Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Italian Store Sandwich

I enjoy a good sandwich. But they're not always easy to come by. Don't get me wrong, Seattle certainly has a few "not to be missed" establishments, including Mario Batalli's father's meat shop, Salumi. Here you can get a sandwich carefully layered with hand-cured artisan salami, house-made mozzarella and fresh figs - simple, good ingredients without a lot of bells and whistles. There's also the newish Baguette Box which offers gourmet sandwiches on good baguette. And it's impossible to talk sandwich shop without mentioning Paseo Caribbean Restaurant's famous juicy grilled pork sandwich with caramelized onions. Certainly the best of its kind.

But sometimes I miss sinking my teeth into one of those loaded New York s
tyle Italian subs. Oddly enough, one of the reasons I was so looking forward to the Duck Dinner in Arlington, Virginia was to get one of those glorious sandwiches at The Italian Store.

Me admitting this is my way of eating crow. You see, most New Yorkers have a chip on their shoulders when it comes to finding decent pizza or bagels outside of state lines. I refused to listen to Tristan when he said that Arlington, Virginia had a
little shop in a 1970's-era strip mall with killer Italian subs. Boy, was I wrong.

The Italian Store does it right. From the chewy crust hard roll to the medley of
Italian meats and cheeses to the shredded lettuce, hot peppers and just the right amount of olive oil and vinegar. Not only did we gorge ourselves on Napolis while we were there, we took a couple of them on the plane back to Seattle, too. As delicious as they were, our last bites were hard to swallow since they were accompanied by the realization that we had to wait at least another 6 months before our next fix...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The 35th Annual Duck Dinner

Last weekend I had the distinct honor of attending my 2nd duck dinner. And let me tell you, there's nothing like it.

The tradition
began in 1974 in upstate NY when a University of Buffalo PhD student rescued a handful of baby ducks from an imprint study. Having escaped their destiny in a fiery furnace, they were given a home in the basement of a student house. Before long, the fluffy chicks turned into smelly, messy, somewhat crappy pets. The decision was eventually made to slaughter some of the birds, just in time for a birthday celebration (ironically, the birthday belonged to their liberator).

That first duck dinner was the beginning of a long-standing tradit
ion. Every year since, those present 35 years ago in Buffalo, reunite, along with their family and friends, to celebrate the duck.

This year's menu was ste



Pâté from an Ithaca, New York farmers' market spread on Melba toast rounds with a dollop of fig preserves

Grilled baby artichokes with caper mint sauce

Mussels with Greek yogurt, capers and mint

Soup Course

Thai Three Melon Soup

Pasta Course

Roast turbot with asparagus veloute over tagliatelle

Palate Cleansing Course

Concord grape and rosemary sorbet

Main Course

Duck breasts with endive tarts

Salad Course

Salade Composee with ginger dressing

Dessert Course

Pavlova with lavender cream and berries
Double chocolate goodness

With expanded waistlines and loosened belts, the celebration ended the same way it always has: with a long walk.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Ruth Reichl's Last Meal

I can't believe it. I met Ruth Reichl. Knowing what an immense Ruth Reichl fan I am, my amazing friend Minh-Hai pulled all sorts of connection strings to get me a spot at a Seattle food blogging event with the diva herself on Friday. On a nationwide book tour, she made time to talk to a roomful of devout foodies about her newest book, "Not Becoming My Mother."

Finding out who her mother really was and what the book's title actually meant was a fascinating conversation. But I was most excited about the Q&A afterward. She answered queries ranging from Gourmet's advertizing practices to her relationship with her son to her thoughts on food bloggers replacing restaurant critics. I wanted to ask her a question she'd probably gotten a thousand times but, to me, is always intriguing. The segment was ending and I knew I had to act quickly. As my hand shot up, I felt a slow burn spread across my cheeks: "If you knew that today would be your last meal, what would you eat?"

I was right, she'd gotten that question before. But interestingly enough, she's never given the same response. Since her hypothetical last day would be in Seattle, she would take advantage of what the Pacific Northwest has to offer. It would look like this:

Clam sushi
A grilled T-bone steak
A Pile of asparagus with really good Balsamic
Sea urchin (she couldn't bear the thought of never having it again)
Finished with the perfect peach

After Q&A, the food bloggers mingled, sipped wine and nibbled delicious tapas from Olivar. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ruth getting ready to slip out. Despite being wedged into a back corner and blocked by 40 people, I shot up, almost toppled a table and made a mad dash for the door. When I reached her, I breathlessly blurted, "I'm sorry to be pushy but I'm from New York, too. Could I get a picture?" She laughed and the rest is history.

