Sunday, October 18, 2009

La Traviata Austin

Zipdrive Review
La Traviata Italian Bistro

Start me out with a Mafia-esque locale in an old building and I'm already salivating for Italian food.
Add to that a beautiful young chef with a deft hand and an eye for composition and that salivating turns to drooling.
And if my Big Sis and her partner My Sharona happen to know the chef (and her Big Sis), you've reached the trifecta of great dining expectations.
We arrived early and were promptly seated by an Audrey Hepburn-type hostess who was so helpful, she even suggested to me the best seat at the table for people watching.
The restaurant was small but provided enough room between tables to ensure privacy. Its amber glowing lights were bright enough to see the menu, but low enough for romance.
As we perused the menu, we were joined at the table by Chef Molly Geeslin, a tattooed brunette with a lovely splotch of magenta in her hair.
Our bottle of Prosecco arrived and Chef Molly agreed to share a glass with us, amidst the evening's final preps for a madhouse of hungry diners due to arrive.
Despite the crunch, her poise told me she was cool under pressure--my guess was she knew what she was doing and her sous chefs trusted her judgment.
So amazing is this chef, rumor has it The Food Network has been trying to coax her into appearing on one of its new shows. Only her humble, unassuming personality is standing in the way.
I was hungry but not ravenous, but that hunger peaked after Chef Molly had gone back to the kitchen and sent us a gorgeous, custom designed antipasto plate.
It contained roasted, pickled beets dotted with toasted pistachios, sun dried tomatoes with tiny capers, gorgonzola crumbles, razor thin slices of Parmesano, sliced proscuitto and some soft mozzarella, tomato slices and fresh basil. A few long spears of fresh chives and mint leaves were thrown casually over the whole plate.
With it came sliced French bread hot from the oven, and olive oil.
As we devoured the last morsel, on came our salads.
Nestled in a perfect little pile were baby spinach leaves, ribbons of peppery arugula, paper thin apple slices, and the most amazing candied pecans, whose sweetness was a perfect counterpoint to the creamy mild gorgonzola dressing.
My Sharona had a nice mista salad, which included local baby greens, red wine vinaigrette, toasted hazelnuts and shaved pecorino toscana cheese.
We really deliberated over the amazing entree offerings, but I'm a sucker for pastas bolognese and carbonara, so I toggled between them as the Prosecco was kicking in.
The bolognese included a ragu of beef, veal and pork, which was tempting but my belly was already a little too full for a big, meaty dish like that.
Big Sis had raved about the carbonara and mentioned that it contained a perfect egg yolk on top you had to mix in before eating. I love deconstructed dishes, so the choice became clear.
My Sharona ordered the fettuccine al fungi, with portobello and crimini mushrooms, spinach, fried artichokes, parmesan and truffle oil. I tasted it and found the subtle flavors very complimentary, if not a tad too salty.
Big Sis and I ordered the carbonara, and you may have to relax, get a drink and get ready for the description.
See, basic carbonara contains bacon and a mixture of cream, beaten egg and cheese.
Chef Molly's version was spaghetti tossed with specks of amazing pancetta, scallion threads, cream and lemon, topped with a local farm fresh egg yolk.
Served on a pile, you had to dig a little hole in the center like a volcano and allow the egg yolk to drop into the mix and cook in the very hot sauce. Slowly, you stir the dish until the egg dissolves into the cream and lemon to create a silky, glorious sauce.
What I noticed most was the delicate pastel color of the dish. It's a visual trick that made me realize that a sauce that rich looks a lot lighter when the colors are so muted.
Clearly, Chef Molly approaches cuisine as an artform.
Taking the time to create pale green scallion threads, using specks of pink pancetta and letting the yolk dissolve into all that cream made the dish look like it was created by a French impressionist painter.
The fettucine al fungi was quite the opposite. The sauce was dense, earthy and dark, redolent of rich soil and shade mushrooms need to grow.
After we'd demolished the entrees, we talked about taking a walk after dinner and maybe grabbing coffee at a nearby shop.
Then Chef Molly sent us a dessert platter that looked like a jewel box of sweet delicacies.
We divvied up chocolate dipped strawberries, two tiny profiteroles (one stuffed with chocolate gelato and one with a vanilla panne cotta) a chocolate dipped once-baked biscotti with anise and pistachio granules and a tiny portion of tiramisu. Chef also threw a few candied pecans around for effect. Amazing.
If you love Italian food but you don't love the feeling of needing to explode after dinner, La Traviata is the best option anyone can find in Texas.
I'm not sure, but I have a hunch Chef Molly is the type who'd happily create a chef's tasting menu if anyone requested it.
La Traviata is located at 314 Congress Avenue in Austin.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Were they kidding?

