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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Forest Grill

Tonight we continued Wes' birthday celebration with dinner at the award-winning Forest Grill in Birmingham. Owner/Chef Polcyn has long championed high quality local ingredients and traditional techniques and this American bistro follows suit.

We started our extraordinary meal with a glass of Prosecco paired with two perfect appetizers: summer crab and melon salad with a crenshaw melon consommé; and an English pea risotto, with arborio rice, mascarpone cheese, black truffles, truffle oil, Parmigianno-Reggiano, fresh herbs gremolata and pancetta.

The crab salad, seasoned with chives and lemon and topped with arugula, frisee, and avocado, was light, zesty and refreshing. The cool melon consommé mingled with the crab to balance and tame the peppery notes.  In contrast, the creamy, intensely flavored risotto, speckled with crispy, salty housemade pancetta, offered substance and silky richness. 

In short, this is how I want to remember summer during the bleak snowfalls of January.

We followed with veal cheeks, Parisian herb and ricotta gnocchi, wilted spinach, tomato and Parmigianno-Reggiano. The chef braises the meltingly tender veal cheeks in a demi-glace and port for eight hours, then surrounds them with the plump, pillowy dumplings. The dish is rich, hearty, slightly sweet, but never heavy. Heavenly.

We also savored the bouillabaisse with mussels, clams, lobster, scallops, shrimp and crab in a rich, flavorful tomato broth, with crunchy baguette topped with saffron rouille.

Our fine server Joseph presented proper wine pairings for both entrees: 2006 Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Chardonnay from Santa Lucia Highlands and a 2006 Clos La Coutale Malbac.

The highly talented and credentialed Executive Chef David Gilbert has made the requisite rounds: Thomas Keller's French Laundry in the vaunted Yountville, Calif., as well as various three-star Michelin rated restaurants in Paris and Spain.

Nearly 10 years ago, author Michael Ruhlman featured Polcyn in his excellent book, The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection. The two also collaborated on the James Beard Award-nominated Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing.

While Forest Grill is an exceptional spot for a celebration meal, you can go casual here, too, with soups, clay-oven baked pizzas or the charcuterie de jour. Mindful of the economy, the restaurant now offers prix fixe three-course lunch ($15) and dinner ($30) menus. However you choose to do it, just get there and enjoy.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pasta with Filet Mignon

My husband Wes' birthday is tomorrow, but since we found ourselves with no plans this evening, we decided to start the party early with a lovely home cooked meal: pasta with filet mignon. A true celebration meal.

First, we seasoned a single beautiful filet with salt and pepper and let it come to room temperature -- very important when searing meat. Four minutes per side in our trusty Le Creuset cast iron grill pan, then let it rest for at least 10 minutes. Some seasoned cooks will sneer at our choice of filet, but we deliberately chose the milder flavor and wanted to keep the calorie/fat content somewhat in check.

Meantime, we sauteed a huge shallot and two cloves of garlic in olive oil until lightly caramelized in a big skillet while the pasta cooked in salted boiling water. We drained the pasta and added it to the pan so it could mingle with the shallot mixture. Then we added a big splash of good red wine, another big splash of beef stock and a few spoonfuls of the pasta water (an excellent technique for pastas). 

We sliced the filet thinly while the wine reduced, and added it to the pan. Threw in a knob of butter to melt (hey, it's a celebration meal). A few fresh basil leaves from the garden. Done.

We shared this meal outside in a cool summer night with an gorgeous bottle of Brunello di Montalcino. Amazing meal, amazing wine, amazing husband. What could be better?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Guest Post at Eat, Live, Travel, Write

I'm excited to report that I've written a guest blog post that's now up on Eat, Live, Travel, Write. So, please take a moment to look at her fine blog and feel free to comment, if you'd like. Topic is my recent meal at Michael Symon's fabulous Roast in downtown Detroit.

