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Posts Tagged ‘food’

The husband and I stumbled on a culinary treasure in Birmingham last week, a restaurant that made the trip to drop off his mother at the Amtrak station more than worthwhile.

I spotted the Culinard Cafe between the interstate and the station and looked up the menu on the iPhone. It was a nice distraction as I hunkered down to wait for the 12:05 to arrive while trying to avoid the headache-inducing flicker of the overhead light. The restaurant is associated with the Culinary Institute of Virginia College in Birmingham and provides a working and learning environment for students.

The husband’s only concern was whether the menu held a ham sandwich. It did.

The lunch menu boasted a wide variety of sandwiches and salads, including some pretty fancy combinations (salmon & brie salad, anyone?).

My first choice was the Southwestern chicken wrap (it had me at “chili spiked mayonnaise”), but when I turned the menu over I spotted the flat-iron steak sandwich. Its menu description was pure culinary seduction: “Sweet chili roasted flat iron steak with grilled onions, Alabama Belle Chevre Goat Cheese, lettuce, tomato, and whole grain mustard and spicy aioli on Ciabatta.”

Goat cheese, whole grain mustard AND spicy aioli? You have GOT to be kidding me.

I chose the black bean salad for my side so I could compare it to my recipe. (Their version was more complicated, but I like mine better.)

The sandwich was simply divine. I actually put it down after the first bite and said, “I need to contemplate this sandwich for a minute.” The steak was cooked to tender perfection, and the goat cheese and whole-grain mustard added an unexpectedly creamy and tangy element (admittedly, the aioli seems to have gotten lost among the rest of the flavors).

Walkout price for this thing of delicious beauty? $7.95 before tax.

Oh, and the husband enjoyed his ham & Swiss sandwich with fries.

We are SO going back to this restaurant for lunch if we find ourselves in Birmingham on a weekday. You should, too.

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So I’m in the kitchen section of the MoMA Store in SoHo when I see flip & tumble’s 24-7 reusable shopping bags on display. I turn to my husband and tell him that I really wish I could find reusable produce bags without having to order them online. I turn to another display, and what do I see but a set of five reusable produce bags for $11. Shopping magic.

I’ve learned that when I spot something awesome and affordable while out of town, I should go ahead and buy it so I don’t have to order it later. These were a little more expensive than similar bags that I had seen online, but there was no shipping fee for me to pop them into my carry-on and tote them back to Alabama.

So far, I’ve taken them to Publix twice and Earth Fare once. The only problem I’ve found is that if the produce is extremely wet, the mesh allows the moisture to escape onto surrounding items on the way home. Not a huge tradeoff, overall, for leaving the grocery store with no flimsy plastic bags in tow.

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Yes, I DID go all the way to Le Pain Quotidien, a fabulous bakery in New York City, and ordered organic steel-cut oatmeal with fresh berries. I had pretty much threatened to do this a few weeks ago.

It was entirely worth skipping croissants and danishes to eat this masterpiece instead. Creamy and nutty, it made me realize that I need to figure out how to utilize milk in my version of steel-cut oats instead of simply water and/or orange juice.

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So I’m told by people who know such things that I’m actually getting the most difficult part of pecan pie right. Apparently it can be quite a feat to get the filling to set up correctly.

Who knew?

I got my recipe for the filling from Baking Illustrated, a book published by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated. I don’t know what part of the recipe holds the mojo, but it’s been foolproof so far.

Here’s the recipe, complete with my notes. I would have posted it last night, but my 14-year-old, somewhat standoffish cat decided to dole out some affection, and you just don’t turn that kind of thing down.

Toast the pecans while you’re waiting for the oven to reach the baking temperature to partially bake the pie crust. This should take about seven to 10 minutes; watch the pecans carefully and stir a couple of times to prevent burning. Wait until they cool off before you chop them up or they’ll crumble. (Toasting nuts is nerve-wracking; I’ve found it’s best to undertoast rather than risk overtoasting.

You’ll want to have the pie filling mixture ready to go the minute the partially baked shell comes out of the oven. (This bit of timing might be the secret to the recipe.)

Pecan Pie

1 unbaked pie shell
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups pecans, toasted and chopped into small pieces

Follow the directions for partially baking the pie crust until it’s light golden brown.

In the meantime, melt the butter in a double boiler or in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water. Remove the bowl from the heat and stir in the sugar and salt with a wooden spoon. Beat in the eggs, then the corn syrup and vanilla. Return the bowl to the heat. Stir and cook until the mixture is shiny and registers about 130 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from heat and stir in the pecans.

Remove the prebaked pie shell from the oven and immediately turn the temperature down to 275 degrees. Pour the pie mixture into the hot pie shell.

Bake on the middle rack for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the pie looks set but still soft, like gelatin, when gently pressed with the back of a spoon. Place the pie on a rack and let it cool completely, for about four hours.

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Editor’s note: Here’s the link to the post outlining the filling recipe for this pie.

Here’s my official contribution to Mrs Dragon’s Pi Day celebration: pecan pie.

I used a Cook’s Country recipe for the pie crust this time. It made a “pat-in-the-pan” dough that allowed me to skip trying to roll dough into a circle.

I’m not good at making pretty foods, like perfectly rolled pie crusts.

The new recipe worked out well, although I didn’t get it patted down into the pan as evenly as I would have liked, and therefore ended up with a few underbaked spots.

