Sunday, July 26, 2009

South American Saturday Night

Hard to believe July is almost over and the days are steamier than ever here in Charleston. When I got in my car at the pool yesterday afternoon, it said the temperature of my car was 108 degrees... yuck. It becomes almost impossible to do anything outside the comfort of your air conditioned home during the afternoon hours however once the sun goes down, its time to fix a cocktail and fire up the grill...
Last night, John and I had a few friends over for a Latin/South American themed cooked out. The menu: Spicy Dark and Stormies Green Chile Chicken and Cheese Empanadas
Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Chimichurri, Spanish Rice and Grilled Vegetables
Dulce de Leche Ice Cream Pie
and of course a smattering of international wines as well...
I was able to prepare most everything in advance as we had to swing by another get together prior to our own. Also great because it meant less running around the kitchen and more cocktail time on the porch with our friends.
I started actually with the dessert the night before. I wanted to do something with Dulce de Leche, a staple in the world of Latin-American baking, but I wasn't really interested in taking 5 hours to make my own this time- so I decided to turn to my dear friend Haagen-Dazs.
I set two containers of Haagen-Dazs Dulce de Leche ice cream out to soften while I worked on the crust. I combined half a package of Nabisco Chocolate Cookies and 3 tablespoons of sugar in the food processor. I whirred it into fine crumbs and then added 1/2 stick melted butter down the tube while it was running. As soon as it came together to a moist sand-like texture, I pressed it into a pie plate to form a crust. I then baked it at 350 degrees for about 12 minutes. While it was baking, I melted one cup of semi sweet chocolate chips in a saucepan over med-low heat with a sprinkle of cinnamon and a tablespoon or so of Kahlua to give it a real Mexican chocolate flavor. I poured the melted chocolate into the bottom of the crust as it came out of the oven and let it sit for a few minutes to cool. I then added the ice cream, covered the whole thing with foil and put back in the freezer. Very very easy.
Saturday morning, I tackled the Empanadas. This was my first stab at empanadas and to be honest, I was a bit intimidated by the pastry dough. I did some google research to see if anyone had highly recommended short cuts such as store bought pie crust or pizza dough- but in the end, I decided to pony up and make my own. SO GLAD I DID!!! 1) It came together really quickly 2) the dough was very easy to work with and 3) the flaky crunchiness of the masa harina (corn flour) in the dough was the best part about them!
I used Tyler Florence's recipe- following the dough instructions exactly however I tweaked the filling a little bit. I purchased two rotisserie leg quarters from which I peeled all of the meat and then chopped it rather finely. I then added 1.5 cups of Harris Teeter brand Salsa Verde instead of making one from scratch. I frequently make Tyler's Green Chile Enchiladas as well and for that I always make the Salsa Verde myself so I can say honestly that Harris Teeter's is really very close to the real thing. I also used shredded monterrey jack cheese instead of queso fresco. I found that a tablespoon of filling was just right for each circle of dough and that once folded in half, crimping the edges with a fork worked just fine without the egg wash. The recipe made 28 or so empanadas total- perfect for a party of seven people. I arranged them on a buttered cookie sheet, covered with foil and refrigerated until right before our guests arrived.
Next I prepared the Chimichurri sauce. I actually watched Tyler Florence make this pork last week when I was catching up on some DVR'd Food TV and it inspired my Latin soiree idea. In the food processor I combined the garlic cloves, jalapenos, parsley, oregano, vinegar, lime juice, salt and peppercorns as he called for and actually added about 1/3 of a Spanish onion as well. I combined everything into a pesto looking sauce and then at the end- with the blade running- gradually poured the olive oil down the spout to be sure it emulsified well (the oil didn't separate). It smelled HEAVENLY, so I was really excited. I poured half of it over three trimmed pork tenderloins in a large, sturdy zip lock bag to marinate. I let it go about 4 hours and they were deliciously flavorful. Any longer and I'd be afraid the lime juice would start to pickle the meat. I then reserved the other half to serve alongside the grilled pork.
One more prep-ahead piece, the veggies. I had two bunches of asparagus, trimmed and two bell peppers (one orange/one yellow) sliced into 8 wedges each. I placed the veggies in a zip-lock and made a quick "dressing" for them. In a small bowl I mixed together 1/4 cup olive oil, juice of half a lime, pinch of salt, pepper, corriander, cumin and chile powder. I poured the dressing over the veggies and placed in the fridge.
Just before our friends arrived, I made myself a cocktail (very important step), put the empanadas in the oven and assembled the rice. In a medium size pot, I added 2 1/4 cups of water, 2 cups of basmati rice, and 2 cans of original Rotel. I let it soak for 20 minutes without any heat. I don't actually know why but Basmati rice instructions explicity include this step. I then turned the burner to high, brought it to a boil, turned the heat to simmer, covered the rice and cooked 15 minutes. Resisting the temptation to peak to see if it is done, I remove it from the burner and let it sit for 4-5 minutes, still covered before transfering to a serving dish. I kept it warm in the oven until we were ready to eat. My mother made this a lot when we were younger and I just love it. The rice is wonderfully moist and it has a nice heat from the Rotel. I like to kick it up even more with some Texas Pete while I'm eating it.
So back to the cocktail... as I mentioned a few weeks ago, our friends Tripp and Luci got us hooked on Dark and Stormies which are traditionally Myers or Gosling's run and ginger beer... dangerously delicious! John and I spiced them up this time with some freshly grated ginger and a wedge of lime- giving them a little extra zing. The cocktails went down rather smoothly alongside the empanadas, fresh out of the oven, and our friend Lee's prosciutto wrapped dates that were very tasty as well.
We moved on to dinner and of course wine. John grilled the pork to perfection, about medium, and the vegetables until tender and toasty but still crisp. I had about a cup of the chimichurri left over to pour over the sliced pork which was perfect. The bold flavors of the jalepeno the citrus and the fresh herbs were fantastic. The chimichurri sauce work really well on chicken, beef, shrimp and even the right kind of fish I would bet. Will definitely be adding it to the marinade/dipping sauce rotation.
Dessert was awaiting us in the freezer. As I cut and plated the slices, I drizzled each with some warm, store bought butterscotch caramel sauce. I can't take too much credit as the magic is really in the Haagen-Dazs ice cream , but the flavor of the Mexican chocolate crust added a little something extra and the presentation of the ice cream as a pie was of course a bit more elegant for a dinner party. Given that you could do any combination of flavors as an ice cream pie and it can be made ahead and ready to go, I'm already looking forward to experimenting with another ice cream pie creation soon!
*really need to work on my food photography skills...
With dinner, dessert and beyond, we opened a number of wines courtesy of all of our guests, namely Tripp who rolled up with a box of about 9 bottles in tow. (As I've warned you, summer nights on our back porch have a tendency to go into the early mornings hours so I guess you could say he came prepared...) A few highlights, I'm sure I'm forgetting some of them: Spanish Las Rocas Grenache which was very yummy, also an Argentinian white wine that I recently discovered- Trivento 2007 Mendoza made from the lesser-known torrontes grape. It is very crisp and light, I just love it. Stuart and Lee added a Pinot Noir to the mix with an all time favorite, La Crema, and Tripp picked up some of the Dancing Bull Cab per my recent blog post as well!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pasta with Sausage, Basil and Mustard

