Friday, August 31, 2007

Love Cakes

Before moving to Chicago to go to law school, I lived for two years in Atlanta. Among the many things I loved about Atlanta, the food scene was top of the list.

My favorite restaurant is Surin of Thailand. A small, sparsely elegant restaurant in the Virginia-Highlands section, Surin dazzles with its clean, bright Asian flavors. It's impossible to choose between the Fresh Basil Rolls and Surin Baskets appetizers. The Basil Rolls perfectly blend the flavors of tender pork and shrimp with the crunch of bean sprouts and the freshness of sweet basil. The Surin baskets are a lovely crunch filled with shrimp, ground chicken and sweet corn. Order both.

I don't think I ever tried a dish at Surin that I didn't love. The chicken curry is a balanced mix of earth and sweet and the Spicy Basil Leaves is the perfect level of spice.

My other favorite Atlanta restaurant is The Flying Biscuit Cafe. The Flying Biscuit has opened additional restaurants, but the original location is in Candler Park. It's tiny space with an adorable sunflower mural in one room. The menu is full of fresh, unique dishes. The Flying Biscuit improves on classic Southern fried green tomatoes with a sweet and spicy cashew and jalapeno relish. And of course, if a restaurant is going to calling itself The Flying Biscuit, the biscuits better be outstanding. They are. Light, fluffy, and just a touch sweet, they're divine.

My favorite dish is the somewhat cutesy named Love Cakes. They are earthy and spicy and complimented by the tang of the Green Salsa and feta cheese. The Flying Biscuit is generous to share the recipe on its website (click here) but I've pasted it below (and noted substitutions) for convenience:

Love Cakes

2 (15 ounce) cans cooked black beans
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons minced yellow onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup masa de harina (This is a fine corn meal, usually found in the Latin foods section)

1/2 cup Green Salsa (recipe follows)
2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese
1/4 cup slivered red onions

Rinse and drain black beans in a sieve.
In a small sauté pan heat 1 tablespoon of the canola oil over medium heat. Cook onion, garlic, cumin, and salt until onions are translucent. Place drained beans and onion mixture in a bowl and mash with a potato masher until well combined.

Gradually add masa, allowing mixture to absorb it before adding more. Test dough by rolling it in the palm of your hand. Keep adding masa until dough doesn't stick to your hand and holds the shape of a ball.

Divide dough into 16 small balls and flatten into cakes. Place a large skillet over medium heat and add the remaining 1 tablespoon of canola oil. Saute cakes until lightly browned on each side, about 3 to 5 minutes per side.

Top with Green Salsa, feta cheese, and slivered red onions.

Green Salsa

1 1/2 pounds tomatillos
1/4 cup minced yellow onion
2 garlic cloves, peeled
2 serrano peppers, stemmed and seeded (I substitute 1 jalapeno is serrano peppers aren't available)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper (I use black pepper)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Peel the husks off the tomatillos. Place them in a roasting pan with the onion, garlic, and Serrano peppers. Roast for 25 to 35 minutes. The tomatillos will break down and become juicy. Remove form oven and cool.

Place the roasted ingredients in a food processor and puree. Season with salt, white pepper, and cilantro. Chill until ready to serve.

Monday, August 27, 2007


Of the many Food Network shows that seem only less about cooking and more about the personality of the celebrity chef, Throwdown with Bobby Flay is one of the most enjoyable. I was a Flay for a long time. On Boy Meets Grill, he comes off too swaggering and cocky (without the humor of an Anthony Bourdain). So I was surprised and curious when I learned the premise of Throwdown. Flay, known for his southwestern-inspired cuisine, "challenges" a local expert and competes with a version of the local's dish.

Flay, with all his swagger, is really set up to fail. There's no real chance, for example, that he's going to beat a professional wedding cake baker. Yet, he throws himself into each challenge and often comes up with dishes that may not be the best (especially given that the judges seem to expect the classic taste), but are quite inventive. So here's to Bobby Flay.

Last night's Throwdown featured the muffaletta. The muffaletta is a New Orleans classic sandwich. It's essentially an Italian sub with a delicious olive salad topping. If you don't like olives, this isn't for you. If you do, it's simply divine. I wanted one. Since the Food Network site didn't provide a recipe, I made mine.

1 round bread loaf (I like sourdough)
3/4 lb. assorted deli meat (I use 1/4 lb. each ham, genoa salame, proscuitto)
1/4 lb. mild cheese (I use provolone)

Slice the bread loaf in half horizontally and scoop out a bit of the middle to make room for the tasty fillings. Layer the meats on the bottom half and top with the cheese.