Thanks for the opportunity, Mardi!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Dispatch from Barcelona

My husband Wes is the executive editor of AutoWeek magazine, and his work takes him across the globe. He's had the good fortune to eat in hundreds of fine restaurants, and today he contributes this guest post to Fresh Eats. Watch for his guest post from Scotland.

At ABaC, Barcelona's only two-star Michelin restaurant, I had the chance to enjoy the work of chef and molecular gastronomer Xavier Pellicer. Pellicer chose cooking as his trade when he was just 13, having grown up around fine food and wine -- how could he not with a Catalan father and French mother?

Pellicer moved among Europe's Michelin-starred restaurants, arriving at ABaC in 1999.

ABaC is located in a refurbished mansion that had been privately owned and also was once the U.S. consulate. There are two dining rooms, one large and one small, both decorated in what I'll call modern Spanish: Creams and whites and indirect lighting and elegant, neutral shades. 

The kitchen wherein Pellicer works his magic is actually an ancient theater where the original families who owned the mansion staged plays.

Our meal was simple, elegant and delicious. Pellicer started us with a beautifully plated dish of prawns, watercress and artichoke. Next we moved on to grouper in a warm, nutty, almond emulsion. As a seafood lover I was in heaven: The prawns and grouper struck the perfect balance between clean fish flavor without being too fishy, one of my seafood pet peeves.

Next, the main dish, a Barcelona specialty, Iberian suckling pig. It was sublime, with a crispy skin and, once we cut into it, succulent juicy meat, flavored to perfection.   

The entire meal was served on gorgeous Versace china, of course. It was an experience I won't soon forget.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Back to the Basics


This blog is in a temporary state of minimalism, and that can be a good thing. After all, Mark Bittman, New York Times columnist/Bitten blogger/author has made a career of editing meals down to essential ingredients and seasonings.

Case in point: Bittman's piece in Wednesday's NYT food section, 101 Simple Salads for the Season, ranks #2 on the website's most-clicked list four days later. You can feed yourself for an entire summer with these super simple "recipes," while taking advantage of the abundance of local, seasonal produce. You'll see some familiar food combos, as well as some innovative pairings (tomatoes and strawberries with basil, parmesan and balsamic, anyone?)

But Bittman's legacy won't only be about getting back to the basics in the kitchen. He, along with Michael Pollan and a few others, are helping shape our values and philosophies when it comes to food, and the complicated politics surrounding the dinner table. 

Bittman's latest book, Food Matters, marked a big departure from his previous work, and in it, he shares his personal story of how he changed his approach to food, going semi-vegetarian, and why. The book has 75+ green recipes (meaning plant-based, planet-friendly meals), but also includes some meals with meat. 

If you're interested in healthy eating, feeding a family, food politics or sustainable food supplies, I encourage you to read these books. These two authors peel the layers off of these complicated subjects without resorting to activism or a militant tone. Watch for the fall release of Pollan's young readers edition of Omnivore's Dilemma

In the meantime, try a few of these salads and enjoy the summer!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Summer Salad

I know, I know, tuna salad, or in this case, salad with tuna, is pretty dull. Not especially blog-worthy. But it's summertime, and as much as I love to cook, it's too beautiful to spend every night in the kitchen. There's plenty of time for that from, say, November to April here in Michigan.

Summer is also salad season. I love cold foods in the warmer months... crunching on this salad on a snowbound February night would have much less appeal.

So, how to make salad with tuna salad a little special? Well, start with good greens from the garden, if possible. We picked baby swiss chard, romaine, mixed lettuces and baby spinach. Sliced some cukes and grape tomatoes. 

Then, the Flott tuna. This Italian tuna, packed in olive oil, makes this meal. It's rich, tender and deeply flavored. Simply drain the tuna well (save a bit of the oil) and scatter the fillets over the greens. 

Toss in some torn fresh basil leaves, and some fresh lemon thyme leaves. I started growing this fragrant herb a couple years ago and it has changed my life. Seriously. Try it. It ties all of the flavors together perfectly and brightens up every meal.