I picked up an old Food and Wine magazine on my way out to the pool the other day and was pleased to find it was the 30th anniversary issue from Sept 2008. It has some great throwback recipes, wines, restaurant reviews, etc going back to the 80's when Food and Wine magazine first went into publication. They did some great "best of" recipes as well. My favorite section was the 30 best "fast" recipes published over the past 30 years. I was excited to see the Salmon with Tomato Vinaigrette recipe that I wrote about a few months back featured there!!
The Pasta with Sausage, Basil and Mustard was noted as a staff favorite, so I decided to give it a whirl as we were having my brother-in-law Nate over for dinner after work.
I followed the recipe exactly except that I used hot chicken sausage instead of pork and red wine instead of white (it was already in my glass so it was easy enough to throw in). The mustard flavor was very different from any pasta I've ever had but worked really well with the sausage. I would say the recipe was really very yummy except that I would next time add slightly more mustard, maybe some caramelized onions or some other vegetable to add another layer of flavor, and I would add a ladle or so of the pasta cooking water to the sauce to thin it out and make it a little silkier. My cream sauce was a bit thick.
I served an Arugula salad with my balsamic vinaigrette and some garlic toasts alongside the pasta which we topped with a generous sprinkle of freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano. Was a super quick, hearty weeknight meal.
Nate brought over the wine as he always does and it was one of our recent go-to's, the Dancing Bull Cab from California. Nate introduced us to this wine and it really is a great find for the money (about $9). I actually heard it featured on the Today Show a few months ago when they did a segment on best inexpensive wines. Look for the red label as pictured below on the Zinfandel bottle but it's the cab...

