Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Parisian sole

Mimi Thorisson's A Kitchen in France was listed in Saveur as one of the 10 cookbooks to make a good gift and they must have been thinking of the photography. It is one of those books with very few recipes, most of them with ingredients (e.g. quail) that you're not going to find or cook very often. But I thought I'd squeeze what I could out of it, and this proved to be a quick, simple and very tasty recipe that sadly has appeal for only one of us.

I used flounder fillets after consulting Mark Bittman, who says we don't really have sole, even though the Fishery claimed to have a real Dover sole from Britain. They had only one, it was a whole fish and very small, so they didn't even want to fillet it. The fish gets dusted in flour, sauteed, and then sliced shallots get sauteed in the same skillet, simmered briefly in wine and finished with heavy cream. The sauce gets poured over the fish. Following the photo, I served with boiled potatoes and also added steamed broccoli. It had -- from the butter, oil, wine and cream -- a very rich flavor. Leftovers made a great hash for lunch.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Lamb and green bean stew with farro

This autumn recipe from Domenica Marchetti (Soups and Stews, p. 56) is another winner and just right for a gray fall day. WF actually had some boneless lamb shoulder in just the right amount so it went in with the onions, green beans, farro, chicken stock, and crushed tomato to simmer for 2 hours and turn into a lovely, fragrant one-pot dish. A chiffonade of basil, a glass of cabernet, and life is good.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

La Piquette

This offshoot of Bistro Lepic was a pleasant surprise not because we didn't expect it to be good but we didn't expect to have such a nice package of pleasant dining experiences. The food is French-inspired but a fresh, lighter take that is more like New French than nouvelle cuisine. The atmosphere is buoyant in a very French way, with a warm decor that is pleasant in the summer and must be cozy in the colder months.

Photo by La Piquette
There was a breezy professionalism to the whole operation -- from the warm welcome, rapid seating, good service to one attentive detail that is too often forgotten -- the food was served piping hot on heated plates. I started with a cream of cauliflower soup that was not too heavy and delicately suggesting the vegetable rather than overpowering with it. Andrea had a salad composee that was a work of art, fresh tomatoes and orange slices arranged around ovals of lentil, quinoa and beet -- all again with delicate flavor and a slight healthy crunch.

My main course was braised rabbit in a cream and basil sauce that had a slight yellow piquance -- saffron or turmeric -- ladled over perfectly cooked and very hot linguini. Andrea ordered the roast chicken, which came with (hot) roasted vegetables and crispy hot fries. The chicken had a tangy Dijon mustard rub set off well with the fries. I had a fresh draft beer and Andrea had a Cote de Provence rose to drink.

We skipped drinks and dessert on a quick week night meal, but they looked good, too. And there's a lot of great choices on the menu to try next time!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A midsummer feast

Saveur magazine is all about culinary travel and often enjoyable to read, but this was the first time we took a whole menu for a dinner party. The June/July issue had an irresistible story by a Swedish journalist about the celebration in his country, complete with beautiful descriptions and photos of the food, and, as always with Saveur, the recipes.

I was in western Finland once at the time of the summer solstice and enjoyed the celebration there of the year's longest day with huge bonfires and some drinking -- and yes, it hardly got dark.

Photo by Miia Ranta via Wikimedia Commons
The prep started a week beforehand with the infusion of some vodka to make aquavit. The Saveur recipe suggested rhubarb, dill, lemon verbena, caraway seeds and juniper berries. I made two batches, adding lavender to both, and then star anise to one and fennel seeds to the other. The results after 72 hours were very smooth and rounded drinks, delicious served straight from the freezer but unfolding nicely as they warmed up. Both were a bit more floral than store-bought aquavits, such as Linie Aquavit. The anise batch tasted more like your typical aquavit, though much softened, whereas the fennel batch was just well rounded. I got some Carlsberg Elephant beer to chase it with.

Midway through the week it was time to put the gravlax into the fridge to cure. The recipe is simple -- 2/3 cup kosher salt, 1/3 cup sugar and 2 tablespoons coarsely ground white pepper for 2 pounds of salmon fillet, with minced dill and vodka sprinkled over the salmon after it's smeared with the curing mixture. At the Fishery they recommended the Canadian farm salmon for the purpose and suggested fitting two symmetric 1-pound cuts together during the curing (a method it turns out that is often suggested on the Web). The fish gets wrapped in double layers of plastic wrap and turned and massaged every 12 hours for 48 to 72 hours. The fillet gets firmer as the curing process "cooks" the flesh. What emerged was that soft, buttery, deeply flavorful delicacy -- a total success, and so easy. We used the crisp bread recipe from the magazine to serve with it and that was fun. This was a crispy flatbread made of fine corn meal batter and liberal amounts of sesame, sunflower and flaxseed, giving tons of texture and flavor to the crackers. Following the directions, we spread softened butter (Danish butter!) on the crisp bread and ate the gravlax on top of that. Together with the aquavit and beer, it was almost a meal in itself! There was Gruner Veltliner for those who didn't aquavit, also a great pairing.

