Saturday, September 29, 2012

Leaving Las Vegas

Las Vegas, Day Two dawned while I watched from our 16th floor window at The Venetian.  I woke at about 4:30 a.m. Vegas time, not unusual for me, since I'm an early riser.  In fact, I had overslept a little bit.  I was craving a cup of tea and an English muffin.  I called room service just before 5 a.m. and spoke with a very polite young woman who, I'm sure, has had her share of dealing with early-morning inebriates.  She seemed relieved that I was sober, albeit still a little sleepy, and was very efficient about taking my order.

Not actually the view from our room.  Photo courtesty of CBS Detroit.

Less than 10 minutes later, a tray was delivered by a very personable server.  On the tray was an amazing assortment of jams and honey, two English muffins, beautifully toasted and still warm, swaddled in their napkin, and an entire thermal pot of hot water, along with a box of assorted teabags, various sweeteners, a plate of lemon wedges and a small pitcher of milk.  And, thoughtfully, two cups.  I had a very leisurely early morning and enjoyed an English muffin and several cups of tea over the book I've been devouring.  When my husband woke, he was grateful to have both hot tea and an English muffin.  Shortly after that, he was showered and gone, off to seek his fortune in the casino.

Sadly, I can tell you that this never happened.  We had a false start (like later that afternoon, when he won $500 at The Mirage, only to lose it all at Mandalay Bay).  But one magical thing did happen while he was gambling in Las Vegas: I think he finally understood that if it's OK for him to lose a significant amount of money gambling, then it's OK for me to spend a significant amount of money on food and wine.  Unfortunately, that understanding seems to have only been good for the 48 hours we were in Las Vegas.

Our suite had a sunken livingroom.  I've always wanted one.
I enjoyed lounging in our suite that morning, reading.  This is something I so seldom have time for and it felt really luxurious to be in such a beautiful room taking my time about arranging my day and getting ready.  I called the box office at The Mirage to secure our tickets for that night's show--Ron White, and I mapped out a plan for the afternoon.  I located the addresses of several places I wanted to see and experience before we had dinner that night at Alize.

Alize is on the 56th floor of The Palms Casino.

I met my husband in the casino later that morning (after a long, enjoyable pampering in our grandiosely overscaled bathroom) and, although I'm not a very good nor willing gambler, I decided to put $20 in the slot machine next to my husband.  Within 3 minutes, I had made $61.  "I'm stopping now and cashing out," I announced.  "This is our cab fare for tonight."  My husband stated, "That's probably very smart."  I didn't ask him where he was in his gaming, up or down.  It wouldn't have helped matters.  What mattered to me was that I had won enough money to get us where we needed to go that evening because walking the length of The Strip would have been difficult from many perspectives.

I had discovered the 2nd floor of The Venetian yesterday afternoon during my wanderings (right before the auspicious discovery of Bouchon Bakery and macarons, my new crush) and my husband was curious about what I had described: a charming reproduction of a Venice canal, beautiful shoppes and restaurants that wended their way along both sides of the canal and a very realistic-looking canopy of sky, dimly lit so that you either thought you were experiencing dawn or dusk.  When I first saw that sky the previous day, it had toyed with my sense of time and reality in a very surreal way.  So that's where we headed for lunch.  There's nothing like surreal food under a surreal sky by a reproduction of a Venetian canal.  But that's partly what Vegas is all about--reproduction and imitation.  And of course, delivering the surreal in a very real way.

We wound up at an interior Mexican restaurant called Taqueria Canonita. We chose it mainly for its open-air dining area that allowed us to see the gondoliers as they steered their passengers up and down the canal, singing Italian arias.  There are some fine voices aboard those gondolas.

Truly a delight to be serenaded by wonderful Italian opera music.

I chose two appetizers that were very delicious: The Patzcuaro Duck Relleno with Canela and Orange Duck Confit, Savory Manchamantel Sauce and Mexican Crema, and the Roasted Mussels and Shrimp Skillet with Tequila, Pasilla Oaxaca Sauce and Mexican Chorizo.  Both were beautifully presented.  You can see the mussel/shrimp skillet here, in this slide show, third slide after the picture of the bar (my own pictures did not produce good results because of the lighting).  The sauces on both dishes were rich, complex and had a depth that indicated care and thought.  The duck confit and green chile (most likely Anaheim) danced beautifully with the red chile and orange in the sauce cradling the rellenos.  And the tequilla-chorizo sauce that coated every last bite of the mussel and shrimp skillet was salty, rich and spicy.  I ordered more food than I could eat, but it was really scrumptious, and our server was fun and personable.  You can see the rest of the menu here.  My only complaint about this restaurant?  The wine list needs some work; it is very pedestrian.  But then, most of us don't go to a Mexican restaurant and expect great wine pairings.  Being in Vegas, however, had built my expectations to a degree that I expected a better wine list, even in a Mexican restaurant.  Yes, Virginia, it is possible to pair some very nice wine with Mexican food.

