Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dear Jean,

Each month Vanity Fair Magazine ends their issue with a feature they call Proust Questionnaire, a one page celebrity Q and A found just inside the back cover. This month’s featured celebrity was the agelessly beautiful, talented, delightful, Helen Mirren.

As always the questions were the same and, as usual with many of the famous, infamous and simply notorious interviewed there, I expected the usual banal, trite, not-too-amusing replies. But Helen Mirren always astounds. One of her answers gave me the giggles and then a second answer, put with the first, sent me rolling down memory lane.

Q. “What do you most value in your friends?”
A. “Their ability to open a bottle of wine.”

Q. “If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?”
A. “A well worn sofa.”

How many well worn sofas and chairs, blankets on beaches and other cozy places have dear friend Jean and I settled into with the required bottle of wine? I can not count nor do I want to. Just the memory of those times---the intimacies, the tears, the silliness---is enough to make me happy and sentimental and giggly and even, a little tiny bit sad.

I want to thank you Ms. Mirren for reminding me, again, how much loveliness I’ve enjoyed over the years with my precious friend and a bottle of wine.

Monday, August 23, 2010

***Warning*** A Rant.

Atlanta is a foodie mecca. The range and quality of dining in this city, and throughout the surrounding suburbs, is astonishing.

Atlanta features enough culinary star power to rival any other US city or for that matter, almost any city in the world. We have become a veritable melting pot of food cultures with celebrity Chefs on every corner. The diner can as easily find a great place for Indian cuisine as she can for great Q.

The competition among all this fabulousness is sharp and palpable. Throw the flat economy into the mix and you have a restaurant community facing the toughest market it has ever seen. No one is immune from worry over filling their chairs, rising costs and the new guy next door.

I know this. I have worked in Atlanta restaurants for 15 years.

So, when a friend called some months ago telling me he was coming to town with a small convention and needed dining, I jumped---literally---for joy. A group to send to a few dining favorites who were also willing to do what was required for the large group diner: fixed (higher) gratuity, no budget, limited menu, sign a contract.

What did this group want in return? Casual dress, casual dining, Very Good Food, locally owned restaurants reflecting Atlanta, specific times; they were on a tight schedule. Not too far from midtown. If I was a restaurant I'd jump at this.

First Call, Miller Union. The Atlanta Hot Spot. Lauded by everyone from local Food Critic John Kessler to Nationally recognized Bon Apetite Magazine, this place hit all the marks for my visiting group.

And, what did I hear when I called Miller Union requesting a Noon reservation for 15 diners (six weeks down the road, a guarantee to come)?

“We can not guarantee a table for your group at that time or that date. We are doing so well we do not need to reserve that far out.”

Shame on you Miller Union. Shame----on----you! 



Miller Union on Urbanspoon


Restaurants to Applaud---A Short List:
The Group Loved Them; They Were Welcoming and Accommodating

Agave, 242 Boulevard, SE Atlanta
http://www.agaverestaurant.com/
Besides the best margaritas ever, this place features wonderful Southwestern fare and a very accommodating staff. A very, very nice staff. My favorites: Southern fried chicken with mashed Yukon golds or the slow cooked short ribs marinated in ancho chilies. Or, maybe the cevice martini, all spicy and limey and overflowing with tuna and shrimp? You decide. Just go.

Tavola, Virginia Avenue, Virginia Highlands
http://www.latavolatrattoria.com/
I dream about the food here. I smile the minute I walk through the door. Tavola has the nicest managers and a staff to match. The cuisine is perfect Italian straight from the Italian countryside. Have the mozzarella burrata with tomato conserve and crostini; the lemony shrimp risotto with Georgia shrimp and Thai basil. If I ever needed a last meal, this would be it.

Havana Sandwich Shop, lower Buford Highway, Atlanta
http://www.havanarestaurantatlanta.com/

This restaurant was rebuilt after a fire at another location. I am glad the owners made the effort to come back. They would have been sorely missed.  What to try? Cuban sandwiches and Cuban food and the best you’ve ever eaten. Don’t forget the Mojo sauce and a side of black bean soup.



Agave on Urbanspoon

La Tavola Trattoria on Urbanspoon

Havana Sandwich Shop on Urbanspoon

Nine Months Later

Nine months later and I am finally ready to admit to myself that this really happened. It’s also okay now ‘cause two other friends also crossed a remarkable age threshold this year. Time to finally eat the cake.


Musings from last December:

A significant birthday is about to slap me in the face. I’ve spent a year trying to decide what to do about it. Do I celebrate and if I do, how? I was going to have a bash with a friend whose birthday is close to mine, but a few months ago I opted for selfish and went with my own party. Now I’m days away from the event.