Top Chef Ranch Episode

The elimination challenge for last weeks' episode of Top Chef was cooking dinner for a bunch of ranch hands, outdoors in the middle of a ranch near Vegas.
"Wah wah wah," the contestants whined. "It's hot," "No kitchen!" they cried.
Then they boggled my mind as they whipped up a variety of crap never before heard of on a ranch. Ceviche? Fish? Grilled Romaine?? What the fuhhh?
There was no beef. Not a speck.
One cheftestant actually made a coconut flavored ceviche, with a room-temp coconut milk mojito on the side. EEUUWWWW!
You want to win a damn ranch hand challenge?
Okay, you grill a mess of bone-in ribeyes, some sweet corn still in the shuck, a pot of spicy borracho beans, and a cast iron skillet full of cornbread.
Jesus. How hard is that?
I've never worked on a ranch, but I have been on ranches and the last thing ranch hands want for dinner is a sliver of amberjack with sous-vide baby octopus sauce, on a bed of candied fennel bulbs with a parsnip souffle on the side.
Get real!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Boeuf Bourguignon: The Remake

After seeing "Julie & Julia," my friend Susan and I decided to get together and make Julia Childs's classic boeuf bourguignon.
We looked at the recipe and decided it took way too much time and trouble, so I told her I'd retool the basic recipe and go from there.
Turned out the retool took just as long, but that's another story for another day.

For now, I'll talk about making the red wine reduction. Once that's done, I'll tell you in another blog entry about the rest of the recipe.
1 bottle drinkable red wine
1 cup beef stock
1 stick unsalted butter

While peeling, chopping and slicing the basic mise en place for the stew, we started to create the reduction.
I used a decent Cabernet Sauvignon, and started like this:

Using a heavy saucepan, just haul off and pour in the whole bottle. Set the flame on high to medium high and don't put a lid on it--you don' want condensation, you want evaporation. As the wine starts to simmer/boil, a fine red vapor will spray all over the place. Just ignore it; it's easy to wipe off later.
After maybe a half hour, the volume will reduce by about 50 percent. Don't try to taste it, it's awful at this stage.
Here's what it should look like after a half hour:

Once you get it boiled down to about a quarter of a cup, add one cup of organic beef stock, adjust the flame to a fierce simmer and reduce that mixture to about half a cup.

Once that's done, add the butter in small chunks and, over low heat, whisk until thoroughly blended in. The reduction should be satin-like and glossy. Add salt and pepper. Taste if you want, but it's way too rich to taste any good.
Set it to the side and prepare to make the rest of the dish. The hardest part is over. be continued.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A-Whole Foods

Boycott Whole Foods

Back in the early 70's, when some of my friends had moved to Austin to attend college, I'd go up there for weekends of debauchery and other hippy pastimes.
Surprisingly, all sorts of illegal drugs were okay to take, but the food we ate had to be natural, organic and healthy.
Back then, Whole Foods had only one broken-down store with lots of veggies and other natural foods. It had a very hippyish atmosphere and I felt super cool hanging out with the other hippies.
Then one day, Whole Foods exploded with chains of ultraslick stores all over. The new flagship Austin store was fabulous, with a huge inventory and incredible displays.
A few years later, an even newer flagship store was built in Austin (see photo) and it defined the very best in comestibles. Whenever an out of state visitor arrived in San Antonio, we'd always drive the 85 miles up to Austin so they could see the finest Whole Foods store in America.
Then I started reading news about WF owner John Mackey.
First I read that he used a fake name to visit WF message boards and post positive things about himself.
No big deal, I thought, many CEO's had big egos. He called himself a “new-age libertarian environmentalist,” and that sounded pretty good to me.
But now it turns out he's vehemently against labor unions, and even worse, he's totally against any new health care reform.
How dare he?
We patronized his expensive grocery stores because, not only was the food great, we thought we were filling the coffers of a company that was doing the right thing, for the environment, for their employees, and for the communities they served.
John Mackey's opinions on labor unions and health care reform cancel all that out.
No more Whole Foods shopping for me or my family.
These days, John Mackey's sounding more like a Republican obstructionist than a new-age libertarian environmentalist.
Whole Foods needs to be boycotted.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Drop Your Forks And Go Now!