After lunch, there was more gambling for my husband and more resting for me.  But we had a plan: get to The Mirage box office before 5 p.m. to pick up our tickets, then take a cab up The Strip to Aureole, then to Alize, then back to The Mirage to see Ron White, who, as many of you already know, is totally shameless.  But that's why we love him.  Here is a mild example of Ron White's humor.  For those of you that have Time Warner Cable, you can catch him pretty regularly on Comedy Central.

We were able to walk to The Mirage, just across the street from The Venetian, but it was too long a walk from there to Mandalay Bay.  We had a charming cab driver who deposited us very efficiently in front of Mandalay Bay at about 6 p.m.  He had an accent I couldn't quite place and I asked him during our ride what his cultural background was.  He said that he was from Ethiopia.  I told him that I loved Ethiopian food for the most part, but just couldn't deal with injera, the flat bread that many Ethiopian meals are served on, because of the texture.  He became very animated and began talking to me about Ethiopian food, asking me what my favorite dishes were.  I replied, "Anything with goat or lamb."  The poor guy got so excited about my response he started gesturing wildly and could barely keep his hands on the wheel, which is rather a necessity late on a Saturday afternoon in Vegas.  When we exited his cab, he very warmly wished us, "Happy Holy Days."  Whether he was referring to the upcoming Labor Day Monday or other religious events, or whether this was just the way he said "holidays," I'll never know.  But it was a very pleasant $20 ride.  Our two other $20 rides were less charming, but just as efficient.

Once inside Mandalay Bay casino, you can get used to the feeling of opulence pretty quickly.  It is open, spacious and lovely.  It was a completely different experience than The Mirage, which unfortunately is a bit down-at-heels, dark, odoriferous, claustrophobic and attracts a different kind of clientele.  My only reason for being at Mandalay Bay: to see the Wine Angels.

I was there!  I saw the angels!

What, pray tell, are Wine Angels?  You will have to see it from someone else's perspective, since the battery in my camera died shortly after taking the picture of the cocktail napkin, above.  Aureole is renown for its four-story wine tower made of plexiglass and especially for its wine stewards, who access the wine by means of aerial acrobatics.  During my brief visit of less than 45 minutes, I witnessed three trips up and down the wine tower, all before 7 p.m., when very little was happening in the bar or restaurant.  It was quite amazing to watch.  I didn't get a chance to eat there, just sipped some wine and chatted up the bartender, but you can find out more about Aureole and its menues and wines here.

Two other venues that I wanted to see but couldn't because time and money were running out were Switch, where the entire restaurant and ambience is ever-changing, and Minus5 Ice Bar, where everything is made of ice, even your cocktail glass, and you suit-up in an insulated parka to experience it.  I'm sure there are other really spectacular things in Vegas to experience, but these were the ones that were on my list for this trip.

By 7:10 p.m., we were in another cab at Mandalay Bay and arrived at The Palms casino just in time for our reservation.  Atop the tower, on the 56th floor and almost totally walled in glass, is Alize, a restaurant with imaginative French cuisine and a view of The Strip like no other.  I was heartbroken that I had no way to take pictures of what we ate, because it was exquisitely beautiful.  I consoled myself with the fabulous view of The Strip from our table.  When my husband's salad arrived, the Bouquet of Baby Greens, it was arranged like a flower and he commented that it was too beautiful to eat.  Yes, my husband, the former fast-food addict, said those words!  And it was very beautiful.  He attempted to take a picture with his small flip-phone, but the lighting was very dim.  Ahem, we're making progress here: it was his idea to take the picture!

I did what I normally do in a fine dining establishment and chose a variety of appetizers and wines to see what the chef and staff could do.  I started with the Baby Spinach & Duck Confit Salad with Prosciutto, Sunnyside Quail Egg, Crispy Shallots and Black Truffle Vinaigrette, then slid right into Andre’s Foie Gras Terrine with Roasted Pineapple, Proscuitto and Baby Spinach accompanied by a Grapefruit Emulsion, then hit a home run with the Prime Beef Carpaccio with Watercress, Pickled Pearl Onions and Cornichons with Dijon Cream and Parmesan.  Each plate was a work of art, precise, beautiful to look at, exquisitely delicious to eat and incredibly well-thought out.  I would have never thought of combining roasted pineapple with foie gras, but it was lovely and worked beautifully with the Sauternes our server suggested.

