Monday, September 27, 2004

Halfway to Liking Shrimp

Shrimp Fra Diavolo

I do believe I’ve reached a milestone of sorts. If, as Jeffrey Steingarten claims, you can rid yourself of a food phobia by eating it eight to ten times at moderate intervals, then I am halfway to liking shrimp.

I made Shrimp Fra Diavolo with Spaghetti from Italian Classics this weekend. This time I used frozen peeled and deveined shrimp from Whole Foods. That is definitely the way to go – they smelled so much better than the “fresh” shrimp I bought from another store last month. Actually, they didn’t smell at all – which is as it should be. It was also nice not to have to peel and devein them. I thawed the bag overnight in the refrigerator, pulled their little tails off, rinsed them, dried them, and they were ready to go.

After my last experience with shrimp, I felt that I needed something bolder and spicier to mask the flavor of the shrimp, so I picked a recipe with copious amounts of garlic and hot pepper flakes, not to mention wine and cognac. However, the fact that the shrimp were in better condition this time was probably a bigger factor than all that garlic and hot pepper in making the shrimp more palatable.

When I first selected the recipe, I failed to notice that it called for flambéing the shrimp. I have never flambéed anything before and was a little reluctant to attempt it. I’ve always thought of the process as being mostly for show and not worth trying at home (though fun to see in a restaurant), but the recipe had a note which made me rethink my position: “Flambéing the shrimp in cognac brings out its sweetness and provides a nice balance to the spicy, garlicky tomato sauce.”

The shrimp are cooked quickly in a frying pan over high heat, doused with cognac, and then flambéed. That’s the plan anyway. My fear before starting was that I would have an out-of-control open flame that would burn me and/or my kitchen. What actually happened was that I couldn’t get the damn thing lit. I suspect that my pan, which was cast iron, was so hot that the alcohol cooked off before I even attempted to light it. The recipe had said to add the cognac and then wait a few seconds for it to “warm”, but I think the cognac was hot the moment it hit the pan – it steamed up like crazy. If anyone has had experience flambéing or knows how flambéing affects flavor, I’d be very interested to hear about it.

With all the excitement in the kitchen, I completely forgot to take pictures until after I had eaten dinner. So the picture above is of the leftover shrimp and sauce still in the pan and without the spaghetti.

Given that I am not yet a full-fledged shrimp fan, I enjoyed this dish quite a bit. I had some leftovers tonight for dinner and was happy to find that reheating shrimp in the microwave seems to work just fine.

Five more shrimp meals to go. Any suggestions?

Saturday, September 25, 2004

More of New Orleans

My sightseeing in New Orleans was limited to just a few hours the day I arrived and I spent all of that time exploring the French Quarter. It is a relatively small area that you can easily cover on foot. I’m certain that there is much I didn’t see even within that small area. I carried my guidebook with me, but was reluctant to keep my nose buried in it, so I know I walked by many a historic site completely oblivious to its proximity. I did make two food-related stops highlighted in my guidebook: Central Grocery, home of what many consider to be the best muffuletta in New Orleans, and the French Market.

Central Grocery

Central Grocery is a small Italian grocery with an old-time feel. It has wooden shelves laden with all sorts of Italian pantry items and a well stocked deli. It is know for its muffuletta sandwich – a monster of a sandwich loaded with deli meats and cheeses and olive salad. It is the olive salad that makes the sandwich (so they say – I didn’t have one), and you can buy it in a jar to take home. I had hoped to bring some olive salad home as a gift, but it is only offered in one size – huge – and it weighed too much to carry home easily.

Central Grocery shelves

French Market

My other stop was the French Market which includes a small farmers market and a much bigger flea market. The farmers market has some fresh produce, but also has many packaged items including various spice mixtures typical of the region. The flea market is more of an endless souvenir stand. You’ll find row on row of T-shirts, beads, etc. It was unbearably hot, so with a sea of T-shirts still before me, I decided I had seen enough.

