Friday, February 29, 2008

Naughty Bobby!!

The Food Network has fired Chef Robert Irvine.

Frankly, we're neither surprised nor upset...

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Surviving the trends...

I've just finished reading an article about the newest food trends, and I must admit to being a bit perplexed. I can't seem to figure out where I fit in...or if I even want to. Am I a locavore or an ethicurian? Am I addicted to gastroporn? Am I pro or anti-biotic? I do like to think that I'm a fairly responsible consumer, but that's not to say that I don't enjoy the occasional gastro-thrill. Could I be umami challenged??? Am I trendy? And if so, am I really trendy, or cheap, Ikea trendy...?

Keeping up with food trends is a daunting task. When the neighborhood coffee shop gave way to the coffee bar, we were expected to either learn Javanese or risk the kind of humiliation that can only be meted out by a pretentious teenager in a green apron and Prada framed glasses. ("Quad venti skinny cappuccino with dry foam, please...").

The Molecular gastronomy trend has trickled it's way down to street level in the form of "Dippin' Dots", and we are now seeing the rise of "niche" restaurants - restaurants that specialize in just one item, from peanut butter sandwiches to cereal to Belgian fries. Even bartenders have jumped on the trendy train, calling themselves "Bar Chefs" or "Gastro-bartenders", who seek to provide us with "health conscious" cocktails that include ingredients like organic herbs and superfruits ("Set me up with another one of those organic goji berry acai martinis with acerola and medicinal herbs, wouldja?...and don't skimp on the gin!!")

I'm just plain confused. I am a canvas bag carrying supporter of locally grown ingredients, and I buy them whenever they are available. I do shop organic, and every morning, I down a tiny container of "GoodBelly" to offset the issues brought on by the massive doses of Levaquin that my doctor continues to shove at me. I've watched every single episode of "Baking With Julia" ever made, and my TIVO is programmed to capture episodes of Barefoot Contessa, Lidia's Italy and Simply Ming. I've eaten ostrich and rattlesnake. And yes, I appreciate the wonderous flavors of parmesan cheese, good veal stock, tomatoes and asparagus - without MSG. So, does that make me a pro-anti biotic ethicurean turophile locawhore umami-enabled gastro-risk taker? I think not, my friends. I like to think that I defy categorization - I refuse to conform to trendy labels, (unless of course they're clean labels...) and I won't be pigeonholed! Just pass me my coffee and call me Nuwanda!!

News from the culinary universe

More than 60 culinary students are sharpening their knives in hopes of making it to the finals competition in Napa Valley. The 2008 S.Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition has kicked off its 6th year by partnering with more than 30 of the top culinary schools in the United States and Canada. Participating students have the rare opportunity to compete against one another in 10 regional competitions and the chance to prepare their respective winning signature dishes for an esteemed panel of chef and media judges.

Chef Harold Dieterle of Perilla restaurant in New York will serve as the master of ceremonies and celebrity chef at the finals competition in Napa Valley, and will also host the Northeast regional event being held at the Institute of Culinary Education in February. Actress Lorraine Bracco will co-host the People's Choice Tasting Gala along with Dieterle to announce the 2008 S.Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef winner.

"The restaurant industry has all the qualities of a real-life competition," says Harold Dieterle. "Almost Famous sets up these young chefs to feel comfortable and thrive in these high-pressure situations, which is why so many of the students leave the competition and go on to work for some of the best restaurants in the country."

Read the full story at California Wine and Food.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Demolition Desserts: An Adventure In Baking

Food. You know The Gals love it...No big mystery there. Most anything food related make our hearts throb. But when we combine our love of food with our love of books, well, we get all gooey inside. Cookbooks are inspirational. The photos make our mouths water, the descriptions and instructions urge us to the nearest grocery to collect the ingredients for that tantalizing recipe(s) from our newest cookbook. It could be a disaster or it could be the next favorite at the upcoming holiday gathering, depending on the cookbook.

My latest fav? Elizabeth Falkner's "Demolition Desserts". This is a cookbook with a punk rock sensibility. Chef Falkner has teamed up with Ann Krueger Spivak, photographer Frankie Frankeny and illustrator Ryan Falkner (her brother) to bring you a book full of amazing desserts from her restaurant, Citizen Cake.