Julie and Julia: A Review

Gosh, a movie about cooking and women who cook, starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams?
And Streep plays Julia Child? What could possibly go wrong?
With Nora Ephron's writing and directing, this movie was a confection, with appetizers, salad, fish and an entree thrown in for good measure.
For starters, Meryl Streep became Julia Child. Within 20 seconds of her first screen appearance, I totally forgot it was Streep.
From the sloping shoulders to the warbling voice and the taller than tall presence, she made me believe Julia was not dead, she was in her 40's and bigger than life.
We all know the movie's premise:
Julie is a married 29-year-old in NYC looking for a project to snap her out of her ennui, at work and at home. Her saint of a husband suggests she start a blog about food, but she needs to set a deadline or she won't follow through.
So her goal is to cook all 552 recipes in Julia Child's masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days, blogging about it all the while.
The movie toggles between Julie in modern times and Julia and her husband Paul (played by Stanley Tucci) back in Paris during the 40's and 50's.
Oh, the glorious food shots!
Julia, sniffing fresh herbs at a French produce stall. Julia, hoisting fresh fish. Julia, buying bread at a Parisian boulangerie. Julia, at the Cordon Bleu learning to cook in the proper French style.
Julie, giving sliced mushrooms plenty of room in the pan to saute more evenly, and searing lean beef chunks for boeuf bourguignon.
My movie companion and I drooled as we watched dish after dish being prepared, by both J's, with such gustatory abandon.
She and I agreed to make boeuf bourguignon together soon. She's got a great kitchen with professional grade appliances, and I've got sharp knives and good pots and pans, so it should be fun. I'll take pictures.
I think Meryl Streep could (and should) get an Oscar for her amazing performance.
Go see the movie, come back and tell me your impressions. I can't wait to hear what you thought.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Do Not Mess With Babyback Ribs

My Simple Babyback Secrets

The trouble with making babyback ribs is, you gotta know how to tame them before you even think about grilling or roasting them.
Here's what I do.
First, I cut them into individual ribs so the dry rub covers more area, and they don't have to be man-handled once they're served.
Then I boil the living hell out of them until they are cooked. They look awful at this stage; the meat is gray and the bones are white and they aren't all that tender, but they are cooked.
Then I prepare a dry rub, because barbecue sauce on a rib should be a Class C misdemeanor.
A good dry rub I like to use consists of coffee beans ground to the consistency of a fine powder, then I add a little brown sugar, salt, pepper and maybe a dash of paprika. Taste it-- it should be a well balanced flavor with nothing too obvious.
Using my clean, bare fingers I massage the rub over every square inch of the ribs, bones included. Then I rub in another layer for good measure.
I like to roast my babybacks in the oven because it's too hot to grill outside right now. I roast mine on a rack so they cook top, bottom and sides.
The key is, low and slow.
I heat the oven to about 275F and leave the ribs in for at least an hour to 90 minutes. The longer and slower they roast, the more tender they'll be.
They are done when the meat jumps off the bones and up into your mouth.
They are done when the bones can be stripped bare without any effort.
If you make babybacks and find even a speck of meat left on the bones after your guests are finished eating, you have undercooked your ribs and I wish you better luck next time.

Hey Cupcake!

Austin's Premiere Cupcake Trailer

For years now, I've had a fantasy of opening a one-trick pony bakery--selling just one item: cupcakes of all varieties.
The plain ones with frosting would cost a dollar, and the fancy ones with highly decorated tops and exotic ingredients might cost up to $5 each.
Who knew my idea would be trumped by some enterprising Austin hippy?
Enter Hey Cupcake!, a silver Gulfstream trailer located in a parking lot on Congress Avenue.
Recently, Big Sis and I lined up to grab a few of the delicious babycakes on a day when the temperature was close to 105F.
The sun was glinting off the asphalt and the shiny trailer, while we stood there sweating bullets as the goofy, Ty Pennington-type cupcake clerk flirted relentlessly with the scantily clad co-eds on line in front of us.
Finally, I said in a rather loud voice, "Come on buddy, it's 150 degrees out here."
He sort of chuckled and pointed us toward the stand of pink parasols located next to the trailer.
We finally hit the head of the line and Sis ordered one carrot cake, one red velvet and two yellow cakes with chocolate frosting.
Ty Pennington asked if we wanted cream injected, and I thought that sounded like a great idea. When I told him to stuff the carrot and the red velvet ones, he went into a long shpiel about us having to guarantee the cupcakes infused with cream would have to be eaten within 20 minutes, or he couldn't do it.
We crossed our fingers and promised we would.
So off we went, back to the air conditioned car where my lover-in-law sat idling.
Once we settled back at their house, we dug into the cupcakes and, man, were they good. We didn't eat the cream-filled ones in 20 minutes like we promised, but what he didn't know wouldn't hurt him.
Four cupcakes for $12 may sound like a lot, but with a case of the munchies like we had, they were worth twice that.
I noticed the other day someone in San Antonio has opened a cupcake shop on Main Street, in a trendy little retail strip across from a boutique Mexican restaurant.
I'll have to check them out soon, but they have a lot to prove after I've sampled Hey Cupcake's merchandise.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Trouble With Foodie Magazines

Bon Appetit?