A word about the wine at Alize: there are some wonderful and rare choices, such as Domaine de la Romane´e-Conti (DRC) 1985, (valued at $23,000), as well as wines from all over the world (see here).  I was surprised and a little intimidated about handling the wine list, however, because it's all on an iPad.  Being a technological dinosaur and rather a bit of a neo-Luddite, I wasn't quite sure that I liked the idea of scrolling and pointing rather than holding a bound menu in my hands, but it seems to work for Alize and as I looked around, other diners seemed to be quite familiar with this form of technology.  I am not, and for a lengthy discourse on why I think technology controls us and not vice versa, stay tuned.  I might decide to blather on about it in a future post.

Consequently, I put myself in the capable hands of my server and the wine steward, as I often do in fine dining establishments, and allowed them to help pair wines for me.  Perhaps it was discomfort with the iPad technology more than anything else, but I didn't want to stare at a screen to choose wines.  That felt like too much work on my part.  I wanted to relax, be well-taken care of, and enjoy my experience without having to do too much critical thinking, squinting or things involving fine motor control.

We ended our meal with a lovely chocolate souffle that I still dream about on the astral plane.  If you've never made one, I can assure you that it sounds more intimidating than it actually is, but do take care not to slam the oven door or it will fall.  Here's a great recipe for individual chocolate souffles that is not difficult and produces wonderful results.

Some final observations about Alize: after 8 p.m., it got very busy and our server seemed significantly less attentive, even to the degree that he forgot to put in our order for our chocolate souffle, which he had encouraged us to order in advance.  This slip-up made us late to get to our show at The Mirage.  Yes, we certainly could have chosen to leave without eating the souffle, but that would be sheer madness to the likes of Vindaloo Tiramisu.  Another issue was that my husband complained his steak, a prime ribeye, was under-seasoned and tough.  I tasted it and it lacked the flourish and the texture of the ribeye he'd enjoyed the previous evening at Delmonico Steakhouse.  But overall, we had a very lovely dining experience.  I think I would like to return to Alize, sit at its small and very cozy bar, sip some wine and watch people while still getting a great view of The Strip at night.

The next morning arrived too quickly.  So quickly that I did not have time to eat another macaron before leaving The Venetian for the airport.  But, maybe that's a good thing, since I like to keep a cordial, but distant, relationship with my doctor.

Viva Las Vegas!  I'll miss you...but I'll be back!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Vindaloo does Vegas

So, if you'll remember, I wrote about an upcoming trip to Las Vegas several weeks ago, and, turns out, I had a blast.  My husband goes there to gamble, but I went strictly for the food.  There is no place--NO PLACE--on earth like Vegas.  I have eaten in great cities, fabulous restaurants and hob-nobbed with a few famous chefs, but where can you get pampered with such a stellar, eye-popping, jaw-dropping array of the best food and wine?  Vegas.  Where do people bend over backward to help and please you, no matter what time of day or night, no matter how simple or complicated the request?  Vegas.  Where is the best people-watching for social scientists and laymen alike in the Northern Hemisphere?  Vegas.  And where can you eat Thomas Keller's outstanding pastries without a two-year wait on the reservation list at The French Laundry?  Vegas.  I last had a pistachio macaron from Bouchon Bakery 26 days, 14 hours and 37 minutes ago and I am white-knuckling it until my next fix.

Hello, my name is Vindaloo and I am a Macaronaholic.

We left ABIA at the ungodly hour of Dark-Thirty the Friday before Labor Day and arrived in LV before 10 a.m. PST.  We had reservations at The Venetian for two nights (which was a good thing financially, but a very sad thing emotionally and gustatorially) and the concierge very graciously allowed us an early check-in.  This was merciful, since I had just suffered a very complicated back injury several weeks prior and was in quite a bit of discomfort.  And, as most of you know, planes and airports are not very conducive to comfort.  So I had a bit of a lie-down in our gorgeous, big-enough-for-a-family-reunion suite while my husband hit the slot machines.

It was a Sealy Posturpedic--I checked.

After a restorative nap on the most comfortable bed I've ever slept in in all my life, I freshened up in our palatial bathroom.  The entire bathroom was the size of our bedroom in our home in Texas.

A girl could get used to this.  Oh, yeah...
After getting presentable (because Vindaloo doesn't do Vegas in an "I ELVIS" t-shirt and yoga pants), I wandered downstairs and found my husband at a slot machine, holding his own.  We were both hungry, and luckily The Venetian has plenty of great restaurants to choose from, so we didn't have to wander very far.  I was terribly thrilled that Bouchon was on the 10th floor.  We were just 3 minutes away from great food and wine.  I would later find out that because the Bouchon Bakery is on the ground floor of The Venetian and oh-so-conveniently open daily from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., I was just 3 seconds away from a serious sugar rush that came in about seven different flavors.  I began to calculate how many macarons I could eat before it was time to leave while maintaining an even blood sugar level over the next 48 hours.  As you can see here the flavors of the macarons vary with the seasons.  Clearly, the possibilities and prognoses would stump most quantum physics experts as well as stun the majority of specialists in metabolic disorders.

