Monday, December 30, 2013

Getting your Mexican food fix east of weird

Enchiladas especiales from Taqueria Y Restaurant Guadalajara, Elgin TX
This is my new BFF.  Enchiladas especiales at Taqueria Y Restaurant Guadalajara: four chile-fried corn tortillas filled with refried beans and topped with shredded lettuce, chopped tomato, crumbled cotija cheese, Mexican crema and avocado.  Add spoonfuls of the excellent, deeply-flavored house-made salsa and you have an outstanding meal from one of my favorite local Mexican restaurants in Elgin, TX

In a small town where fine dining does not exist but fast food franchises do, and where the choices to have a meal out comprise several barbecue joints, a couple of cafes and about a dozen Mexican restaurants, I tend to look for places that do one or two things well.  Those places, for me, are almost always small, family-owned and run Mexican restaurants that serve great food at great prices and have great service to boot.  I love the waitstaff at my favorite places and it's fun to know them by name, talk with them about their families and look forward to seeing them again in the near future.  I always get great service in all my favorite restaurants in Elgin--and I don't think that it's just because I like to tip well.

Taqueria Y Restaurant Guadalajara, located on Highway 290 East, right across from the fabulously refurbished Elgin HEB, also serves excellent sopas and gorditas.  I alternate between refried bean and chorizo fillings, but I love the thick, crispy masa base (which has been deep-fried), the bright, fresh flavors of tomato, onion, lettuce, lime and avocado and the excellent and pungent house salsa that comes with your plate.  If you order a sopa, everything is piled on top.  If you order a gordita, the thick masa tortilla is split open and filled.  Either way, it's a taste explosion that doesn't detonate your wallet.

Sopa from Taqueria Y Restaurant Guadalaja, Elgin TX
There is another little restaurant at the end of Main Street that I also frequent, mainly for the very straightforward and delicious huevos rancheros, but also for sopasTaqueria Azteca de Oro is operated by several ladies who are very serious about their hairnets, not just their food.  They put out sopas that are very tasty, and very different from the ones served at Guadalajara.  The thick masa base is grilled, not fried, so it yields a very tender and soft texture.  It's topped with loose, perfectly seasoned pinto beans, fresh cilantro, onions, crumbled cotija cheese, crema and the special house salsa rojo, which is smoother and hotter than the salsa that typically accompanies tostada chips and Azteca's other dishes.  This sopa is beautiful to look at and I'm always a bit sad when the last bite has disappeared.

The sopa at Taqueria Azteca de Oro, Elgin TX

Another favorite lunchtime stop is Jalisco Mexican Restaurant (also on Highway 290 East, across from what I call The Pawn Shop on the Hill).  Jalisco also has sister restaurant of the same name and menu in Bastrop, TX.  In the summertime, I adore the lightness and simplicity of their single chalupa, a crispy, round tostada topped with tender and excellently seasoned beef fajita strips (or your choice of several other proteins), lettuce, tomato, cheese, avocado and sour cream.  The tacos al pastor are also filling, delicious and come with plenty of lime, cilantro and chopped onion.  But what I really love about Jalisco is their soup.  I absolutely crave a large bowl of chicken tortilla soup and can eat it in any weather. 

Chicken tortilla soup at Jalisco, Elgin TX  

This soup makes everything seem right, whether it's a bad day, or I'm a little under the weather, or I just need some lovin'.  I've tasted many versions of chicken tortilla soup, but this one is my all-time favorite.  The broth is rich and perfectly seasoned with celery and cilantro stems and leaves often making an appearance.  Having eaten countless bowls of this soup, it appears to be built on a large scoop of Mexican rice, a scoop of guacamole, some pico de gallo with plenty of Serrano chile, then the chicken and that exquisite broth.  There is a generous amount of chicken in the soup, and occasionally, I find a bit of skin, or a small bone or some gristle, but I never mind these discoveries.  They tell me that I am eating real chicken!  This tortilla soup comes to the table steaming hot and has been crowned with tortilla chips and that lovely, stringy white cheese that makes this soup a bit messy but totally delectable to eat.
I also really like the chips and salsa served at Jalisco.  I don't know how they do it, but the tortillas are very light and thin and are never greasy.  They come fresh, warm and lightly salted.  The salsa, very simple and full of tomato, fresh onion and cilantro, varies in the level of heat it delivers from visit to visit.  This is probably partly due to the variance in heat in the dried chiles that fleck the sauce.  In any case, it's a great salsa and I have often made a meal of just the salsa and chips, or neglected the meal I had ordered, in order to continue eating this supremely satisfying snack.
Most people know Elgin for its barbecue.  But now you know Elgin for excellent and inexpensive freshly-prepared Mexican food.  Drive out east of Austin and try our Mexican food, we'd love to meet you.  Better yet, drop me a line and I'll meet you sometime for a bite to eat.
May your tastebuds dance!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Three sparkling wines I really like

Although I personally believe that every day is a good day to drink sparkling wine, most people tend to drink more sparklers at this time of year.  Oh, if we could all look as glamorous as Marilyn sipping from our coupes.  Secretly, that's what I hope every time I pop that cork.

The sound of a popping cork from a bottle of sparkling wine or champagne is such a happy sound.  It signals, "This is a special moment!"  And I believe that life should be a series of special moments--some of which we create ourselves, if for no reason other than the fact that it's Tuesday. 

Below are three of my favorite sparklers (paired with recipe links) in case you're without an idea when you're standing in the champagne aisle at the liquor store this holiday season.

Tastes great and can't beat the price:

Hands down, this is the sparkler I offer for parties and as an opener for other events.  Jaume Serra Cristalino is a Spanish cava that sells for well under $10 and is light, clean, dry and citrusy.  Technically, I serve it with almost anything you can dip, dunk, spread on a cracker or pick up with your fingers.  But I really like it with gougeres, those lovely, hot cheese puffs that smell tantalizingly, insanely good.  Try David Lebovitz's recipe here.


Elegant and tastes like a million bucks:

This classy sparkler (expect to pay between $20 and $25) is mostly made from the pinot blanc grape with a little pinot noir for substance and body.  Pierre Sparr Cremant d'Alsace is carefully made in the same way real champagne is made: method traditionelle.  This delightful bubbly is minerally, light and crisp with citrus and herbs.  It has fine bubbles and a creamy mouthfeel.  It is lovely with radishes, butter, dark bread and fleur de sel.  It also pairs finely with creamy, rich cheeses and this delish nibble made with aged gouda, prosciutto and honey.