Many chefs shy away from the realm of pastry and desserts . Falkner has never had such qualms. Her philosophy is that you should always have as much fun making desserts as you do eating them. By the looks of the recipes in this book, she's having a blast.

She starts the recipes off simply with the chocolate chip cookie, saying "A well made chocolate chip cookie is a work of art." I took her advice and chose the Chocolate Chip Espresso Cookie as my first "Demolition Desserts" venture.

Photo by L.K. Misenheimer

As you can see, it's a damned fine cookie. If you like the pairing of strong coffee with rich chocolate, then this cookie is for you. Keeping with Falkner's instructions, I kept the dough handling to a minimum. It was hard not to nibble at the dark, deeply aromatic mixture, but once those babies were out of the oven, all bets were off! And if you can control yourself long enough you will be rewarded with a delicately crunchy cookie, not too crisp and not too chewy. As Goldilocks said of Baby Bear's porridge, "It's just right"!"

One of the things I really love about this book is that Chef Falkner encourages you to think creatively when it comes to her desserts. There are no hard and fast mandates; if you want to riff on her many creations, I think that it would make her very happy. Each dessert has notes on what can be made ahead of time and how it could be pared down to a "Minimalist" version. Her advice for downsizing "A Veil of Vanilla"? (The recipes calls for tarte tatin apples, Point Reyes blue cheese crumbles, pecan caramel sauce, honey semifreddo and pomegranate.) "With all the components, this dessert is amazing, but if you layered just the apples, blue cheese crumbles, pomegranate seeds, and a little store-bought vanilla ice cream, it wouldn't suck." While the desserts are luscious some of the recipes will challenge both your technical kitchen skills and stretch your palate. When most people think of dessert, creamy grits and shaved fennel are not the typical ingredients that leap to mind yet you will find both in Demolition Desserts. We heartily endorse at least trying a couple of her more adventurous confections if only to break out of your dessert rut of run of the mill cakes, brownies and cookies.

Illustration by Ryan Falkner

This isn't just a book full of recipes and kick-ass photography. We also get the wonderful culinary manga character called "Caremi Keiki". Caremi (Chef Falkner's alter ego) would love to tag the world in chocolate if she could just find the right kind of chocolate spray paint!

Photo by Frankie Frankeny

It's that sense of whimsy that makes this book so enjoyable. From simple cookies to the jubilant "Cherries of the Corn"; from the elegance of "Apple Galettes" to the passionate "Love Letter", Elizabeth Falkner's "Demolition Desserts" has found a welcome place in my library of treasured cookbooks.

Get your very own copy of "Demolition Desserts" HERE.

My hero...

Coffee frog prepares for today's Starbucks closure...

Monday, February 25, 2008

The gnocchs on Antonio's...

Colorado Springs isn't exactly a haven for foodies, but there are many good restaurants here, Antonio's among them. Their menu is extensive, authentic, and will even make the vegetarians among us happy. The staff is friendly and attentive, and the desserts are to die for. (Antonio's pastry chef makes the most amazing cannoli I've ever tasted.) And if you're lucky, you might even be treated to the strains of live opera as you dine. So when my partner suggested Italian food for dinner, I immediately said "Antonio's". He quickly agreed, and we were off.

Walking in the door at Antonio's is a lovely thing...We're always greeted by a smiling face, intriguing aromas wafting from the kitchen, and the buzz of happy people enjoying their food. As soon as we were seated, we ordered the mussel appetizer, which appeared promptly, steaming and swimming in a garlicky wine sauce. The mussels were tender and delicious, and served with hot, homemade garlic bread to soak up the sauce. When we had finished every last one, the waiter whisked away the bowl of empty shells, and delivered our entrees.