Invitations have been sent, my menu is set and I’m in the last throes of getting ready. I’d like to dig my heals in and stop the clock. I can’t. Time goes and I’ve got to go along…..want to or not.

So, how do I really enjoy this trauma? I’ve been so engrossed with table scapes, preparing food, cleaning and decorating---all kinds of minutiae---I haven’t allowed myself to feel what is coming. That age. I…..am….going…to be….65. Yeesh.

Maybe I should be knitting or looking at picture albums. I don’t have albums. All of my pictures are either framed or in piles. Panic or not. No ! I will focus on what I love. My friends are coming. Hopefully lots and lots of friends will show up and I’ll glaze through that extraordinary day in a haze of good conversation, hugs, too much wine and a lot of great food…which I will cook, present and serve. Happiness!

There is nothing better for me than getting ready for a party. And that is what I’m doing. I’ve cooked and frozen 250 potato knishes (Stan will eat at least half!). Two twenty inch seafood strudels are also in the freezer. (Cynthia said that’s all hers). I’ve stuffed them with tiny scallops, shrimp, lobster, glazed criminis and shallots, all folded into a thick b├ęchamel with fresh dill, lemon juice and a pinch of cayenne. I’ve also got 150 Swedish meatballs, two tartars and an Antipasto board in the works.

I’m putting homemade marshmallows and mini black and white cookies on the coffee table and I’ve ordered a birthday cake with marzipan, butter cream and strawberries. Yum. I am a freak for marzipan.

A sentimental, old-fashioned champagne punch (with raspberries and sherbet) will round out the bar of wine, vodka and beer

So, my tummy will be happy. My mind will be occupied. My friends will surround me. That I will certainly enjoy. I’ll go to sleep tired and smiling. And, I will wake up the next morning 65 plus another day. Really, it will be just another day.

Maybe I should plan a good breakfast. Just in case.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Meaty

At last, I can finally come out of my closet. No, I am not writing about sexual orientation. I am writing about meat. Red Meat. Meat from the Angus, Brangus, Hereford and Charolais. Grilled, rare, reddish-pink on the inside and running with juices.

No longer considered Bad Food, meat is in vogue again and I am delighted. I can eat it again with impunity and without embarrassing----or have to wince in front of-----my vegetarian friends.

The resurgence is almost startling as we are also in the throes of a food revolution demanding healthier food, farm to table food, locally grown food, organic food.

How does this reconcile? Well, I don’t exactly know. But, I will tell you, it makes me happy to find a half dozen restaurants (in this city alone!) specializing in the burger and another place where the whole animal---literally everything from nose to tail----is deliciously presented and heartily enjoyed.

Ah, the carnivore is acceptable again. How delectable to be decadent once more.

Atlanta’s Meaty Winners----My Short List:

Farm Burger, W. Ponce in Decatur
http://www.farmburger.net/

Do not be discouraged by the cramped parking lot or the line you might find. Chalk it up to part of the experience and visit while you wait. 100% grass fed beef cooked by a chef who decides when the pink inside is just right. And, it is always just right: burgers that taste just like burgers should; delicious, juicy, meaty, perfect. There are plenty of toppings and sides to choose from: I love their grilled onions and special sauce. My friend raves about the salty-crispy sweet potato fries.

Fat Matt’s Rib Shack, Piedmont Avenue, NE Atlanta
http://www.fatmattsribshack.com/

Another place with limited parking and lines, which I promise you will easily forgive and forget once you sit, are served and eat. Fat Matt's is an Atlanta institution and has been around for 2 decades. The meat on the ribs is so tender it literally falls off the bone. Sauce is sweet and vinegary with extra served on the side; there’s also chicken and chopped pork sandwiches. But, for me, the ribs, the ribs only. Sides include hot roasted peanuts and thick rich baked beans. Blues music adds to the fun.

Morton’s of Chicago, Peachtree Street, Downtown
http://www.mortons.com/atlanta/

There is nowhere else where you can find a better prime steak served in wood-paneled luxury. I like mine grilled Pittsburgh style to a pinky-red medium rare. Morton's Downtown does it to perfection. Pair that with a side of lyonaisse potatoes and the creamed spinach; wash it down with a glass of pinot noir. Now, that’s steak.

Morton's - the Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Fat Matt's Rib Shack on Urbanspoon

Farm Burger on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 13, 2010

Simple. Easy.

There seems to be a unified theme running through food shows, recipes, magazine articles and blogs; make it simple, make it easy, make it fun.

It leads me to believe that people who care about food, the foodie people who read the blogs, buy the magazines and watch the shows, can only produce edibles if they can be made quickly and with as few brain cells as possible.

Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but the words simple-easy are sprinkled too generously in most things I read and most things I watch. I find this annoying. Really good food is the result of thoughtful preparation, effort, love and patience.