Happy endings:

I love a dessert wine, and a sparkling dessert wine doubles my pleasure.  Reymos Valencia Espumoso de Moscatel Selección (about $12) is a simple, gorgeous wine that is slightly sweet and redolent of apples and figs.  It is rich and has just enough acid to balance rich cheeses such as Stilton, triple crèmes and Camembert.  If you want to serve it with a knockout dessert, try this tiramisu recipe from Giada de Laurentiis. 

There are many, many more sparklers I could tell you about, but space here is limited.  I've got an idea--give me a shout and we'll crack open a bottle and talk more about it...

Happy Holidays!

Monday, October 28, 2013

How to keep vampires away from your chocolate chip cookies

Ever since I first saw Susan Sarandon, David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger (1983), I've been a fan of the vampire legend.  If you haven't seen this moody, seductive thriller, definitely one of the cult classics, put it on your bucket list.  Catherine Deneuve is first on the list of The 20 Hottest Vampires, a list that also includes the sulky-sexy Alexander Skarsgard of HBO's True Blood and of course, Brad Pitt of Interview with the Vampire.

Catherine Deneuve as Miriam, a centuries-old Egyptian vampire in The Hunger
Photo credit:
Let's face it: vampires are sexy. 

But it wasn't always this way.  Vampires of folklore  were ghoulish, ruthless bloodsuckers (sort of like your old boyfriend) who didn't so much seduce as overpower their victims.  The myths surrounding them seem more a way of making sense of unexplained events, expressing fear of the unknown and especially fear of contagion.  How timely and appropriate is Richard Matheson's 1954 story "I Am Legend," written near the start of the Cold War?

Modern vampires, seductive, suave and oh-so-smooth are an outgrowth of the popularity of 19th c. European vampire literature and modern American media.  But the eroticism of vampires and vampire legends is undeniably powerful.  What teenage girl (or adult woman) has not swooned over (or at least is not familiar with) The Twilight Saga's lovestruck Edward Cullen? 

More importantly, would Bella have shared her chocolate chip cookies with Edward?  In Vindaloo's house, it's doubtful that chocolate of any kind would be shared, even with someone as beautiful and mysterious as Edward.  Even if someone did offer to bite my neck.

So just what would you do if you wanted to keep a vampire--even one you're hopelessly in love with--away from your chocolate? 

Why, garlic, silly.

I recently made Garlic Chocolate Chip Cookies for a garlic-themed dinner party.  I had heard of these cookies before and only gave them a cursory nod.  I love garlic but couldn't imagine what it would be like in cookies.  And even though I like to think of myself as adventurous, I can be pretty narrow-minded at times.  Who would want to ruin a perfectly good batch of chocolate chip cookies with garlic, I mused.  Then I realized that this recipe would be quite useful for keeping away vampires, pesky night-crawling creatures (and likely, other squeamish folks).

These cookies are buttery, rich and nutty-tasting; some people even think they have coconut in them (which they don't, but I suppose you could add some and still get great results).  I followed the directions closely, except for the length of time I steeped the garlic in the maple syrup.  My steeping time turned out to be about twice as long as the recipe recommended--and I don't think it hurt the cookies a bit.

So why don't you whip up a batch this week?  You've no time to waste.  Long about Thursday, vampires will be everywhere.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A family meal from my mother's larder

My family jokes that when I fly in for a visit, as soon as I am off the plane, I start cooking.  Not far from the truth.  Due to various illnesses and emergencies, there have been several holiday dinners that wouldn't have happened if another cook didn't step in.

I never resent time spent doing this.  Early on in this blog, I wrote about how meaningful it is to me to cook for friends and family.  It is my way of connecting and loving.  And I am fortunate to have friends and family who appreciate my efforts, and who will connect and return the love.

Lately, when I visit my mother's house in North Carolina, I will often do a lot of the cooking because my mother being almost 78 years old (spry though she still is), enjoys a break.  My youngest brother often likes to jump in and help while the rest of the family mills around or sits in the expansive kitchen / living room / dining room that is part of the fabulous layout of my mother's house.  We are able to talk and joke, listen to music or even watch a movie together in this well-designed Great Big Room while the cooking is going on.

Thankfully, my mother's larder (and I mean this only in the figurative sense) is still well-stocked, even though she does less cooking now that my father is feasting on heavenly victuals.  My mother is still very socially active, but it's obvious that cooking for yourself in your 70's is not as appealing as cooking for your family or life partner, who, of course, will be present to share the fruits of your labor with you.

My mother has always had a full larder.  We joke about being food hoarders (not far from the truth), or being able to feed the entire neighborhood if the power went out for an extended time (also not far from the truth).  My mother has been an adventurous cook (and an adventurous eater) all her life, perhaps not reaching quite so far for the exotic as her daughter, but I can count on her to have most of what I need when I visit.  Like most serious cooks, I will often bring the things I need with me.  But if time is short, I will flip my creativity switch on "HI" and use what's available, something I did this past weekend.

These meals are often among the most memorable.  I leave it to you to decide whether the meal I recently created was memorable in a good way:

Spice-Infused Pork Roast with Apples, Fennel, Raisins and Cider Vinegar Pan Sauce
     Serve this succulent roast with risotto and roasted asparagus.  A good, fruity, light red with a little acidity is the perfect wine to drink alongside.