Still delicious, however. The husband walked in and, smelling pie, looked puzzled. I said, “It’s Pi Day. 3-14. Get it?” He noted that he loves math, yet never knows the date. So it goes.

If I really wanted to impress you, I’d wait until the pie had been refrigerated overnight to shoot this photo, but here it is in all its crumbly glory.

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I saw Food, Inc. at the Huntsville Botanical Garden on Saturday, and I’m still trying to process it.

It showed in vivid detail the conditions that chickens, cows and pigs live and die in, conditions that so many of us are already aware of but choose to ignore. It also revealed that our entire food supply is increasingly under the control of just a handful of companies, and our government’s food safety system is horribly broken.

All in all, it revealed that even a carefully considered family meal plan with fresh, seemingly wholesome ingredients may not be enough.

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I made our annual king cake today with a recipe from Southern Plate that called for frozen bread dough. It was a cinch to make compared to my traditional recipe, which calls for making the dough, letting the dough rise, punching down the dough, letting the dough rise yet again, rolling and shaping the dough, letting it rise again, baking the cake, and finally decorating the cake. If it sounds like a ton of work that takes all day, you are correct.

This recipe calls for adding lemon extract to the cream cheese filling; I associate king cakes with a light cinnamon flavor, so I substituted cinnamon for the lemon. How much cinnamon? A few shakes. This was a cooking-by-taste experiment.

If I made it again, I would skip the cream cheese filling altogether and simply coat the dough with butter and cinnamon sugar before rolling it up. Simple is better when it comes to king cakes.

Like Southern Plate’s Christy Jordan, I couldn’t find purple sugar at the grocery store, so I ended up with hot pink. I’m pretty sure the cake glows in the dark; I really need to go downstairs and check before the cat freaks out.

The ring obviously did not maintain its shape during baking, but it didn’t totally stick together in the middle.

The husband’s verdict: It’s OK, but not as good as the make-king-cake-all-day version.

My verdict: It’s definitely got a shot without the cream cheese filling.

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Mardi Gras is approaching, and I’m craving king cake. Although the king cakes at Publix are looking better than they did a couple of weeks ago, I’m tempted to make my own this year. Only the extremely complicated recipe that my mom culled from Southern Living a couple of decades ago takes the better part of a day to make. It also yields two king cakes, a bonus if everyone in the household works in an office, but about 1.5 king cakes too many if one person works at home with a finicky tabby cat.

I may have found my answer over at Southern Plate, where Christy Jordan has made a perfectly presentable king cake using a roll of frozen bread dough. I don’t know that I can abide hot pink sugar on my king cake, and I may skip the cream cheese filling in favor of my usual buttery cinnamon sugar, but other than those two elements, I think Christy may be my inspiration this year.

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Scenes from a marriage

Having a husband who happily eats your ill-conceived failure cookies and tells you that they almost taste like tea cakes: highly recommended.

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About 10 years ago, my husband brought home a small bag of quinoa from the local health food store. I don’t remember if he called it a superfood, but he did note that it was packed with fiber AND protein, making it a rare grain indeed.

The problem was that we had no idea how to make it edible. We learned the mechanics of making quinoa pretty quickly: Rinse it thoroughly before cooking, and then simmer it like you would rice.

Our cooked quinoa was bland, however. We added broth. We salted. We oversalted. We added herbs. We added spices.

We gave up.

Fast forward to 2008. Quinoa is officially a superfood, and recipes abound. It’s also more readily available, so no more trekking to the health food store for expensive 8-ounce bags of grain.

I finally got my act together with quinoa last year, after I found a couple of basic recipes and started experimenting.

My first discovery: You REALLY need a well-made strainer with tiny holes to properly rinse the grains. Covering the quinoa with water and then pouring it off just makes a huge mess, no matter how careful you are. Just pour the dry quinoa into the strainer and turn on the tap for a minute or so, making sure the water runs over all the grains.

I adapted a Rachael Ray recipe as my go-to quinoa dish, cutting it in half and making a few tweaks. The original calls for a blend of cilantro, basil and parsley. I NEVER have parsley in the house, and I rarely have cilantro AND basil. Her recipe also called for a mixture of black olives and green olives; the husband determined that he preferred the dish with green olives only.

Splurge for the pine nuts: They MAKE this dish. I toast mine in a skillet over low heat until they’re slightly fragrant and starting to tan and I’m a little freaked out that I might burn them. So they’re probably under-toasted, but delicious nonetheless.

I get most of my quinoa at Costco, which sells it in 4-pound bags, and augment it with a pricier red quinoa from the bulk bins at Earth Fare. I don’t think the red quinoa changes the taste much, but it does make the dish more colorful.

The husband prefers quinoa as the base for chicken, but I eat the leftovers meat-free.

Quinoa with Herbs and Olives

(Adapted from Rachael Ray’s Quinoa with Herbs and Mixed Olives)

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 3/4 cup quinoa, well-rinsed
  • Salt
  • 1/4 cup pitted and thinly sliced green olives
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 1/2 cup cilantro or fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
  • In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook just until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

    Add the quinoa and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.

    Stir in 1 1/8 cups water, season with salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat, cover and simmer until the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and let the quinoa stand for 5 minutes. Add the olives, pine nuts and herbs and toss with a fork to combine. Season with salt to taste.

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