Saturday, October 08, 2011

Notable Eats

It's been a while since I've posted. it's not altogether accidental. I made a conscious decision to take a little break from all this craziness for fear of being lumped in with the  other food bloggers in Orlando (and there are SO MANY all of a sudden). It's not that they're not fab, because many of them are, it's more to do with the fact that writing about food is my profession, not a hobby, and I wanted to avoid the label of "hobbyist."
That being said, during my absence, I have eaten some amazing things. On a recent trip to Louisville (who knew it was such an inspiring place for food!) I found more than a few haunts I'll keep dreaming about for the next few months. Here are a few I particularly remember:
Mayan Cafe-My coworkers and I wandered into this NuLu (new Louisville, cleverly) gem on happy accident. Don't you dare miss the guac. It's the best I've ever had and I, admittedly, am not  always a fan of guac. The chef is from the Riviera Maya and has quite a command of the popular spices and permutations of the quintessential Mexican plates we're all familiar with. Loved the tuna ceviche and the beef tamale.
Please & Thank You- Holy baked goods. Favorites included a super-chewy chocolate chunk cookie and by far the gooeyest, fudgeyest brownie I've ever experienced. Go for the Thai iced coffee sweetened with God's gift to coffee...sweetened condensed milk.
Jack Fry's- This place has been around since the 1920s. It was super-packed but cozy and intimate at the same time. The cuisine is New American and quite fashion forward for a 90 year old resto. We loved the goat cheese stuffed dates in smoked tomato sauce and the shrimp and grits. So sinfully cheesy and earthy. They make a bang-up Mint Julep, too, with Old Forester bourbon.
We did have one diappointment on our trip to what was supposedly the hippest joint in town. The real telling fact is that I don't even remember the name of the restaurant! (Trust me, this has nothing to do with how many glasses of wine were imbibed.) It's one thing to forget a dish. It's another altogether to forget the entire restaurant altogether. I do remember that the dining area was in the bottom floor of the swank 21c boutique hotel. Also, the hotel bar has several obviously-enhanced photos of various men's junk. I felt sorry for the girl awkwardly sipping her Cosmo under that dangling, foot-long scrotum. There's no accounting for taste, but I can confidently state that this place is trying too hard to be hott.
And that never works.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Art moment: Abandoned Stadium Food

This is what happens after a 90 minute soccer game.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

FroYo Claims a Victim

Remember Coldstone Creamery? The Moe's of the ice cream world - 1,500 calories stuffed into a single serving? Faux-healthy versions of decadence like "Sinless Sweet Cream" made with Splenda? Sigh.

My favorite Coldstone memory? Being the rebel in my dorm and ordering Irish Cream and Cappuccino flavors in my ultra-Mormon college town where coffee is grounds for damnation. Pun intended.

Coldstone is the place for newly-single, newly-broken-hearted gals and their friends to eat themselves sick, for kids to learn what it is to consume more calories in one sitting than they should all week, and where plenty of first dates find true Love It.

Soon-to-be Italian Village. Hopefully they can get the guilt out of the walls.
And then came the froyo franchises. The actually healthy frozen treat with dairy- and sugar-free options that don't taste like chemicals and self-loathing. Unfortunately for this Coldstone on 17-92, Yogurtland settled in next door and Menchies moved in across the street in Winter Park Village.

Death knell for the Gotta Have It crowd. Cue Taps.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Eating Well, Thriving in a New Way

Well, I thought I would take the time I had off from working (read: I actually did work, just not in an office, which made it feel way more like fun than it should have been) to blog more, but it just didn't happen.

I was too busy starting my own business (The Gourmet Girl), a home-delivery gourmet dinner service, working freelance as a writer and editor (thanks Orlando Weekly and Tupperware for keeping me sane and busy) as well as taking some time out to really decide what I want in life. Sometimes, the pure act of stopping everything can make the world around you suddenly very clear.