Aunt Ann's Crab Cakes with Summer Vegetables

As I've told you before, my Mom's family consists of some big time foodies. All three of her siblings inherited the gift of culinary talent and a serious love of all things delicious from my grandparents. My Aunt Ann lives in Rockville, MD and her crab cake recipe is by far the BEST I've ever had. She says it was originally my grandmother's recipe but she's tweaked it over the years. It is really simple but definitely a treat!
Costo carries jumbo lump crab for about $16 a pound. I'm certain it is the best deal going and it is fantastic. The containers freeze really well too so I always have some stocked up in case Costco decides to stop carrying it! While I always sift through it looking for shell or cartilage pieces, I very rarely find any. The secret to this I've learned is to fuss with the crab as little as possible to be sure the big chunks stay in tact- so sift gently and don't stir anything until you've got everything in the bowl.
I put the crab in large bowl and then in a smaller bowl I combine the seasonings:
2 tablespoons mayo
1 large egg beaten 1t Dijon mustard ( maybe a little more) squeeze of lemon (about one half) 1 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning dash of Texas Pete
I stir this together to form almost a dressing. I then add 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs to my bowl with the crab meat and this last time I also added two finely sliced green onion (white and some of the green parts) and one tablespoon or so of fresh dill. Pour the seasonings over and VERY GENTLY fold everything together until combined. From here I form 7-8 cakes and coat with some additional panko bread crumbs. Sometimes I put an extra sprinkle of Old Bay in with the panko coating as well. Pan fry in some butter until brown on both sides and that's it!
This past weekend, I made a succotash like mix of summer vegetables to go with the crab cakes and it was great. I started one diced vidalia onion in my dutch oven over med-high heat with a few tablespoons of butter. While the onion started to soften, I diced and added half of a large orange bell pepper. I then cut the kernels from 4 ears of local fresh corn and added to the pot as well with a generous sprinkle of kosher salt and some freshly ground black pepper. While the vegetables cooked, maybe 5 or 7 minutes, I diced two roma tomatoes (discarded the seeds), and boiled one box of frozen baby lima beans per the instructions.
Once the corn was cooked, I added the limas, the tomatoes and two tablespoons of sliced fresh basil at the very end.
I served the crab cakes over a bed of the summer vegetables and topped it off with some fresh arugula lightly dressed with some lemon juice and olive oil. The whole meal came together in about 40 minutes and it really looked rather impressive on the plate!! (If I do say so myself...) A great meal for entertaining on a summer evening.
The meal paired very nicely with one of my favorite summer white wines, a Berger Gruner Veltliner (2007 I think). John and I first had this Austrian wine at a wine tasting three years ago and it has been a regular in our fridge ever since. If you're not familiar, Gruner Veltliners are very crisp and light, similar to a Pinot Grigio. Our Whole Foods store always carries it (if you don't see it in the back, look in the wine fridge at the front of the store) for about $12. Note, it is actually a full liter bottle vs the standard 750mls which makes it an even better deal! It has a beer top on it instead of a cork which is kind of neat too, if you're not going to drink the whole thing, be sure you have a good wine stopper on hand.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Weeknight Dessert- Amaretto Peach Sunday

So sitting down to write about tonight's dinner has made me hungry again...and as I'm sure you've noticed...I've got a sweet tooth. I find a way to eat dessert not just daily, but after most meals. Even if its just a Hershey kiss (or 5) after lunch, I need to end on a sweet note. Many nights its just ice cream - I've been on a Hagen-Dazs Coffee kick lately as a matter of fact- but tonight, I scrounged up something slightly more exciting. I have huge bowl of fresh peaches on the kitchen table which as of today are perfectly ripe. I peeled and sliced one over a scoop of Mayfield vanilla ice cream in a bowl. I could have stopped there but I'm a food blogger now aren't I? Amaretti cookies are a pantry staple in my kitchen. They are low fat/low cal and are like little crunchy almondy nuggets of HEAVEN. So I crumbled three or four of them (they are really tiny, I promise) over the peaches and then splashed a wee bit of Amaretto over the top. Must have been good because it went down pretty fast without the chance to get a picture and if I hadn't stopped to write about it-I might have convinced myself to make another one. Hmmmm.