3 to 4 lb. pork loin or Boston butt roast

1 tsp. peppercorns

1 tsp. coriander seed

1 tsp. fennel seed

1 tsp. dried rosemary leaves

zest of one lemon
6 cloves garlic, minced
kosher salt
Extra virgin olive oil
4 to 6 slices thick bacon, optional
butcher's twine or strong, clean string
2 firm, tart apples, such as Granny Smith or Mutsu, cored and cut into eighths
2 large head fennel, trimmed and cut into 8 pieces, some fronds reserved for garnish
1 medium sweet onion, cut into bite-sized chunks (can substitute 1/2 red onion if desired)
juice of 1/2 lemon
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 Tbs. raisins
2 Tbs. brandy
2 Tbs. water
1 Tbs. cider vinegar, or to taste
1.)  Trim excess fat from pork with a boning knife.  If using a pork loin, butterfly the roast; if using a Boston butt, score the top surface about 1/2" deep with a sharp knife.
2.)  Combine peppercorns, coriander seed, fennel seed and rosemary in a small skillet and toast over medium to medium-low heat until fragrant.
3.)  When the spices are cool, put them into a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder and grind to a coarse texture.
4.)  In a medium bowl, combine the ground spices with lemon zest, garlic, kosher salt to taste and enough olive oil to make a loose paste.
5.)  If using the butterflied roast, smear all but about 1 Tbs. of the spice paste over the surface of the meat that you have cut open.  Starting at one long end, start rolling meat up like a jelly roll, then tie roast in 3 places with butcher's twine.  Smear remaining paste over top of the tied roast, but DO NOT WASH the bowl (you will be tossing some of the remaining ingredients in it).  If using bacon, wrap it around the roast and secure with toothpicks.  Let sit at room temperature for about 1 hour, or cover and store in refrigerator until ready to cook (tossing apple mixture in spice paste bowl and storing separately), up to 8 hours.  Bring meat to room temperature before roasting.
6.)  If using scored Boston butt roast, smear the spice paste over the surface of the roast, making sure you get the seasoning into all the crevices.  DO NOT WASH the bowl (you will be tossing some of the remaining ingredients in it).  If using bacon, wrap it over the roast and secure with toothpicks.  Let sit at room temperature for about 1 hour, or cover and store in refrigerator until ready to cook (tossing apple mixture in spice paste bowl and storing separately), up to 8 hours.  Bring meat to room temperature before roasting.
7.)  Heat oven to 475 degrees. 
8.)  Combine apples, fennel,  and onion in bowl that spice paste was prepared (you can do this early, following step 9 as well if you are storing to cook roast later).
9.)  Add lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.  Toss until well-coated, adding a little extra olive oil if desired.  Set aside.
10.) Combine raisins, brandy and water in a small heat-proof container and microwave for 45 seconds to plump the raisins.  Set aside.
11.) Put pork roast in the appropriate sized baking pan and surround with apple-fennel mixture, then pour raisins and liquid over the apple-fennel mixture.
12.) Sear in preheated oven for approximately 20 minutes.  Sometimes it helps to use the broiler element to brown the cap of the roast well.
13.) Tent pork loosely with foil and reduce heat to 325 degrees.
14.) Cook pork 30 to 35 min. per lb.  If cooking a larger roast, such as the Boston butt roast, you can roast it at a temperature of 275 degrees for up t0 8 hours for a meltingly tender roast.
15.) When ready to serve, transfer roast to cutting board and let rest for about 10 minutes before slicing.  Arrange sliced pork on a platter and surround with apples, onions, fennel and raisins, wrap loosely with foil and keep warm while you make the pan sauce.
16.) To make the pan sauce, strain pan juices into a small sauce pan and bring to a boil, reducing volume by one-third.
17.) Stir in cider vinegar and taste for salt and pepper.  The sauce should just be mildly tart; add more or less cider vinegar to your taste. 
18.) Serve sauce on the side with the pork.  Garnish pork, if you wish, with reserved fennel fronds.  Serves 6 to 8 people.

This wine was a perfect foil for the richness of the pork.  It's what I call a "supermarket wine," but it stood up beautifully with the dinner, bringing a mouth full of plum and raspberry and, because of the oak, a spicy finish.  Nicely prominent tannins, inky in the glass.  A bargain at less than $12.  And best of all, I found this in a little town in North Carolina at the local supermarket.  Booyah!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

When the cat is away...

Let me first say that before he met me, my husband was fully functional.  He fed, washed and dressed himself.  He drove himself to and from his job, paid his bills and spent time with his family.  He had a social life, and enjoyed golfing frequently.  He had friends, a cell phone, a cat.  He was an adult.

He continues to be fully functional cell phone-owning, cat-loving adult, but I think I have made a huge mistake.  I've expected that, after three years of gently and gradually overhauling his eating habits, he would no longer reach for fast food pizza and the box of raisin bran (extra sugar sprinkled on top, please) as soon as his wife leaves town.

Image from Google Images

In fact, just this morning, I woke from a fretful sleep after having a nightmare of this playing on an endless loop.  It was like Groundhog Day sponsored by the high-fructose corn syrup industry.

So, perhaps the question is, why do I care?

My husband has benefited in the food and nutrition department since he's met me.  Even he admits that.  And I don't think he will ever return to a diet of frozen burritos and canned fruit, something he was living almost exclusively on when we met.  But the sugar, now that's another story...

Earlier this week, when I was making plans to be out of town for several days, I began to feel a sense of anxiety about the havoc he's capable of wreaking with sugar.  We had this conversation:

Me:  "Would you like me to make you some chili, or stew or a casserole before I leave?  You know, something you can heat up quickly when you get home at night?"

Him:  "No, thanks, babe."

Me:  "But what are you going to eat for dinner while I'm gone?"

Him:  "I'm a big boy.  There's cereal in the pantry."

Me:  "What?!  You're going to eat cereal every night while I'm gone?  With an extra cup of sugar?  And a Coke on the side?"

Him:  "What's wrong with that?  I ate a lot of cereal for dinner before I met you."

Me:  "Yeah, but now you have it with an ice cream appetizer and candy bar dessert.  I've seen you."

Him:  "So if I don't want to eat cereal, I can get a pizza or a sub."

Me:  "You're totally avoiding the issue about the sugar!  Really, let me make you some chili before I go.  I don't like that you're going to eat cereal and fast food and all that sugar while I'm out of town.  God knows you'll eat crap for lunch and no breakfast."

Him;  "So, what do you want me to do, lie to you?  Should I tell you to make chili for me so that you feel better about yourself, then I'll go ahead and eat what I want anyway?"

I have to admit, that last point shut me up.  Apparently, it never occurred to me that he wouldn't want to eat his wife's cooking.  It never crossed my mind that he might need a little haute cuisine vacation.  Especially, he might want to practice his sugar addiction in the privacy of his own home with no one around going into paroxysms over the amount of sugar he chooses to consume.

And maybe he needs a little vacation from his wife as well.  He can leave his boots where he wants, get away with not making the bed in the morning.  He can put the heat on 77 when he feels a chill in the evening and leave it blasting all night.  He can leave lights on in every room, build a rat's nest of candy wrappers next to the TV, leave half-empty Coke cans around the garage, kitchen and back yard and forget to give our elderly dog her supplements.  He can let dishes pile up in the sink--although by the sound of things, he's not planning on using many dishes.

But he'll be happy  And I'll try not to think about it while I'm gone.  He's a big boy.

Friday, October 4, 2013

A taste of Americana

I have a friend who, every so often, decides that it is time for a change.  She thinks carefully about her trip, preferring to avoid heavily-traveled interstates and other highways that are clogged with travelers.  Instead, she prefers the quiet, scenic routes.  She packs up what she can fit in her compact car, gathers her maps and then sets out on her travels with a kind of intention and care toward nourishing her soul.  This sort of journey is rarely experienced or witnessed by any of us.