I had ordered the Gnocchi di Patate, and we each took a bite as soon as the plate hit the table. (Gnocchi is bite sized and therefore easily purloined by one's dining partner...) We exchanged puzzled glances. "Isn't gnocchi supposed to be kind of...fluffy...or puffy?" he asked. I acknowledged my companion's astute assessment with the saddest face I could muster, hoping to score a bite of his Veal Saltimbocca. "Yes dear, gnocchi should be "fluffy...and puffy!" Gnocchi are dumplings, and properly made, are imponderous, cloud like bites of heaven. But the Gnocchi di Patate (usually one of my favorites) that sat before me was neither imponderous nor cloud like. These were heavy, gummy lumps of dough, tough to the tooth and difficult to chew. Now, I know that the literal translation of gnocco is "lump", but as a rule, the Italians are not that literal when it comes to food. I also found the taste of "patate" to be decidedly absent. In fact, unless you count raw flour as a flavor, there was really no taste at all. They remained on my plate, pushed to one side as I sopped up the sumptuous Gorgonzola cream with the remaining bread, and pondered the incongruity of how sauce and bread this good could have come from the same kitchen as that gnocchi...

The sad face didn't affect my partner, but the waiter, obviously moved by my sighs and remaining bread-to-sauce ratio, asked if he could bring me something different. I opted for the Veal Saltimbocca, the scent of which had been dancing across the table and tickling at my olfactory receptors not unlike those ethereal cartoon arms of aroma that beckon one to the food from which they originate. This time, I was not disappointed. The veal was perfect, topped with a crisp, salty slice of prosciutto, and drizzled with a sauce that was winey, buttery rich and heavy with sage (and just a hint of lemon). With my first bite, the "lumps" were all but forgotten.

When the check arrived, I found that I had not been charged for the veal...only for the gnocchi, which was considerably less in price. When asked about the omission, the waiter smiled and said "The chef sends his apologies, and hopes that your experience this evening will not discourage future visits." As I nibble at the remains of my cannoli, I'm thinking it won't...

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Government Cheese

While we have been known to enjoy a wide variety of cheeses, this is one that neither of us has had the necessity to experience...yet. That big brick of USDA American cheese is an unpleasant reminder that the "Trickle Down Theory" of economics didn't really trickle down far enough in practice.

Flash forward to today and our current economic dilemma. The collapse of the sub-prime market. Recession. Exploding gas prices. The disaster that is our health care "system". With the presidential election nipping at our heels, the current administration has decided that the best way to handle these financial dire straights is to hand taxpayers a $600.00 check with the hope that we will spend every last cent of it and jolt the economy. Will it help? Or will our collective belts tighten even more once our $600.00 is gone?

The business of food in America seems to me to be entering a golden age. Drawing away from overly processed, chemically laden foods. Understanding the necessities of locally grown and harvested produce. Chefs and restaurateurs have enjoyed riding the wave of love that our Foodie Nation bestows on those who serve fine cuisine. Foodies write blogs, they watch and discuss in detail the various food based television shows. They pore over the many food porn magazines our publishing industry produces. The question is, will our current economic woes throw a monkey wrench into the massive food industry machine?

What can we expect in the upcoming year? Will Tom Colicchio's juggernaut of Craft restaurants continue to expand or will his over priced food force a scale back of under performing partners? Will Martha Stewart regret buying Emeril Lagasse lock, stock and fry pan once she realizes that middle America can do just fine with some no name gadget over the same thing with Emeril's (or her) name slapped on it? Could a severe American recession trigger a world wide recession leading to unexpected environmental benefits? Might a Japanese recession save the Blue Fin tuna? Will American cattlemen move away from massive corn and grain feed lots that depend upon on chemicals and antibiotics and revisit grazing as corn prices sky rocket to supply our new ethanol needs?

Action/Reaction. How you spend your hard earned dollars makes a difference. Join a farm subscription or community supported agriculture, shop at the local farmer's market. Grow a garden. Buy your meat directly from the producer and know how your meat was raised. (Buying half a side of beef not only locks in the price you pay, but will keep you from consuming poorly processed meats.) Buying directly from the person raising the beef puts more money in their pockets and less in those of the massive processors. Make meals at home for the whole family. Re-instituting the family dynamic of leftovers can have unexpected benefits as a family learns to bond if only in revolt over consuming yet more tuna casserole. It's the stuff family legends are made of.

Times are tough and could get tougher. Make the smart choices, or you may find yourself chewing on a big, artificially colored, processed American government brick.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

First Look

I am absolutely loving Last Restaurant Standing. From my perspective, this show is determined to put the "reality" back in reality television. The challenges are spot on. There is no nonsense. The contestants are there to prove that they can actually run a successful restaurant - a singularly difficult task, that has, thus far at least, been treated with the respect it deserves.