Chicken and Chick Pea Jalfrezi

So I don't claim to be particularly well versed in Ethnic cuisine but I thank my brother-in-law Nate for adding Chicken Jalfrezi to my repertoire! I absolutely love Indian food but many would agree that it seems a little daunting to try to cook on your own. Well I can only speak for this dish, but it is actually quite simple, surprisingly healthy and super tasty.
I took the basics from Nate's recipe and have tweaked it a little bit. For example I made the dish once with chick peas instead of chicken (during lent) and now I've decided the combination of the two is the way to go. My favorite way to eat Indian food is actually right off the buffet at a great restaurant. I know buffets are a big taboo but it is so much more fun to try 5 or 6 Indian dishes all on one plate. They all go together perfectly, kind of like a traditional Thanksgiving spread. I love the chicken curries, the cauliflower, the spinach, the chick peas, the naan bread, the rice, the vegetable fritters, the daal... mmmm. I haven't tried to tackle any other dishes jsut yet but putting some chick peas and fresh spinach right into the jalfrezi is a step in the right direction.
I start with two tablespoons of olive oil in a dutch oven. Speaking of dutch ovens, I'll take a tiny time out to rave about my Le Crueset dutch ovens because they are quite possibly my favorite things in my kitchen. They distribute heat evenly, they are easy to clean, and you can actually serve out of them which I particularly like. I have two and I put a LOT of thought into the size selection... and I couldn't be happier. I have the 7 1/4 quart round dutch oven and the 3 1/2 quart WIDE dutch oven Most people go with the 5 1/2 quart but in my opinion, for a big pot of soup, spaghetti sauce, paella, braising meats, etc. it is just too small. The 3 1-2 quart- again the wide one, not the little squatty one- is perfect for vegetables, sides dishes, risotto or in this case one pot meals like Chicken Jalfrezi.
Speaking of, back to the Jalfrezi... I dice a medium onion and saute in the oil over med-high heat for 5 or 6 minutes until it is soft but not yet brown. I then add three minced garlic cloves, 8 teaspoons of curry powder, and a teaspoon of salt and cook 2 minutes more. This is the part when your kitchen smells like you brought the Indian buffet home with you but I promise it is completely gone after a few hours. After the garlic and spices have a minute to toast, I add two chicken breasts cut into bite size chunks and stir to coat everything with the onions and spices. Next I add one small can of diced tomatoes with the juice and one small can of chick peas- drained and rinsed-and stir to combine. I turn the heat down to med-low and simmer, uncovered, for about 10-15 minutes, stirring every so often to be sure nothing is sticking. If it looks too thick, I add a splash of water or chicken stock to be sure it has enough liquid to make a nice sauce.
As soon as the chicken is cooked through- I add some fresh grated ginger (about a two inch piece of ginger root, peeled), 2 cups of raw baby spinach leaves and about 1/3 cup fresh chopped cilantro and that's it! The spinach wilts quickly adds some nice color. I serve it over basmati rice with some steamed broccoli on the side. I'm telling you, even for Indian food novices, this dish is YUMMY, rib-stickingly hearty and healthy too! The little bit of olive oil is virtually the only fat in the whole thing and thanks to the chick peas, its loaded with protein. This recipe made just enough for dinner for two Monday night and Tuesday night AND even a lunch in there too. All from just the two chicken breasts!
If you're skeptical about this one- please try it anyway! You'll thank me (and my brother-in-law Nate) later...

Monday, July 13, 2009

Grilled Lamb Chops and Tomatoes with White Beans and Spinach

John was jealous of the lamb dish I had described from my New Orleans trip the other day so he requested a repeat for Sunday dinner this week. We had a productive yet relaxing day and decided to top if off with a nice meal in celebration of our cats' 5th birthday....don't laugh. For those of you that know us, our cats are treated more like our children than pets in our house... John actually went out early in the morning to buy them a floor to ceiling "cat tree" as a birthday gift. As he told me, "turning five in the cat world is like turning forty as a human" so we needed to make it a big deal. What better way to toast to your favorite furry friends than to pull a nice bottle of Brunello off of the shelf and to grill up some lamb!

We opened the wine about an hour before we started the grill as a Brunello is best when it has time to really open up. We found this bottle at Total Wine for my Dad's birthday last year and it is AMAZING. As we learned on our honeymoon in Tuscany two years ago, 2003 is the best recent year in Tuscan wine history, so we had a feeling it could be worth every one of the 5000 pennies we paid for it- and IT IS!