But if you'll excuse me, I'll need to return to Bouchon Bakery now--it's officially Fall.

At Bouchon, we were seated immediately at a lovely banqette facing tall, French doors with arched windows, which let in a lot of natural light.  This restaurant is very much like a French bistro, except for the high ceilings, and it glimmers enchantingly with lots of glass and mirrors.  There is a massive pewter and mahogany bar that, despite its scale, makes you feel you could have a very intimate conversation while draped over the rails.  The lighting is deliberately dim and a bit filmy, rather like the kind of light emitted from gas wall sconces.  There is mahogany millwork throughout.  The stunning blue Copenhagen floor tiles from Grenada Tile completed the interior; I immediately thought and felt like I was in Paris when I walked through the door.

After being totally charmed by the menu, this is what I decided on:

The salmon rillettes (paired with a glass of Lucien Albrecht Cremant d'Alsace).

The house-cured gravlax (paired with a glass of Pastou La Côte de Sury Sancerre, V.V. 2011).

My husband, ever the "breakfast anytime" guy, ordered a sky-high plate of toast, pommes frites and beautifully fried eggs with the most enormous portion of bacon I've ever seen.  It must have been a full quarter-pound, cooked.  The service was lovely and as attentive as we needed it to be.  I lingered over my second glass of wine, soaking up the ambiance and watching all the fabulous, beautiful food that whisked efficiently by my table while my husband, anxious to continue his break-even streak, returned to the casino.  I then proceeded to have the most expensive (but most enjoyable) pedicure I've ever had in my life.  Thank you, Canyon Ranch Spa (also conveniently located in The Venetian).

That night, we ate at Delmonico Steakhouse, an Emeril Lagasse restaurant.  Located on the ground floor of The Palazzo, the adjoining hotel to The Venetian, we walked there in less than 5 minutes and were seated on time.  It took approximately 60 seconds for the staff to begin delivering The Bliss.  I am not a steakhouse fan (my husband is), but this restaurant is an Emeril restaurant, and having had wonderful experiences at his other establishments in New Orleans, I thought we would be in for a treat.  The service was extraordinary even though the restaurant was hustling at by 8 p.m., we had the full attention of our waiter as well as the sommelier and other ancillary staff, which made the evening a lot of fun.  We enjoyed an amuse bouche of heirloom tomatoes, basil, burrata cheese and EVOO.  My husband ended up with an enormous piece of meat on his plate (no surprise there) that he stated emphatically was the best steak he'd ever had, accompanied by a terrine-sized dish of the New Orleans Creamed Spinach, easily the best creamed spinach I've ever put in my mouth.  I only wish I had been able to enjoy the leftovers in an omelette the next day for breakfast.

I ordered one of the specials, which was a $42 plate of pasta.  Yes, you read right: a $42 plate of pasta.  It was heaven: just the right amount of papparadelle with six very large shrimp, and a generous amount of andouille sausage and artichoke hearts.  I enjoyed a complementary glass of red wine that was a blend of several varietals; complex and nicely balanced, it was a wine that Emeril endorsed and labeled, and it had been bottled by Au Bon Climat Winery in Santa Barbara, CA.  I vaguely remember having a salad before the pasta (but only because the pasta eclipsed everything else that night).  The salad was perfectly dressed with just the right amount of acid.  Checking the online menu, I note that it was the mixed greens salad with a sherry vinaigrette and shaved Manchego cheese.  It was perfectly balanced and just the right flavor profile for my mood that night.  We were too full for dessert, but had there been room, my money would have been on Emeril's Banana Cream Pie, served with caramel sauce, chocolate shavings and whipped cream. I didn't take pictures at Delmonico, but we enjoyed our food immensely and I would return in a heartbeat.  The staff is well-trained and extremely attentive, and the food is unpretentious, well-prepared and top-drawer.

One of the amazing things about Las Vegas is that it is constantly on stage, 24/7.  There are shows you pay to see and shows that unfold right before your very eyes, just because you are in Las Vegas.  Take, for instance, my husband's experience in The Venetian casino late on Friday night (while his wife is upstairs asleep in their suite--because, you know, he's a SERIOUS gambler).  Picture this: he's sitting at his favorite slot machine, feeding $20 bills into it and hoping for The Big One when an attractive, nicely-dressed woman approaches him.  He makes special note of the fact that there's lots of cleavage hanging around.  She says to him, "Are you having any luck over here?"  He answers, "Well, not really."  She replies, "Oh, well...Who did you come here with?"  My husband recalls first looking at her cleavage, then at her face (he admits he's not sure whether he actually made eye-contact), and replied, "I came with my wife."  The woman is quiet, standing there.  A disappointed look comes over her face.  And then my husband asks (to be polite, he says), "So, who did you come here with?"  She says, "Nobody.  I was just looking for a little fun."  And then she and her cleavage wander off to find her fortune elsewhere. 