She stops when and where she wishes, driving almost exclusively in silence so that she can reflect, meditate and allow the scenery to deliver its gifts to her.  She will often linger for a day in what she calls "seriously cute towns," browsing through museums when she gets the urge, and amble through antique shops.  She talks to the people she meets along the way, savoring her interactions.  She stops along the roadside to take pictures, she sends postcards from the towns and villages she's most impressed with and, what I most appreciate about her, writes beautiful posts about her trip and experiences.  She is an artist with words and paints the most heartbreakingly beautiful pictures in her narratives.  All of her friends think she should write a book.

She is a very rich woman in so many ways, and I am blessed to know her.  She savors everything, both sunny days and thunderstorms.  She allows herself to sit with fear, discomfort and to simply be in the Now.  She has taught me a lot about being present, attentive, alive.

Here is her latest picture to me from Yellow Springs, Ohio:

My traveling friend takes beautiful pictures.
Traveling through small towns evokes the pure essence of Americana, and rummaging through antique shops and flea markets, purveyors of both the distillation and the detritus of our culture, often bring a sense of wistful longing and sentimentality about what once was.  Even though our recollections aren't always accurate.

Another friend, Christian Montone, creates vivid, pigment-infused images of the architecture and objects of Americana (although he may not think of his art in that way) that he encounters in his travels and everyday experiences.  See his website, Art Skool Damage, here.  Please tell him how much you like what he sees and how he sees it.

Photo by Christian Montone, 2013

Photo by Christian Montone, 2013

Americana through Christian's eyes.

Americana is not only in the fields of sunflowers, mid-century architecture and flea market kitsch, it's in every bite of the foods we love.  It's the foundation of comfort food and the very essence of Back Home, that nostalgic place in our minds and hearts that means family, warmth, togetherness, and a deep sense of satisfaction that all is as it should be.  We each have our own Back Home, a place where the food is familiar and nourishing, made from scratch and from time-honored recipes that Grandma scrawled on the inside of her Bible, or that got passed down at family reunions.  And it seems that each region in America--often, each state--takes pride in a comforting, crowd-pleasing favorite--Texas Sheet Cake, y'all?  Utah Funeral Potatoes?  Classic Chicago Hot Dog?  Find a great tribute to and a recipe for this amazing all-American icon-on-a-bun here.

Recently, at a large dinner party, I took my guests on a brief summer road trip Back Home in the form of America's regional foods.  The two dishes that absolutely got demolished were the Oklahoma BBQ--tender, shredded beef roast slow-cooked in a delicious piquant sauce that's not too sweet and not too sour, and the Kansas City Coleslaw, which is a simple but excellent recipe that I've been using from the back of the Dole coleslaw bag for years.  The coleslaw recipe doesn't seem to be on the Dole website any longer (but it appears below), although this coleslaw recipe is also really yummy.

Serve Oklahoma BBQ on large, crusty or soft rolls or on slider buns (more fun because obviously, you can have two!), along with the coleslaw, your favorite potato salad or chips and of course, garlicky dill pickles.  Since we are still enduring enjoying warm weather in Texas, Oklahoma BBQ is a perfect bridge to cooler weather.  Start it a day ahead and finish cooking the next day for best flavor.  It makes a lot, so freeze leftovers to enjoy on a cold, blustery night in December when you're needing a bit of Americana and the comforts of being Back Home.

My photos are not nearly as good as my friends', but I might be a better cook!

Oklahoma BBQ
     A long-lost friend shared this recipe with me when I was in my early 30's.  It's been a favorite ever since.  

5-7 lbs. rump roast or other beef, such as brisket
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 large onions, minced
2 tsp. celery salt
2 Tbs. Liquid Smoke (such as Figaro, or see how to make your own here)
1 tsp. ground black pepper
2 1/2 oz. Worcestershire sauce

1.)  Put meat, fat side down, in a large Dutch oven.
2.)  Cover with ingredients listed above, wrap or cover and chill overnight.
3.)  The next day, bake for 6 hours, covered, at 275 degrees.
4.)  Meanwhile, prepare BBQ Sauce (recipe follows).
5.)  Remove from oven and cool; drain and discard liquid.
6.)  Shred the meat, discard the fat and mix with BBQ Sauce until the proper consistency is achieved.
7.)  Serve hot on rolls with you favorite sides.  Serves 12 generously, with leftovers.

BBQ Sauce

     This sauce is looser than commercially-prepared sauces, but you can decrease the amount of water to your liking.

32 oz. catsup
2 cups water (use 1/2 cup less for a thicker sauce)
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbs. vinegar
2 or more dashes hot sauce
1 tsp. dry mustard
1 tsp. chili powder
1 Tbs. Liquid Smoke (see notes in above ingredient list)
1/4 tsp. cayenne
1 1/4 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper.

Combine all ingredients in a 4 quart pot, stir well and simmer for 30 minutes.  Makes about 6 cups.  Leftover sauce is great for other meats (such as grilled salmon) and can be frozen.

Kansas City Coleslaw

1 16 oz. bag coleslaw mix (or shred 2 generous cups cabbage and carrots)
1/2 cup good-quality mayonnaise
2 Tbs. milk
1 Tbs. cider vinegar
1/2 tsp. sugar

1.)  Put shredded cabbage and carrots in a medium-sized bowl.
2.)  Mix together well the remaining ingredients in a small bowl or mug and pour over cabbage and carrots.
3.)  Toss until well-coated.
4.)  Chill at least one hour before serving.  Serves 4.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Right in my back yard

In Bastrop County, where I live and work--and please, local restaurateurs, forgive me for what I am about to say--it is hard to have a peak dining experience.  If you're feeling flush, you can have a lovely drive onto the Hyatt Lost Pines grounds and have a fabulous meal and incredible service at the elegantly appointed and soothingly decorated Stories.  You can venture down to the historic district, charming enough on its own with a growing abundance of galleries and terribly cute boutiques, and have an above average glass of wine and a fairly decent meal at Hasler Bros., a comfortable, solid throwback to classic steakhouses and supper clubs of the 60's and '70's.  And you can have a quick, satisfying and tasty meal at several family-owned restaurants that move tables efficiently and fill your belly, but are lackluster in terms of originality and ambience.

But, it seems, you could not seem to find that "something special" that makes a restaurant sparkle with imagination and vitality.  Not until very recently, that is, when Viejo's opened at the south end of Main Street in Bastrop.  I had heard friends talk about having been to Viejo's and they raved about it.  Being the food and wine snob discriminating eater and drinker that I am, I smilled politely.  Then I thought to myself, "Yeah, well.  I don't think so."