The main course was grilled loin of lamb. The article called for entrecote of lamb but I'm fairly certain there's nowhere to get that cut in Washington. So we substituted boneless, rolled and tied loin of lamb and used the herb paste -- minced marjoram, sage, rosemary, thyme, crushed garlic and olive oil -- applied 30 to 60 minutes before grilling after sprinkling salt and pepper on the meat. I used the Big Green Egg for better temperature control to keep the direct grilling at the medium high heat called for. The bigger lamb loin took almost double the 25 minutes specified for the entrecote to reach the 125-degree interior temperature. But the lamb was a total hit -- tender, intensely flavorful from the rub, but predominantly tasting of meaty lamb.

The menu accompanied the lamb with a tomato "sauce" of cherry tomatoes roasted with chopped basil, shallots, thyme, garlic and olive oil. Once the tomatoes popped, they were stirred together with chopped roasted red pepper, Holland chile, and more oil, basil and thyme. (What you may ask is a Holland chile? A word of advice -- don't google for it during a World Cup where the Netherlands and Chile are playing in the same group.)

Additional accompaniments were shallots grilled in foil with garlic and dill and a potato salad of boiled whole baby potatoes, diced kohlrabi sauteed in butter, and yes, more dill. Everything but the lamb could be served at room temperature though we reheated the potato salad to reliquefy the butter. It is marvelously relaxing to serve cucina fresca in the summer, where everything can be ready ahead of time.

The tomato sauce and shallot were scrumptious and could accompany virtually any grilled meat. The potato salad won points for novelty. Kudos to New Morning Farm for having the kohlrabi, but also a big compliment for Whole Foods with all their bulk seeds and grains, and for a friendly butcher team that helped me out with the lamb.

Saveur called for an almond cheesecake with macerated strawberries, but Andrea preferred to find a non-almond version online and conjured up a perfect cheesecake with sour cream, mascapone and graham cracker crust, which combined with NMF strawberries macerated in sugar and Grand Marnier rounded out the meal with a relatively light touch. We had a southern Cote du Rhone red with the main course, and concluded with Grand Marnier and other digestifs. Full recipes and some great photos can be found online at Saveur.com.

The solstice is called "midsummer" even though it is the day that officially marks the start of summer because historically those celebrating it thought of only two seasons, summer and winter, and the solstices are the middle of those seasons. Another semantic puzzle is that Swedes dance around a Maypole in June. Whatever, God bless them.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Bread Furst

Bread Furst has been a great addition to the vendor offering here. Mark Furstenberg's latest venture -- he is in his 70s -- is a great success. His pain au levain rivals anything in France or Germany, Poilane included, and everything we have had -- bialys, baguette, key lime pie, donuts, cheesecake, chocolate cake, frittata, quiche -- has been excellent. Granted, his bagels are too bready and his croissants are not as good as Fresh Baguette, it has nonetheless become one of our very favorite shops.

Photo by Bread Furst
So we began a perfect Saturday morning -- no humidity, temperature in the 70s, blue skies, pleasant breeze -- with breakfast at Bread Furst, located next to the car wash across the street from my old home in the Albermarle (now rechristened the Avalon). After a cappuccino and croissant, we went the two and a half blocks to the New Morning Farm market at the Sheridan School. There we discovered beautiful asparagus and fresh peas and knew what we were having for dinner.

For a midsummer night's dinner the following week I wanted to infuse my own aquavit, according to a recipe in Saveur. It suggested rhubarb, caraway seeds, dill, juniper berries and lemon verbena as botanicals. We got the rhubarb at the market but of course they didn't have lemon verbena. So we went out to American Plant, since we wanted to supplement the herb garden anyway, and got some lemon verbena and lavender, among other herbs. Having decided we would do Marcella Hazzan's orechietti with peas, pancetta and ricotta, we then swung through some lovely neighborhoods in Montgomery County to go to Vace in Bethesda and pick up the Italian ingredients.

For dinner then we had the pasta dish, which I've made often but only rarely with fresh peas. It is a nourishing and satisfying dish, rich with the ricotta and parmesan and flavored by the pancetta. The peas add a sweet vegetable note of their own. We also roasted the asparagus and dressed it with a lemon vinaigrette for a nice, virtually meatless summer meal on the patio. The asparagus was outstanding after the roasting concentrated the flavor and the vinaigrette accented it.