Now, that's entertainment.

The following day, we discovered the second floor of The Venetian, with its charming canal, shoppes and singing gondoliers, along with many other lovely food and wine experiences...and that will entail another post because there's lots to tell and this is a cliffhanger...

Be right back.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Meatballs--they're not just for breakfast anymore

I love meatballs.  They are pure genius--all that flavor in one bite.  I've learned over the years to make them and make them well: moist and totally delectable.  If they're small enough, popping one (or four) in your mouth is an explosion of flavor and texture and totally addictive.  But when I was a kid, I didn't like them very much because most of them were hard, dry and very unappealing.  That's because no one in my family knew how to make them well.

To extend this minor tragedy into a full-blown disaster, no one who ever extended a dinner invitation to me during my childhood knew how to make them well either.  Although it never truly stunted my development, it was a real pity, since I lived in an area where a massive amount of Italian immigrants had settled and there were Italian restaurants on almost every corner.  Legend was that the meatballs inside those buildings were tender, juicy and flavorful, and that the marinara sauce was a magical thing.  Unfortunately, I would never know.  The closest I got to marinara sauce (or Italian food, for that matter) when I was a kid was a jar of Ragu.  Our family didn't eat out much on teachers' salaries, and the Italian restaurants were in a part of town we rarely saw.  I could only drool and pine longingly for an opportunity to step inside the sacred chambers when the occasional route to the doctor or Sears & Roebuck took us by Little Venice or Cortese's.

It wasn't until I began watching Jeff Smith's show, "The Frugal Gourmet" on PBS during the 80's that I learned how to make a decent meatball.  During one episode, he demonstrated how he made and seasoned his meatballs.  I scribbled anxiously as he prepped his ingredients and then shaped and fried his meatballs.  I've adapted his recipe in some minor ways through the years, the most important difference being that I bake the meatballs in a 450 degree oven instead of frying them.  To this day, Jeff Smith's meatball recipe is the one that gets the most favorable reviews.  My husband tells me that they're the best meatballs he's ever had.  I hate to keep using him as my litmus test, but the truth is that the man does have a palate that responds.  And his flattery gets him anywhere he wants to go.

The most important thing that Jeff Smith taught me about meatballs was to grind my store-ground meat a second time so that the texture of the meatballs would be less grainy and more tender.  The next most important thing was to use a carbohydrate-rich binding ingredient (I always use fresh breadcrumbs, not dried ones that get reconstituted with milk as he originally did) and enough egg to make everything come together without being too wet.  Of course, plenty of seasoning is what also makes these meatballs special.

Today, I want to give you three meatball recipes that have become favorites of mine, starting with the one I learned from "The Frugal Gourmet."  These meatballs can be made ahead and frozen with or without sauce, although I'd recommend freezing the Swedish Meatballs without the sauce and when reheating the meatballs, finishing the sauce before serving, since it has cream in it.

There are many other delicious meatball recipes out there, but these are my go-to recipes time and time again.

My Favorite Meatball Recipe 

     You'll need a food processor or a meat grinder to regrind the meat for these meatballs.  Or you can ask your butcher to regrind the meat for you.

1 1/2 lbs. ground beef, pork or veal (I like to use a combination of beef and pork)
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 cup finely minced onion
2 Tbs. finely chopped parsley
1 Tbs. Italian seasoning (such as Penzey's, but you can mix your own from a combination of oregano, basil, marjoram, thyme and ground or cracked rosemary)
3/4 cup breadcrumbs (please make your own from fresh or day-old bread; the store bought crumbs taste like cardboard and you can put bread in a blender or food processor and have crumbs in seconds)
1 jumbo egg or 2 small eggs, beaten lightly
1/2 cup grated or shredded Parmesan, Romano or Asiago cheese (or a combination)
plenty of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1.)  Place the ground meat in the bowl of a food processor with the chopping blade.  You may have to do this in two portions if the workbowl of your processor is small.  Pulse the processor several times until the meat is broken down a little more, but be careful not to make the meat into a paste.
2.)  Combine reground meat in a large bowl with the remaining ingredients.
3.)  Mix ingredients with your hands until well-combined.
4.)  Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
5.)  Shape mixture into balls (I like to make them about the size of a golf ball) and place on a foil lined baking tray.
6.)  Bake for about 20 minutes, until a bit browned, crisped and sizzling.
7.)  Cool enough to remove from tray without tearing meatballs in half.
8.)  Freeze meatballs or place in marinara sauce as desired.  Makes about 24-36, depending on the size of the meatballs.

