isn't nice.

Fast forward through several weeks of torment to this Sunday.  I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands and with a little research, managed to pretty closely replicate the amazing wondrousness that is the Chick Fil A chicken nugget in my own kitchen.  Yes, you read right, you too can make your own knock off Chick Fil A with just a little help from my recipe.

Start by cutting 1 lb. of chicken breast (or tenders) to bite size chunks (about 1 inch square).  Put them into a ziplock bag with 2 cups of pickle juice and roll out as much of the air as possible .  Yes, pickle juice.  This brines the chicken and keeps it moist during the cooking process.  It's best if you can let this sit for around 12 hours.

Drain off the pickle juice and add 3/4 cup milk and 1 egg to the bag.  Combine well to coat all the pieces of chicken.  Again, squeeze the air out and let this sit for about 3 hours.

In a mixing bowl, combine 2 cups all purpose whole wheat flour, 3 tablespoons powdered sugar, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1 teaspoon white pepper, and 1 tablespoon granulated garlic.  Mix well and set aside.  This is going to be the breading for your nuggets.

In a small saucepan, bring 2 cups of peanut oil to around 350 degrees fahrenheit.  Ideally, you'll want to use a candy thermometer to monitor the temp of the oil as your cooking.  If your oil gets too hot, it'll start to smoke, if it gets too cold, you'll end up with oily chicken.

Taking about 4 pieces of chicken at a time, coat them thoroughly with the flour mixture and place them in the oil.  Don't try to cook too many pieces at once or you'll drop your oil temp too quickly.  Each batch takes about 6-8 minutes - cook until golden brown (I use a meat thermometer to check random pieces periodically and make sure they're cooked to 165 degrees).

I made two dipping sauces to accompany them - a healthy buffalo ranch and a knock off Chick Fil A sauce.

To create the ranch, combine 1/4 cup plain nonfat Greek yogurt with 2 tablespoons lowfat milk, 1 tablespoon Penzey's Buttermilk Ranch seasoning mix, 1 teaspoon toasted minced onion, salt, pepper and tabasco sauce to taste.  If you eat the entire batch, you're looking at about 70 calories - no too bad compared to Hidden Valley.

The Chick Fil A sauce is a combination of 3 tablespoons BBQ sauce, 1 tablespoon dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon light mayonaise, 1 tablespoon honey and salt and pepper to taste.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Plan B (no, not the morning after pill)

So one of the great perks of my job is that I get to learn about all these new restaurant concepts that I wouldn't otherwise be exposed to.  One of which, being the Hartford, CT based company Locals 8 - owners of Tisane, The Half Door and Plan B Burger Bar (I still can't help but wonder if they thought about the dual meaning of the name).  With Plan B being their flagship brand (six locations to one each of the other two), the company has recognized and capitalized on the up and coming upscale burger trend.

Taking our nation's economic status into account, the restaurant industry has seen a lot of changes in the past two years.  Guests still want great food - that tends not to change no matter how bad their financial state - what changes is where they go to look for it.  While high end steakhouses and fine dining may be seeing a hit, the causal sector of the industry is actually experiencing a surge.  That being said, Locals 8 truly has recognized this opportunity and has developed a growing brand around it.

The atmosphere is relaxed, causal and accessible for nearly any patron.  Jeans are the standard dress code - for staff and management - which leads to the almost rustic, hipster vibe.  The bar in the West Hartford location has a fantastic backdrop wall decked out with bottles of small batch bourbons and craft beers.  It's an atypical display approach for a backbar, but it works (and well).

Since we were en route to a party (with food) when we stopped by Plan B, James and I decided to split the pretzel burger.  I thought it was pretty cool that when you split an entree, for nominal $2 up charge, you can each pick your own side item (their list of sides is pretty insane).  Rather than taking meat temps, they break it down to "some pink" or "no pink" and being that I typically order my beef to the point where a good vet could resuscitate my dinner, we opted for "some pink."  Despite being what I would have typically viewed as an overcooked burger, it was surprisingly juicy.  They actually use a technique they call "loose packing" which does lead to a slightly more crumbly consistency but also keeps you from feeling egregiously full.  The pretzel bread was fantastic - I'm a sucker for good pretzel bread.  