Next, sprinkle on some toasted pine nuts, a little salt and pepper, a drizzle of the reserved olive oil (or any oil of your choice - walnut oil would be lovely too) and a big squeeze of fresh lemon, and dinner is done. That took, what, 10 minutes?

Too late, I realized I should have added some cannellini beans. Oh well, next time. 

Summer salads are an easy, healthy way to get a good dinner on the table fast, leaving you plenty of time to savor these gorgeous summer nights.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Becoming a better cook

The Seattle Times just ran an excellent piece on how to add flavor to summer meals, but really, you can use these tips all year long. I believe anyone can be a good cook with some basic knowledge and techniques, and this story lays down a great foundation. Do take a minute, if you can, to check it out.

While we're at it, I'll add a couple of my favorite go-to flavor tips:
  • Wine. I realize everyone can't cook with wine, and I sympathize, because wine (or champagne, beer, and spirits) adds incredible depth of flavor to everything. Wine, or stock, if you don't or can't indulge, elevates food from good to great.

  • Parmesan. A sprinkle off high-quality, freshly grated parmesan adds loads of flavor to savory dishes and breads.

  • Prosciutto. I'm not into ham at all, but add cubed or sliced prosciutto to just about everything: soups, salads, pastas, stews, whatever. Give me a plate of sliced prosciutto, a bit of parmesan and some melon or grapes and I'm all set.

  • Acid. Citrus fruits like lemon, lime or orange, or vinegars such as balsamic, red wine, or champagne will add a bright burst of freshness that'll make your food special. Add a little squeeze or splash when you're almost done cooking soups, stews, pastas, stir-frys or almost any dish. Professional chefs extole the virtues of of acid in good food all the time.

  • Good salt. Upgrading to sea salt, French fleur de sel or kosher salt gives dishes a cleaner, milder flavor. Table salt is harsh. The pros recommend using kosher salt for everyday cooking and sea salt of fleur de sel for finishing a dish. I also encourage you to experiment with flavored salts. Above, see one of my favorite flavored salts, Orange Saltburst, courtesy of my friend Abbie in Austin.

  • Good oil. Investing in a small bottle of high-quality extra virgin olive oil, or other flavored oils, will enhance your cooking dramatically. You don't need to cook with it per se, simply drizzle a bit on salads or savory dishes to finish them off.
Check out the Times piece for info on how to use the products in the photo above.

Let me know if you use any of these tips regularly, or if you experiment with some new ones in your own kitchen. And I'd love it if you and give me some of your best flavor boosters in the comments section.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Breakfast for Dinner

So, I'm cooking for one this week, which means it's a great time to eat breakfast for dinner. Cereal and milk? Not this time. I decided to make a feta vegetable frittata, which is basically a crustless egg, cheese and veggie pie. Apparently the French make omelettes and the Italians make frittata.

To get started, take a large, nonstick pan and saute some garlic and onion (scallions or shallots work well, too) with salt and pepper over medium or medium high heat until tender. I added a few handfuls of sliced grape tomatoes, cooked them for a few minutes, then some sliced kalamata olives and a big bunch of swiss chard, spinach, baby lettuce, basil and parsley, all from my garden, sliced in chiffonade. To do this, simply stack your leaves, roll like a cigar, slice very thinly and sprinkle in the pan. Love this technique. Mix the greens in thoroughly and spread everything evenly on the bottom of the pan.

Next, whisk about eight eggs (I used Eggland's Best, but you can use whatever kind you want, including egg whites), add a couple of tablespoons of milk or water, more salt and pepper, then pour evenly into the saute pan. Add a handful or two of crumbled feta cheese, or whatever kind of cheese you enjoy. If you're using feta, go easy on the salt in the veggie mixture and eggs, since feta is briney. Let the eggs sit in the pan for about eight minutes, until the edges are cooked but the middle is still wet. No touching!