But honestly, I was blown away on my first visit.  The margaritas are hand mixed from fresh juices and other ingredients and served in elegant goblets or martini glasses.  I tried three different margaritas, all of them well-balanced, flavorful (the Basil Antigua and the Jalapeno Hibiscus are my two top favorites) and icy cold.  They paired beautifully with the taco menu, which offers a nice variety and generous portions for a very reasonable amount of your hard-earned cash.  Try the Tacos al Pastor and the Vera Cruz.  Ammmmmazing.

The Basil Antigua margarita at Viejo's
Other bonuses:  the tostada chips are fresh, the salsas are beautifully contrasted and delicious.  And the ceviche--deliciously and expertly balanced with the perfect amount of acid, salt and heat.  Ask for tostadas instead of the saltines that are served with it.

This small space has a lot going for it: a beautiful courtyard with a large fountain where diners can enjoy their drinks and meals outside, an inside dining space (which is a bit crowded and noisy due to the heavy furniture and lack of acoustic treatment), and a rather narrow and small but cozy bar where you can sample some pretty tasty tequilas.  The vibrant aquamarine blue of the bar walls, the mirrors and the copper-toned punched-tin hanging lights make this a fun, funky place to hang out and sip some great drinks.  The service is competent and very pleasant.  I'm not crazy about the large TV tuned in to college football in the bar, but it seems that TVs are everywhere these days.  Viejo's attracts a very young crowd, especially on weekend nights in the bar and courtyard area, where they also offer live music, and I think we all know how Texans feel about their sports.  They are fervently in relationship with their favorite teams as much as possible.

The restaurant menu is limited to mostly tacos and appetizers, but I'm in favor of that since that's what Joe Oviedo and his siblings do best.  I have seldom been able to say this about meals that I have eaten out, but you can taste the love and the family history in every bite at Viejo's.  Your tastebuds will want to fall to their knees at the altar of the Mexican soul food that the Oviedos do so well.

The bar menu at Viejo's
I'll continue to be a frequent guest at Viejo's.  You might want to consider that too.  Salud.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Cooking for my old girl

Several weeks ago, on a routine visit to the vet, I learned some sad news about my beloved Jezebel, soon to be 14 years old.  The vet told me she was in the early stages of liver failure, brought on by regular use of Vetprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug I gave her for her arthritis.  I instantly felt a stab of guilt.  I had given Jezebel Vetprofen twice a day for her symptoms, as the vet ordered, for several years.  Had I done my due diligence, I would have known that Vetprofen can be toxic and even cause life-threatening conditions in dogs.

We're a bit shy and don't like to look at the camera...

I'd been noticing some other symptoms that were apparently part of the constellation of toxicity: she was hungrier than usual, often seemed confused and was losing control of her bladder.  I would find her lying on the kitchen floor in a puddle, looking up at me with her huge brown eyes in a way that seemed to say, "I'm sorry, mommy, I didn't mean to do it.  But I just can't help it."  It was breaking my heart and I didn't know what to do to help her.

The vet offered me a solution.  I could keep Jezebel on Vetprofen and add other medications to help control the symptoms.  I could add this and that, do this, try that and perhaps things would improve.  This just wasn't acceptable to me and didn't seem to be a very high quality of life for my lovable poochie.  I knew that if I continued along the traditional veterinary track, Jezebel would continue to suffer and that perhaps her life would eventually be cut short by the continued use of Vetprofen.

I am in no way trying to be disparaging of the excellent veterinary care that Jezzie has received throughout her life at my local clinic; I am merely saying that I rejected traditional veterinary approaches and chose an alternative path.

So, on the day I learned that Jezebel's liver was failing, I got in my car with my old girl and had a good boo hoo on the way home.  Then I started researching natural remedies for liver failure in dogs.  I found some wonderful resources online, including the one website I came most heavily to rely on for help, Your Old Dog, which contains a wealth of information for pet parents of elderly and ill dogs.  After doing some reading on several sites, I ordered liquid milk thistle to help heal and support Jezebel's liver, took her off commercially prepared dog food and began cooking all her meals for her.

Yes, you read right: I am cooking all her meals for her.  Is this a lot of trouble?  It depends on how you look at it.  I cook about once every two weeks and then package the food in plastic zipper bags and store it in the freezer.  It is an extra effort and you must add the supplements called for with each recipe to get the best results.  I've also added supplements to help with Jezzie's arthritis symptoms.  But I'm happy to make this extra effort (and give up some freezer space) because I love my sweet-natured, docile doggie and want her around as long as possible.

The results?  Within three weeks of this new regimen, all of her symptoms cleared and she appears to be a happy, healthy and youthful puppy again.  I can't say enough about how much I appreciate the advice, information and assistance from all of the people who love their elderly and ill dogs and want to help others by posting their experiences and information online.

Here are the websites that I found helpful:

My Pet Articles--Vetprofen Side Effects (see this site for other articles regarding all kinds of pets with various conditions)

Responsible Pet Ownership Blog Failure Reversal Diet Disease Recipes  (we like recipe #2 the best so far)

Friday, August 30, 2013

Hot weather? No problem!

Spanish food charms me--not only for its sophistication and rich flavor profiles, but also because of the variety of small plates and sensory experiences that tapas provide.  Perfect for warmer weather, when lighter appetites mean grazing instead of full-out guerilla dining (as Vindaloo is prone to do), tapas bring your palate a kaleidoscope of deliciousness and the feeling that you've been well-fed. 

Some of my favorites: rich, dense tortilla espanola with romesco sauce; rustic bread rubbed with fresh garlic and toasted with a lavish drizzling of rich, extra-virgin olive oil, then rubbed with fresh, ripe tomato halves; olives stuffed with anchovies and garlic and then gently pan-fried; tender pieces of pork bathed in a marinade of extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, cumin and smoked paprika; and nutty Manchego cheese, membrillo and/or pasta de guayaba with fresh mint leaves (what I like to call M y M y M).

M y M y M

But in August, when it's really hot in central Texas, I love cold Spanish soup.  Gazpacho?  Sure, but I love Sopa de Ajo Blanco even more.  Creamy and rich from extra-virgin olive oil and almonds, this soup relies on the simplest of ingredients and gets its impact from fresh garlic and sherry vinegar.