Olivar Hosts Ruth Reichl

That's right, the queen herself was in town. On a nationwide tour promoting her new book, "Not Becoming My Mother," Ruth Reichl made time in her busy schedule to chat with a small food blogging network this past Friday. The event took place at Olivar, a quaint Spanish-themed restaurant in Capitol Hill's beautiful Loveless building.

Drinks were furnished by Michaela's Vineyard, located at Vin du Lac Winery in Chelan, Washington. The bubbly rosé and full-bodied Cab were juicy and delicious, but my favorite was the Dry Riesling. Served in a martini glass with skewered grapes. The tart white was a refreshing reprieve from the hot afternoon sun.

After reading many favorable reviews, Chef Thomelin's Spanish creations did not disappoint. There
were meatballs with tomato confit, Tortilla Español with caramelized onions, crab salad-filled cucumber boats and fried sardine canapés. The dessert tray offered two alluring options. The crème brûleé with cherries was divine but I wish I'd made room for a taste of the chocolate mousse with caramelized chorizo and hazelnuts.

The restaurant was cozy and quaint. Olivar's walls glow with murals depicting Pushkin's 19th-century tale of feuding sisters, giving the space a sort of storybook feel. Quite fitting, really, since we were there to hear about Ruth's newest book about her mother's life. Wonderful wine, tasty food, an enchanting atmosphere and an inspirational speaker - it was a perfect Friday afternoon.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Pancake Batter in a Can

I didn't plan on blogging about this, but I can't resist. Did you know that they now sell pancake batter in a SPRAY CAN? And it's organic! I was walking through the store minding my own business when it popped up on my radar. I took a classic double-take, then stood there and stared with my jaw on the floor. Have we really come to this? Is it officially too difficult to mix a few simple ingredients together and scoop the batter onto a griddle? Or is our new breakfast mantra "Point, blast and cook?"

First spray cheese, now this. I can only imagine what's next.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Crispy Fried Brown Rice with Lentils

The other day I pulled two lovely links of basil garlic chicken sausage out of the freezer to defrost - they were to accompany a purple potato dish I was making for the first time. Unfortunately, my plans fell through. I was terribly busy that day and didn't return to the kitchen until 9pm that night, too tired to cook, much less find the energy to chew and digest a sausage. I decided they would be the centerpiece of tomorrow's dinner.

As for sides, I was thinking rice. It would have to be something hardy that could stand up to a brawny sausage. Then I remembered a Peruvian dish I saw in Gourmet calling for white rice, brown lentils and a regional chili paste, all pan fried to create crispy bits throughout. So I took the idea and ran. This brown rice version is chewy, nutty and ended up being the perfect complement to a meaty sausage.

Crispy Fried Brown Rice with Lentils
Inspired by a Peruvian rice and lentils dish published in Gourmet's May 2009 issue, this nuttier version has subtler flavors, making it a wonderful accompaniment to chicken, pork or beef.

1 cup brown rice
2 cups water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup dried brown lentils
1 tablespoon butter
1 white onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch dried sage
High heat vegetable oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Freshly chopped parsley or chives for garnish

Bring brown rice, water and 1/4 teaspoon salt to a boil in a medium saucepan. Cook, covered, over low heat until all water has been absorbed, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. (If you're in a hurry, spread rice in a thin layer on a baking sheet to cool quickly).

Meanwhile, place lentils in a medium saucepan and cover with water, about 5 cups. Bring to a boil, then simmer, uncovered, until lentils are just tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and let cool slightly.