No, it is not work and yes, it certainly can be fun. However, I would love it more if we were attracted to cooking because it did take some effort and because we derived pleasure simply by giving others something wonderful to eat.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Fattoush

It recently dawned on me that the best way to support my determination to eat a healthier diet was to make sure the good foods I brought home were prepped and ready for grabbing and gobbling. I can be lazy and just having them in the house was not enough. Also, Atlanta’s swampy summer heat was fast approaching. That meant my motivation and activity level were about to take a nosedive.

I needed a good alternative to the easy shove-cracker-in-the-mouth routine I occasionally (frequently) adopt.

Digging around for ideas that would translate into quick and easy but could also hang out in the fridge, I stumbled on Fattoush.

It is pronounced Faa-toosh. It is a salad. It originates from either Syria or Lebanon and dates back hundreds of years.

I loved it on first sight and knew it was going to land on my favorite summer foods list. It had a lot of fresh mint. I could use my preserved lemon. It came from the Mediterranean world of tabbouleh, hummus and baba ghanoush.

Fattoush is meant to have hearty pieces of raw vegetable and is traditionally topped with stale or fried pita. Portions often have more veg and a bit less greenery than the usual salad. The dressing is tart and lemony, a perfect contrast to the sweet summer vegetables.

Prepping ahead allows you to toss handfuls of veg and greenery into your favorite salad vessel, drizzle dressing, top with bread and be ready to eat in under 5 minutes.

Instant gratification!

My Version of Fattoush and How I Prep Ahead
(about 4 servings to last 4 days).

1. The Bread
• 2 pita bread pockets
• 1 clove garlic
• Olive oil

Open up the pita and gently rub the inside with the clove of garlic. Put on a cookie pan and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Toast at 400° for 10 minutes. Cool and break into wedges. Store at room temp.

2. The Dressing
• ½ cup water
• 1 tsp cornstarch
• Juice of 2 lemons
• Skin from ½ preserved lemon, rinsed and finely minced, or zest of ½ lemon
• 2 cloves of garlic pureed---1 clove can be from the pita (puree in a mortar and pestle with a pinch of coarse salt or “puree” on your cutting board with salt and the flat side of your knife)
• 3 TBS of good olive oil
• Pinch of sugar
• S&P to taste
**½ tsp Sumac powder

Combine the water and cornstarch in a small saucepan and heat over medium, whisking until the cornstarch dissolves and the mixture is smooth. Set aside to cool and then whisk in the balance of dressing ingredients.

Store, tightly covered, in the fridge. Shake well before using.

3. The Greens
1 cup mint leaves
½ cup flat leafed parsley
***5 ounces purslane (or arugula)

Toss together. Wrap lightly in damp paper towel and tuck into a zip loc bag. Store in the fridge

4. The Veg
½ cup grape or cherry tomatoes
2 Kirby cucumbers (pickle cucs), seeded (not skinned) and cut into 1” pieces
4 radishes, sliced thin
½ red onion, cut into 1” dice
1 red, yellow or green pepper, cut into 1” pieces
½ cup of canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed

Store in a strainer set into a bowl-----to catch any seepage. Top veg with dry paper towel and set a few ice cubes inside the rim of the strainer to weigh down the paper towel. Refrigerate.

Optional other things: carrot (cut into round slices), red cabbage (cut into 1” pieces), black olives, pomegranate seeds, feta cheese served in a wedge and set over the top of the salad.

**Sumac is a reddish colored powder with a sour lemony taste. It is also used with kabobs, rice dishes and sprinkled over humus. In Atlanta, find it at the Buford Highway Farmer’s Market in the European section.www.bufordhighwayfarmersmarket.com
Or, look for it in any market that carries eastern Mediterranean foods---Turkish, Lebanese, Arabic. On line: www.amazon.com   .Sumac 7ozSumac Spice 2.0 oz - Zamouri Spices.
They have a 7 ounce package for $3.96.

***Purslane has a peppery crunchy taste and looks like baby spinach. It also contains more omega3 (good) fatty acids than any other green leafy veg. I have had trouble finding it in Atlanta. I substitute arugula. 

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Bacon Meets Chocolate

When Michael Symon was on Dinner Impossible, long before he was Iron Chef, I watched him dip bacon into chocolate. Just like the skeptics on the show, I thought the idea sounded awful. But it was good after all, the idea caught on and now you find it all over.

Much, much later, Cory the Kid found chocolate covered bacon featured in a restaurant blog on line. I could hear him salivating all the way from New York. I resolved then and there to, learn how to make it, pack it up, mail it off and surprise him for his birthday. Lacking a way to keep bacon and chocolate chilled during transit, the project never quite got off the ground.

