Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The cheap but adorable

photo from wineandco.com
Being part of the legal community, I feel compelled to put a disclaimer at the top of this post, so here it goes. I am not a wine connoisseur and am not qualified to pass judgment on the merits of any wine other than whether it tastes good to me. With that said, I have come to think that it’s silly to shy away from writing about an indispensable part of my gastronomical experience simply because I am not an authority on the subject. After all, eating and drinking are intimate experiences that are personal to each of us. What we taste, no matter how eloquently described, could only be conjured by another based on his or her own taste library and not exactly reproduced to resemble that of the writer. In the area of wine, I am not afraid to admit that I have suffered through many glasses of throat scratching acidic liquids when trust is put in the hands of the ever influential Robert Parker. It’s extremely disappointing when anticipation for bursts of plums and black cherries materializes in a nose of menthol and an aftertaste of scorched earth. On the other hand, when a bottle that you bought out of desperation turns out to hit all the right notes, it’s time to write a blog entry.

The desperation bottle was purchased at a gas station (go ahead, you can gasp). I probably wouldn’t have resorted to such measures had it not being Saturday evening when the no alcohol sale Sunday is almost upon us and a white wine is really needed to go with my very light fish dish, which I was hell bent on making. The only thing going for Buddy’s, the gas station, was that a fellow blogger at winefoolery had dedicated a post to this midtown Atlanta landmark for carrying a decent selection of affordable wines. Skeptical, I stepped into Buddy’s tiny space bathed in the most unflattering fluorescent light. The wine selection was indeed surprising for a gas station. I surveyed the white wine section and didn’t recognize any that stirred excitement. Again, I am not a connoisseur and have dwelled for too long in the red zone to know much about budget white wines. While contemplating what to do, my wondering gaze zoomed in on a dependable label. There was a Penfold Koonunga chardonnay in the midst. Albeit it was one that I’ve never tried and really know nothing about, I felt it was probably as good a bet as any, especially at $6.95.

Come time to pop the cork, I had no idea what to expect. I suppose I could have looked online for some tasting information, but sometimes it’s just better not to know. From the moment the cork came out with a pleasant pop, one word registered in my mind – honey. The pale golden liquid perfumed like a jar of fresh tupelo honey. When I swirled the wine in the glass, there was almost a honey-like viscosity to the robe formed on the glass wall. When warmed in the mouth, there was the unmistakable fattiness of chardonnay accompanied by, you guessed it, a finish of honey rolling slowly towards the back of the throat. So there you have it, my first very amateur wine review summed up in one decidedly unsophisticated sentence – it smells and tastes like a pleasant honey and I liked it very much. For those of you that need a more authoritarian word, here is what wine library said.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

IMBB24: 30 minute toothfish that requires no teeth

Before I get into the theme of my virgin IMBB entry, let me first confess that I am a devoted fan of slow cooking. Nothing heals the soul or repairs the spirit quite like a house permeated with the smell of something simmering on the stove for hours. It’s a kind of cooking performed only when the cook has the luxury of time and liberty of space. It’s the kind of cooking that nurtures and loves. I try to cook like that at least once a week, even if it’s just for me. If I start in a good mood, the simmering enhances that happiness and I hum through the whole thing. If a few tears happen to fall into the pot, the simmering invariably evaporates them and the steam never fails to clear the sinuses.

Unfortunately, slow cooking is not for everyday. Most days of the week, I am forced to revise what to put on the table to ensure that I could devote more hours of the day to the financing of what’s put on the table. While the time spent on cooking is often compromised, good result is not. My go to ingredient on busy nights is the one that doesn’t perform well in slow cooking – a fine fleshed fish.

My choice for this IMBB entry is the king of fine fleshed fish, Chilean sea bass. This fish has had my wholehearted devotion since that initial fateful bite four years ago. Despite this self-proclaimed love, I recently discovered that there is much about this fish unknown to me. Specifically, I was completely surprised to learn that Chilean sea bass is not a sea bass at all, but a deep-water species known as toothfish. The toothfish took on the name Chilean sea bass only because it was first marketed in the United States by the Chileans and its flesh resembled that of a sea bass. In my opinion, this resemblance ended at the seafood counter. When cooked to the right doneness, the toothfish tastes far richer and creamier without any assistance than the sea bass, which generally benefits from a sauce of butter or cream. For that reason alone, the toothfish is worthy of its premium price and king status. Also for that reason, I like to poach my toothfish gently in a brothy red sauce to preserve the natural creaminess and ensure that I don’t have to use teeth on this fish. Try it and you will be amazed by how beautifully the butteriness of the fish compliments the tartness and slight spiciness of the vibrant broth. Making things even more perfect, you will only have one pot to wash.