In a large, heavy skillet over medium heat, melt butter. Add onion, garlic and sage and saute until onion is softened and translucent, about 4 minutes. Add rice and lentils. Fry, adding vegetable oil as needed, until crust starts to form. Stir rice mixture and flatten slightly; allow underside to brown again. Continue this process until bits of crust are dispersed throughout, about 15 minutes total. Season with salt and pepper; garnish with freshly chopped herbs.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Strawberry Rhubarb Compote

My mom should be in the running for the title of "Best Pie Baker in the U.S. of A." I'm not kidding. I've eaten homemade slices all over this country and nary a one has held a candle to Mom's pastry perfection. I know, I know. Lots of people think their moms' pies are the best but this is for reals. I've seen complete strangers look up in utter disbelief after taking a bite. The secret is in her impossibly flaky crust, plus her fillings are never too sweet. And her famous apple pie is always served still slightly warm. Living on opposite coasts proves especially difficult this time of year - I'm talking about rhubarb season. Her garden fresh strawberry rhubarb pie is heavenly while her single crust rhubarb custard pie is down right celestial. Try as I may, I'll never attain such a level of baking greatness. Thank God for compote.

Strawberry rhubarb compote is one of the easiest, most delectable desserts imaginable. I've started adding both lemon zest and juice to mine, which imparts a refreshing depth of flavor. As opposed to gently spooning compote over ice cream, I prefer a bowl full of warm sauce with a dollop of vanilla bean ice cream in the middle, just for contrast.

I may not be turning out nationally acclaimed pies, but this compote certainly holds its own.

Strawberry Rhubarb Compote
The combination of tart rhubarb, sweet strawberries and refreshing lemon create a compote with flavorful depth. Eat alone, with ice cream or over chicken.

4 stalks rhubarb, washed and trimmed
1 lb strawberries, washed and hulled
5 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice

With a sharp paring knife, strip and discard the outer fibrous layer of the rhubarb stalks. Cut the stalks into 1/2-inch pieces and place in a medium sized saucepan.

Cut strawberries into quarters and add to rhubarb. Sprinkle with sugar and lemon zest. Being careful to av
oid seeds, squeeze lemon juice over fruit. Toss well.

Over medium-high heat, bring fruit to a simmer, stirring often to dissolve the sugar (the rhubarb will release a lot of liquid). Continue cooking until rhubarb is soft and the liquid has reduced a bit, about 8 minutes. Let cool slightly and serve warm with ice cream.

Collard Green Puree

When I was living in Winterthur, Switzerland, my favorite street vendor was a man by the name of Hansueli. He was tall and trim with a long mane of thick curly hair. His impeccable language skills indicated that he was well traveled, as did his earthy garments. He operated a very popular crêpe stand: vegetarian, all organic, both sweet and savory. No matter the time of year, there was always a long line of eager customers. I loved the chana masala crêpe with mango pickle relish but my absolute favorite was the spinach and cheese for seven francs. It consisted of velvety smooth, pureed spinach with a sprinkling of fresh mozzarella encased in a papery-thin, warm crêpe. He folded it just so and I honored that by eating it with absolute precision.

From time to time I crave that smooth spinach. It was so much more convenient in Switzerland - Rahm Spinat was sold in a bag full of individually frozen squares, making it a snap to heat up a little or a lot.
I’ve tried making it from scratch but never to the same effect… until last night.

I was pan frying halibut and thought it would look stunning atop a mound of pureed greens. Two fresh bunches of collard greens sat in my fridge so I thought, why not? A quick dip in boiling water, a sauté of onion and garlic in a hot skillet and a spin in the blender was almost all it took to create a puree that would make Hansueli proud.

* By the way, the leftovers made an incredibly tasty breakfast: a toasted crumpet spread with warm collard green puree topped with a poached egg. It doesn’t get much better than that!

Pureed Collard Greens

This makes a wonderful side dish, crêpe filling or base for a
poached egg. It can also be made with spinach, kale or chard.

2 bunches collard greens, cleaned and stripped from stems

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

3-4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon flour

Milk or stock
Pinch of nutmeg

Salt to taste

Cover the bottom of a large pot with 2 inches water; heat until boiling. Add collard green leaves and simmer, stirring occasionally, until tender and bright green, about 5 minutes. Drain, coarsely chop and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, heat butter and olive oil over medium heat until melted. Add onion and garlic; sauté until translucent and soft. Sprinkle with flour and cook, stirring constantly, 2 more minutes. Remove from heat.

In a blender, pulse onion mixture and a third of the greens. Drizzle milk through the top as needed. Continue this process until all greens have been pureed and desired consistency has been reached.

Transfer back to saucepan and heat over medium-low. Add a pinch of nutmeg and salt to taste.