Olive Salad
1/2 cup Spanish olives
1/2 cup Kalamata olives
Half a stalk of celery, minced.
1 shallot, minced
1 1/2 Tbs. carrots, minced
1 1/2 Tbs. cauliflower, minced (I've omitted this with little notice)
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Combine all ingredients and mix well.

Pile the olive salad in the inside of top of the bread loaf. Carefully close the sandwich. Place in 350 degree oven to heat the meat and melt the cheese.

Note: This recipe was originally inspired by Emeril Lagasse's Muffaletta Sandwich on Sourdough Bread. However, I've made a number of changes based on recipe about the classic muffaletta.

Note2: I apologize for the weird font. I've tried numerous fixes without luck.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Frontera Grill--in Chicago and at Home

Owned by world-famous chef Rick Bayless, Frontera Grill is famous in Chicago for gourmet Mexican food. We visited for a friend's birthday on a Saturday night. Unable to get reservations, they arrived at 6 p.m. to get on the wait list and then had drinks and waited in a local bar. They were given an estimated wait of 2 hours. The rest of the party of 8 total arrived at 8 p.m. At 9:30, we checked on the table and were told that they were waiting for a large party to leave. The party had been done for an hour but were refusing to vacate their table even after the host offered them free drinks in the bar. While I appreciated the restaurant's efforts to clear the table, not much soothes a wait that is 90 minutes longer than even the estimated 2 hour wait.

We were finally seated in the "lower level" (i.e. the basement), which was sparsely decorated but comfortable. As to the rest of the restaurant, my impression was of masses of people. I couldn't even begin to describe the decor.

The food was good. The tamales were tender. The mole was bold. The ceviche was outstanding. Service was decent, but not what I would have expected from a renowned restaurant. Refills were slow and there was not much follow up.

Overall, I'm glad that I experienced Frontera Grill but I'm not sure I'd return. While I enjoyed the food, I'm not convinced it was worth the fairly pricey bill (Around $50 a person including dessert and excluding alcohol) and I am convinced that it wasn't worth the wait and the crowd.

So if you want to experience the taste of Frontera Grill but aren't near Chicago or just don't want a 2 hour wait for a table, check out the line of Frontera Grill products. Pictured above is the Sausage and Roasted Pepper selection of the Stone Fired Pizza line. The stone-fired crust is crisp. The organic chicken chorizo sausage is delicately spicy and perfectly complements the earthiness of the roasted green peppers and red onions. It's terrific.

Also delicious is the Frontera Classic Salsas. I favor the Chipotle Salsa with its smoky heat and hint of roasted garlic.

Information on both Frontera Grill the restaurant and the products can be found here.

Spicy Broccoli Pasta

I love this dish. It's warm and soothing and comforting. The original recipe is courtesy of the Food Network's Sarah Moulton back when she had an engaging show called Cooking Live, rather than the tragic exercise in boredom she currently hosts.

You're first reaction is going to be "What? Browned broccoli? That'll taste burnt." Trust me--it won't. It will taste earthy, garlicky, spicy and delicious.

Spicy Broccoli Pasta
1 bunch of broccoli, trimmed into bite-sized pieces
4-6 cloves of garlic, chopped (adjust to taste)
1 box of chicken stock
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes (adjust to taste)
2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
1 box angel hair pasta, cooked (note: I like to drain the pasta just before it is al dente because it will cook as the dish finishes)
3 Tbs. Parmesan cheese

In a large pan with a lid, heat the oil over medium high heat until it is ready to smoke but is not smoking. Add the broccoli and toss to coat in oil then leave it alone. Allow to cook 1-2 mins. until it is golden brown on the bottom. Stir, reduce the heat to medium low, cover and continue to cook until the broccoli is done to the tender-crisp doneness of your liking, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until the garlic is beginning to golden, approx 1 minute (do not overcook). Add the chicken stock, raise heat to medium high and bring to a simmer. Add the pasta and finish cooking until it is al dente. Stir in the cheese.

Modifications: The above recipe is the best, but if I'm in a hurry or don't have fresh broccoli on hand, I'll make the dish by sauteing the garlic and pepper flakes, adding the stock, cooking the pasta in the stock and throwing in some frozen broccoli at the end.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Good Food and Great Conversation

We had our first dinner guest in our new apartment a couple of weeks ago to obsess, I mean discuss...the final Harry Potter book.

We met after work so I wanted to put together a mean that was fast but impressive. Roasted chicken is my go-to meal when I want impressive. This recipe from an old Fine Cooking is the best I've found. The best part is that it's also the easiest.