I loved my time off. I had time to cook like crazy, make things I wished I'd had time for while I had a full-time gig, and got together with friends I hadn't seen in a while. If you have the chance to take a leave of absence (or if you get fired, hate your job and quit, or get laid off), ENJOY it for the ride. File for unemployment, do odd jobs for friends and take the time to really get to know yourself again.

Here's what I found out about myself:
1. I love pasta more than almost anything else that's edible in the world. On my worst days, a bowl of pasta (not a plate, mind you, a bowl) can make me feel like everything is right with the world.

2. I drink more when I'm employed than when I'm unemployed. I'm pretty sure this has to do with stress. I thought I would spend my days drinking away at the pool, but I didn't. I was AMAZINGLY productive and sober.

3. Sometimes unfortunate things (like finding out your new job just isn't right for you) have to happen for you to realize your full potential and do things you've always wanted to.

I loved my time off, but I'm happy to get back into the swing of things as editor of a national baby magazine. I'm sure I'll be back to blogging and eating and travelling soon. We're planning an anniversary trip (possibly to St. Croix, possibly to Kansas City) and there are other great things on the horizon. I hope you'll be there with us.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Funky Monkey's Funeral Food

My girlfriend, The Sushi Snob, and I went to the opening of the Funky Monkey wine store "Vault" this Friday night, opening just down the street from the original Funky Monkey Wine Company on Mills and Marks St.

Let me tell you something about Funky Monkey: they've grown immensely in a small amount of time. I've eaten at both restaurants, Funky Monkey Wine Company (FMWC) and Bananas: A Modern American Diner (a.k.a. the place with the $100 brunch and the Sunday morning drag queens).

FMWC had a nice vibe and mediocre, overpriced food (to be honest, I don't even remember what I ordered).

Bananas had great food and a really uncomfortable atmosphere. Not because of the drag queens. I LOVE drag queens, even though they want nothing to do with me because I'm a straight white girl. The actual building and restaurant is designed horribly and accommodates the most amount of people in the smallest space possible. Which sounds like a good thing if you're a restaurant owner, not if you're eating.

Anyway, the big story is that the kids at Funky Monkey are opening two new restaurants in the very near future: Nick's Italian Kitchen and Prickly Pear. So, in the time it usually takes a good restaurant to get on its feet, Funky Monkey is going to have five restaurants and a wine store. Kind of a lot, yes? If you were these guys, you'd probably let a few things slip, too.
Inside the Vault. I kind of thought there would be more people.

They let this opportunity slip.

The opening of the Vault was a PRIME opportunity for Funky Monkey to promote their new restaurants with tasting portions of new dishes, appetizers and desserts for the new restaurants. I was hoping for that. Nick's has been promoting itself as a "non-traditional" Italian restaurant, but I wanted to see it before I forked out for it. I wanted to see what kind of American Southwest fare Prickly Pear was going to be shelling out. At the very least, I wanted to meet the chefs.

Nothing doing. Look at this ridiculousness. Horrible fried green beans. Cucumber with smoked salmon and masago. Meatballs drenched in sauce. Unrecognizable fritterlike blobs. Devilled eggs.

Yes, I said it. DEVILLED EGGS.

Not that there's anything wrong with devilled eggs...they're just not what you would expect from a company ready to launch two new dining "hot spots," y'know?

Maybe Chili's catered?

Just because you put masago roe on it doesn't make it fancy.

I have no idea what these were. They didn't look worth the calories.

Yes, I'm serious.
Funeral food. Hopefully, this event wasn't the funeral for Funky Monkey's overzealous franchise.

Let the hate comments begin!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Eating the Buzz - Marea, NYC

 About a year ago, the new chef on the street was Michael White and his baby was an Italian spot in the posh Columbus Circle/Central Park corner. It's name: Marea.

