29 October 2011

Happy Halloween, blah blah blah

I don't really like Halloween--small children are trained to go begging door-to-door for candy.  What kind of holiday is that?  It's lame.

I remember when I was in sixth grade (the oldest grade in my elementary school), I was sure we wouldn't have to dress up for Halloween anymore.  Don't get me wrong--I always dressed up with everyone else, but it was merely out of peer pressure and license to eat too much candy.  I wasn't going to be the only other kids, besides Terri the Jehovah's Witness, not partying with everyone.  But I had been waiting to be old enough to end the charade, and I thought, surely as the Big Kids in the school, we were far too mature for such crap.  I was wrong.  I half-heartedly dressed, once again, as a princess that year, but I was pissed about it.

Now I am 37 and most of my friends still like dressing up like weirdos.  I don't get it, but at least they drink instead of eating Milk Duds.  Those things suck.  Here's one for you, Halloween fans!

Dia de los Muertos Strawberry Margaritas
Serves 4
3 1/2 cups strawberries, washed and hulled
2 1/2 cups crushed ice
1/2 cup tequila
1/2 cup lime juice
1/4 cup sugar
4 tablespoons triple sec
lime wedges or garnish (optional)

Combine all ingredients except lime wedges in a blender and process until mixture is smooth.  Pour into glass and garnish each with a lime wedge if desired.  
Eat some guacamole with these, OK?

28 October 2011

Mild Squash Soup

It is definitely becoming squash and gourd season, so here's a soup that's milder than the link I just sent you to...

Mild Winter Squash Soup

Serves 6
4 black peppercorns, plus ½ teaspoon black pepper
4 sprigs cilantro, chopped
1 cup vegetable or chicken stock
2 cups water
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups peeled and diced winter squash
3-4 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon cider vinegar

Using a mortar and pestle, crush the whole peppercorns with the cilantro sprigs.  
In a soup pot over medium-high heat, bring the stock and water to a boil, then add the pepper mixture, garlic, and squash.  Return the mixture to a boil and add the soy sauce.  Cover and let cook until squash is fork-tender, about 7 minutes.  
Turn of heat, stir in vinegar, and hand mash the soup a bit with a potato masher, leaving some chunks for texture.  Garnish with extra cilantro leaves and pepper if desired.  

26 October 2011

Eating tapas across the street from Macy's

Ondo’s Tapas Bar at Cherry Creek

Just a half-story beneath the street is a calm, chic haven from the shopping madness that is Cherry Creek.  Its spare, boldly colored décor and flamenco guitar music, while corny-sounding, is rather pleasant, and the wall fountain cleverly disguising the concrete wall that lines the front “patio” is as inviting an eating area as anything I’ve experienced in Denver. Ondo’s offers a menu exclusively comprised of tapas, heavy on the Northern Spanish culinary influence, carafes if homemade sangria, and clever twists in classic cocktails.  Sounds like a nice place after a long work week to gather with friends, right?  It is.

Cute patio at Ondo's.

Happy hour, which runs from 4-6:30pm weekdays, is worth going early: half-off sangria and 2$ pintxos (individual portions of tapas) served under glass domes at the bar encourages the spirit of taking you time and sampling at a great discount.

Northern Spanish cuisine is not exceptionally bright or spicy in flavor, but what Ondo’s does with mild staple ingredients like potato and egg is well-balanced and finely executed.  It really is a lot of egg and potato, though.  And lots of ham and cheese, as well.  I found the tapas I tried to be satisfying, but nothing knocked me over the head or caused obsessive research on my part to find out how to recreate the recipe.  I ate egg and potato torta on a piece of bread, Serrano ham and manchego cheese, Monte Enebro cheese with quince paste, pecans, and honey (that was a good one!),  and chick peas in a mild broth with little bits of charred chorizo.  They were all tasty, but I think I can make them at home.  That is not to say you shouldn’t go to Ondo’s; there is certainly a value in appreciating someone else’s high standards and letting them do the dishes.  I’m just warning you that you will not learn new truths about the universe from anything you try here.