Traditionally served with green grapes, my version of this soup is elevated and modernized with a rustic salsa of fresh green grapes, scallions, watercress, toasted garlic and toasted almonds.  Fresh, authentic Spanish flavors meld into a delightful afternoon pick-me-up or an elegant appetizer for guests.  It doesn't hurt that it's beautiful to look at as well.

Serve this soup in an elegant parfait glasses or rocks glasses, or even mugs with the grape salsa alongside.  It pairs beautifully with a budget-friendly Torrontes such as La Vuelta, or for a really elegant glass of wine, Alta Vista Torrontes PremiumAsk your local Wine Guy at Spec's to help you find a great wine to enjoy for more hot-weather sipping.

White Garlic Soup (Sopa de Ajo Blanco)

     Chill this soup well and garnish with smoked paprika if you wish.  An anchovy garnish is authentic and tasty.

1/2 cup blanched, peeled almonds or slivered almonds
3-4 slices stale bread from a baguette or other rustic loaf
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled
4 cups water
5 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
3-4 Tbs. sherry vinegar (or to taste)
1 tsp. kosher salt, or to taste
smoked paprika to garnish, if desired
anchovy fillets to garnish, if desired
1.)  Trim crusts from bread slices and place in a bowl with 1-2 cups cold water.
2.)  Meanwhile, place garlic and almonds into a food processor or blender. Blend on pulse until smooth.
3.)  Remove bread from water with slotted spoon and squeeze out excess water.
4.)  Add bread and 1 tsp. salt to processor or blender; pulse to blend. 
5.)  With motor running, slowly drizzle olive oil, then vinegar, and finally the water into the work bowl. 
6.)  Taste and adjust for salt, vinegar and oil.  
7.)  Strain through a sieve into a container or bowl (I use a large plastic pitcher with a tight-fitting lid), pressing as much as possible through the sieve.
8.)  Chill at least 2-3 hours or up to 24 hours.  Serve in chilled bowls or glasses, garnishing as desired with smoked paprika and/or anchovies.  Serves 4 to 12, depending on the course.

Green Grape Salsa

     It's traditional to serve fresh green grapes alongside Sopa de Ajo Blanco, but I think this salsa is lovely, either eaten along with, or added to the soup.

2 cups green grapes, washed well and chopped with a very sharp knife
2 scallions, sliced thinly
2 Tbs. chopped watercress
1/2 tsp. dried minced garlic (such as Penzey's), toasted carefully in a dry skillet until golden
a drizzle of local honey
juice of 1/2 lemon
kosher salt, to taste
2 Tbs. marcona almonds, chopped and toasted in a dry skillet (or use sliced almonds, toasted the same way)

Combine grapes, scallions, water all ingredients except marcona almonds and chill briefly.  Portion out in small servings to be eaten alongside the above soup recipe.  Garnish portions evenly with chopped or sliced almonds just before serving.  Makes about 1 3/4 cups.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Apparently, I've been doing it all wrong

This week, we heard an audio clip on NPR's Morning Editiona belated birthday message from Julia Child, who shared with us that she liked giving her chickens a good wash before cooking them because she thought it was safer.  My grandmother and entire female lineage thought it was safer.  I thought it was safer too.

Image credit: Ollie Bright Art

My friend Susie Q, thought it was safer to wash and in addition, would completely disinfect her kitchen with the appropriate sprays and gloves while wearing a Tyvek suit.  OK, I'm stretching it a little here, but you get the picture.  She hated germs, especially icky chicken germs.

But we've been doing it all wrong, says Drexel University food safety researcher Jennifer Quinlan, agreeing with other food safety experts who say that washing increases the chances that you'll spread the foodborne pathogens that are on your bird all over the rest of your kitchen too.  Some studies suggest that bacteria can fly up to 3 feet away from where your meat is rinsed, even though you can't necessarily see it (Source: NPR's The Salt, "Julia Child Was Wrong).  This, sadly, reminds me of the wisdom of placing your toothbrush far enough away from the commode to avoid, er, contamination from flying germs.

So, could the instructions about not washing your chicken be correct?  Let me ask you this:  how far is your toothbrush from the commode?

I've waffled on the issue of wash/don't wash chicken for a while, trying to get a leg up on my compulsion to make everything clean and to have enough pluck to balance common sense with science.  If I could just stuff my neuroses and make a decision, everything else would be gravy.  But my conclusion remains thin-skinned, about as firm as a boneless chicken breast and has about as much weight as a dumpling.  Thinking about it too much just makes me feel fried, and more than once, I've realized the wrong decision about washing my chicken could land me in the soup. 

So, next time I'm all in a stew about whether to wash my chicken or not, I think I'll just wing it.  Thank heavens I've still got a little backbone.

And maybe one day, I'll see you in the ER.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Coconut milk and confessions

I can't tell you how I came to love coconut milk; I can only tell you how much I love it in everything I can possibly cook with it.  Coconut panna cotta with lime curd was my most recent incarnation when I found this fabulous recipe from Food52.  I subbed butter for the oil in the lime curd portion of the recipe because I wanted a depth and softness that oil wouldn't bring. 

I have a confession: the results stunned me, and I'm not easily stunned.  The combination of creamy coconut and tangy lime curd is a lively counterpoint of flavors.  And yes, it really does look like Jell-O 1-2-3.  Accompanied by a flute of good-quality prosecco, this panna cotta is a charmer.

Another confession: being a semi-hoarder, I always have at least 6 cans of coconut milk in my pantry.  I have no brand loyalty, I just buy it whenever I get the urge.  I'm especially susceptible to large displays of coconut milk in Asian grocery stores.  And I suppose that makes confession number 3. 

One of the brands I often buy.  Photo credit: Google Images

Why do I love coconut milk so much?  It's silky, creamy and enriches everything it touches.  Its flavor profile swings both ways.  No, you degenerates, not in a Masters and Johnson way, in a sweet-savory way.  Coconut milk is wonderful in soups, curries, sauces, baked goods, desserts, ice cream, drinks, smoothies and all manner of things.  It's a great substitute for dairy ingredients like milk and cream, and its slightly nutty, mild flavor and rich texture give body and substance to finished dishes.  It's a staple among those who prefer vegan and Paleo eating plans and a long-time staple among Asian cultures.

The benefits of using coconut milk are several; find them here; and find more than you probably need to know about your new crush here.  Although there are some drawbacks to consuming large quantities of canned coconut milk (or canned anything), I reached the conclusion long ago that there are drawbacks to eating and drinking just about everything anymore and that a person could drive themselves insane thinking about it too much.  Trust me, I've been there and back.  I've also concluded that there are just as many drawbacks to breathing.  Yet another confession: I secretly really like breathing, as well as the eating and drinking that comes along with it. 