We'd had reservations to eat there the last time we went to the City, but, feeling more sustainable and Greenwich Village, forfeited our reservation to eat at Dan Barber's Blue Hill instead. This time, we made it a point to go for it and save up for the $91, four-course prix fixe fare. What a meal. No wonder it's a James Beard finalist this year.

The dining room at Marea.
The four-course menu includes one of the three starter selections (either crudo (sashimi-style sliced fish with accoutrements), antipasto, or a selection of delicate oysters with garnish). The diner then chooses either a pasta or risotto for the second course, a fish dish or meat for third course and a dessert or cheese.

For the prime location and the fine dining experience, $91 is a fair price for an above-average dinner.

I started with an antipasto of poached yellowtail with yogurt, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, dried bell peppers and hamachi roe. I'd never considered fish with yogurt before, but the marriage was sweet and successful, matching the buttery fish with the tang of the yogurt and earthy mushrooms.

Poached yellowtail with cucumber, yogurt, mushrooms and red pepper.
Cliff ordered the grilled octopus antipasti, a hearty cut of the cephalopod, cooked perfectly at the thicker ends, but charred slightly at the tips. I don't fault them - this is a hard piece of meat to cook, especially to grill.

Grilled octopus antipasto.
I like to order things at restaurants like Marea that I've either seen used but never eaten or that I would never ordinarily order anywhere else. The smoked oyster risotto I requested as my second course typified this approach. Though I'd never eaten smoked oysters before, they'll soon become a staple in the pantry. Their brine met the smoke ideally and the risotto had the perfect amount of bite to be considered al dente.

Shaved with a perfect dusting of bottarga all over, this risotto was some of the best I've ever had. I wish I could taste it again...maybe that's a good project for this week. But where to find bottarga in this town?

Smoked oyster risotto with guanciale and bottarga.
My Cliff ordered a tagliatelle with tarragon-laden sauce and lobster coral, dressed with chunks of lobster tail and claw meat. It was a memorable way to serve the crustacean, which is too-often dunked in butter or other indelicate dressings. The tarragon and roe accentuated the sweetness of the meat with a wonderful hand-made pasta as its vehicle.

Tagliatelle with lobster, tarragon and coral.
The entree was a salt-baked branzino (sea bass), tender, meaty and flaky, with ramps and fava beans. It really was spring on a plate, all at once fragrant and verdant, a beautiful composition. Also, I'd never had ramps before, a member of the onion family similar to the scallion, native to the South. Ironic that, though I live in the South, I had to go to New York to taste these little beauties.

Branzino with ramps, eggplant, fava beans and apricot mostarda.
Cliff ordered grilled cuttlefish (he was really feeling the grilled cephalopods that night) with braised escarole (a bitter green similar to a cross between romaine and frisee), wonderfully balanced with livorno sauce (similar to puttanesca), studded with caperberries and olives.

Grilled cuttlefish with livornese sauce, braised escarole.
We finished, as we are wont to do, with dessert. My white chocolate mousse was topped with grapefruit sorbetto and basil gelee. I love the balance between the sweetness of the chocolate and the bitterness of the grapefruit matched with the herbaceousness of the basil. It was an inspired and very beautiful creation.
White chocolate honey mousse, basil gelee, grapefruit sorbetto.

I can't wait to eat at Marea again. I'd actually not mind naming my first-born daughter after the restuarant. Maybe that would be an appropriate honor to this approachable and highly-regarded Central Park East restaurant.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Corn Fritters from Keller's BBQ are So Sweet

The great thing about starting a new job is that there's a TON of new restaurants to try. Well, hello, East Orlando. I'd almost forgotten how delicious you are.

Welcome to my new favorite crave. The sweet corn fritters at Keller's BBQ on University and Goldenrod Road in Orlando are oh, so sweet.
These little fritters just scream, "EAT ME! EAT ME NOW!"
And then you do. And it's magical.

The nuggets are crispy fried and creamy corn on the inside, dipped in honey and dusted with powdered sugar - the love child of NOLA beignets and New England hush puppies with a Bible belt twist. I'm loving them so hard right now.