Our exceptionally competent waitress (really--whoever you were serving the girl with the glasses and her bald husband, you deserve a raise) informed us that Ondo’s is particularly known for their cured meats and croquetas, and I appreciate the tip.  Their lomo (salt-cured pork) had a salty, briny taste you cannot easily pick up at Safeway, and the croquetas were a marvel of creamed spinach and pine nuts encased in the most delicate batter I have ever seen, deep fried to crisp perfection.  If I can amend my previous statement, that was the one recipe that boggled my mind, for sheer execution alone.  These were definitely the two stars on our table.

Serrano ham and manchego cheese tapas

The sangria was fine; the red wine is freshened with sparkling water and has some chopped green apple in it.  I always prefer harder stuff, but it seemed more socially acceptable before a long drive back to Greeley, and it complimented everything I ate just fine.  Everything we ate was well prepared with high-quality ingredients.  It was dressed up comfort food, to my taste, but along with the clean, urban atmosphere and peaceful, very knowledgeable service, it was a nice night out.  And we still made it home in time for Law and Order.

21 October 2011

My favorite disguise for cauliflower...

I actually love cauliflower; as a kid, I loved my Grandma's heavily steamed (disintegrating) cauliflower drowning in butter that she used to serve for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Unlike all the other sides, this one didn't go into one of her fancy crystal serving dishes--she plopped it down on the table in the saucepan where it was cooked.  Maybe she didn't want to bother because she knew what I had yet to learn: a lot of people don't like cauliflower.  I don't know why, but I have seen grown adults act like total babies when they see a piece of cooked cauliflower in their food.  But it's cheap (most of the time), nutritious, and relatively free of pesticides and other scary modern things you have all over your nice, juicy strawberries and apples from Safeway.  And if I haven't sold you yet, maybe some fried onions and a whole bunch of cheese will do the trick.  

Cheesy Cauliflower Pie
Serve 6
1 frozen or refrigerated premade crust
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 head cauliflower, chopped into bite-size pieces (about 1 1/2 cups florets)
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 teaspoon dried thyme
freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 eggs
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon prepared mustard (I prefer Dijon)

1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

Place frozen pie crust on a baking sheet, poke with a fork in a few places, and prebake at 400°F for about ten minutes, or until crust is getting flaky on bottom.  
Meanwhile, in a parge skillet, heat the oil over medium heat.  When it shimmers, add the onion and cook until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes.  Add the cauliflower,  teaspoon of the salt, and thyme, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until cauliflower softens, about 10 minutes.  Season with pepper and set aside.  
In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, the other teaspoon of salt, mustard, and the milk.  When the pie crust is ready, remove it from the oven and build your pie: sprinkle half of the cheese over the bottom, spread the cauliflower mixture evenly over that, pour the eggs mixture on top, and sprinkle the other half of the cheese on top.  I generally place a pie crust shield around the outside of the pie at this point to keep the edges of the crust from burning.
Place the pie in the oven, reduce heat to 375°F, and bake until golden, about 35 minutes.  Serve with tossed salad for a filling meal! 

19 October 2011

Eating in the City of Presidents

Last Saturday night, I found myself in charming Rapid City looking for a good meal and a generous glass of wine (the wine goes without saying, right?).  Extensive research on Open Table yielded four restaurants in the city, and after a complex equation involving reading reviews and checking time availability (I‘m too old to eat dinner at 9pm, thank you very much, Corn Exchange), I chose Delmonico Grill on Main Street.

Main Street in downtown Rapid City, by the way, is adorable; a cute central area with fountains and impromptu live concerts, boutiques, the four “foodie” restaurants Open Table noted, and for some odd reason, at least eight coffee shops within a four-block radius.

I don’t know if the other three restaurants acknowledged as being “Fit for Foodies” are, but Delmonico is not.  Nicely decorated with the uniform slate gray walls, high ceilings of an early 20th century building, distressed hardwood floors, and  lots of space around tables, the look is decidedly “Midwest tries to do fancy“.  Which is fine, but nothing special.

Organization, or perhaps work schedule,  was the first apparent problem at Delmonico.  My friend and I had a reservation for 7pm; it took us ten minutes of standing at the front of the house before the hostess appeared to even take our names.  She was visible, don’t get me wrong--she was bussing tables and appeared to be trying to placate a rather fussy-looking two-top the whole time we waited.  But as a result, no one was there to actually do the job of a hostess.  Fifteen minutes more, and we were finally seated, at 7:25pm, for our 7pm dinner reservation, after watching the hostess set our table in fits and starts amidst interruptions from other customers and wait staff.  Sigh.

