I love it when other people cook for me. I especially love it when they do it out of love and for the pure pleasure of cooking for others. Fortunately, I have several friends who cook, and cook well. A long-time close friend who always makes my large gatherings a success makes several fabulous things, but I mostly enjoy her crab-stuffed mushrooms and her miniature croissant sandwiches with cranberry mayo, sliced turkey, Gruyere, and arugula. She also makes a killer good remoulade sauce and some entirely delectable sauteed chicken livers. She makes a lot of great food--and we've made a lot of great food together--but I first fell in love with her because of her mushrooms.
I have another friend who makes the best fried chicken you'll ever put in your mouth, and another who has unfailing instinct for excellent cheeses and even more excellent wines, but what I remember most about what she's cooked for me was a warm spinach salad with toasted walnuts and shallots, perfectly seasoned and perfectly dressed with EVOO and an excellent red wine vinegar.
I had another friend who loved Diana Kennedy's recipes and produced excellent carnitas and a seriously addictive pumpkinseed dip. Then there's my Indian friends, who have treated me on early chilly Saturday mornings to freshly made chappatis with fenugreek leaves and the best cups of chai I've ever had, cauliflower pakoras, samosas filled with spicy potatoes and peas, and my hands-down favorite Indian snack, pani puri. Pani puri, for the uninitiated, are crispy, light little puffs made of semolina flour that you poke a hole in with your finger, then fill with lentil sprouts, cold seasoned potatoes, and a cool mint/coriander water spiked with ginger and chilies. You pop them in your mouth and all the flavors and juices explode into a delirious melange of pure joy. I literally cannot stop eating them when they're offered.
I know I'm overlooking others' gifts of love and labor to me and will want to acknowledge them as I remember them. For now, thank you to all of you who have taken such good care of me with your culinary gifts. Keep it coming!
When I'm in the mood to spend money, and when I'm with a friend who appreciates good food and good wine, I like visiting high-end restaurants and having a leisurely spell to forage through their appetizer menus and wine lists. I can count on one hand the amount of times I've actually ordered an entree in an upscale restaurant and can easily say that the most memorable experiences I've had have always included a flight of appetizers and wines. If you want to see what a chef can do, eat strictly from the appetizer menu because that's where creativity lives. I'll put my money on lots of small plates with a different experience on each every time.
Most well-trained waitstaff are going to have fun with this approach too. I always let my server know what I'm planning to do. Sometimes I let the chef choose the order in which the appetizers are served, and sometimes I choose. I guess it just depends on my whim--and on the wine list. If the restaurant I'm visiting has a killer wine list, then I let that guide me. I will at times also depend on the staff and the chef to recommend the wine s/he thinks goes best with the appetizer I've ordered. I have yet to have a negative reaction from waitstaff when you ask for their suggestions and help with pairings. A server worth his or her salt in an upscale restaurant will not only know the menu and the wine list, s/he will have tasted most everything offered on the the menu (or knows someone there who has). So utilize their skills and experience. They enjoy showing what they know and they like their customers to have fun.
In recent memory, here's what has caught my attention: A duck confit tamale with a glass of Bodegas Caro Cabernet/Malbec (Argentina) at Casa Vieja in Corrales, NM (I still dream about this tamale on the astral plane), a pecan-smoked beet salad with goat cheese and vanilla-cane vinaigrette and the Creole crabmeat cheesecake at The Palace Cafe in New Orleans. At Stories at the Hyatt Lost Pines in Bastrop, TX, I'm totally enamoured of their Crab Salad, a cool, creamy tower of hearts of palm, roasted tomato, avocado and herb coulis (the staff chose Erath Vineyards Pinot Gris, Oregon) as well as their Mushrooms and Chive Crepes with local mushrooms and thyme cream (the staff chose Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California).
One of my favorite places to go for inventive appetizers is Olivia on South Lamar in Austin. This restaurant has a remarkable and diverse wine list and a menu that's always changing because they depend on locally grown, seasonably available ingredients. Recently, I had roasted golden beets, ricotta salata, toasted walnuts and an herb salad dressed with black truffle vinaigrette with a lovely glass of E. Guigal Cote du Rhone Blanc 2009 (France) that stunned me. And here is where I encountered my first RED OLIVE. I mentioned cerignola olives in a previous post. They are a wonderfully plump, meaty and buttery fruit, but dyed red, they are eye-popping, gorgeous, totally believably red (in the same sense that hair color could be a believable blond) and not "a color not normally found in nature" red (like marschino cherries). I thought at first that they might be red from soaking in some kind of bitters (I imagined a faint Campari-like flavor), but it seems they are dyed with E127 when processed in Italy. E127, I discovered, is erythrosine, a commonly-used food colorant (for things like pistachio shells), which of course has been found to cause cancer in lab rats in large quantities. Originally, I didn't think my consumption of two of these beauties would put me in much danger, but I'm now thinking of purchasing a 4 lb. jar, which could quite possibly put me in the Geiger counter range. I'll keep you posted.
Prior to my last Red Olive Day at Olivia, I enjoyed more decadence than any human being ought to at Parkside on E. 6th in Austin. There's a young chef there really knows how to use and balance acid and can knock your socks off with ingenuity. The night I literally ate my way through most of the appetizer menu in 3 1/2 hours, I had the fried oyster BLT with avocado and green goddess aioli on romaine, the sweetbreads and veal tongue with cauliflower and cumin crisps, the marrow bones with a kick-butt, perfectly dressed herb salad and the blond pate with strawberry relish. And that was just for starters, because we decided we couldn't leave untasted the lamb with sunchoke gratin entree. The most memorable wines that evening were the Laxas Albarino 2009 (Argentina) and the Carlos Basso "Dos Fincas" Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec 2009 (Argentina), which sent me on an immediate hunt at my local Spec's, where I found them both.
Well, that's probably enough to get you started. I'll think of more great bites--and will certainly be doing some more research in the near future!
May your tastebuds dance.