I'll admit I subscribe to this magazine, but I can never bring myself to replicate any of their recipes because they are either impossibly time consuming, require extremely hard to find or expensive ingredients, or a combination of them all.
I scanned some of the recipes in the latest issue, and I swear every one of them requires at least one ingredient I don't have or don't want to hassle with finding.
Here are some examples:
1. Fried chicken & biscuits with pink peppercorn honey butter
Sounds easy, but they want you to stock buttermilk, pink peppercorns and clover honey. Cooking should not first require a scavenger hunt.
2. Bloody Mary
Unbelievably, for a simple cocktail they expect you to gather fresh plum tomatoes, a carrot, a golden beet, a fennel bulb, celery seeds, fresh grated horseradish, Sriacha (Asian hot sauce), a cup of Guinness, and for garnishing, pickled okra or green beans.
And a golden beet? Really?
Here's a great Bloody Mary recipe: Some good tomato juice, some good vodka and maybe some salt and pepper. Add whatever else you have around that sounds good. And ice.

I could list a lot more ridiculous recipes from Bon Appetit but the point is, unless you live in a large city with boutique-style comestible markets and have an unlimited grocery budget, Bon Appetit seems to be making things more difficult than they need to be just to be snooty.

I mean come on...

How many of these items are in your pantry or refrigerator?

Ras-el-Hanout (a Moroccan spice blend)
Fresh thyme
Brown turkey figs
Argan oil (from the nut of an Argan tree)
Pepper cress or watercress
Lemon thyme
Whole vanilla beans
Miniature red and yellow bell peppers
Preserved lemons
Lamb shoulder
Fennel pollen
Lemon grass broth
All of these ingredients are listed in recipes within the first half of the magazine.

I think good cooking requires good ingredients. They can be very simple and still be delicious.
A potato, some unsalted butter, a little kosher salt and ground pepper is not complicated but it's sublime.
A loaf of rye, a pound of corned beef and Swiss, a can or jar of good sauerkraut, and a little mustard or Russian dressing can make a mess of perfect Reuben sandwiches.

So what I think I'll do soon is take a great sounding recipe from Bon Appetit, deconstruct it and replace all the silly, scavenger hunt ingredients with just regular stuff you can find at any decent grocery store. Yes?

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Entree

Shrimp in a Lemon Herb Butter Sauce and Angel Hair Pasta

After piddling around with tiny potatoes, soup shooters and a little salad, on came the entree- shrimp with pasta.

After having the fishmonger at Whole Foods carefully select 35 large, fresh Gulf shrimp, I deveined and peeled them and soaked them in half and half overnight to plump them up and remove any hint of fish aroma.
Then I breaded them in Japanese bread crumbs (Panko) and let them dry thoroughly to make sure the Panko was even.

Once they were ready, I sauteed them in extra virgin olive oil and put them in a 200 degree oven to keep them warm as I made the sauce, which consisted of unsalted butter, egg yolk, crushed garlic, minced parsley and chives, and a liberal portion of freshly squeezed lemon juice. Ask and I'll send you the complete recipe.
To go with it, I selected a micro-thin cappelini (or angel hair) pasta and tossed it with olive oil, sauteed pancetta (Italian bacon) grated Parmesan, fresh peas and sea salt.
We selected two styles of ciabatta to sop up the sauce, a lovely salt crusted loaf and a rosemary garlic loaf.
The shrimp dish was originally called Shrimp Paesano, the signature dish of a great Italian restaurant in San Antonio, but I changed the recipe substantially enough to make it my own.
You like?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Instant Appetizer

No Need to Fuss

Sometimes you just need something simple for early arrivers to nibble on while you await the arrival of stragglers and/or divas.
In this case, we selected a fragrant lemon goat cheese, some interesting seedy crackers in three shapes and a little garnish of lemon slices and fresh dill. Let the goat cheese warm to room temperature for easy spreading.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Amazing Soup Shooter

When a Whole Bowl Is Too Much

(left) The Famous Bettie Naylor* (right) MidSis the birthday for larger)

BigSis loves to make soup, but we knew with this dinner we'd have to go easy on the starters because the entree was so good.
So, BigSis came up with a classic soup shooter, a delicious cold soup recipe consisting of fresh zucchini, leeks, potato, white onion, garlic, scallions, chicken stock and spices.

