Monday, November 29, 2010

Holiday Bird Battle - Thanksgiving, San Diego

Fowl Play: Since we’d hosted the past four Thanksgivings, we were happy to return from Spain knowing this year, it was in someone else’s hands. Well, the hosting anyway. My husband, Bubba, was still determined to make a turkey, since his annual obsession to concoct the ultimate recipe had become tradition. Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday after all (he called it, “Christmas without the pressure”), and every year he managed to move further into his role as the mad scientist of ceremonial supper. Thanksgiving at my house = feasting, football and the Dr. Frankenstein of fowl.

To add to his obsession, there was a bit of competition this year. After Bubba volunteered to make a turkey, our friend, Daniel (aka Grandma), had also decided to take on Tom Turkey and all the trimmings. Bubba warned him, “Don’t cry when nobody eats your turkey,” at which Grandma had scoffed – he prided himself on being an “old char woman” that knew his way around the kitchen. But once in the Thanksgiving arena things got a little greasy. While piling our plates at the serving table, I noticed Bubba’s turkey was nowhere to be found…Grandma had benched Bubba’s bird! And let me tell you, I was on the lookout because this year Dr. Fowl-enstein had truly brought his creation to life.

Brine Design: Bubba had researched brines by the boatload. He swayed away from his salty standby, which had done him well in the past, but focused on more subtle, autumnal ingredients to beef up his bird. He landed on a base of apple cider, its natural sugars highlighted with orange slices, but downplayed enough with aromatic herbs (rosemary, sage, etc.) and onion = powerful, but delicate.

Stuffed animal: When Bubba asked if I wanted pecans or apples in the stuffing, I answered with a confident “no”. Sometimes I feel I might be swayed since I enjoy both outside the Thanksgiving realm, but experience has taught me that the juice from the apples makes stuffing soggy (too soft) and nuts always turn into tough bits of molar mortar (too hard). So like Goldilocks, I settled for “just right”. We’re talking straight forward sausage, celery, onion, sage and thyme. My only decision now would be which bed to nap in afterwards.

Shhh! He’s sleeping: A vital lesson that Bubba learned along the way was the importance of his bacon blanket = salty pork layered across the breast to keep things juicy. Once removed, the skin stayed oiled up for crisping into browned, fatty goodness. The bacon blanket also meant 6-8 pieces of savory, sliced delight for an impromptu appetizer (one year Bubba even maple-coated the, that was something to be thankful for).

Floats My (Gravy) Boat: “Bang! Zoom!” As I swallowed this liquid gold, I pictured Ralph Kramdon sending Alice to the moon because I was seeing stars. Juice from the bird and brine-left-behind parlayed themselves into some dazzling drippings – citrus, herbs, turkey tidbits, bacon fat. After removing any fat floating to the top, Bubba added his flour/water slurry to thicken (no corn starch allowed!)= depth without heaviness.

Crusty the Clown: For me this year, my efforts would be focused on recreating my mom’s famous pies, known for their flaky, buttery crust (she used to sell them to a local restaurant years ago) and the easy, two step recipe that she assured me was simpler than I thought. Since Grandma wasn’t pure evil, he decided to come help me, but as he started peeling apples for the filling, I noticed that my dough wasn’t coming together at all. I fumbled around for a bit and then finally added more water – a big no-no. Though the inside of both the apple and pecan pies turned out like Mom’s, my crust didn’t even compare. A good crust (like a man who cooks) is so hard to find...thanks again Bubba!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Wine Vault and Bistro - San Diego

The Vault is a Lock

Wine Vault and Bistro’s 5-course, tasting menu reinvents itself every Saturday for $30 (add an extra $20 for wine pairing) and has been kept under the radar for far too long. Maybe it’s because their menu can only be viewed though their mailing list or website updates, but that’s because it varies weekly.

And though they specialize in these constant, culinary, costume changes, there are no detours once you arrive for the Saturday night show. The stage is set and all control is handed to the kitchen, which can be quite liberating to find dinner being brought to the table without even ordering*:

Spice Crusted Beef Carpaccio | Mosto Cotto | Fennel | Pickled Grapes | Slyvetta Arugula – this raw protein, delicate as tissue paper and tearing as easily, brought the same joy as ripping into gifts on Christmas morning. Interesting accouterments like "mosto cotto" (grape musk = the syrup of the grape) accompanied each dish with a type of edible education.

Butternut Squash Bisque | Green Apple Fritter | Foie Gras Emulsion | Spiced Cream | Lemon Thyme – “Waiter, there’s something fly in my soup!” Apple fritters?! Now this was genius. And pouring the soup table-side only enhanced the excitement of knowing a winning prize lay at the bottom of this Crackerjack box - a treat within a treat.