Our table service was excellent (thanks, Matt); the waiter appeared quickly to get our drink orders, was knowledgeable about the menu, and had that knack for appearing just when we were ready to order or had a question.  The restaurant’s policy, or perhaps it was Matt’s, regarding substitutions was also very friendly; my companion easily changed the side that was supposed to come with her dish, which is an understandably frustrating thing for some chefs to handle.

The wine list was long and represented Midwestern tastes--Jam Jar Merlot was as sweet as the Lambrusco I used to drink as a twenty-something in Italy, and there were several Rieslings and Piesporters.  There were others, too, but if you have a sweet tooth, you will definitely be satisfied with the wine selection.  I ordered the seared ahi tuna with Tonoto sauce and asparagus as my side (I loved that I got to choose my side), and it was really lovely.  The thin, mild tomato (Tonoto) blended sauce in the bottom of the dish was nothing special, but the ahi was seared to perfection and topped with a wonderful, generous garnish of fresh parsley, red onion, diced tomato, and capers.  The asparagus was not seasoned at all, but its crisp-tender consistency was just right.  I also had a homemade Caesar salad to start, and the dressing was quite assertive.  Except for the lack of salt, I loved it, actually--present anchovy and a bracing garlic flavor showed an aesthetic towards actually being able to taste flavors in your food--but it was a bold move for a restaurant filled with middle-age couples and business professionals.  I can imagine some complaints about it, but perhaps I’m wrong.  Perhaps Rapid City likes its garlic as much as I do.

My friend did not fare as well.  She started with the French onion soup, which was salty and pleasantly flavorful, with a strong presence of sherry.  Again, bravo on the bold flavors, but some may describe the lack of balance in these starters as a bit too rough for fine dining.  She then ordered the seafood of the day, which was a chili-lime rubbed seared salmon.  The sear was incredibly thick and hard, the fish inside was bordering on dry-- in other words, too much time in the pan.  The most unfortunate aspect to the fish was its flavor, however: no chili-lime to speak of, but rather fishy.  (It always strikes me as humorous when we complain about fish being too “fishy”, but after all, that strong flavor is a sign that it’s none-too-fresh, isn’t it?)   She substituted the chili-lime rice (I wonder if that flavor would have appeared!) for the rosemary-garlic mashed potatoes.  She thought they were bland; I thought they were subtly scented with rosemary and appropriately salted, like good comfort food.  We both agreed, however, that they were over-whipped to the point of being almost gummy.   I would suggest, if one is to offer something as down-home as mashed potatoes with the skins in, hand “smashed” potatoes might be more appropriate.  This over processed mash needed some texture and levity.

I will say this for Delmonico Grill: on a Saturday night in mid-October, it was filled to the gills, with no sign of slowing down when we left after 8:30pm.  This might mean it really is one of the best restaurants in town, but if so, Rapid needs a new kid on the block.  The front of the house was a hectic mess, the food was quite mixed in quality, and this made Delmonico far from the home-run that a restaurant with $30+ entrees should offer.  One would need to become a regular to learn which menu items are worth ordering, but it’s not worth the expense.

14 October 2011

Russian Beet Salad

What can I say? I love beets!  I know that's not as common as saying, "I love chocolate" or "I love sports" or whatever, but they really are good.  And easy to grow.  Give 'em a try.

Russian Beet Salad

Serves 4

4 medium beets
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove, smashed and minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 cups thick plain yogurt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
handful fresh dill, chopped

Trim greens from beets and wash. Bring large pot of water to bowl and drop beets in; boil 25 minutes or until tender.  Allow to cool, remove skins and trim ends, and grate into a large bowl.  

In another bowl thoroughly combine all other ingredients and pour over grated beets.  Stir to combine and chill at least one hour. Serve cold.  

11 October 2011

Tastemakers invitation: Peet's Café Solano blend

This is part 2 of my Tastemaker charge to work with Peet's Coffee. To try your own with a little financial help, go here.