Running a restaurant seems so simple. Many of us can cook. We've all been to restaurants. We all think we know what people like to eat, and some of us have probably even thought "Hey - I could do that!". But this series shines an uncompromising spotlight on the real world of how restaurants really work. Over 15 episodes, Chef Raymond Blanc will test and re-test the nine couples who are competing to determine whether or not they have what it takes to actually run their own restaurant business. And how does he make this determination? He actually gives each couple an empty restaurant, a budget, suggestions, and (gasp!) constructive criticism! He does not require them to create dishes with ingredients purchased from vending machines, nor does he scream spittle laden obscenities inches from their faces. I can't say there haven't been tears, but they weren't brought on by Blanc. There have even been a couple of spats. But they were dignified spats. And so far, no one has gone to the hospital, and they all appear to have the same amount of hair with which they started. And this from a diverse group of couples that have little or no professional cooking experience...

Each week the restaurants are visited by a panel of 'inspectors' that includes Lee Cash, Sarah Willingham, and John Lederer (each successful restaurateurs in their own right), and are judged on how they are running their restaurant, from how well they have applied Blanc's suggestions (last week it was creating specials in the form of desserts and cocktails to up revenues), to how efficiently they use their budget, to how the kitchen is run, to the quality of the food, and ultimately, upon customer satisfaction. The scutiny is equally distributed between the front of the house and the back, and the standards are high (Blanc is well respected, with two Michelin stars, several restaurants, and his own cooking school - he knows the biz!)

The first challenge involved each couple getting their new place up and running. That meant choosing a name, planning a menu within the budget, ordering dishes, cutlery, linens, furniture, etc. decorating the space, booking customers, and hiring (and managing) staff - the whole enchilada. At the end of that episode (and I believe each episode to follow), the winning couple won a Raymond Blanc star trophy to display in their restaurant. Of the remaining couples, all but the three with the lowest-rated restaurants were allowed to stay; those three were then given a new challenge - to book and cater a party for one of three clients, each of whom had their own budget and specific needs and desires. The restaurant that failed the second task (gasp again - a second chance!) was shut down, and the couple sent home.

At the end of the season, the winning team will not receive $100,000.00. They will not get a new car. And they won't be shipped off to a resort in Las Vegas to be swallowed up by a huge corporation. Nope. None of that. Instead, having proven themselves capable and worthy, the winning couple will be given their own brand new restaurant, with the financial and personal backing from Blanc.

Blanc says "The couples taking part are very brave. They have to leave their families or change the schooling of their children. It is a life-changing decision to take part in this program - it is not just a game. They are making many sacrifices...." From what I've seen thus far, I have to agree. This one is a definite watcher!

BBC Tuesday 9 p.m. et/pt

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Blue Cheese with Praline Bacon

The fine folks at Wisconsin Cheese and Dairy have put together a lovely cheese pairing guide that features unique recipes. (Candied grapefruit rind, spicy pumpkin brittle, and praline bacon, to name a few.) The recipes are easy to follow, and the ingredients affordable. And they all sound delicious! Take a peek - the photos alone just might inspire an impromptu trip to your local fromagerie...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Blogging for Sushi

The single most annoying thing about being a fan of Top Chef is not being able to taste the food. Whenever I get the chance, I want to taste for myself what all the fuss is about. Just such a chance presented itself when the lovely Ms. XaXa of Amuse Biatch mentioned that she was traveling home to Texas to check out Tre and Casey's hometown digs. You know I just had to latch on like one of those burrs in the fall prairie grass. I fired up Shamu One, took a quick plane ride down to Big D and spent three glorious days chomping my way through the city. And I want to share it all with you.

The first day of the adventure was spent alone. While XaXa is quite lovely, she cannot live on her looks alone and must have gainful employment. I, on the other hand, have no looks nor am I highly useful at my place of employment. Therefore taking a Friday off is, for me, frankly, too easy. But I was at a loss at how to make productive use of my time when the blog queen of my life made a brilliant suggestion. "Get thee to Nobu!" proclaimed the Java Junkie. Knowing me for the sushi whore that I am, reservations were made immediately. And that's where we are going first my little monkeys. To the land of clean and amazing flavors.