Now the Kid's in Atlanta and I've had 2 months to work on the bacon with the chocolate. The final result is wrapped and in the fridge; chilling out and waiting for delivery.

But I must 'fess up, I’m glad I had some time. What I thought would be easy--how difficult could it be to dip anything in chocolate!---turned into quite a project; it is not all that easy to dip said bacon in said chocolate and the first 2 batches landed in the trash. Cory the Kid, this bacon’s for you.

How To Make Chocolate Covered Bacon

• I pound of thick cut bacon
• 2 (3.5 ounce each) bars of chocolate, pick a decent brand, do not be afraid of mixing 2 different flavors. I used extra dark bittersweet and plain old milk. Hazelnut is also very nice.
• 2 low sided cookie pans, 1 lined with parchment paper
• Tongs
• 1 double boiler or a heat proof bowl set over a sauce pan


Method:
Lay all the bacon on an ungreased, low-sided cookie pan and bake at 425° until done. I like my bacon a little toothsome, but you can make it crispy.

Remove the cooked bacon to paper towels and let the bacon drain and cool.
After the bacon has completely cooled, put it on clean paper towels and pat off as much grease as possible. Cut each piece in half. Set aside. Do not refrigerate.


Brake up the bars of chocolate and put ¾’s of it in a double boiler over barely simmering water. (Or the heat proof bowl over the sauce pan)


Melt the chocolate slowly; do not let the bowl of chocolate touch the water; do not cover the bowl while the chocolate melts. (That forms condensation which turns into water which drips into your chocolate which is definitely not good!)

When all the chocolate has melted, remove the double boiler from the heat. Add the remaining chocolate and stir gently until all of it is melted and smooth.

Using tongs and working one piece at a time, submerge your bacon pieces into the melted chocolate and turn to coat well.

Remove the bacon from the chocolate and let the extra chocolate drip off. Put the chocolate covered bacon on a cookie pan lined with parchment.

Repeat until all the bacon pieces are coated.


I had extra chocolate so I spooned it over the already coated bacon to make the chocolate extra thick. Do not try to re-dip.

Chill the chocolate covered bacon, uncovered, overnight.

Store covered. Keep chilled.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Wedding Bell Blues

I am not ashamed. I will admit it. I could not wait to see pictures of Chelsea's wedding. And when I finally did, I was in awe. That dress was to die for. She looked beautiful and even Hillary, not always the standard of fashion, was dressed and coiffed to kill. 

But there were no pictures or mention of the food and I am so disappointed. Knowing the bride to be gluten intolerant and a sometime vegan, I was expecting to read about a menu that rivaled the dress; a Vera Wang-like creation of gustatory elegance, Eastern refinement and cutting edge creativity. The last word in foodom. A new artisanal standard. 

Alas, nothing. No hint of crostini or peek at some fondant. No locally sourced, seasonally appropriate anything. I am crushed. The despair! (Did they eat?)



 

Bad Cop, Good Cop


There seems to be, anyway what borders on, an excessive obsession with food terminology these days. What? Do I dare say it? Am I writing blasphemy? (Can you write blasphemy?) But really, think about it. Twenty years ago: did anyone really care what we ate other than it tasted good and included fruit and veg? Our benchmark was that odd pyramid along with wash your hands before you eat. Period. The end.

There were no food police. There was no slow food, locally grown, locally sourced, farmed/not farmed, grass fed, organic, low salt, no fructose, near extinction, farm-to-table, seasonal, artisanal, bad fat/good fat…anything!

To borrow a phrase, the linguistic pot that governs our food choices today is over whelming and over done. There. I wrote it. It’s out. Now shoot me.

There is a revolving door of foods that shift from used to be good to bad to then okay, but just a little, to maybe you shouldn’t eat it after all. We are warned that unless it’s from the farm or the lake or the ocean next door, we are polluting the earth. We are no longer capable of knowing deep fried food might be bad on a daily basis so we legislate against it. Unable to read a food label or turn a box around, manufacturers are now being urged to print the stuff in front.

And, on a personal note, I do not enjoy the rain of guilt and disapproval when I ask for a burger that’s pink inside rather than charred to medium gray.

What’s happening to us? Do we lack the sense to understand the “everything in moderation” rule? Do we not get it already that we need to be given more descriptions, more delineation, more warnings?

Enough I say! You don’t have to remind me that we are living longer and healthier and all the exercise and food consciousness helps. I know that. You know that. Now, let me be human and goof off now and then.

Post On

I do not suffer from ADD although you might think so as this is my 3rd blog site. No, it's just a matter of finding a spot where I can write in peace, unfettered by endless complicated decisions about designs, settings, URL's or someone threatening the legal equivalent of shock and awe because my domain name was similar to theirs. 

So, here I begin again. Hopefully, this will be the last move and I can again focus on The Food (and me).