The other Peet’s blend I tried for the Tastemakers program was called Café Solano.  It is also a medium blend and was loosely described as being “bright”.  Compared to Café Domingo, this is a heartier roast better suited to savory dishes.  In fact, it’s nearly perfect with any egg dish I could devise.  I like salty, greasy things after, ahem, a late night, and Café Solano became the accompaniment this week to my favorite “morning after” dish, the Morning After Skillet.  Looking for something a little more upscale, perhaps something you could serve other people without having to explain yourself?  Try a Scandinavian quiche and some roasted potatoes for a totally age-appropriate brunch.  

Scandinavian Quiche

Serves 6

1 refrigerated or frozen pie crust (9-inch, deep dish)
5 eggs
½ cup non-fat half and half
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
¼ teaspoon Dijon mustard
¼ cup grated cheese of your choice (Parmesan, Gruyere, and sharp cheddar are all good choices.)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
4 oz. smoked salmon, roughly chopped

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Prepare pie crust according to directions, if necessary, and place on a baking sheet.  Bake pie crust in the oven about 10 minutes while you’re preheating; check to make sure the bottom of the crust I starting to get crisp.  This will keep it from being soggy in the finished product.  

In a large bowl, combine all remaining ingredients through chopped dill and whisk vigorously.  Gently stir in salmon.  When the crust is ready, remove from oven, pour egg mixture into pie crust, and place back in oven.  Cook 35-40 minutes or until egg is firm in the center.  Serve hot or at room temperature. Serve with...

Easy Roasted Potatoes

Serves 6

4-5 large Russet potatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon Herbes de Provence (or dried oregano)

Washed, trim, and chop potatoes into 1/2- inch cubes.  Place in a bowl and toss with olive oil, salt, and Herbes de Provence.  Spread into a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet and place in oven.  Bake at 350°F for 65 minutes or until golden, checking and stirring occasionally.  

Finally, I thought Café Solano’s roasty, slightly nutty flavor would work well in beans, and it did.  Serve this for breakfast, brunch, or lunch--it’s a quick take on New Orleans-style dirty rice, rounded out with beans to make a complete one-dish meal or serve as an accompaniment to egg or meat dishes.  

Peet’s Red Eye Beans and Rice

Serves 4

2 tablespoon olive oil
1 green pepper, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 jalapeno pepper, diced
1 onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, diced
1 large tomato, cored and diced
 ¼  cup leftover Peet’s Café Solano 
1 14.5-oz. can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
3 cups cooked long-grain brown rice
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon cayenne
½ cup sliced green onions

Heat a large skillet over medium heat, add oil to pan, and when it shimmers, stir in the peppers, onion, and garlic.  Cook until tender, about 10 minutes.  Add diced tomato, coffee, red beans, and the rice.  Stir to mix thoroughly.  Add the herbs, salt, black pepper, paprika, cayenne, and green onions.  Lower the heat and cook 10-15 minutes, until flavors are thoroughly incorporated.  

07 October 2011

Roasted Cherry Tomatoes with Pasta

This dish is simple and rich thanks to the magic of your humble oven.  A great way to use up large quantities of cherry tomatoes or those that are no longer at their peak.

Roasted Cherry Tomatoes with Pasta

Serves 4

2 pints cherry tomatoes, washed and halved
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
½ red onion, diced
Olive oil
Salt and crushed red pepper to taste
2 teaspoons dried oregano
¼ cup, loosely packed, torn fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons capers
1 lb. linguine

On a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper, spread out your chopped onion and sprinkle with salt, dried oregano, and crushed red pepper.  Layer tomato halves on top, drizzle with olive oil, and lightly salt.  Place in the oven (middle rack) and bake at 350°F for 20 minutes or until tomatoes start to shrivel.  Remove from oven, sprinkle with the sliced garlic, and bake another 5 minutes.  

While tomatoes are roasting, cook pasta in well-salted water according to directions on the box, drain and set aside.  When tomato mixture is done, toss into pasta along with fresh basil and capers.  Taste for additional salt and serve.  

04 October 2011

Tastemakers invitation: Peet's Café Domingo blend

As a Foodbuzz blogger, I am occasionally invited to participate in a program called Tastemakers, in which a sponsoring product will give me free stuff in exchange for a blog post about said product.  I did this recently with Sargento cheese because I like cheese and free things, but as you can see from my post, it was a little awkward for me.