French Market - farmers market

I think the best part about walking around the French Quarter is just looking at the houses. The architecture in New Orleans is unlike anything I have seen before, with its distinctive cast-iron balconies and fences.

cast iron

Of course, the other great thing about New Orleans is its food. Because I was with a group, it turned out I had few opportunities to choose a restaurant myself. I mostly went along with the group. One place we went to as a group that was very nice was the Palace Café just across Canal Street from our hotel. I had a pork dish that was very good, though I don’t remember much about it now. I do remember dessert – more for the spectacle than how it tasted. I shared an order of Bananas Foster with someone, which was prepared tableside. I managed to capture it in a picture…

Palace Café - Bananas Foster

The last night I begged off from group activities, since I was going to have to get up extremely early the next morning. That was only part of my motivation, though, I wanted to pick a restaurant myself! I looked through my guidebook for a nearby restaurant that sounded good and finally settled on Herbsaint which was just around the corner on St. Charles. I got there before they opened for dinner, so I went to the bar to order a drink and kill a little time. I had planned to order a glass of wine, but I noticed they had a Herbsaint cocktail. I asked the bartender about it and he said it was like a black jelly bean. I tried to order it – but he seemed intent on talking me out of it! I don’t know if he had decided that I wouldn’t like it or if he just didn’t like it. I ended up with a glass of wine. I sat at a table by the window and watched the world and the St. Charles streetcar go by.

My meal was very good and my appetizer and dessert were both outstanding. I ordered the Herbsaint, tomato and shrimp bisque as an appetizer. I didn’t realize at the time that it was flavored with Herbsaint liqueur. Actually, at the time I didn’t even know that the restaurant was named for the anise flavored liqueur that is made in New Orleans.

My entrée was Muscovy Duck Leg Confit with Dirty Rice and Citrus Gastrique. It was very good, but the duck confit seemed a little dry. As I was eating the dirty rice, I came on a bit of something I couldn’t really identify and then I recalled that dirty rice has chicken liver in it. I was thoroughly enjoying the rice, though, and even that realization didn’t dissuade me from cleaning my plate. Maybe there is hope for me!

It was a wonderful meal, but I couldn't leave without having dessert. The waiter (aka the bartender) encouraged me to try the Banana Brown Butter Tart with Fleur de Sel Caramel, so I took his advice. It was amazing. Each bite had all these different flavors swirling around – sweet, salty, tangy… soooo good.

I walked back to my hotel in a wonderful mood and so very happy that I had had dinner at Herbsaint.

Monday, September 20, 2004


After a leisurely dinner and staying up too late watching the Emmys, I got on the computer to do a couple things before going to bed. I happened to take a look at Zarah Maria’s blog and was surprised to see her IMBB 8 entry – isn’t that next weekend? Uh… no.

Actually, dinner last night was to have been my entry for the 8th edition of IMBB – I thought I was ahead of the game, cooking last night and planning to write it up this week. Unfortunately IMBB was yesterday, so I’m late – but here goes anyway…

This is a simple dish that to me is comfort food in every way. It’s a whole meal in a pot, it tastes great, and it is reminiscent of pot roast, which was my favorite dinner growing up. I created it many years ago when I acquired my first and only piece of Le Creuset. I threw together some ingredients in my new pot and christened the dish “Blue Pot Chicken”. I don’t think it’s ever come out quite the same or quite as good as that first time. In that happy accident the amounts of chicken, potatoes, onions and white wine must have been just so and the stars must have been perfectly aligned, for when I pulled the pot out of the oven the potatoes were perfectly roasted with crusty brown bits here and there and best of all, the onions, potatoes, chicken and wine had combined to form an amazing syrupy sauce.

The problem is I don’t know how much wine (or anything else for that matter) I used that first time. Also, I am sure that every time since then I’ve gotten greedy and added too much wine, thinking that more wine equals more sauce. When you’ve got too much liquid though, you don’t get a sauce and the vegetables don’t roast, they stew.

I’ve partially solved the problem and if I can show a little more self restraint next time, I think I know how to solve it completely. I think the trick is to reduce the wine considerably before putting the pot in the oven – this isn’t how I used to do it, but I think it will work. Last night I did that, but after mixing in the vegetables I was afraid there wouldn’t be enough sauce and threw in more wine – will I ever learn? I ended up with way too much liquid - maybe some of it came from the vegetables – so after cooking, I removed the chicken and vegetables and then reduced the liquid until I had that wonderful sauce. My vegetables weren’t exactly roasted, but it was delicious none the less.