Housemade Pappardelle Pasta | Wild Mushrooms | Pecorino | Guanciale | Truffle Froth | Poached Egg - As someone who prides herself on devouring every pork product known to man, I couldn't believe one had gotten past me. Guanciale (cured, pork cheeks) brought out the same, salty bond I felt toward its bacon brethren. My only complaint was that I wished I had a few more pieces of pasta - the two, lonely strands left me stranded when trying to sop up the yolk. Four would have been plenty and at no real extra cost to the kitchen.

Veal Loin | Crushed Potatoes | Braised Lobster Mushrooms | Tarragon Pistou | Braised Greens - Every component here was soaked with sodium and though I still reveled in each heavily seasoned bite, I understood how it might be overpowering for others. I think the braised greens were the main culprit, capturing the abundance of salt in its crudely, crocheted net.

Apple Crumble | Brown Butter Ice Cream | Blis Vanilla Maple Syrup - I'll definitely scream for this...and ask for a double scoop. Brown butter ice cream – who even knew that existed? Paired with a hot apple pie cocktail, this sweet ending brought an inner, autumn warmth that can only be gleaned from warm apples and after-dinner sipping (the setting also helped - outside seating was like hanging on someone’s porch. My two buddies, transplants from the east coast, kept saying, “This reminds me of back home.”)

Wine pairing
2007 Tobin James "Ballistic" Zinfandel
2008 Cass Grenache
2008 Foxen "Santa Maria Valley" Pinot Noir
2006 Chateau La Tour Figeac Bordeaux
Hot Apple Pie Cocktail

Our wiseman waiter not only knew his culinary contexts, but had the instinct to let us divide the wine between ourselves when bringing over the bottle to pair with each course (smart man, never get in between two lions fighting over a zebra).

Safe bet: Swallow some unexpected flavor, spit some fresh knowledge. Return for the next lesson as soon as possible (they also offer a 3-course tasting menu on Fridays for $20 and often host "wine maker dinners", featuring selected wineries to pair with menu items).

*they do ask if there are any food allergies before service.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Anniversary Dinner Home(run) - San Diego

With a ‘Little’ help from my friends

It seems that the older I get, the lazier I am in the kitchen. But after unofficially celebrating our first anniversary in Palm Springs, I decided that for our true anniversary date, I would make an extravagant dinner for my husband at home. What was I thinking?!

Luckily, Little Italy was minutes from the house, and within a few blocks I had collected all the ingredients for a gourmet meal that would require almost no effort on my part. Lazy like me? Here’s the checklist for a fabulous, two-person dinner around $40:

Assenti’s – is the headquarters for fresh pasta. Silver trays of fettuccine and penne met me at eye level with their savory, carb-filled rows and like a child at a dessert case, I felt overwhelmed when trying to choose one treat. It wasn't easy. Besides the endless assortment of shapes and sizes, they specialized in unique options like black pasta (with squid ink) and even included seasonal options like chocolate pasta around Valentine’s day. Plus, they offer an eggless variety for those vegan types ($5-7 for a lb. of pasta).

Besides pasta, they made their own sauces (i.e. sage butter, gorgonzola cream). I was going elsewhere for that, but I did need some meatballs. These babies must be baked because they opened like “delicate flower” with the gentlest prodding. I have to admit, I like mine a bit stiffer, but they won me over because extra garlicy = extra tasty.

Pete’s Quality Meats - how do you know when you’re getting fresh sausage?

1)when it’s one of three items on the menu
2)when they grind it right in front of you

This reminded me of the deli where they hung out in The Sopranos. It’s a grungy, tight space with only a few seats and even fewer menu items. Eggplant parm, meatballs and sausage are the only options, all as sandwiches, but only the sausage was available to-go* and we’re talking about some serious meat magic happening right before your eyes. Sweet or hot, you can taste the love in each link (5 links for around $8.)

*Maybe because you can buy the sausage uncooked and they only sell meatballs in sandwiches? Still, next time I’m going to figure out a way to get a tub of meatballs.

Buon Appetito Market – The best part about this place is that they have my favorite items from their expensive restaurant next door, but here, it’s affordable. Thick, clingy balsamic vinaigrette ($3.50) could breathe life into any lettuce and the creamy marinara ($4.50) was subtle enough to still showcase the fresh pasta. Then there’s the heroin infused tomato/basil dip ($4.50) - I’m assuming there’s heroin in it because I crave it constantly – and a loaf of crusty bread ($2) for appetizers.