The place was packed for lunch, so it's got a great following already. Show's how much I get out to East Orlando these days.

Oh, and the sliced pork sandwich I had was stellar. You should go. Like, right now.

Keller's BBQ, 7756 University Blvd., St. 104, Winter Park, Florida 32792. 407-388-1222 

Monday, April 04, 2011

Cake Pops Gone Corporate

I'm not sure when this happened, but Starbucks has finally jumped on the mini-dessert wagon, leaving their 490 calorie Iced Lemon Pound Cake crying in its 23 grams of fat.

Now, Starbucks has three varieties of cake pops (the dessert that took the food world by storm in 2009) in (from left to right) Rocky Road, Tiramisu, and Birthday Cake, as well as red velvet whoopie pies (the state dessert of Maine, filled with marshmallow/lard fluff), some mini cupcakes and salted caramel "sweet bars."

Not sure what that means.

I have to admit, I'm pretty stoked about the idea of ordering an additional something sweet with my sugar-sopped Triple Iced Skim No-Whip Raspberry Mocha that won't cost me my lunch's worth of calories. Way to get with it, Sbux.

Jimmy Hula's Fish Tacos: Not Yet Well Seasoned

Don't eat these. Seriously.
The gas money to Cocoa is worth it.
They've only been open three weeks, but Jimmy Hula's Fish Tacos, Burgers and Beer had enough buzz around it that I thought it would a be a remedy for my fish taco hankering.

My Cliff and I usually head out to Cocoa Beach at times like these when the breeze blows at a few knots and all we really want is a Landshark Lager. The Sand Bar has our favorite versions of the San Diego Treat - all at once crispy, creamy with a jacked-up flavor.

I, at least, was disappointed. For $30, I expected much more from the four different mahi tacos offered. The Epic taco is a complete misnomer, crowded with over-mayonaissed coleslaw. The crispy fish on the Malibu taco sagged with sogginess (as any fried thing would when topped with watery pico de gallo and sour cream). The only bright spot in the meal was the Big Island taco with baby spinach, mandarin oranges (canned) and fresh mango salsa.

Don't expect redemption from the chips, either. They smelled and tasted like they'd been fried in the same oil the place used when it opened three weeks ago. No salsa to dip with either - Jimmy Hula's charges $1.99 for a 2-oz. cup of bland guac (I'm not sure how they pulled that one off) or the same for a microscopic portion of that same pico de gallo that soddened their "crispy" mahi.

The most glaring error, the most unfortunate, was that EVERYTHING (I meant to use the CAPS) was completely undersalted from the off-putting coleslaw to the fish itself. Kitchen at Jimmy Hula's: there is a salt shaker on the table. I used it. I shouldn't have had to.

$30 was a heavy price for three lackluster tacos, some stale chips and not a beer to be seen. I hope Jimmy Hula's gets their act together soon, or Winter Park peoples will be wishing for the Saikyo Sushi back.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Big Wheel Provisions Food Truck at College Park Farmers Market

Photo courtesy of Orlando Weekly
Tony Adams and Tim Lovero, chef/owners of Big Wheel Provisions have been toying with the idea of opening a food truck for a while, and his dreams have finally rumbled up to the corner of Washington and Orange Ave in downtown Orlando in the afternoons as of yesterday.

Bringing his local, farm-raised fare to the streets, Tony joins the arepas truck, the crepe guy, Aaron Santiago and his vegan hot dogs, Korean Taco Box and the cupcake truck as Orlando gains momentum in the food truck scene. Of course everywhere else food trucks are already passe - but hey, that's O-town.

I couldn't make it to the press preview, but Food & Drink editor of Orlando Weekly Jessica Bryce Young did. Read her comments on the Salivation Army blog here.  Here's the menu for 3/17 from Big Wheel's website.