If memory serves, there was an episode of The Galloping Gourmet years ago I watched in which Graham Kerr said something like this: "Everyone dies of something.  I want to die of lemon-butter sauce."  Likewise, I want to die of coconut milk.

Want some more ideas for how foodies like to use coconut milk?  I asked my fellow food bloggers to send me some of their favorite recipes and since they're a lively, gregarious and cooperative group, they immediately complied. 

Here's the list, sweet and savory:

From Allison Stevens of Prep DishRaspberry-Pineapple Popsicles

From Jane Ko of A Taste of KoKoVanilla Coconut Panna Cotta

From Jessica Alberthal of Bake Me AwaySpicy Purple and Sweet Potato Gratin with Coconut Milk

From Emily Teachout of A Time to KaleCoconut Milk + Quinoa = Winner

From Maggie Perkins of From Maggie's FarmLemon-Scented Coconut Milk Panna Cotta

May your tastebuds dance!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What mojo is made of

Once in a while, a recipe comes along that makes you believe that there is nothing wrong in the world, and that, more importantly, you've still got your mojo.  And when you're knocking on the door of your Double-Nickle Birthday (isn't that a cute way of referring to being almost 55? Thank you, Thea!), you need all the mojo you can get.  Especially when hitting the Double-Nickle means carrying an extra 35 pounds.  That's Mojo with a capital M. 

Her Mojo-ness came home last Friday from the local HEB with a large portion of salmon.  And feeling rather uninspired (about which I have recently wined whined), I decided not to think about how to prepare it until much later in the evening.  And by much later, I mean after several glasses of wine, and about fifteen minutes until it was almost time for dinner.

This is how I maintain my Mojo-ness: plenty of mystique and plenty of grape juice. 

In an effort to avoid thinking about cooking dinner (and as an excuse to drink more wine), I scanned through my email inbox.  And there, like mojo from heaven, was an email from Snooth, with a passel of ideas about how to cook salmon.  Even though several looked delicious, I chose the recipe for which I had most of the ingredients. 

This is what Mojo-ness is made of: making what you've got work.

The original recipe called for oil-cured olives.  Since I go through these beauties quite frequently, I had none in the house.  I subbed canned pitted black olives and capers to approximate the salt content.  I think you could easily sub sliced kalmata olives, but know that these substitutions don't approximate the texture and unctuousness of oil-cured olives. 

I used small yellow, orange and red tomatoes instead of the plum tomatoes called for, and I think that visually, that choice made the fish a stunning centerpiece.  The tomatoes were also very sweet, which was a delightful counterpoint to the saltiness of the capers and olives. 

I would like to make this recipe again very soon, to add diced fennel to the tomato/caper/olive mixture, and to try it on halibut or another dense, oily fish.   I also baked the salmon, instead of grilling as the original recipe suggested.  I think you can omit the saffron if you have none in your pantry, but it did add a subtle depth that made this main dish sophisticated, beautiful and elegant.

We enjoyed this salmon with a lovely, slightly fruity pinot noir, McMannis Pinot Noir 2011 (CA).  This lively red is an interplay of red fruit, predominantly berries, vanilla and oak spice.  Tasty and nicely balanced, this wine is a real bargain for just under $10.

Salmon al Cartoccio   (Recipe adapted from Fine Cooking)

     Seriously.  Yum.

1 cup mixed small tomatoes (red, yellow, orange, green zebra--make it colorful), halved
1/4 cup pitted and coarsely chopped black oil-cured olives (20 to 25 olives), or substitute 1/2 cup sliced canned pitted black olives and 1 Tbs. drained non-pareil capers
1/2 cup finely diced fresh fennel (optional)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbs. minced fresh garlic (3 to 4 medium cloves)
1/2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
Pinch saffron (15 to 20 threads)
Freshly ground black pepper
Four 6-oz. center-cut, skin-on salmon fillets (or substitute halibut)
Chopped flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

1.)  Heat oven to 375 degrees.
2.)  In a medium bowl, combine the tomatoes, olives, capers, optional fennel, olive oil, garlic, thyme, salt, saffron, and pepper to taste.
3.)  Set one piece of salmon, skin-side down, on a 12x18-inch piece of heavy-duty foil; sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Spoon a quarter of the tomato mixture over the fish and seal tightly. Repeat to make four packets.
4.)  Place foil packets on a large baking sheet and place on bottom rack of oven.
5.)  Roast for approximately 20 minutes, or until fish is opaque throughout, about 8 minutes (open a packet and cut into the fish to check).
6.)  Let fish rest for a few minutes before serving and garnish with chopped parsley.  Serves four.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Blues for breakfast

It should not be OK to complain on a food blog about how tired you are, how busy you are, how uninspired you have been, or how much you just REALLY NEED A VACATION.

But I just did complain.  And I still do need a vacation.

And while I'm waiting, waiting, waiting for all of the tiredness, busy-ness and lack of inspiration to go away (hopefully in the form of a vacation), along comes this recipe for Blueberry-Stuffed French Toast with Blueberry-Orange Sauce:

The original recipe came from Texas Co-op Power Magazine, a monthly production of my electric cooperative.  I have to stop right here and put in a plug for my great electric utility cooperative, Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative, one of the oldest electric cooperatives in the state of Texas.  I also want to thank Texas Electric Cooperatives for producing several regional editions of their great magazine.  I look forward to reading it from cover to cover every month, and aside from well-written articles about Texas history and great local interest articles, by the looks of every issue, it's evident that people in Texas like to cook, and that they love to share their recipes with Texas Co-op Power Magazine.  Thank you, thank you, thank you, Texas Co-op Power, for bringing me great recipes all year long!

When I saw the recipe for stuffed French toast in the June 2013 edition, not only did it immediately visually appeal to me, I knew by the ingredient list that I had to eat it soon.  So, at a recent brunch, I served up my own version of the original recipe.  And I remembered to take pictures.

But wouldn't you know it, the picture that I liked the best didn't show how the stuffing oozes out of the French bread.  That's mostly because the amateur photographer who also thinks she's a food stylist thought about all of that after the fact.  However, look at how beautifully golden and vivid that plate of food looks?  Doesn't it look good?  Moist, custardy and creamy on the inside, crunchy on the outside, this French toast delivers looks, class and great taste, all on one plate.