While it was breathing, I cut my french rack of lamb into 8 even chops and started on my marinade. In a small bowl I combined 3 large cloves of minced garlic, 1 tablespoon of fresh chopped rosemary, 1 tablespoon of mint sliced into chiffonade, 1 tablespoon of honey, 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, the juice of half a lemon, 1 teaspoon salt and some freshly cracked pepper. I mixed that together and poured over the lamb chops in a large ziplock bag. After sealing well, I gave the bag a little "massage" to make sure the marinade was coating all of the chops evenly and put it into the fridge for one hour.
I set the table and killed a little bit of time with clean-up in the kitchen before I prepped the side dishes as everything was really quick and easy. About 30 minutes until grill time, I cut two roma tomatoes into quarters and drizzled with olive oil, a splash of balsamic vinegar and seasoned with salt and pepper.
John had actually requested the standard roasted potatoes with the lamb but I was in the mood for something a little different.

The Tuscan wine brought Cannelinni beans to mind which I absolutely love. I had a large can of cannellini beans in the pantry which I drained and rinsed. In a saucepan with a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, I sauteed one clove of garlic-minced and two thirds of a shallot-sliced. As soon as the garlic started to get a slight toast on it, I added one teaspoon of fresh chopped rosemary and cooked one minute more before adding the beans a sprinkle of kosher salt and some fresh cracked pepper. Once everything was heated through- about 5 minutes on medium heat- I added a generous pinch of fresh mint and a squeeze of lemon juice (approx half a lemon.) The beans were so tasty on their own that I had the left overs for lunch the following day.
Meanwhile, John was manning the grill zone. He put the tomatoes on the grill first and then added the chops on med-high heat for a quick two minutes per side. They came off at a perfect medium-rare temperature to rest while I quickly sauteed some spinach and got ready to plate. I toasted one tablespoon of pinenuts in a frying pan over medium heat until golden brown. I removed them from the pan and added some olive oil, one clove of garlic-sliced and the remaining third of my sliced shallot over the same heat. Just as the garlic began to get some color, I added one bag of baby spinach and sauteed until wilted. I hit it with a splash of balsamic vinegar, some salt, pepper and my toasted pine nuts.
I plated the white beans and lamb chops with a large spoonful of spinach and a few grilled tomatoes. I then squeezed some fresh lemon over the lamb (thanks Heather for the tip!) before we sat down to eat which really livened up the flavor of the meat. The plate was beautifully colorful and of course paired with the Brunello, was pretty close to heaven on earth.
As I've said before and I'm sure I'll say again, a great bottle of red wine requires that you have chocolate on the menu for dessert. I wanted to stick with my quick and easy theme so I found a Quick Blender Chocolate Mousse recipe on
I have to say, it is possibly the easiest dessert ever, but my attempt was not so successful. The flavor was fantastic. I used 60% Bittersweet Ghiradelli chocolate (I doubled the sugar to compensate as the recipe called for semi-sweet) and it came together in 15 minutes flat. Instead of bowls, I actually served it in teacups which were the perfect size. I let it set up for over three hours in the fridge but it never did set up as I would have liked it to- the bottom of the cup was still a little soupy. I topped the mousse with Kahula whipped cream and some chocolate shavings. I decided on Kahula instead of lemon seeing as the tea cup made for a playful"cappuccino" presentation and the mousse had some instant espresso in it as well. They were super cute- I will definitely try the concept again but would use a different mousse recipe.
The rich dark chocolate, despite the consistency-and the Brunello was like a fourth of July for the tongue- I honestly cannot tell you how delicious. I managed to make my last glass last about 2 hours!! I could have just sniffed the glass all night long.... I would definitely recommend buying as many of these bottles as you can possibly afford and to do it up right with your favorite lamb, steak and decadent chocolate dessert recipe!
Happy Birthday Caeser and Cleo!!!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Lobster Rolls