Tony, Tim and their truck will be outside the College Park Farmer's Market in the Infusion Tea parking lot tonight starting at 5pm, so come by and get dinner. On the menu is a fabulous-sounding reuben with corned beef and caraway-brined sauerkraut. I know what I'll be having for dinner.

Follow the Big Wheel Provisions food truck on Twitter for menus and location updates: @BigWheelTruck

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The New Cupcake

Photo courtesy of SteamyKitchen
I called it - pie is the new cupcake. You thought cake pops were cute; have you seen these adorable pie pops?

I can't wait to make them this summer with fresh blueberries and blackberries from the U-pick place next to my parents' house in Webster, Florida.

Orlando got its first cupcake place, Bluebird Bake Shop on Corrine Dr. last year, and I'm just waiting for the pie truck from Cheap Tart Bakery in Chicago  rolls into town. Can you imagine pie on a stick not just for the county fair or Key West anymore? I'm loving the idea. Men love pie anyway, and men, as we all know, are the untapped foodie marketplace. Once there's a buffalo wing truck parked on Orange Ave, Orlando will have arrived.

For now, pass the pie.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

James Beard Awards Finalists: Florida

It's James Beard Foundation Awards season again, and the semi-finalists for the Restaurants and Chefs category were announced this week.

It's the Oscars of the food world, so as many film buffs tend to hold marathons to watch the films nominated for Best Picture, I'm going to attempt to eat at all the Florida-nominated restaurants for Best Chef - South before the awards ceremony and gala on May 9 in New York, which I'm not invited to, but will be someday...someday.

I would love to eat at all of the JBF-nominated restaurants before the ceremony, but there's over 100 of them across the country, so I don't think that's possible. Since I'm a Floridian, I'll stick to my relative backyard.

And the nominees are:

1. Zach Bell, Café Boulud, Palm Beach, FL
2. Scott Hunnel, Victoria & Albert’s, Lake Buena Vista, FL
3. Philip Krajeck, Fish Out of Water at WaterColor Inn & Resort, Santa
Rosa Beach, FL
4. Dean James Max, 3030 Ocean at Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa,
Fort Lauderdale, FL
5. James and Julie Petrakis, The Ravenous Pig, Winter Park, FL (congrats, guys!)
6. Hari Pulapaka, Cress, DeLand, FL
7. Philippe Ruiz, Palme d’Or at the Biltmore, Coral Gables, FL

We're going to start this weekend with Cress, since DeLand is right over the bridge over Lake Jessup outside of Orlando. I'll blog about each one as we eat through the nominees. The finalists are going to be released soon, so if any of these drop off the list, I'll drop them off mine.

Stay tuned for all the fun!

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Good Eating in Key West

Picture blog time! It's been about a month since I was in Key West, and I've finally had time to "digest" my time there. I ate some wonderful food and some seriously disappointing food, too. Here we go. I'll describe as we go along.

As part of the Flavors of Key West dinner, we chose a prix fixe menu at Banana Cafe, a French resto on Duval St. The dinner was lovely; I've heard the breakfast is superb. The actual food was, unfortunately, really saucy. I've heard it said many times that "a good sauce covers many sins." If that's the case, the Banana Cafe  must be going straight to hell.

The amuse bouche (below), a cherry tomato stuffed with crab remoulade and a hollowed-out potato filled with soft cheese and topped with caviar was the only thing in the six  courses not doused in overwhelming sauciness.

The peice de resistance of the dinner was a duck preparation (below), a "two-ways" including a confit and a seared (skinless, unfortunately) breast.

As you can see, there's a serious pool of mango demi-glace on the bottom of the plate. That's just too much. The leek fondue (at the bottom of the pile) was the best part. It's just too bad that sauce was there, so the delicate flavor of the leeks were completely overshadowed.