You would think that the blueberry-orange sauce would be sweet, but it's balanced nicely with the tartness from the fresh oranges and the orange juice, and it's made sophisticated by a healthy glug of Grand Marnier.  The filling is rich with cream cheese and orange zest and bursting with blueberries.   Even better, you can prep this recipe the night before since that makes the bread extra-custardy.  Bake the next morning, reheat the orange-blueberry sauce, adding the optional Grand Marnier and viola!

Blueberry-Stuffed French Toast with Blueberry-Orange Sauce

     I've adapted the original recipe and made it bit richer and more sophisticated.  It's become a keeper in my kitchen.  If you're making this recipe ahead, follow steps 2 through 8, preheating your oven just before you are ready to bake and serve.

6 eggs
2 tsp. grated orange zest, divided
2/3 cup orange juice
3 Tbs. sugar, divided
Pinch salt, optional
8 oz. neufchatel or cream cheese, at room temperature
2-3 Tbs. milk or cream
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries (thawed and drained, if frozen)
1 large loaf Italian or French bread, cut into 8 thick slices
1/3 cup sliced almonds

1.)  Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a large baking sheet with cooking spray and set aside.
2.)  In a medium bowl beat eggs, 1 tsp. orange zest and orange juice, 2 Tbs. sugar and the salt until well blended.
3.)  Pour into a 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking pan and set aside.
4.)  In a small bowl, combine the neufchatel, cream, orange zest and remaining sugar, mixing well.
5.)  Stir in the blueberries gently until well-coated.
6. )  With the tip of a sharp serrated knife, such as a steak knife, cut through the middle of each slice of bread, from the top down, until about 1 inch from the bottom crust.  You should have a "butterfly" or a "book."
7.)  Fill butterflies with the blueberry mixture, dividing evenly.
8.)  Place filled slices into the egg mixture. Let stand, turning once, until egg mixture is absorbed, about 1-2 minutes on each side.  The drier the bread, the longer it should sit in the egg mixture, up to overnight. 
9.)  Arrange bread on the prepared baking sheet and sprinkle with almonds.
10.)  Bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes, turning slices after 10 minutes. Serve with Blueberry Orange Sauce (recipe follows).  Serves 4.
Blueberry Orange Sauce with Grand Marnier
     You can make this sauce the day before and chill it until ready to heat and serve.  If you're using the Grand Marnier, just make sure you add it after you reheat.

3 Tbs. sugar
1 Tbs. cornstarch
1/8 tsp. salt, optional
1/4 cup orange juice
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
1 cup orange sections (about 2 oranges)
1/4 cup Grand Marnier (optional)

1.)  In a cup combine sugar, cornstarch and salt. Set aside.
2.)  In a small saucepan bring orange juice and 1/4 cup of water to a boil.
3.)  Add blueberries and orange sections and return to a boil.
4.)  Cook until liquid is released from fruit, about 2 minutes, then stir in sugar mixture.
5.)  Cook, stirring constantly, until sauce thickens, 1 to 2 minutes.
6.)  Remove from heat, stir in Grand Marnier, and serve.  Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Outrageously addictive rosemary walnuts

Salty, spicy, sweet and crunchy.  Rich, earthy flavors of walnuts and rosemary.  And the total inability to stop eating these nuts, which make a great snack and are delicious with red wine and ruby or tawny port.

I make versions of these nuts from time to time, each one different from the last.  I think these are by far the best in terms of flavor and texture.  You'll want to store them in a single layer because I've found they're slighty tacky even after having cured for 2 hours at room temperature, but I think they'll get a little crunchier if I let them sit a bit more.

That is, if I can keep my hands off them.

Outrageously Addictive Rosemary Walnuts

     You might want to make a double batch...

2 cups walnut halves and pieces
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 Tbs. water
1 Tbs. olive oil
2 Tbs. dried rosemary
2 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil (if using foil, oil well).  Combine all ingredients in a bowl, stirring well to coat.  Spread mixture evenly on lined baking sheet, separating nuts where possible.  Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring from time to time, which helps the coating to accumulate.  Cool completely and store airtight.  Makes about 2 cups.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Posh potato salad

Who can resist a well-made potato salad that transcends the ordinary, impresses your luncheon guests and makes a great meal on its own?

This version, an adaption from, is full of vibrant color, rich texture and most importantly, great flavor.  It starts with basic ingredients, acquires elegance from special additions and employs techniques to maximize flavors.  If you add grilled shrimp or salmon and build it on a bed of lettuce, it makes a fantastic and gorgeous meal.

Posh Potato Salad

     Definitely several steps above the ordinary...

1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tsp. dried oregano
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 lb. haricot vert or green beans
2 cups frozen artichoke heart quarters, thawed
extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
1 large clove garlic, minced
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1-1/2 lb. red-skinned potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 3/4-inch pieces
4 to 5 scallions, finely chopped, white and green parts separated
1/2 cup roasted red pepper strips (about 3 oz.), cut into 2-inch pieces
1/2 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and halved
1/2 cup crumbled goat cheese
4 to 8 large Bibb or other leaf lettuce leaves, washed and dried (optional)
grilled shrimp or salmon (optional)

1.)  Combine the vinegar and oregano in a small bowl; season with salt and pepper.
2.)  Whisk in the olive oil and taste for seasoning.
3.)  Heat oven to 425 degrees.
4.)  On a large baking sheet with sides, spread out haricot vert and artichoke hearts.
5.)  Drizzle generously with olive oil, then add garlic, salt and pepper to taste and toss with your hands until vegetables are coated.
6.)  Roast for about 12 to 15 minutes; remove pan from oven and cool to room temperature.
7.)  Put the potato chunks in a large saucepan of well-salted water and bring to a boil over high heat.
8.)  Cook potatoes until fork tender, about 10 minutes or more, reducing heat if necessary to simmer gently until just cooked.
9.)  Drain and transfer the potatoes to a large bowl; add the white parts of the scallions.
10.) Drizzle potatoes with on a few tablespoons of the dressing; toss to coat.
11.) Season with salt and pepper to taste, then set aside to cool slightly.
12.)  When ready to serve, add the green parts of the scallions, the haricots vert, artichokes and red peppers to the potatoes; season to taste with salt and pepper.
13.)  Divide among 4 to 6 plates and serve on a bed of lettuce leaves, drizzling with remaining dressing and scattering olives and goat cheese over all.
14.)  Top with grilled shrimp or salmon if you wish.  Serves 4 to 6.

Try this salad with Triennes "Sainte Fleur" Viognier 2010, a light, refreshingly aromatic white wine that is dry and a bit floral.  See your wine guy at Spec's for assistance with this and any other wine needs.