Chilean Sea Bass Poached in Garlicky Tomato Sauce
Adapted from a baked sea bass recipe in Bon Appétit, September 1997
2 servings

1T olive oil
1 cup sliced onions
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
1 two ounce can of anchovies (use half if you think the flavor is too strong)
2T minced garlic
¼ t dried crushed red pepper
1 14 ounce can of diced tomatoes (drained)
1 cup of dry white wine
1 t of chicken essence (optional)
salt and pepper
2 Chilean sea bass fillets (about 1 inch thick)

1. Heat the olive oil over medium high heat in a skillet with lid that is large enough to hold the liquid and fish without overlapping. Break down the anchovies in the skillet until only a paste remain. Add the red pepper, garlic, and onion and cook until the onion is softened, about 3-5 minutes.

2. Stir in the drained diced tomatoes, parsley, and white wine. Stir in the chicken essence if you are using. This will make the broth saltier and a bit more robust. You can simply use a bit of salt if you don’t’ have chicken essence. Bring to a boil for a couple of minutes and turn down to medium low heat so the broth is barely simmering.

3. Place the fish in the broth and spoon broth over to cover. Put the lid on the skillet and let fish poach for between 6-12 minutes. Make sure your broth is not bubbling too hard and check the fish after 6 minutes to make sure that you don’t overcook. As soon as the fish is opaque throughout, transfer the fish to plates.

4. Boil the broth down a bit, about 2 minutes. Season broth to taste with salt and pepper and spoon over fish to serve.

I like to serve the fish with sides of oven roasted tomatoes and sweet peppers. To prepare, you simply coat the tomatoes and peppers in a bit of olive oil, sea salt, and pepper on a baking sheet and bake in a pre-heated 350 degree oven until the tomato skins burse open and the peppers are deflated. It should take about 25 minutes. If you put them in the oven before you start the fish recipe, you will have both for the table around the same time.
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Saturday, March 18, 2006

The right pan for the job

Tarts have been on my mind since the very first days I began dabbling in baking. But, the sad truth is, until this past weekend, no proper tart has ever emerged from my oven. In my crammed New York kitchen, I’ve turned out a few tart recipes in those flimsy disposable pie pans acquired at the supermarket and a few more in their rustic free forms. Perhaps some would refer to these as tarts, but I’ve never thought it prudent to anoint them such. In my lexicon, a proper tart referred strictly to a pastry of sweet or savory filling embraced by a delicate but structured shell with immaculately creased straight edges. This shell must be strong enough to stand as the lone barrier between the outside world and the creamy softness inside but flaky enough to crumble effortlessly when encountering the teeth. Such a shell could not be produced in a disposable aluminum pie pan or, for that matter, any pie pan where the crust, not shell, is supported by the sloped pan edge and remained mostly unseen. The free form pastries that are often referred to as rustic tarts, in my mind, bared no resemblance in appearance, texture, or taste to the “proper tarts” of my liking. What is required to make such a “proper tart” is a tart pan having fluted straight sides and a removable bottom, upon which the cooled tart may be lifted to reveal its gently crinkled edges. Until recently, I did not own such a pan.

My very own pretty tart pan came into my life upon a chance meeting in the much loved Cook’s Warehouse here in Atlanta. I was there to pick up my knives, which were dearly missed during their one week trip to the knife sharpener. While the lady at the counter went to retrieve the knives, I took a stroll down a very narrow aisle jam-packed with all sorts of equipments and gadgets that I never knew existed, but desperately needed once I laid eyes on them. Trying to take in all the colorful offerings, I was soon doing 360s in the aisle like a puppy trying to catch his own tail. One turn brought about a loud “bang” as a bundt pan tumbled from the rack upon which it was perching dangerously. Hoping not to attract the counter lady, I tried to quickly slide the pan back into its spot on a shelf much too tall for me. Something on the shelf prevented the pan from going in properly despite my muscling. Just as I was about to give up and go look for another resting place for the bundt pan, the shop lady appeared suddenly and pulled out an adorable chrome tart pan from the spot on the rack that refused to take the bundt pan in. It was love at first sight and the rest is history.