Arriving back to town on Friday- I couldn't tell if it was actually a pleasantly cool day or if it just felt cooler in comparison to New Orleans. As it turned out, it was actually a cool-ish day for July in Charleston with a nice breeze. John and I played some tennis (or should I say chased tennis balls around the court) and then decided to do dinner at home on the porch versus battling the crowds that would likely be overflowing the patio dining spots in town. The cover of July's Gourmet magazine has a scrumptious looking Lobster Roll on it which immediately reminded me Pearl Oyster Bar, of one of my FAVORITE restaurants in NYC. My friend Kate took me there years ago and now I have to visit every time I'm in the city. (I know my mom is whining right now about going back as she reads this.) Their lobster roll is the most amazing sandwich (and probably the most expensive) I've ever had.
The recipe is actually online and I think the beauty of it is the simplicity and the secret is the quality of the lobster itself. I did have access to some lobster tails which were good, but didn't exactly measure up to the North East lobster. I boiled four tails, removed the meet and chilled it while I prepared the dressing. I used about 1/4 cup of mayonnaise, juice from half a lemon, one teaspoon of fresh dill, one tablespoon of finely diced red onion, a pinch of kosher salt and some fresh cracked pepper. I mixed it together and tossed with the lobster meat. Pearl uses top opening Pepperidge Farm hot dog buns which my Harris Teeter did not have, but we found some very similar that were unsliced. I melted one tablespoon of butter in a frying pan on medium heat and toasted the buns very slightly before slicing them on the top and filling with the lobster meat.
Pearl serves the sandwich with house cut shoestring fries, we opted for some frozen sweet potato fries which we love and a simple green salad with tomatoes and a champagne vinaigrette.
I actually love to order a glass of champagne with my lobster roll at Pearl (if you're going for it, might as well go all out right?) but John made some fresh margaritas last night that were a very nice touch. He used the 3-2-1 recipe (three parts Patron silver, two parts lime, and one part triple sec) and served over ice in a salt rimmed glass. Luckily we sipped while I cooked because if I'd had the whole glass before dinner, I might have fallen asleep in my plate! They are so refreshing and delicious but definitely pack a punch. Cheers to summer!

The Big Easy!

I promise I'm not taking this in the direction of a restaurant blog but its hard to travel to New Orleans and NOT talk about the food. My friend/colleague and I were there for a meeting this week but we were able to carve out some play time too. Heather's from Charleston but now lives in San Francisco. I have to tell you, she might be one of few people that I know that appreciate cooking as much as I do! Staying right in the middle of the French Quarter, we were easily able to walk to many of the city's best restaurants. Looking for something casual as we got into town on Wednesday, we tried one of John Besh's restaurants, Luke. It was smaller than expected, located on St. Charles right next to the Hilton hotel. It had a french bistro feel to it though the menu certainly had a Cajun stamp on it as well. We decided to a bunch of appetizers so that we could try a variety of things from the menu which was fun. We tried an heirloom tomato salad with crab meat, a flat bread/pastry kind of thing topped with caramelized onions, bechemel sauce, lardons and Gruyere (DECADENT and delicious), and the gumbo. My beet salad with pistachios, radicchio and blue cheese was good but a little too salty. Heather has quite the extensive wine knowledge living in San Fran so I always ask her to pair wines. She went with a really refreshing Rose that complimented the richness and spice very well! All in all a very solid meal- I'll definitely look forward to trying August, another Besh hot spot next time I'm there. Thursday night we found a little wine bar on Orleans, across the street from the Bourbon Orleans hotel, right behind Jackson Square. It was FANTASTIC! They have little tables along the street where you can sit for drinks only I believe, the indoor space was very charming as well, however we opted to sit in the Courtyard which though a little warm, really had the New Orleans feel to it! The menu and wine list were very impressive and I knew it was going to be a good meal when upon arrival they brought us a fresh baked baguette in a paper bag with herb butter. We started with wine flights- three "aromatic" whites as they called them and a cheese plate paired to the wine. The wines were an Australian Savignon Blanc, a barely dry Riesling and a Guwertztraminer- all delicious! The cheeses were a triple creme brie, an aged cheddar, a drunken goat and a stout something a-rother. I could have stopped right there... but it was early and after a little break, we were ready for round two- barbecued shrimp! This dish, unlike my adapted version, was the real deal. . They brought us 6, HUGE shrimp with the heads still on, soaking in the delicious sauce (garlic, butter, rosemary, cayenne, Worcestershire sauce and most importantly, Abita beer), with more fresh bread on the side. Heather picked out a Pinot Gris which worked really nicely with the spiciness of the shrimp. Picking up some steam, we decided to share a lamb entree that was OUT OF THIS WORLD. They called it ginger scented lamb with Moroccan spiced Israeli cous-cous, asparagus and a curried mango chutney of sorts. The lamb was cooked PERFECTLY and the flavors were so incredibly interesting and complimentary. The lamb of course required that we move to a red wine (twist my arm), so our server recommended a Burgundy that was served slightly chilled. Three hours later... we were not short on conversation and had a few splashes of red wine left so we bowed up for one final snack... some chocolate mousse. Food coma and wine buzz in tow... we wandered back through the lively Quarter to our hotel to catch a few hours of sleep before an early morning flight home. Already looking forward to another trip to the Big Easy and while there are so many places to try, this one will definitely make the list again!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