Blue Pot Chicken

2 or 3 pieces of chicken on the bone
1 small onion cut as you like – I cut it vertically into ¼ inch slivers this time
2 medium potatoes cut into 1 inch chunks
3 medium carrots cut into ½ to ¾ inch slices
½ to ¾ cup white wine (I used Pinot Grigio this time)
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a 2 quart pot that can be used both on the stove and in the oven over medium high heat. Salt and pepper the chicken on both sides and then brown the chicken pieces for a couple of minutes on each side (note: because this is a small pot, you may have to do this one piece at a time). Set the chicken aside on a plate. If after browning the chicken there seems to be excess oil in the pot, pour it off into a small bowl and then put about 2 teaspoons of oil back in the pot and throw in the onions, add some salt and pepper and cook the onions until they start to brown. Deglaze the pan with the wine and reduce the wine by at least half. Spoon a little of the wine and onion mixture on top of the chicken and then add the carrots and potatoes to the pot and stir to combine with the onions and wine. Arrange the chicken on top of the vegetables (it will probably just fit), cover the pot and put it in a 375 F oven for about an hour. If when you remove it from the oven you find there is too much liquid, remove the chicken and vegetables and then reduce the liquid over medium heat until the desired consistency is reached. Spoon the sauce over the chicken and vegetables and serve.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Back from New Orleans

Actually, I’ve been back for almost a week. It’s been very busy at work, though, and I’ve been playing catch-up at home too, so I haven’t found time to post until now. I really enjoyed the trip to New Orleans and I’m really relieved to hear that it came through hurricane Ivan without the disastrous flooding that was feared. It’s hard to imagine the place I was visiting just days ago boarded up and deserted.

The weather while we were there was perfect. It was hot and humid, especially the day we arrived, but there was no sign of rain. I met up with a coworker at the airport and after checking into our hotel, we grabbed a quick lunch at a small restaurant (its name escapes me now). I had red beans and rice with sausage and a side salad. It tasted pretty good after I doused it with hot sauce. After lunch my coworker headed off for a walking tour of the Garden District and I set off to explore the French Quarter.

My first stop was Café Du Monde, the place to get beignets and café au lait. It is an open air café near the French Market that opened in 1862 and serves little more than coffee (in several variations) and beignets. The prices are very reasonable: $1.37 for a plate of three beignets and $1.37 for café au lait. Because of the heat, I opted for an iced coffee with my beignets. My order arrived quickly. The beignets were hot and buried under a mountain of powdered sugar. There is no way to eat these things daintily and there is little chance that you will escape without the tell-tale signs of powdered sugar on your clothes. Beignets are basically donuts with powdered sugar and will probably put you well over your daily allowance of fat grams, but eating beignets at Café Du Monde is a quintessential New Orleans experience.

Monday, September 06, 2004

I'm off...

I'm leaving for New Orleans early tomorrow for work, so I won't be posting for the next week. I will only have a few hours to sightsee, but I'm a three-meals-a-day-kinda-gal, so there will be lots of eating to be done! I probably won't be able to post before Sunday, but please do check back then!

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Soup for Supper

I’ve been really busy this week, so I’ve been eating leftovers and prepared food from the grocery store. Last night I finally had a chance to cook but wasn’t up for something terribly complicated. I flipped through a cookbook that just happened to be out by my computer and came upon a recipe for black bean soup that sounded good. I decided on a supper of soup, salad and muffins.

The recipe for black bean soup is from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home: Fast and Easy Recipes for Any Day. I’ve had the book for a while, but have not cooked much from it. I happened to have the book out because I had recently emailed an icing recipe from it to a friend. The icing goes with the “Six Minute Chocolate Cake” which, as you might deduce from the name, is very easy and also very good. I made the cake over a year ago and I don’t think I had used the book since then. As I was getting the link at Amazon just now, I noticed that the book has a five-star rating with 33 reviewers – guess I need to refer to this book a little more often!

Black bean soup is something I’ve always thought I should like – after all, I love black beans – but, I’ve never had one that I really enjoyed. I have tried making it myself a couple of times and had it once in a local coffee shop, but each time found it to be somewhere between boring and unpleasant. This recipe caught my eye because it had almost equal amounts of black beans and tomatoes. It also uses a technique that I really like: about half the soup is pureed and stirred back into the pot creating a thick, hearty soup that is still chunky. There is a fair amount of chopping to do, but the soup goes together quickly and easily.