Fast forward to this past Sunday afternoon, after a perfect road trip to a little town by the river and a few glasses of a crisp pinot in the spring breeze, J and I returned home relaxed, satisfied, but hungry. Not much was left in the fridge and we were too settled in to go out. While looking for a salad bowl in the cupboard, a shade of chrome caught the last ray of the setting sun outside. So dinner would be a quick tart served along side a fresh salad. What a way to initiate spring.

Two Onion Tart

Adopted from Orangette and André Soltner in The New York Times, October 20, 2003
Makes 6 slices

Your own tart or pie shell or ½ recipe of Martha Stewart’s recipe
1 T olive oil
1 lb yellow onions, thinly sliced
1 bunch of spring onions, thinly sliced
1 large egg
½ cup heavy cream
salt and pepper
a pinch of nutmeg

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
2. Line a 9” removable-bottom tart shell with the tart shell recipe and chill in the fridge.
3. Sauté the onions and spring onions in the olive oil on medium heat until soft and lightly browned.
4. Mix the egg, cream, and cooked onions with a pinch of salt, pepper, and nutmeg.
5. Fill the tart shell with the mixture and bake for about 25 minutes until the filing is golden.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The pleasure of one

J's rigorous travel schedule, which would probably be detrimental to a normal relationship, is surprisingly well-tolerated in ours. It may have something to do with the fact that both J and I are rather independent spirits who enjoy plenty of alone time to do exactly what we please without having to utter a word of explanation to another. While doing exactly what he pleases usually means taking a long drive to somewhere scenic and then going to a lounge to listen to music, I generally prefer a relaxing long dinner for one, either at a nice restaurant or at home with a glass of good wine. With that said, I am not at all averse to taking a leisurely long drive to another locale for the above-mentioned long meal with wine.

J left this past Sunday for his fourth long trip of the year. And yes, it is only the beginning of March. Unlike every other time that I am left to my own devise, this time I have been so caught up with the stuff that I have to do to pay for my gastronomical pleasures, I have not been able to enjoy my alone time very much at all. So tonight I made a point to correct this completely unacceptable lack of self love and made a satisfying meal for one.

My definition of a satisfying meal changes with the seasons and my moods. Usually in the winter, when it’s awfully cold outside, well, by Atlanta standard anyway, nothing warms my insides quite like a hearty bowl of beef stew. When I am depressed, okay, maybe just a little sad as I am pretty much incapable of being depressed these days, I love nothing more than a grilled cheese sandwich. But today is not one of those days, it’s a spring-like day and I am just tired, hungry, and in need of something fast but special. Without an idea in mind, I wondered into my neighborhood Whole Foods barely before it closed.

Mangos were displayed at the door at $.99/ea. I picked up a ripe one for breakfast the next morning. At the seafood counter, a jolly man, who I have never seen before, gave me a big toothy smile and belted out “hi there, little lady, what can I do for you?” Giggles came out before I could silence them and seal the deal for dinner, it will be seafood. I scanned the colorful display case and settled on some succulent looking diver scallops. A little hesitant, I said to the jolly man “could you pick out just four big scallops for me?” If the request shocked him at all, he did not show it. Instead, he discriminately selected four of the biggest from the bunch and carefully wrapped them for me in a double layered bag. If it is possible not to be happy when you are driving home with four perfectly chubby scallops parked in the trunk of your mini screaming for the pan, I can’t understand it. So I felt infinitely lucky to be just across the street from the Whole Foods. Within seconds, I was in my lovely red kitchen. I took a moment to remember how much I loved the man who bought this place simply because his little lady went nuts for the kitchen.

I didn’t want to follow a recipe today. Something simple would be just divine and nothing could be bad when I have a glass of good red sitting on the kitchen counter. First, I dressed my peppery baby arugula with a mixture of olive oil, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, parmesano-regiano, and lots of freshly ground black pepper. It tasted great but looked a bit plain. A few pieces of artichoke hearts cured that. Then I turned my attention to the scallops. They looked so perfect in the raw, all I wanted to do was to keep them that way. In a bowl I mixed a tablespoon or so of a syrupy balsamic vinegar that E so graciously gave me and added a bit of salt and some more pepper. Then I dipped my scallops in the thick balsamic concoction while I heated up a bit of olive oil in a heavy bottomed pan. When the oil was just below smoking, I lowered the scallops in, careful not to break them. A few minutes on each side caramelized them beautifully. All that was left to do at that point was to stack everything on a simply white plate and dig in.