More weekend fun- Oven BBQ Shirmp and Grits

Our five day staycation weekend did leave room for some home cooking too. Thursday night wehad our friend Guy and Morgan over for dinner which turned into impromptu game night too! We started off with dark and stormy's, my new favorite cocktail (thank you Tripp and Luci!) and my mom's hummus. For those of your unfamiliar as I was not so long ago, dark and stormy's are made with dark rum, ginger beer (similar to ginger ale but spicier) and fresh lime. Mix and serve over lots of ice in a tall glass. **WARNING- they go down easy! Mom's hummus is an old standby from our middle east days. I'll get into more detail later but my family moved to Saudi Arabia when I was 3 years old. My dad took a job with ARAMCO oil company for what he thought at the time would be a couple of years. Nineteen years later, my parents moved back to Lexington, KY where they currently reside. I was back in the US for high school and college but was lucky to get to visit a couple of times each year. Anyways, I digress.... So hummus was a staple at our house. Homemade is really better than store bought and can be made in a jiffy. I started the food processor and dropped one small clove of peeled garlic down the shoot as I call it with the blade running. I then added 1 can drained chick peas, approx 3 T tahini (sesame paste), a pinch of salt, 1/2 tsp cumin, 1/2, tsp paprika and a small sprinkle of cayenne. Blend this up and it should be kind of chunky and thick. Then, with the top on and the motor running, pour lemon juice (you can use bottled juice for this believe it or not) down the shoot until it starts to thin out. I never actually measure but I would guess its a third of a cup or so? Stop to scrape down the sides and taste. Once the texture looks right, it should taste right too. If its getting too lemony, you could add a little water to continue to thin it out. I poured it into a bowl and drizzled with Harris Teeter's bottled balsamic glaze. They've done the smelly work of reducing it for you which is fantastic! Serve with pita bread, pita chips or in this case crostini. Always a hit!

For the main course, I also turned to a family favorite, my Mom's BBQ Shrimp. We actually served this with white rice when I was younger but I've adapted the dish since living in Charleston to include grits instead. On this occasion I went all out with a white cheddar jalapeno grit souffle actually. I used quick grits and followed the cooking directions on the package. For 2 lbs of shrimp, I followed the instructions for 6 servings of grits however if you made more, they are great left over for breakfast with eggs the next day too! While they cooked, I quickly sauteed one minced shallot and one finely chopped jalapeno (minus the seeds) and set aside. Once the grits were cooked, I added 4 T butter, a heaping cup of grated white cheddar cheese, 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan, the cooked jalapenos and shallot, a 1/2 tsp of garlic salt and a 1/2 tsp of white pepper. I then added a splash of heavy cream to smooth it all out and set aside to cool while I buttered a medium sized baking dish and dusted it with finely grated parmesan cheese. Now for the souffle part- and don't be scared, this is fool proof. While the grits cooled some- I whipped two egg whites in the mixer until foamy and barely stiff. I then added a large spoonful of the grits to the egg whites and folded it in gently. I then added the rest of the grits, folded gently until combined, and poured into the prepared dish. Into the oven at 375 for about 35 minutes or until set (not too jiggly) and browning on top. As soon as the grits went in, I started on my shrimp. The shrimp is a sideways kind of take on Louisiana BBQ Shrimp actually. The best part is that the recipe is SUPER easy. Earlier in the day, I peeled and deveined 2 lbs of large shrimp. Rinsed them, patted dry and put back into the fridge. Once I was ready to go- in a medium sized baking dish I put 1 stick of butter (whole, right out of the fridge is fine), 3.5 T Worcestershire sauce (thank goodness for spell check), 1/2 tsp each dried rosemary, thyme and oregano, three garlic cloves minced, and the juice from half a lemon. Added about 1 tsp of salt (my butter was unsalted), a generous grind of black pepper and a sprinkle of cayenne. With the oven still at 375 degrees and the grits about half way done, I put the whole baking dish in for 5 mins or so until the butter melts and everything forms a sauce. I then add the shrimp to the dish, spreading out to a single layer, and cook for about 14 minutes. After 7 minutes, I check on them and make sure they are cooking evenly- give them a shuffly around the dish. THAT'S IT! So easy and SO very good. The shrimp and grits finished at almost exactly the same time- I plated together in a rimmed soup bowl to hold all of the sauce. Make sure you have a loaf of crusty french bread to serve on the side- you'll need it to sop up the yummy garlic butter goodness!