As to the aquavit -- the jury is still out. I like it, but it is definitely an acquired taste. I've just drained it so it needs to spend a couple of days in the freezer for the real test. I added the lavender and to one jar I added a star anise and to another some fennel seeds. The anise version tastes more like the store-bought, but both have flowery undercurrents you don't really get in the bottled versions.

Bread Furst, by the way, is a very clever name. It plays on Mark's surname of course, and puns with first. Yiddish and German speakers recognize a further pun -- Furst means prince and that make the store Bread Prince, and it truly lives up to its name.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Double-crusted baby backs with fennel and coriander

Succulent -- tender, moist, meaty, flavorful, a real home run. This recipe from Cheryl and Bill Jamison's Smoke and Spice produced what Andrea and I both felt may be the best baby backs we ever had. Part of the credit goes to the wonderful meat from WF, a marbled rack weighing 2-1/2 pounds that I cut in half for marinading and grilling. Baby backs from lean pork often come out dry and relatively tough. These were just the opposite.

The Big Green Egg showed that it can come with moist and tender meat if the cook manages to keep the temperature steady, at 220 degrees in this case. I was beginning to wonder if it really could smoke meat without a pan of water, but it certainly performed well here.

But it was the recipe, with a rub of crushed fennel seeds and coriander seeds, that sharpened and focused the marvelous pork flavor of the ribs, without any interference from a mop or a sauce. We put a prepared sauce on the side, but I have to say the pork tasted best to me without any further addition.

It could not be simpler. Crush 2 tablespoons each of the fennel and coriander and mix with 2 teaspoons each of sea salt and brown sugar. Put half the rub on the ribs the night before. Take them out of the fridge 30 minutes before putting them in the smoker and put the other half of the rub on them. (Disconcertingly, the Jamisons then call for you to turn the ribs halfway through and put the remaining rub on them, so I saved a little back for that purpose.)

They cook for three hours. I started them meaty side down and turned them over halfway. No basting or mopping, just steady control of the temperature. The result was precisely as called for by the recipe -- a crusty surface that contrasts dramatically with the juicy meat.

Fennel is the key spice in porchetta, so it's no surprise that this spice pairs astoundingly well with pork. We accompanied with Rancho Gordo's vaquerita beans -- small, deep red beans -- cooked according to Steve Sando's "pot bean" recipe. One-half chopped red onion and 2 smashed garlic cloves get softened in lard (bacon grease in this case) and then add the beans and their soaking water and cook for 1-1/2 hours. To drink, I had a silky southern Cote du Rhone, though the pork probably could have used a slightly more robust red.

I just heard of this book, which is a revised version of a cookbook the Jamisons did before The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking, which I like so much. This one focuses on smoking/slow roasting, and there is some overlap with Big Book. It was worth if for this recipe alone, though I'm sure we'll get many more great meals from it.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Macon

Owner Tony Brown's playful concept of combining his hometown of Macon, Ga., with Macon, France, with a cuisine that filters Southern dishes through French refinement is a winner. The restaurant that opened this month in the culinary desert of upper Northwest is bright, classy and destined to be mobbed.

My first taste was at a quick stop at the bar when I ordered the pork rillettes snack from the blackboard. It was a fresh and tasty mix of pork and fat, a small portion served with home-pickled onions and a perfectly toasted brioche. It was a great snack! (The drinks were good, too, as I noted in my drinks blog.)

We came back together the next night for dinner. They had a great table for us in the front with the high windows letting in tons of light (it was a pre-bridge dinner, so we were early). The wait staff was a little clumsy in their enthusiasm, but they clearly meant well. After we placed our order, we were served little cheddar cheese crackers with homemade sliced pickles that were a great way to whet our appetites. We split the fried green tomato starter, which was generous enough we both had more than enough to eat. The tomato slices were perfectly done and a small chunk of pork belly on the top set them off nicely, as did the spiced tomato aioli.

I order the trout with lentils, happy to get a fish you see rarely on menus here though it is a standard in much of Europe. It was presented well and only ever so slightly overdone. The lentils and pecan persillade accompanied it nicely. Andrea ordered the scallops and they were cooked just right, opaque throughout but still moist, sauteed in a light dusting of flour with a sprinkling of bacon on top. Only complaint was she found the portion of three scallops a trifle small, though she admitted she was not hungry at the end of the meal. Perhaps that was due to the side order of biscuits -- lovely, flakey, hot bread destined to become a signature dish. These were served with a softened butter (though I didn't take to the honey mixed into it) and a tart pepper jelly. Andrea had a glass of the Chablis and I had, what else, the Macon-Villages.

It is noisy, as small, crowded restaurants tend to be. It would be hard for more than two people to communicate, at least on a Friday night. The great thing is, it's so close, we can go any night of the week!