My housemate, KC Culver, a super-talented poet and lecturer at University of Miami (she's going to be famous one day), suggested we visit the new burrito place owned by the executive chef at Nine One Five, one of Key West's "best" restaurants. I can't vouch for this because I haven't eaten there, but plan to next time around.

 For all it is, a seriously badass burrito place, Badboy Burrito is seriously good.  Choose your meat or veggie filling, your toppings, (yes, you can choose Kobe beef as your meat), a salsa choice and a beverage and you have yourself the perfect after-beach meal. This is an awesome place. It might rival Robburrito's in Melbourne. I wish I'd had more time to eat there twice.
 My burrito: juicy pork carnitas, tomatillo salsa and all the toppings I could stand, including some fiery roasted jalapenos. Each burrito is served with fresh tortilla chips and pico de gallo. I can't wait to go back.
Well, hello, Salvador Dali. I didn't know you liked post-modern, surrealist burritos.

 El Siboney was a favorite among the KWLS (Key West Literary Summit) attendees. The classic Cuban restaurant doesn't shy from loading up your plate with fried things, rice and amazing beans. I chose the Pescado Entero Frito (whole fried fish, in this case it was a small yellowtail), which was scored and crispy delicious. If you have a problem with your food staring at you when you eat, you might want to get over it before you order this.

 Key West still has a lot of that Cuban flare left in it, and the best Cuban sandwich in town can be had at 5  Brothers (with, as I found on my way back, two locations: one in Key West, and one just outside Marathon). I ate here at least three times, which is a serious compliment for the place. It's cash only, but there's plenty of ATMs on the island. As you can see, it's at the corner of Grinnell and Southard.

This is my medianoche sandwich, cinnamon bun and fantastic cafe con leche. If you've never had real cafe con leche with steamed milk and espresso, you haven't lived. When I left Key West, this was the first thing I started to crave almost immediately.
This little red hen really wanted my sandwich. Really.
 In the middle of the two sessions of the KWLS, I had a workshop with fabulous author and thoughtful, kind author, Paulette Bates Alden. Her book, Crossing the Moon is as beautiful a memoir as I can think of. I was so lucky to have been able to work with her. On the way to the workshop, I found a fantastic (and I do mean fantastic) bakery: Old Town Bakery, on the corner of Grinnell and Eaton.

Almond croissant made in-house. So crispy, buttery, fluffy inside, filled with marzipan. Truly delicious.

Laminated doughs rock so much, and Old Town Bakery does them right. This sticky bun was unbelievably delicious. 
 I'd eaten at Blue Heaven before with moderate results, but my housemates wanted to give it a try, so I thought it deserved a second chance. I was really unhappy with my experience again. I won't be back. For starters, we were a large party of young girls. This means, to a restaurant, that we'll probably only order appetizers and water.
It's really a shame this restaurant sucks so bad. It's really pretty.
 They sat us directly next to both the extremely loud air conditioner, the clanging of plates that could be heard through the kitchen door, and next to the ugly waitstand. Seriously? I was really, really mad. All three of my seating location pet peeves in one?

My food (below) was equally disappointing. I have no idea what the chef was thinking when he put this one together. A seared tuna "steak" with TONS of gristle (seriously, look at how badly cut that is!) on top of a very strange leek risotto, next to some canned tuna abomination with another strange, indecipherable sauce, some over-blanched asparagus and....cornbread. If you need an example of a dish that is completely disjointed and uncomposed, this is is. What a total, overpriced disappointment. I was really unhappy to hand over $50 to this place. Don't go here.

Weirdest dish EVER.

This is Doug, the owner, who refused to answer my question about how they got the meringue on the Key Lime Pie so evenly browned. I'm still waiting for the answer.