I had just about all the ingredients on hand. There was one ingredient though that I had never cooked with: sun dried tomatoes (the dry ones, not the ones in oil). I wondered as I prepared the soup, what these would add to the soup in the way of flavor. Even after having eaten the soup, I’m still not certain. The soup was delicious and there was something about the flavor that was more than I expected. There was almost a slight sweetness, which may have come from the sun dried tomatoes, but could also have come from the canned tomatoes. I’m tempted to prepare it again without the sun dried tomatoes and taste the two side by side.

Before the soup I had a simple green salad and alongside the soup I had my very own Pumpkin Corn Meal Muffins. I stuck a DVD in the DVD player, got comfy on the sofa and enjoyed my home cooked meal.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

WWWBW - New World Merlot

the winner - Reynolds Vineyard 2001 Merlot

Today is World Wide Wine Blogging Wednesday – at least for the next 37 minutes. This is Lenn of LennDevours idea – another communal blogging event modeled after Alberto’s IMBB. The theme for this first WWWBW is new world Merlots (excluding those from the US). I wasn’t going to bother to post, because I have been so busy and was having trouble mustering up some enthusiasm to write this up, but I started reading some of the others and now I’m really curious if someone else tried the same ones I did and what they thought…

I bought two Merlots to try. I didn’t like the first one I tried at all, so I decided to get another and compare them. I know nothing about wine and in fact have fairly limited experience drinking it. I rarely drink any wine and up until a couple of years ago I had hardly ever had red wine. That changed when I went to Tuscany last October. We opened one, two and sometimes three different bottles of red wine each evening with dinner. I didn’t relish them all, but many I did, and I finally came to appreciate red wine.

I am still very much a wine novice, though, and am totally flummoxed by the vocabulary used to describe the experience of it. In fact, I can’t quite understand how people smell and taste the things they claim to smell and taste in wine – cedar, leather, tar!?

I approached this originally with quite a bit of enthusiasm. I invited friends over for dinner and explained that I would be serving Merlot (which they would have to taste) and later writing about it for WWWBW. Unfortunately, a family emergency called my friends out of town and I was left on my own for the tasting. I found a site that had a so called wine tasting course. I decided to sit down at the computer with my wine as I read through the course and take notes with the hopes that the course would enlighten me and allow me to talk the talk. No such luck – the course was about as disappointing as my first Merlot.

The first Merlot that I tried was a Montes Merlot Special Cuvée 2003 from the Colchagua Valley in Chile. I found this review: “87 PTS WILFRED WONG. Smooth and textured, the pleasing '03 Montes Special Cuvee Merlot is a dandy of a wine; ripe and easy with a hint of wood; excellent with charred broiled pork chops.” The label described it as “An elegant and refined wine with a marked fruitiness almost irresistible to Merlot lovers. Strong, spicy black pepper full of harmony and soft on the palate. Aging in American oak gives structure and finesse that will also permit short term cellaring.”

The wine was deeply colored and almost opaque. I sniffed it and groped for words to describe its aroma. All I could come up with was “smells like red wine”. To me the wine was sharply flavored and unpleasant. When I later sipped it alongside the second Merlot, I could tell there was a big difference but struggled to describe it. The other was obviously fruity in comparison, but what was this one? The word I came up with – perhaps totally inappropriate, and according to my spell checker, not even a word – was “resiny”. Maybe in wine-speak this would be pine.

The second bottle I tried was a Reynolds Vineyards 2001 Merlot from New South Wales, Australia. The bottle says “This velvety Merlot offers enticing cherry, vanilla, and toasted herb aromas with plush cherry and plum flavours.” This wine was a much more attractive color and had a definite fruity (but still dry) taste. While the other Merlot left my tongue tingling, this one left my throat feeling warm – which I much prefer! While I would probably still gravitate to an Italian wine over a Merlot, I think I will enjoy the rest of this second bottle.

Must run – I’ve got to catch my forty winks before another long day tomorrow!

the also-ran - Montes Merlot Special Cuvée 2003