Then, put the pan under the broiler for 1-2 minutes, or until the top is lightly browned. Remove, and remember to use a potholder because the handle will be blazing hot. I can't tell you how many times I've forgotten this good advice.

Allow the frittata to rest for a minute or two, slice into wedges and serve.

Frittata is delicious any time of day, and pairs well with toast or mini muffins and fruit or a green salad and a glass of crisp white wine or mimosa. It's a great brunch dish for entertaining, too. I enjoyed mine with some Rainier cherries and a slice of whole wheat toast out in the garden.

Do you eat breakfast for dinner? Doesn't everybody?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Chicken with Basil "Pesto"

This meal was a good concept gone slightly awry. Grilled skinless, boneless chicken breasts marinated in garlic-infused olive oil and topped with pesto ingredients: fresh basil from my garden, shaved parmigiano-reggiano, toasted pine nuts and a squeeze of lemon.

Sounds good, yes? Yet, in the end, it was just ok. It was tasty enough, but not special. Less flavorful than I'd hoped. I was reminded that there's a reason you blend pesto ingredients together... the flavors mingle and meld and get all delicious and friendly-like.

Luckily, I had great tablemates: my mom and stepdad (husband is on the road this week). We paired the chicken with a nice green salad with tomato, avocado, basil, pine nuts, more parmesan (echoing the chicken) and balsamic vinegar, and ended the meal with fruit salad. And, we cooked and ate our meal at one of our beautiful lakefront parks, in the company of the sailboats and freighters.

I'm all for riffing on an original, and I'll keep trying until I get this one right. Next time, I'll experiment with mixing some of the ingredients before cooking the chicken instead of just layering them on separately once it's off the grill. Do you ad lib in the kitchen? Would love to hear about your successes and mishaps.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Chicken Tortellini

Work+kids+house+gym+yardwork+social life=not a lot of time for cooking these days. Sound familiar to you?

When this happens to me, I often to turn to pasta. It always delivers. Plus, I'm Italian, and pasta is close to my heart (as in, I could eat it at every meal).

I've mostly switched to whole wheat or brown rice pasta, but still enjoy a nice bowl of tortellini now and again. This time, I chose fresh chicken tortellini and paired it with shallots, garlic, prosciutto, baby spinach and white wine.

My secret: instead of boiling the pasta, I put the uncooked tortellini in a bowl of steaming hot water and let it sit for a few minutes. Meanwhile, I saute the shallots and garlic in olive oil, salt and pepper until soft, drain the tortellini and add it to the hot pan. Cook, stirring often, until the tortellini is lightly browned and hot. Then, add chopped prosciutto, the baby spinach and a big splash of decent white wine. Let it all simmer together until the wine reduces, serve and add freshly grated parmesan. The pasta will taste al dente-ish, and you'll save a few minutes and some extra clean-up.

Chicken tortellini with prosciutto and spinach is a complete meal in a bowl, in minutes, and you can feel good about serving it to just about anyone.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Tuscan Pizzetta

Recently, we enjoyed a fabulous meal courtesy of our friends Dutch and Becky. It was one of those beautiful nights you wish you could capture in a bottle and release in, say February. We ate under the stars, drank good red wine and reveled in the pleasures of summer.

And then there's the food. Dutch is an excellent, creative cook, and his meals are always something to behold. His menu: cherry tomato poppers; Tuscan rosemary pizzetta; sweet summer corn and black bean salsa with a lime-mirin sauce; "cheater" ceviche and grilled salmon with dill butter. Amazing.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I'm still dreaming about that meal, but especially the Tuscan rosemary pizzetta, topped with carmelized onions, kalamata olives, feta and anchovies. So, I set out to recreate it in my own kitchen.

Dutch used the wonderful handmade pizza dough from Fresh Farms Market, so I followed suit. You can make your own, or, in many cases, buy fresh dough from your favorite pizzeria.