The fancy fries (which are really just shoestring fries but as our server explained, we're in America, not France) were quite tasty... think of a McDonald's style fry that actually came from a potato.  James opted for onion rings and both of our sides came in a quite generous portion.  

If you're a bourbon drinker, their selection is truly unmatched anywhere I've ever been.  They carry all the standards, but also offer a great list of small batch and specialty selections that are truly worth a try.  You can select your pour (just a sip or 2 fingers) which means you could design your own bourbon flight.  Who doesn't love a progressive bourbon tasting?  They also use proper whiskey tulip glasses which really do make a difference in maximizing the aromas (yes glassware really does make a difference but that's a whole blog post unto itself).

If you happen to be in the West Hartford, Simsbury, Glastonbury, Milford, Stamford or Springfield area, Plan B is definitely worth a visit.  

A Preview of This Weekend's Menu

So we're hosting what we hope to make an annual tradition in our Autumn Cocktail Party this weekend and I just wanted to share a preview of the menu (recipes and photos to come).

Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon 
Baked Brie with Roasted Almonds & Red Wine Poached Pears
Fig & Ricotta Crostinis
Rosemary & Thyme Roasted Nuts
Curried Pumpkin Seeds
Pumpkin Cheesecake Dip
Baked Apple Cider Donuts 
Pumpkin Pie Macaroons
Mini Squash Pies
Maple Kettle Corn 

Yes, I have a habit of going overboard when it comes to entertaining - it's in my nature.  Regardless, I can assure you that the food and libations will be fabulous.  I'm excited to share them in more detail at the end of the weekend.  

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Can You Bake a Cake in Under 2 Minutes?

I know they're now all the rage, but I've been making mug cakes since I was in college.  I think my mother found the recipe in a Betty Crocker magazine and when the only cooking device you have at your disposal is a microwave, you learn to be resourceful.  Mug cake was a great way to make a tasty dessert quickly, with no perishable ingredients (think back to your college days, how hard was it to keep milk in that mini fridge without it expiring?).  I mean, who would argue with a warm, fluffy sponge cake that weighs in under 130 calories per serving?

In an air tight container, combine one box of angel food cake mix with one box of red velvet (you can substitute the red velvet for any flavor you like... devil's food is also quite tasty).  Combine the mixes well so they're incorporated into one another.

To make the cake, combine 3 tablespoons of cake mix with 2 tablespoons of water in a small coffee mug, stir well and microwave for 1 minute.  That's it.  What you get is a freshly "baked," light cake with a spongey texture.  I find it quite satisfying as a dessert without being overly filling.  You could also drizzle a tablespoon of Hershey's Lite Chocolate Syrup over the top and allow it to soak in for a denser texture.

The First Annual Pumpkin Beer-Off

If you're a reader of my blog, it's really no secret that I'm a huge fan of fall and the flavors that come along with it.  One of the most excited moments each year is walking into the supermarket and seeing that stack of cases of Shipyard Pumpkinhead for the first time that signals the upcoming onslaught of pumpkin beers.  This year, we decided to pit ten of these fantastic libations against one another in order to conclude once and for all - the official pumpkin beer of the Gallant/Feuti household (the puppies were not given in put with regard to the decision, Max is awkward enough without alcohol and Mia has a history of walking sideways into furniture after a few sips).

The first contender: Sam Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale.  Honestly, it was a lot like a Sam Octoberfest with slight aftertaste of pumpkin puree.  It's a good "one beer"option but honestly, I couldn't drink several of them back to back.  The hops were well balanced but it had quite a bit of body to it.  When mixed into a Pumpkin Pie Cocktail (pumpkin beer with a shot of Pinnacle Whipped Cream Vodka and a cinnamon rim), it actually became incredibly easy drinking - and potentially quite dangerous.