Fannie Farmer's Swedish Meatball Recipe

     This recipe, from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, has been a favorite for years.  Serve with lingonberry jam if desired for an appetizer, or over egg noodles as a main dish.

1 lb. lean beef
1/4 lb. salt pork
5 slices whole wheat bread
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. allspice
3/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbs. shortening or oil
1 1/2 cups beef broth
1/2 cup heavy cream

1.)  Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2.)  Grind the beef, salt pork and bread together twice, using a meat grinder or food processor.
3.)  Combine ground meat mixture with the egg, sugar, allspice, nutmeg, salt and pepper.
4.)  Shape into 1" balls.
5.)  Heat the shortening or oil in a skillet and brown the meatballs.  If you plan to make these ahead and freeze them, remove the meatballs from the heat, cool completely and freeze.  When you're ready to serve, defrost the meatballs and proceed with the rest of the recipe.
6.)  Transfer meatballs to a shallow casserole dish, pour in the beef broth and cover with lid or foil.
7.)  Bake for 45 minutes.
8.)  Add the cream and cook, uncovered, an additional 15 minutes.  Makes about 30 meatballs.

Tapas Meatballs in a Spicy Tomato Sauce 

     These are lovely and redolent of the flavors of Spain.  Serve with a sturdy garnacha or a juicy zinfandel.  They make a great appetizer or a main dish with crusty bread and a salad.

1/2 lb. ground pork
1/2 lb. ground beef or veal
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp. each ground coriander, cumin, nutmeg and cinnamon
1 tsp. kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2/3 cup bread crumbs, toasted
1 large egg, lightly beaten


1 Tbs. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 16 oz. can of crushed tomatoes
1 Tbs. tomato paste
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 cup frozen peas (optional)

1.)  To make the meatballs:  Combine pork, veal, garlic, spices, salt, pepper, bread crumbs and egg in a bowl.
2.)  Mix well with your hands until mixture leaves the side of the bowl.
3.)  Cover mixture and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
4.)  Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
5.)  Roll tablespoonfuls of mixture into balls.
6.)  Place on a foil-lined baking tray and bake for about 20 minutes or until sizzling and slightly browned.
7.)  Remove from oven and cool on tray until ready to immerse in the tomato sauce.
8.)  To make the sauce:  Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat and add the onion.
9.)  Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and slightly transparent, about 3 minutes.
10.)  Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute.
11.)  Increase the heat to high and add the wine; allow to boil for 1 minute.
12.)  Add the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste and stock and simmer for 10 minutes.
13.)  Add the cayenne pepper, peas (if using) and the meatballs; simmer for 10 more minutes, until the sauce is thickened and the meatballs are well-coated.  Serve hot.  Serves 6.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Thai curry by way of The Spice House

I love Thai food--sensuously aromatic, tantalizingly fragrant and intensely flavorful whether or not there is heat in the form of chilies.  Lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, tamarind, Thai basil; these are just a few of the ingredients that make Thai food so special.  Once you have come to know and use these ingredients, which are often available at well-stocked Asian markets, you begin to understand that Thai cuisine is a full spectrum for the senses.  Crushing a kaffir lime leaf between my fingers and inhaling its sharp, citrusy-floral aroma makes me want to be surrounded in this scent all the time.  And the anise aroma of Thai basil, freshly pungent and herbal when the leaves are used as a garnish; deeper and more intensely licorice when the leaves have been infused and heated with other ingredients, is intoxicating.

My favorite form of Thai food is any coconut milk-based curry.  The components, no matter how few or how many, always come together in a miraculous way.  I can't pretend to be an expert on Thai cuisine from the standpoint of putting it together intuitively; I'll leave that talent to a good friend that recently moved to Napa to make wine.  He's a Thai foodie's foodie and cooks divine Thai cuisine straight from his heart.  I usually rely on his recipes or pull one from one of several southeast Asian cookbooks I own.  The recipe I'll offer you today is an amalgamation of several recipes (and, as usual, a result of what I had in my refrigerator and pantry).

Whether you make your own curry paste, which is extremely easy once you've procured all your ingredients, or you buy a prepared paste, making a Thai curry can be one of the simplest and most satisfying meals you can prepare.  Served over a few spoonfuls of fragrant jasmine rice or just on its own as a bowl of rich, velvety soup, a curry is a lovely and magical thing.

I've recently started doing business with The Spice House and have loved experimenting with some of their high-quality products, especially some of their spice blends.  I was intrigued by a dry red curry seasoning and wanted to compare it to some of the curry pastes I've tried before, both store-bought and homemade.