BigSis's Amazing Zucchini Soup Shooters

2 T. Olive oil
1 T. Butter
2 Leeks, white part only, cut into 1/2″ slices
1 Med. Onion, thinly sliced
4 Scallions, both white and green parts, cut into 1/2″ slices
2 Cloves Garlic, minced
5 Zucchini, unpeeled, cut into 1/2″ slices
4 Small White Potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4″ slices (about 2 cups)
4-5 cups Chicken Stock
1 T.Lemon juice
1/2 tsp Sea Salt
1/4 tsp Pepper
1 tsp each marjoram, thyme, rosemary and savory
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 cup Whipping cream, or more as needed
2 T. Chopped chives for garnish

Heat olive oil and butter in a 4 to 5 quart saucepan
and saute' leeks, onion, scallions, garlic, zucchini
and potatoes until slightly softened, 5 to 10 minutes,
stirring frequently. Add chicken stock and lemon juice
and bring to a boil. Add salt and pepper and herbs.
Simmer until vegetables are soft, about 25 minutes.
puree soup in blender or processor in several batches.
Stir in Worcestershire sauce and cream. (if soup is
too thick, add more cream.) Allow to cool, then
refrigerate at least two hours.
Can be made the day before.

Pour cold soup into pitcher for pouring.
Pour into 4-6 oz. shot glasses. Be sure any splashes are wiped off. Garnish with fresh dill.
Add wide straws if desired.

There should be enough for a dozen shooters, with enough leftover for a meal afterwards.

* Famed gay activist and co-founder of the Human Rights Campaign, America's largest GLBT lobby

Do Not Make Boring Salads

Rethinking the Dreaded Salad Course

It never fails.
You sit down to dinner at someone's house and out comes the salad; a plate filled with mixed field greens, cherry tomatoes, sliced cukes and other boring ingredients.
I like salad, but with a great meal I don't want too much because I don't want to waste valuable stomach space with a bunch of greens.
I reduced this salad in volume so it would give the impression of being smaller.
I made this for Mid Sis's birthday feast on Saturday.

Spinach Salad with Fresh Basil, Toasted Pine Nuts, Turkish Apricots and Shaved Peccorino with Sherry Vinaigrette

1 package organic baby spinach
20 fresh basil leaves, sliced into a chiffonade
12 small dried apricots, cut into thin strips
1/4 c. toasted pine nuts
1/4 lb. peccorino or other hard cheese, shaved
sherry vinaigrette to taste

Put spinach in mixing bowl
Take basil leaves and nestle them on top of each other in descending size. Roll into a tight bunch, like a cigar. Slice into thin ribbons from end to end.
Add to spinach and mix in well. Too much basil or basil in too large a piece stings the mouth, hence the thin ribbons.
Add dressing and mix well. Taste it.
Return to refrigerator for at least two hours so the spinach and basil absorb the dressing and reduce in volume.
Place a mound of the spinach mix in the middle of a salad plate. Adorn with apricots, pine nuts and cheese.
No need for salt or pepper, unless you must.

The Amusing Amuse Bouche

Infant Twice-Baked Potatoes

Nothing pleases me more than a perfect amuse bouche (aMOOZE Boosh).
It's a one-bite delicacy that really thrills the palate if you put enough work into it. The trick is to include a lot of components so the taster is dumbfounded that something so tiny can pack such a flavor punch.
As you can see, this amuse bouche started with the smallest potatoes I could find. These were tiny Yukon Golds, but you can also use red potatoes.
After boiling them until they were easily pierced with a toothpick, I cut them in half and very carefully scooped out the meat with a small melon baller and put it in a small bowl. If you haven't got a small enough melon baller, fashion a paper clip into a shape you can scoop with. Leave about 1/8 inch of potato so the little spuds keep their shapes.

6 tiny potatoes, boiled and cut in half
2 tsp unsalted butter
1 tsp finely chopped fresh chives
1 tsp micro-grated cheddar cheese
1 tsp sour cream
1 slice crisp Applewood smoked bacon, finely minced
sea salt to taste

Mash the potatoes in the bowl with a fork until fairly smooth.
Add remaining ingredients and mash together until well blended.
Using your (clean) hands, carefully stuff mixture back into potatoes and sprinkle with a few cheese threads and chives.
Bake in a 300 degree oven until cheese melts--watch carefully.

I served these in Chinese porcelain spoons, very commonly used to present amuse bouche. You can find them at any Asian store or upscale grocery store.