I ate at some wonderful places in Key West and some really unbelievably disappointing places. Here are the ones to put on your list:

badboy burrito
1220 1/2 Simonton St
Key West, FL 33040-3159

Old Town Bakery
930 Eaton Street
Key West, FL 33040-6957

5 Brothers Grocery
930 Southard Street
Key West, FL 33040-7176

El Siboney
900 Catherine Street
Key West, FL 33040

Here are the ones to skip. Just don't waste your time:

Blue Heaven
Banana Cafe (for dinner, I've heard that breakfast is great)

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Meal With a View: Louie's Backyard

The view from Louie's Backyard, from Dining Out Key West

Ever since I met Norman Van Aken, I've wanted to eat at the place where Floribbean cuisine was invented and the phrase was coined: Louie's Backyard in Key West.

To say that the place is beautiful would be an understatement. It's breathtaking, and one of the most beautiful spots on the island. The restaurant is a big, open Key West house and the patio extends into the crystal blue water, nary a wave, and a beach on the side populated by thrashing dogs in the surf and a few sunbathers looking (and finding) a quiet spot.

Cliff and I had lunch there last weekend, and, though my choice was something I could have easily made in my own kitchen, a flank steak salad with sunchokes and a chimichurri vinaigrette, it was divine, if only for the atmosphere.The lettuces were top notch, too, hand picked I'm sure, filled with arugula, dandelion greens, watercress, radicchio. It was a lovely salad.

Arrrgh, shiver me fritters...
But, oh, the mojitos. A tightly packed cup full of mint leaves muddled with lime and simple syrup, splashed with Bacardi Silver and soda - it looked like swamp water, which is exactly how a real mojito should appear. At $8, it was a great deal for a drink with a view.

Bearnaise Burger, topped with caramelized onions
The bearnaise burger was exceptional (though, as Cliff pointed out, a few points shy of the burger at The Ravenous Pig in Orlando). You see that conspicuous blob of creamy white on top? That's bearnaise butter, compounded with red wine vinegar, garlic and tarragon. I can't believe he ate all that butter in one sitting and lived to tell the tale, but he did. My darling has arteries of steel.

Flank steak salad  with sunchokes

Louie's Backyard is worth the visit, for certain, even if only for a drink and some conversation. I can't imagine how beautiful it is at sunset, and I hope I can make it back at some point while I'm here.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Key West Literary Seminar: Reflections on Session 1 Panels

Most of you know that I'm attending The Hungry Muse, a food literature-themed seminar in sunny, breezy, cool Key West. It's a beautiful time to be down here, with jasmine in the air and a bicyle with a basket. Even if I didn't make my living as a writer (lucky me), it would be a wonderful excuse to leave the confines of my coporate cubicle to spend a few days reading, writing and listening to the most wonderful writers right here in paradise.

So far, there have been many memorable moments. I'll never forget meeting Ruth Reichl, the unknowing genius and mentor behind any success I might have as a writer. I loved hearing Jonathan Gold try and wheedle his way out of an agist hornet's nest (the room was filled with over 100 60+ year old food/literary philanthropists and enthusiasts) when answering a miserly old man's question: "Why are restaurants so damned loud and the lighting so dim?"
Molly O'Neill and Ruth Reichl provide excellent counterpoint to Jason Epstein's elitism.
"The Good Ol' Boys" Calvin Trillin & Roy Blount, Jr. shooting the shit onstage.
I've loved Molly O'Neill's down-to-earth, grounded stories about her hometown Columbus, Ohio, and the perpetual test market. Would America be obese if she had given a thumbs-down to her first McDonald's french fry? Good question. Diana Abu-Jaber asked some lovely, well-crafted and poignant questions of Ruth Reichl at the Saturday afternoon session, which I really appreciated after the floundering many of the panelists have done, telling stories with little real meaning just because it's what they think the audience wants to hear instead of what the writers in the audience really want to hear.

Former New York Times food critic Frank Bruni.
All in all, the first session of the conference has been all at once eye-opening, interesting, emotional, inspiring, and just a little bit disappointing. I'm looking forward to the much younger panelists (Michael Ruhlman, Mark Kurlansky, Bich Minh Nguyen) and getting to know more about Molly O'Neill. Out of all the panelists so far, she's been a ray of light amongst, as Jonathan Gold put it, "the Olds."