This powder reconstituted beautifully when I mixed it with water, and after about 10 minutes, it bloomed into a fragrant, vibrant russet paste that smelled authentically Thai.  It has a moderate intensity of heat from the chilies.

The process of making curry varies from cook to cook, but this is the method I like best: skim the thick cream from the can of coconut milk (which is basically coconut oil) and fry the curry paste in it.  It's important not to use "light" coconut milk because the coconut fat is what gives the curry its richness and body.  After the curry paste mixture has become bubbly and fragrant, I begin layering in my other ingredients: protein first, sauteed well in the curry paste mixture, then the remainder of the coconut milk, seasonings and then any vegetables I'm using, sturdier ones first, more delicate ones last.  Then the mixture just simmers gently until everything is cooked.  When it's time to serve, I garnish with crushed peanuts, fresh lime juice, shallot or red onion (especially if I'm making a red curry) and Thai basil.  I also like to experiment with different nuances where the shallots and red onions are concerned.  When I want a bright, pungent component, I leave the shallots and onions raw.  If I want a sweeter, nuttier component, I caramelize them in a little peanut or grapeseed oil.  The point is to make this curry your own.

I would encourage you to explore The Spice House website.  This company has products others do not and they have them all in one place.  The staff is always friendly and warm.  Give them a try--soon.

Red Curry with Chicken, Sweet Red Peppers and Spinach

You will want to have a reisling or a dry gewurztraminer with this curry.  Make sure the wine is not too sweet, but you do want some sweetness to balance the spice and the aromatics in the curry.  Two reislings that work well are Pacific Rim and Charles Smith Kung Fu Girl, both from the Columbia Valley region of Washington State.  Dry gewurztraminer is a little more difficult to find, but ask your wine guy at Spec's to help.

2 Tbs. Thai Red Curry Seasoning (from The Spice House); you can substitute an equal amount of prepared red curry paste as well if you wish
2 Tbs. water (omit if you are using prepared curry paste)
2 cans coconut milk (do not use "light" coconut milk)
2 boneless chicken breasts, cut into thin strips lengthwise and each strip cut into approximately 2 inches
3 to 4 Tbs. nam pla
1 Tbs. brown sugar
1 large kaffir lime leaf (you can substitute a little strip of lime peel or a bay leaf, but it will lend a different flavor to your curry)
1 large sweet red bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into long, thin strips (you can also add or substitute a large, ripe tomato, which will bring a tart component to this curry)
2 to 3 cups baby spinach leaves
1/2 cup thinly sliced shallot or red onion, or a combination of the two
1/2 cup crushed peanuts
fresh lime halves
Thai basil sprigs
4 cups hot, cooked jasmine rice

1.)  Mix curry paste powder and water together to reconstitute; set aside while you assemble or prepare the other ingredients.
2.  Skim top layer of coconut cream from the tops of the cans of coconut milk and put into a medium-sized pot or a largish skillet over medium-high heat.
3.)  When the coconut cream is thin and shimmering just a bit, add the curry paste and stir well, letting it bubble up and blend well together.  Inhale deeply and take a sip of wine.  Heaven?
4.)  Add the chicken breast strips and continue to cook and stir until meat is no longer pink.  If mixture is evaporating too fast, add a little coconut milk so that the chicken doesn't get too brown.
5.)  Add the remaining coconut milk, the nam pla and the brown sugar; stir well to blend.
6.)  Add the kaffir lime leaf and the red pepper strips.  Lower heat, cover the pan and let simmer gently until chicken is cooked through, about 10 to 12 minutes.
7.)  Add the baby spinach leaves, cover the pan and remove from heat, letting the leaves steam with the residual heat.
8.)  If you plan to saute your shallots or red onion in a little peanut oil, now is the time to do it.  Otherwise, the spinach will be ready in a about 5 minutes, at which point you stir it into the curry to incorporate it and coat it with all that delicious coconut sauce.  Inhale again deeply.  Take another sip of wine.  Still in heaven?
9.)  When you're ready to serve, scoop about a cup of jasmine rice into a bowl.  Ladle the curry over the rice.  Garnish with shallot and/or red onion and crushed peanuts.  Lay a lime half (to squeeze over the curry) and a sprig of Thai basil at the edge of the bowl.  Pour some more wine (and don't forget to serve your guests).  Serves four.

May your tastebuds dance!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Pesto that passes the husband test

Right here, right now, I want to publicly thank my husband for being the uncomplaining, acquiescent and often, unsuspecting and trusting soul that he is.  In our few short years together, he has transformed from a frozen burrito-eating, fasting food-inhaling, vegetable-avoiding carnivore into an adventurous, willing and extremely gracious culinary neophyte.

This, my friends, was no easy task.