Beer #2: Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale.  The initial nose of the beer is very aggressive with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and ginger.  On the palate, it's definitely heavy on the hops and light on the pumpkin.  It's not what I would traditionally expect from a pumpkin beer and is a bit closer in flavor profile to an IPA.  That being said, it didn't translate well at all into cocktail form and at that point, all semblance of discernible pumpkin flavor went flat.

Next up, we have Shocktop Pumpkin.  I'm actually a huge fan of traditional Shocktop, but their pumpkin brew was easily my least favorite beer tasted.  It was flat, dull and watery with no complexity at all.  Yes, I got notes of pumpkin but I also would like notes of beer along with it.  When combined into a cocktail, we may as well have added club soda to the Pinnacle Whipped because that's about what the Shocktop added.  Needless to say, we were not fans.

Contender #4 kind of snuck in under the radar.  Harpoon Pumpkin Cider isn't really a beer at all but it was a refreshing little gem that I thought was at least noteworthy of some comments.  The nose is lightly spicy layered with a bright crispness.  Think of how the spiced apples that you'd put in a pie smell before you cook them and you'll have a pretty clear idea.  The palate has a feint back note of pumpkin behind the strong apple flavors but it's easily discernible.  We opted not to try this one as a cocktail because well, adding vodka to cider just sounds like the hangover-from-hell waiting to happen and I'm just not down with that.

Beer #5: our first real contender for the house pumpkin beer!  Cisco Brewery's Pumple Drumkin Spiced Ale (yes, I also love saying the name but that's besides the point).  On the initial nose, there's a strong evidence of a richly spiced pumpkin pie that followed through to the palate.  This is what I'm looking for when I order a pumpkin beer.  (I want it to taste like pumpkin, crazy, I know).  When combined into the Pumpkin Pie Cocktail, it married incredibly well to give the illusion of drinking a slice of pie topped with vanilla bean ice cream.  If you haven't tried it yet, this brew comes highly recommended.

Beer #6: St. Ambrose Pumpkin.  Most accurately described as a full bodied Shipyard.  Slightly less pumpkin-y but still evident in the flavor profile.  The hops and malt show a really great balance with a tinge of cinnamon on both the nose and the palate.  This was one of my favorite combinations with the Pinnacle Whipped as it stood up to the creamy sweetness without being overpowered.

Beer #7: Dogfish Head Punkin Ale.  Like every other Dogfish head brew, it's spicy, bold, hoppy and aggressive with the malt.  The beer punches you in the face with pumpkin, cinnamon and clove with a back finish of bold hops.  It's definitely a beer drinkers pumpkin ale, but a good one nonetheless.  Consider yourself forewarned - this is not a beer for the faint at heart looking for a casual pumpkin beverage.  It combines okay with the Pinnacle Whipped but the beer really was too aggressive to play nicely with any other ingredients.

Beer #8: Harpoon UFO Pumpkin was the personal favorite of both James and myself.  It's a lighter, wheat-based beer that pairs incredibly well with the pumpkin and the spices to give a balanced, pumpkin-pie like drinking experience without being overly heavy.  It also makes a great cocktail with the Whipped Vodka taking on that pumpkin pie a la mode quality.

Beer #9: Southern Brewers Pumpking was an aggressively pumpkin-y, full bodied, yet easily drinkable brew that really played well into the preconception of what I would want my pumpkin beer to be.  Downside, it only comes in a large format bottle which I'm not a huge fan of because I hate getting to the end of a beer and having it be warm and flat.  It played well with the Pinnacle Whipped as well and may have been my personal favorite in cocktail form.

Beer #10: The original pumpkin... Shipyard Pumpkinhead.  I'll always have a soft spot for this brew, no matter what else I come across.  Shipyard was making pumpkin beer way before it was the "it" thing and they've had it right for quite a while now.  The beer has distinct notes of pumpkin with a subtle spice undertone - nothing like the aggressive pumpkin pie spices we've encountered in some of the other brews.  It has a unique way of brining a great pumpkin pie quality without being overly sweet.  When mixed into the cocktail, it married incredibly well without either flavor overpower one another.

