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.