I know that sounds flippant.  Almost as if I took him on as a project.  Or found him as a stray, starved half to death, not ever having known a good meal and a full belly.  Which actually had been the case.  But I took his tutelage very seriously.  I knew he was capable of appreciating all kinds of foods he had never experienced if I gave him time and patience.

I never tired of encouraging him to try something new.  The secret of my success is that I wouldn't exactly make full disclosure of what he was about to eat.  You can file that under "Shady Ethics in Marital Relationships," but I knew that I had made a small triumph when, about a year ago, he came home and mentioned that he had eaten at B@#$%^  K&*$  for lunch that day and had not been able to finish his W~=++%^.  The reason?  It just didn't taste very good to him anymore.

My husband is not a foodie.  I've mentioned this (numerous times) before.  He does not live to eat.  He does not swoon over plates of foie gras.  His eyes do not roll back in his head when he savors a spoonful of warm chocolate souffle.  He does not appreciate or even care about wine.  He's a simple man, really.  He likes a good, overcooked hamburger.  He prefers his fish fried.  The closest he gets to wine is grape juice, which he often drinks and teases me by offering this description, "Fruity and seductive, with just a hint of Welches."  He uses words like, "tastes good" or "kicka**" or "is there any more of that?" to express his appreciation for food. 

I feel rather smug about the fact that he rarely says these things when we eat out, even in swanky joints.  The swooning over food, the eyes rolling back into the head, the Meg Ryan moment--these responses belong to me.  And I am not ashamed of them.  Not one little bit.

Let me tell you a secret: waiters love it when you swoon.  And then they tell the chef.  And the sommelier.  And that's a whole lot of fun, because practically everyone loves to talk about what they do well with people who appreciate their efforts.  My husband doesn't understand those interactions; however, he seems rather amused by them.  "I have to keep an eye on you," he says, chuckling.

But last night, it was my husband who swooned.  "What's that?" he asked, peering into my bowl of pasta.

"It's a new pesto I developed today."

"Why didn't you give any of that to me?"  He was almost pouting.  You need to know the backstory: pasta is what my husband would live on now that frozen burritos and fast food hamburgers have been purged from his system.

"Because you said you wanted the leftover pizza.  Here, try a bite."  I swirled some vermicelli around a few pieces of the roasted zucchini and cotija cheese that garnished the emerald green mound of pasta.  You could really smell the garlic.  It's possible that friends in neighboring states could smell the garlic.

"Wow!  Now that is some kicka** pasta!  That's the way I like my pasta!"  I was really paying attention now; my husband does not commonly experience enthusiasm and food simultaneously.

"I didn't think you liked green things.  You usually don't really like pesto, so I'm surprised."

"Well, it's really good, even though it's green."

So since the pasta passed the husband test, I wanted to pass the recipe on to you.  There's plenty of garlic to give the other vegetables status.  The celery lends a gentle, herbal note and the grated carrot gives it contrast and texture.  But it's the toasted hazelnuts, along with plenty of olive oil, that make it rich.  I garnished my plate with rough-diced zucchini that was roasted with a little olive oil and garlic.  But if you had eggplant on hand, the black sheen on the eggplant's skin would lend a beautiful visual counterpoint to the vivid green.  

I ate this pasta with a glass of Joel Gott Zinfandel 2009 (California), which was soft, smooth and very drinkable.  This juicy red has plenty of jammy fruit and spice to balance out the herbal and garlic notes in the pesto.  It's also one of those wines that makes you want to have more than one glass.  I did.

Spinach, Celery and Toasted Hazelnut Pesto

2 large cloves garlic
kosher salt
1 rib celery, ends trimmed and cut into 3" pieces
4 cups spinach leaves
1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts, lightly crushed
1/2 cup or more of good quality olive oil
plenty of freshly ground black pepper
1 small carrot, grated (I use a Microplane parmesan grater)
1 lb. vermicelli or thin spaghetti, cooked al dente and kept warm
1/2 cup crumbled cotija or feta cheese, for garnish
1 cup diced zucchini or eggplant roasted with garlic, olive oil and seasoned well with salt and pepper, for garnish (you can do this in an oven or stovetop; what you want is caramelization for best flavor), optional

1.  Using a food processor, finely chop the garlic.
2.  Add the kosher salt and celery, processing until celery is finely chopped.
3.  Add the spinach leaves and toasted hazelnuts and with the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil.  Process until pesto is the consistency of mayonnaise, adding more olive oil if you wish.
4.  By hand, stir in freshly ground pepper to taste and the grated carrot.
5.  In a large pot or skillet over medium-low heat, toss together the warm pasta and the pesto until pasta is well-coated and gently warmed through.
6.  Divide pasta among four plates and garnish with cotija or feta cheese and the roasted zucchini or eggplant.  Serves 4 generously.