But when Peet's Coffee sent me an invitation, I jumped at it.  I love Peet's; it's the coffee we most prefer in my house, when it's not too expensive.  I loved the story of Alfred Peet as I learned it in Taylor Clark's informative and entertaining book, Starbucked.  In Clark's recitation of American coffee history, Alfred Peet is the cranky old immigrant in Berkeley, California who reluctantly agrees to apprentice the two scruffy graduate students who would late found a certain big-name coffee shop.  That part's not important.  Peet's coffee was revolutionary in the 1970s, when America was still accustomed to weak, insipid drip coffee served in styrofoam cups for 50 cents in doughnut shops.  After reading about it, I went to find some at my local grocery store, and I've been a fan ever since.  I am also generally a fan of stories about cranky old men, but I'm planning to see someone about that.

Well, I digress, but what I got in the mail was two new medium roast blends and a request to create some recipes for foods that would pair well with each.  My next post will cover more savory recipes to accompany Peet's Café Solano; this post concerns Peet’s Café Domingo, which is described as having "hints of toffee sweetness" (and boy, does it!).

I preferred this new blend to be made quite strong, probably because I'm accustomed to drinking the darkest thing I can find.  It is pleasant, but the caramel flavor I detected limited it, in my opinion, to being appropriate for sweet foods.  I instantly thought the fresh nectarines we had in the kitchen would work perfectly the first morning I tried Peet’s Café Domingo, and I was right.  I also wondered about my favorite sweet nut, almond, and created a variation on my mom's shortbread recipe to go with this blend.  Both work well as pairings with this coffee. There's also a bonus pumpkin-invaded recipe, because it's October and I like to be trendy, which compliments the toffee-ness of this coffee blend.

Breakfast Sundae

It’s so simple, I feel guilty typing this up as a recipe, but it makes me happy every morning.  I know I need to eat breakfast to avoid snacking on Doritos by 10am, but waking up enough to actually think about what to make is a daunting task by the time the coffee is done.  This is easily produced, delicious, and covers most of the nutritional bases to get me through to lunch.  Use whatever fruit is in season.

Serves 1:

1 peach or nectarine, washed and cut into approx. ½ inch pieces
1/3 cup yogurt (I prefer Greek style vanilla or honey flavors)
¼ cup granola
Some almond slices

In a bowl, layer in this order: peaches, yogurt, granola., almond slices.  Enjoy with a medium-bodied coffee like Peet’s Café Domingo.

Toasted Almond Oatmeal Shortbread

This is a slight modification of my mom's Oatmeal Shortbread recipe, so lovingly described here.  The toasted almonds bring out the toffee flavor of Peet’s Café Domingo, I think.

Makes about 5 dozen pieces.  

1 cup unsalted butter
½ cup white sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
1 ½ cups flour
3.4 teaspoon salt
1 cup quick oats
½ cup slivered almonds.

Preheat oven at 325°F.  In a dry pan over medium heat, toast the slivered almonds, shaking the pan often,  until they begin to turn golden and become fragrant (about 4 minutes).  Remove from heat and reserve.

Cream butter and sugar in a large bowl.  Gradually add the flour, oats, toasted almonds, and salt.  Press into a greased 13x9x2 pan.   Bake for 30-35 minutes or until lightly browned around the edges.  Cool 10 minutes before cutting into squares.

And finally...

Pumpkin Harvest Muffins

Because it's October...and I succumbed to the pumpkin trend...

Makes 24 muffins or 2 bread loaves
1 cup white sugar
2 c. brown sugar
1 can (15 oz.) cooked pumpkin
4 eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup canola oil
2/3 cup water
2 cups unbleached white flour
1 cup whole grain wheat flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 ½ cups dried cranberries
2 tablespoons flax seeds
½ cup chopped dark chocolate (Ghirardelli’s baking bar, for example)

Preheat oven to 350˚F.  Combine sugar, pumpkin, eggs, vanilla, oil, and water; mix well.  In a separate bowl, combine flours, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and flax seeds; add to egg mixture and stir well.  Stir in nuts, chocolate, and cranberries until well incorporated.

Pour batter into two medium-sized muffin pans (12 muffins each) or two bread loaf pans.  For muffins, bake approx. 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of a muffin comes out clean.  For bread pans, bake 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of loaf comes out clean.