I served a simple green salad on the side (I like butter lettuce with a simple champaigne vinaigrette dressing) and Tyler Florence's Lemon Curd Berry Trifle for dessert! I used angel food cake instead of pound cake considering we got PLENTY of pounds from the grits and garlic butter =) A refreshing and light finish to a simply decadent dinner... We had a crisp and fruity Savingnon Blanc with dinner- also part of my Costco, wines-under-$12 project which complimented the spicy richness of the shrimp and grits well. Fat and happy we launched into a game of 90's Trivial Pursuit which lead to more wine which lead to some super competitive Wii Bowling! (I'm proud to say the ladies sweeped both games)The highlight of the evening was actually my friend Morgan's vintage Polaroid camera! She found it on eBay for $20, found some film on Amazon and we had a blast snapping bowling action shots until 1am. Another great night tacked on to our great long weekend!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Holiday Weekend! Lots to celebrate...

To celebrate America's birthday, John completing the board exams, and the end of a stressful but successful quarter at work- we took three days off for a five day weekend/staycation. It was an action packed weekend with friends, beach, boating, etc. which usually means great food too. We kicked off the celebration at Al di La on Tuesday night with our friends Tripp, Luci, Stuart and Lee. Al di La has forever been our favorite Italian Trattoria in Charleston. Located in Avondale, a trendy "fork in the road" just over the bridge in West Ashley- we've been celebrating special occasions there for the last five years. The menu is small as is the restaurant itself, but the truly authentic Northern Italian cuisine has made a big impression on Charleston. My personal favorite are the light-as-little-pillow ricotta gnocchi with a fresh and simple tomato sauce. The cherry tomatoes are still slightly in tact which gives the dish great texture. A little secret for you... the typically serve this dish with shrimp in it. As much as I love shrimp, it honestly just gets in the way! I ask them for the gnocchi, straight up.

The other dish that John and I order every single time we visit is the prosciutto-wrapped, Gorgonzola stuffed figs! They used to be a staple on the menu, now they are featured as a special when the figs are in season. Absolutely amazing, served with a small salad of arugula on the side. Their balsamic vinaigrette is out of this world- their secret as they tell me is a squeeze of fresh orange juice! I've been trying that at home when I have oranges around. It is particularly good on my baby spinach, goat cheese and strawberry salad!

While Al di La is some of the best food in town- it is actually very affordable, entrees ranging from $12-$18. The wine list is also amazing, featuring almost all Italian wines at very reasonable prices, a large selection by the glass as well.

Our other big night out was Friday. We had a great friend from College in town for the day with his girlfriend who had never been to Charleston before. They arrived mid-afternoon so we took them out to Vickery's on Shem Creek in Mt. Pleasant for drinks out of the deck overlooking the low country. It was a muggy day but it made the cold beers taste even better. That evening, we took them down to E.Bay, the fine dining district of downtown for dinner at Cypress

Cypress is a bit of an anomaly in Charleston with its contemporary vibe. So many of the restaurants have the old Southern, low country charm which is wonderful, but Cypress is a nice change of pace. They have a chic bar located on the second level where you can chose from a large list of inventive though somewhat pricey cocktails. They now feature a bar menu as well but the place is typically too crowded to find a good spot for eating in my opinion. That would be the case between 7 and 9pm on a Friday or Saturday night anyway... The food is wonderful. They do a REAL Caesar salad table side which is really fun to watch and absolutely delicious. I also like the fried goat brie salad, and the crab cake appetizer- I'll often order just a salad and an appetizer for a lighter meal. They always have a selection of raw oysters available as well. They are currently offering a seasonal menu which was all new to me. Everything looked really light and refreshing- lots of local fresh vegetables, fish and meats. From that menu, I had a roasted king salmon over a bed of fresh beans with a wild mushroom, ginger vinaigrette. YUM. Our friend Vaughn had a piece of grouper cooked to perfection over a hash of southern veggies like corn, lima beans, tomatoes, etc. John had the filet as always which he claims is one of the best in town. The upbeat ambiance and modern flare makes for a really fun evening on the town without the stuffiness. Only complaint would be that the wine list doesn't offer much under $50. The glass selection is pretty good though and more affordable. No room for dessert this time but the chocolate lollipops are DARLING and the molten chocolate cake is one of the best I've ever had!

After dinner, we sauntered down to the roof top of the Market Pavilion hotel for cocktails. It has great views of the market downtown and is always packed with a trendy, lively crowd. Drinks are pricier than most places but the experience is definitely worth it! Note, they won't let you in with flip-flops, boys in particular have to be in closed toed shoes.

Good food is certainly not hard to come by in Charleston. One of the many reasons to enjoy a holiday staycation right here in town!