Roasted Chicken
(prepare the night/morning before cooking)
3 to 3 1/2 pound chicken
3 Tbs. kosher salt
2 Tbs. chopped fresh thyme with stems set aside for later use. (I think this is one of those recipes for which the fresh herb is essential. Thyme is easy to handle. Simply hold the top of the stem and gently run your fingers backwards down the stem to remove the leaves.).
1 1/2 tsp. fresh ground pepper
4 cloves peeled garlic
1 lemon, quartered
3-4 Tbs. butter, melted

The night or morning before you plan to cook the bird, combine the salt, thyme and pepper. Prepare the chicken by removing the giblets and washing and patting drying. Place chicken in a roasting rack. Rub the salt/thyme/pepper mixture all over the chicken. Place in the refrigerator, uncovered, until ready to cook.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. While it preheats, stuff the bird with the reserved thyme stems, lemon and garlic gloves.

Bake the chicken until a thermometer inserted in the thigh reads 170 degrees. Every 15 mins. while cooking, baste the chicken. At first you will have to use the butter but soon the chicken will create juice and you can baste with that.

Allow the chicken to rest for 5-10 mins. before carving so that the juices stay with the meat.

I served the chicken with roasted asparagus and these potatoes. They were delicious and I'm not even a big potato lover. The only substitution I made was to use any red potatoes. I wanted a bit of cover.

A nice bottle of Riesling and some good Harry Potter conservation completed a great meal.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The Foodie Blogroll

I joined the Foodie blogroll so I'm linked to other food blogs. Check them out!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Foodie Library

Other than cooking (ok, ok and bad reality TV), my other love is reading. I won't bore you with my many book recommendations, but I'd like to share some of my favorite food writings.

I have to start with Anthony Bourdain since his book inspired the title of this blog. I came across Kitchen Confidential at a local used bookstore about a year ago. I devoured it like a favorite dish. I still pick it up occasionally and read a random chapter.

Bourdain is swaggering, macho and quite often vulgar. He's also honest, passionate and almost always hilarious. The book traces Bourdain's childhood coming to love food through his rough and tumble youthful years as a young line cook to his career as executive chef at Les Halles. Along the way, he introduces you to characters almost too colorful to be real. He also shares useful tidbits that every restaurant partron should know.

Pick up Kitchen Confidential and be immersed in a world where food is a passion and an adventure. And find out why you should never order fish on a Monday.

More than just a pretty chest

In the Martha and Me post, I discussed Martha Stewart. Let's move on to Giada De Laurentiis. The granddaughter of movie producer Gino De Laurentiis, Giada has risen to fame on the Food Network in the past couple of years. Her show, Everyday Italian, is beautifully shot with closeups of her hands as she squeezes lemon and closeups of her chest...well, all the time. It's food porn, and it's a little distracting.

I suppose the reason for the shots of Giada's cleavage is to attract viewers outside of the Food Network's core female audience. I ran this busom conspiracy theory by Jon. He was puzzled. Apparently, the chest isn't a distraction for him. He's so annoyed by Giada suddenly launching into an Italian accent on the Italian ingredients that he hasn't noticed the chest. I guess we all have our pet peeves.

But enough about the boobs. Tonight, we tried an actual Giada recipe from her Everyday Pasta cookbook. And it was delicious. The flavors of the pancetta, onion and basil combine beautifully with the egg. The pasta adds a nice texture. The recipe is called "Breakfast Scramble" in the book and can be found under a different name here. As always, I made some changes which I noted.

Breakfast Scramble
1/2 cup orzo pasta

10 large eggs (This seemed like a lot of egg, so I reduced it to 8 and it worked fine)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 ounces smoked mozzarella, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (I only have regular mozzarella on hand and I was worried that it would not be flavorful enough, so I substituted grated Parmesan--about 1/4 cup. I really like Parmesan and asparagus together.)

2 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil leaves

1 tablespoon butter

4 ounces pancetta, coarsely chopped (The pancetta I buy comes in 3 oz. packages so I used that amount.)

1/2 cup chopped onion (I had and used red onion.)

8 thin asparagus stalks, trimmed, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces (To try to get more veggies in this meal, I increased this amount to 12 stalks. I'd double it to 16 next time.)

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the orzo and cook until al dente, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Drain the orzo. (Note: Interestingly, I noticed after I finished cooking that the Barilla orzo instructions call for 9 minutes of cooking time. I followed Giada's directions, and they worked. At 9 minutes, it ould have been mush.)

Whisk the eggs, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl to blend. Stir in the cheese and basil. Set aside.

Melt the butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta and saute until crisp and golden, about 5 minutes. Add the onion and saute until tender, about 2 minutes. Add the asparagus and saute until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Add the orzo and stir to coat. Add the egg mixture. Using a rubber spatula, stir the mixture until the eggs are softly set, about 4 minutes.

Transfer the egg mixture to a serving bowl and serve.