Monday, January 03, 2011

Everything's Better Avec Beurre

Happy 2011, readers! I wish you all the greatest and most delicious eating experiences throughout the year.

I always struggle with what to make that's super special on New Years Day. By then, we're all sick of the glazed hams and roast turkey (full disclosure: we didn't have either of those this year) from Thanksgiving and Christmas, cranberry sauce seems superfluous and I can't eat another bite of pumpkin pie by the time midnight on New Year's Eve rolls around.

My Cliff always asks me to make lobster, but I have a story to tell about killing lobsters. I just can't bear to hurt the things. I can steam mollusks and cephalopods, all of that stuff. It doesn't bother my to watch them turn into flavor and steam. Lobsters are different. Even crabs I can throw in a pot with a ton of Old Bay Seasoning and reap the rewards...but lobster...I just can't. Someday, I'll tell you why.

Cooking the tails is something completely different. The lobster is already dismembered and the dislocated tail is full of succulence and tenderness. They were at a good price at the grocer, and, so I could get my Cliff to stop the "you never make me lobster" talk, we bought two tails.

In culinary school, we didn't really use a lot of lobster. Imagine teaching lobster to 300 culinary students a day. Get's expensive, right? We'll call it $25 a lobster at about $12.99 a pound. Our chef instructors didn't trust us with the crustacean until the last few weeks of class, so I didn't get much practice with lobster dishes. I searched the web for a good recipe to tweak and found one I loved. Lobster Tail in Champagne Sauce. it sounded easy enough, and it delivered lovely flavor.

The most challenging part of the meal was, of course, the sauce. Sauciers in the best restaurants are often the most well-seasoned cooks (pun intended) with perfect—or near perfect—palates. "A good sauce covers many sins," we were told as young cooks.

The Champagne sauce was basically a classic French beurre blanc; a sauce I'd make 1,000 times before...just 5 years ago as a line cook. I wasn't sure I could still pull it off...but I did! I was so proud of myself. Further evidence that once a great cook, always a great cook. Once something is mastered, you can do it in your sleep.

Here's the recipe for our special New Year's Day dinner:

Lobster Tail with Champagne-Citrus Beurre Blanc.

The accompaniments are up to you, but I served smashed red creamer potatoes and steamed spinach.

Serves 2

2 large lobster tails, shells cut down the middle with scissors (careful!)

1/4 white onion (or 2 shallots), minced
1 sprig fresh thyme
1/3 cup Champagne or white sparkling wine
1/3 cup orange juice (no pulp)
2 tbsp. heavy cream
4 tbsp. cold unsalted butter, cubed (yes, I bolded the word "cold" because it's essential)
salt and white pepper

Heat a medium-sized saute pan on medium-high heat. Add onion, thyme, Champagne, and orange juice. Bring to a simmer.

Place lobster tails in simmering liquid. Cover and steam until lobster meat is opaque in the center, approximately 7-8 minutes (depending on the size of your lobster tail, it might take a little longer or shorter, so keep an eye on the things).

Uncover and use tongs to remove lobster tails to a cutting board to cool. Allow the liquid to evaporate until about 1/4 cup of liquid remains. Turn off the heat if using an electric stove, but don't take the pan off the burner. If you're using a gas stove, turn the flame as low as possible without extinguishing it.

Add the cream to the liquid and swirl the pan, leaving it on the burner, until incorporated. Start by adding one cube of butter and swirling the pan until the butter is completely incorporated and disappears. As soon as the butter disappears, add the next cube of butter and repeat until all of the butter is incorporated. Once all the butter is in the sauce, taste and adjust for seasoning. The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve or strainer before serving.

Remove the lobster meat from the shell (careful!) and slice into 1/4-inch thick medallions. Pour sauce over lobster. Serve immediately.