He grilled his pizzetta, but for various reasons (ok, I don't own a grill right now, don't ask) I baked mine at 475 degrees. First, I rolled and shaped the crust - you'll want a thin crust - then brushed it with a bit of extra virgin olive oil and blind-baked it for about 5 minutes, or until lightly browned.

I let the crust cool for a few minutes, then topped with some well-caramelized onions (one large onion, thinly sliced and sauteed in olive oil, salt and pepper for a good long time, until well browned). Dutch, in a brilliant move, drizzles a bit of honey into the onions at the end, adding extra depth of flavor and sweetness.

Then, scatter some sliced, pitted kalamata olives and crumbled feta cheese on top of the onions and pop it back into the oven or grill top. Mine took about 8-9 minutes. I added a few anchovies when it came out of the oven, but these are optional if you are an anchovy-hater. No worries. As a final touch, drizzle a bit more olive oil on the hot pie as you let it cool for a minute or two. Then, sprinkle with some minced fresh rosemary, serve and enjoy.

Honestly, it was delicious. Savory, salty, crispy, with a hint of sweetness. Not quite as good as the original, but pretty darn close.

Tuscan pizzetta makes a great appetizer, but it also stands alone as a meal, paired with a fresh green salad. If you give it a try, let me know if you become a fan, too.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sushi Bowl

Do you, like me, crave sushi at home? Perhaps you spend your free time creating elaborate home-crafted hand-rolls, but I prefer to make deconstructed sushi.

Pretty quick and easy. First, saute three scallions in a splash of canola and sesame oil, add a tablespoon each of minced garlic and ginger and cook until soft. Set aside to cool. Then, in a small bowl, add 1/8 cup of low-sodium soy sauce, a teaspoon each of minced ginger and wasabi paste and stir until well combined. 

In a larger bowl, mix 1.5 cups of cold cooked brown rice with 6-8 ounces of good quality crab meat, a diced ripe avocado, a small diced cucumber and the scallion mixture. Then drizzle the soy sauce mixture on top and gently fold until well combined. Instant California roll.

For a cool, refreshing summer dish, consider making deconstructed sushi, and feel free to combine your favorite flavors to make the dish your own. Granted, it's not the prettiest meal, but it sure is tasty.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Jam Session

Long sunny days and cool breezy nights equals strawberry season in Michigan, which means it's time to put up some preserves.

Ok, I'd be lying if I claimed to break out the sterilized Ball jars, handpick bushels of berries, lug them home and toil for hours in my kitchen, churning out homemade jelly until 3 a.m. 

Someday, I will do all this. But for now, I make jam the modern woman's way: the Martha Way. 

Yes, I see the irony in this statement. But, apparently, Martha's people realize that in these complicated times, some folks want to experience homemade jam in an easier, more relaxed fashion. The June issue of Everyday Food has delivered a surprisingly easy recipe. I would imagine you could substitute blueberries or raspberries, as well.

And there are few better ways to enjoy homemade jam than on a Just Delicious scone. I just had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours with Jennifer and Darcy, the lovely ladies who created this scone boutique in Grosse Pointe Park, and I left inspired and energized by their lifelong friendship, successful business venture and amazing sweet treats. 

I'm pretty sure I've never eaten a decent scone before now -- I've always thought of them as hard little bricks of crumbly, tasteless dough. But these. These are so different. Lightly sweet, with the clean, pure essences of butter, lemon zest and a variety of real, true flavors. These are the work of artisans, infused with the passion of people who care deeply about their craft. 

In my mind, it is improper to mindlessly gobble them in a few quick bites. These are meant to be enjoyed slowly, and since you've saved all that time making Martha's quick jam, you can afford the luxury of relaxing with one of these beautiful scones.   

Watch this blog for more on Jennifer and Darcy in the coming months -- I think you'll love their story.

Taking a few moments to savor a Just Delicious scone with homemade strawberry jam and a cup of good coffee or tea outdoors on a glorious summer day is truly a special treat. How do you like to treat yourself? I'd love to hear your story, too.