Nobu is well known throughout the world for it's distinctive Nobu style and heart, quality freshness, unexpected flavor pairings. I decided to put myself in the hands of the chefs and ordered the Omakase or Chef's Choice.

Time to meet the chefs.

This is my chef for the evening, Richie Feng. I doubt Chef Feng realized that the crazy blog lady would be asking so many questions and taking so many pictures but he was a good sport and presented me with a simply amazing experience.

Helping answer my questions when Chef Feng would have to step away was Roger Man. A Nobu veteran of many years he helped me understand a little of the Nobu philosophy.

The first dish of the evening was...

Salmon Tataki with Wasabi Tobikko and a miso broth. How funny that I'd been complaining all season about the numerous seafood tartares we'd seen and this is the first thing I'm served. But this ain't your Top Chef tartare. The knife work on the salmon is amazing and the flavors exquisite. The dish is meant to be eaten with a little of each component so the flavors explode on your tongue; the spicy caviar, the mildness of the fresh salmon each heightened by the miso broth. Wonderful. Once you've finished your fish you cleanse your palate with a Japanese Mountain Peach or Yamamomo. It tastes like a cross between the sweetness of a raspberry (but not the tartness) and the depth of a sweet apple. Too bad I can't get these at Whole Foods because they are wonderful.

Next was Suzuki on English Cucumber with Chive and Sesame Seeds. Citrus oil is the base. While you can't tell from this picture (and really I couldn't tell by looking), the fish is very lightly seared to add texture and bring out more of the fish flavor. I do have to admit this one severely challenged my hashi skills. Another excellent dish.

The third and last cold dish was a salad of Fried Sweet River Shrimp with seared Tuna. The salad had two dressings, an onion dressing with the heavier items and a cleaner, lighter citrus sesame oil with the vegetables behind the protein. This dish just rocked - it was my favorite of the night. The entire shrimp (head left on for more flavor and juiciness) is split and delicately fried and the tuna is lightly seared. A whole shiso leaf separates the protein and the vegetables. It has an incredible flavor that I find hard to describe but ask Harold since Perilla is the genus name for shiso...

This is the Alaskan Black Cod with Miso. Sounds so simple. Just cod with miso. This was a very close second to my favorite above. Cod is a nice firm fish that will hold up to broiling or baking. This fish just soaks up the sweetness of the miso and if you want to cut that sweetness you can always nibble on the pickled ginger root. This dish did not last long on my plate, and was, to my great joy, accompanied by another mountain peach.

This was, in my opinion, the only unspectacular note. A beef tenderloin with shitake and enoki mushrooms and asparagus on a bed of onions and broth. This is no fault of the dish or the chef. It's just that I came to seek out and consume all things seafood. Not to worry because after beef it's time for...

Sushi and mushroom broth! The soup was steaming hot with all manner of mushrooms. Hidden in the middle of all that fungus is a tasty clam in it's shell. The sushi (from left to right) is Tai or Red Snapper, Toro or fatty tuna, Aji or Spanish Mackeral, giant clam and last but not least is Unagi or eel. It was just as wonderful as it was beautiful.

It's at this point of the menu that your wonderful chef asks you how you're doing and if you are ready for dessert. I took just a few seconds and decided that I was not. I asked if they had a new dish or something that they were experimenting with. Chef Feng said yes and described it. How could my response be anything else but bring it on?

I'm glad I asked. Thin slices of white fish sitting in a bed of olive oil, topped with dry miso crumbles and chives with a tiny little potato chip. Heavenly. Dried miso could be very addictive and I'm going to be attempting to replicate.

Finally it was time for dessert (...don't ask her if she wants ANOTHER dish...).

A Bento Box of warm Chocolate Fondant Cake with Goma Tuille and Green Tea Ice Cream. Each by itself would have been wonderful as a dessert. All three together was just decadent. Pair that with...

...the house Nobu Mango Sake and you have the perfect ending to a most exciting and satisfying meal. My thanks to the fine folks at Nobu Dallas. I'm not a food critic but I do love food and I enjoy when food is done well.

Original post date 9/14/07