So if you're looking for brief summary, here are my overall rankings:
Harpoon UFO Pumpkin
Cisco Brewery - Pumple Drumkin Spiced Ale
Shipyard Pumpkinhead
Southern Brewers Pumpking
Dogfish Head Punkin Ale
St. Ambrose Pumpkin
Sam Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale
Harpoon Pumpkin Cider
Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale
Shocktop Pumpkin

James' thoughts varied a bit at the top of the list, but we're generally in the same ballpark:
Harpoon UFO Pumpkin
Shipyard Pumpkinhead
St. Ambrose Pumpkin
Southern Brewers Pumpking
Dogfish Head Punkin Ale
Cisco Brewery - Pumple Drumkin Spiced Ale
Sam Adam Harvest Pumpkin Ale
Harpoon Pumpkin Cider
Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale
Shocktop Pumpkin

Happy drinking!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Cheesy Garlic Sweet Potatoes

Typically when I make sweet potatoes, I lean towards cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar as my general flavor profile, but tonight I was in the mood for something a bit more savory.  Rather than using  standard [orange] sweet potatoes, I opted for red skinned, white sweet potatoes.  The consistency is a bit starchier and holds up well against roasting.  

Start by taking a cookie sheet (I recommend one with sides rather than a flat one) and drizzle 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of melted butter across the surface.  Add 2 tablespoons of minced garlic and swirl into the butter and oil with the back of a spoon.  Sprinkle sea salt, freshly cracked black pepper and paprika across the top and grate 2 oz of parmesan (use fresh parmesan, not the stuff you buy in the pasta aisle - (1) that's not cheese, (2) it's gross and (3) it won't melt to form a delicious crust on your potatoes.  

Peel and slice your potatoes about 1/2 inch thick and arrange across the cookie sheet.  Sprinkle the tops with salt, pepper and paprika to evenly season both sides.  

Bake for 45-55 minutes at 400 degress or until lightly browned.  By cooking them upside down rather than just sprinkling cheese on top, you create a golden crust that adds a great texture to your potato.  You could also use fingerlings or russet potatoes if sweet potatoes aren't your thing.  They make a fantastic side dish to our incredible Kobe steak sandwiches.  

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Take That Swiss Miss!

I'm a huge fan of hot chocolate.  I don't mean those chalky packets that you mix with hot water with those tiny dehydrated marshmallows, I mean REAL hot chocolate.  It's taken some time to perfect our house recipe (and variations depending on mood) but I think overall, we've achieved a rich, creamy cup that satisfies a chocolate craving without being overly sweet.

The first consideration to make is what chocolate to use.  I'm a fan of Taza Mexican-style chocolate.  It's got a slightly grainy texture in sold form, which actually is what makes it melt evenly and a perfect drinking chocolate.  They make a variety of flavors (my personal favorite is salt and pepper) giving lots of options.  Also, it's made in Somerville, Mass which means I get to feel good about supporting local industry.  They also offer tours of the chocolate production facility, which include tastings.

Start by heating 2 1/2 cups of 1% or 2% milk on a low simmer.  You don't want to bring the milk to a boil or scald it.  Once it starts to steam slightly, add 2 tablespoons of DaVinci syrup.  I'm a fan of the sugar free cookie dough flavor but you have some options here.  This will add a touch of sweetness but still allow the bitterness of the chocolate to come through.  You can add more to taste if you like a sweeter cup.

Next add 3 tablespoons of unsweetened dutch processed cocoa.  Gently whisk into the mixture until you've worked out any lumps.  Break one disk of the chocolate (1/2 package) into wedges and melt into the milk.  Continue to whisk as the chocolate melts to ensure an even, creamy texture.  I also like to scrape the bottom of my saucepan with a rubber spatula to make sure all of the chocolate is incorporated.

Pour into 2 mugs and enjoy your warm, decadent creation.  If you'e looking for variations, adding 2 tablespoons of salted caramel creates a nice balance, as does 2 tablespoons of strained muddled raspberries.  With the cold weather approaching, at least you'll have a warm comfort to look forward to.