Mona Lisa – Quality cold cuts from a cold faced woman. I needed a bit of salami and provolone for my crispy, cheesey-meat bread and Mona Lisa was the lady to see (¼ lb. of each - $6).

Jersey rides again: The Scone Pony – Any Jersey Shore local understands this witty pun taken from the Asbury Park institution and bar, The Stone Pony, where Springsteen became a legend and still surprises crowds by popping in for a jam session now and then. Spring Lake bakery, The Scone Pony rocks out with strong flavors and inventive concepts, one being the cupcake tower of multiple varieties (red velvet, German chocolate, chocolate with chocolate, vanilla with vanilla and vice versa) at our wedding as a fun twist on the traditional cake. But we did need something for the ceremonial cutting of the cake, so they baked a perfect gnache covered, chocolate round and topped it with detailed flowers of sugar that matched my bouquet.

Now we needed it for the traditional “first anniversary bite”, but we had left it back in my mom’s freezer in NJ (where we were married). She shipped it and even though it arrived a day late, we still had it in time to celebrate. I don’t know if it’s a testament to the bakery or to how gross my husband and I are, but we ate our entire year-old, day late, cross-country, wedding cake.

I had clearly found my soul(food) mate.

Melvyn's - Palm Springs

You can’t go to Palm Springs without reminiscing about Old Hollywood, where film stars escaped from LA to play in the desert. Ingleside Inn preserved that memory in the most lavish way with manicured lawns and polished chandeliers, dark woods and ornate furniture, enough to make me feel like a character stepping from a Fitzgerald novel..and even more of an upper crust, top drawer, fancy-pants for “taking lunch” on the veranda.

Melvyn’s, was the Inn’s enclosed restaurant to the side of the porch, so for lunch service outside they brought our own personal waiter specifically for us, which again brought that Gatsby-esque notion of decadence. Brambly roots wrapped around porch posts in a way that reminded me of the private serenity of Brair Rabbit’s briar patch.

The food here isn’t great, though they do have some interesting items from back in the day like the “alligator pear”, which is tuna or chicken salad served in a papaya or avocado (weird). Vichyssoise, cold potato and leek soup, is another old-time recipe not seem much anymore, and a cool touch on a hot desert day. The Caesar salad was loaded with too much parmesan, but again the atmosphere is really the main attraction.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Palm Canyon Drive - Palm Springs

Springs Strip Strut
Hair of the Dog – Do I smell vomit? Get ready to take the plunge because this is quite the dive - definitely a locals’ bar with sideway glances shot at out-of-towners by the likes of us. A friendly bartender with a small town feel that was a bit too small, watched us with interest. One drink here was enough – down the hatch!

Kaiser Grille – It was appropriate that this was named Kaiser because it had all the warmth of a German emperor. I guess that’s a little harsh, but so was their response when we asked to have cocktails at an outside table. The place was empty, but they seemed worried that we weren’t eating (I guess paying $12 a cocktail doesn’t count*), so we promised we’d order an appetizer. We decided on the calamari, which was mediocre, and the other dishes that I saw emerge from the kitchen looked generic and mass produced. Kaiser’s wasn’t even worth stopping in for the drink (and you need permission to even do that).

*I understand not wanting people taking up tables just for drinks, but no one was there! And the dank, swank bar inside was our only other option. No thanks.

Las Caseuelas Terraza – the entire time we were at Kaiser’s we heard peels of laughter, strumming guitars and general sounds of merriment coming from across the street, so we went to check it out and this place was hopping - restaurant, bar, mini-concert - all in one. The live band played outside, packing the patio as a makeshift dance floor while we ordered margaritas the size of my head at the inside bar overlooking a small, dining room. A cocktail waitress roamed around replenishing our drinks, and this was exactly the welcome we were looking for.

Maracas – Americanized Mexican to the 10th degree. I think my order said it all – “Mexi pot stickers”, clearly an authentic dish (and clearly a bad choice on my part) that reminded me of something from the frozen section. Stay safe with the carnitas street tacos - queso fresco, shredded pork and cilantro - or stay even safer and keep walking.

Zin Bistro – On principle alone, I couldn’t go back here (see Zin Bistro review), but damn the menu looked good. I think I saw veal and ricotta meatballs – eep! Next time, I might have to swallow my pride, so I can swallow some of those meatballs.

Though I do have to note that they finally changed their menu from, “squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese” to “Humbolt Fog stuffed squash blossoms,” so that people know that they’re getting the potent, blue-veined strength of Humbolt Fog as opposed to the mild creaminess of chevre (which is usually what we think of [and receive]when ordering “goat cheese”). And with Humbolt Fog being a specialty cheese that’s more expensive, they should want to showcase it anyway.