Thursday, March 28, 2013

Lemonade special enough for a birthday

My friend and fellow food blogger South Austin Foodie celebrated her birthday today with a fabulous party at The Flying Carpet, a fun South Austin eatery that has both inside and outside dining spaces as well as some pretty terrific Moroccan food.  My favorite was the chicken, lemon and green olive tagine that hit all the right notes.

Part of what made this evening's revelry so much fun was meeting the bloggers behind some of the blogs I enjoy reading.  Kisses to Mad Betty and Girl Eats World, whom I spent the most time visiting with.  I so enjoyed our talk about professional gambling, the Myers-Briggs, fast vs. slow metabolisms, Indian food and career prostitution.  Thank you!

The other part of the fun was making a new cocktail in honor of South Austin Foodie's birthday.  I did what I normally do when I'm experimenting: I don't taste the finished product unless I have other people tasting with me.  And we all agreed Vindaloo's Moroccan Lemonade was delicious, fragrant, refreshing and fun to drink.  It's a great cocktail for warmer weather.  I'll be making it again.  And again.

Moroccan Lemonade

     This lemonade gets its pedigree and its Moroccan influences from orange flower water, which you can find at Fiesta Market or online.

1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup limoncello (or substitute citrus vodka and adjust sugar to taste)
1/2 cup vodka
1/2 cup sugar
4 1/2 tsp. orange flower water
cold seltzer water or club soda, about 32 oz.
1 lemon, sliced and seeded
fresh mint leaves

Combine lemon juice, limoncello, vodka and sugar in a large pitcher.  Stir until sugar is dissolved.  Add orange flower water and stir well.  Fill tumblers with ice.  Pour in enough lemonade mixture to fill the glass 3/4 full; add seltzer or club soda to fill glass.  Garnish with lemon slices and fresh mint leaves.  Makes six drinks.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Fennel, fig, almond, mascarpone

We're on the cusp of spring and I'm still psychologically stuck in winter.  Before it's too late, I want to share Fennel and Fig-Infused Vodka and Warm Mascarpone and Toasted Almond Spread.  If you get started now, you'll still have a few cool evenings to enjoy what I think are some inspired and sophisticated treats.

I've been playing with infused vodkas for quite some time and recently made a batch of this sipping vodka for a small Sunday afternoon soiree.  The fennel doesn't shine through as much as I would like, so next time, I'll bump up the flavor profile by adding some fennel seed, but the dried figs bring a gorgeous color and not-too-sweet honeyed quality that is perfect for sipping on the rocks or blending in your own inspired cocktails.

The warm, creamy toasted almond spread is lovely on its own, but it's pure magic with the fig essence in the vodka.  You can purchase mascarpone (which I find to be ridiculously expensive) or you can make your own very simply for a 24-hour time investment and about three dollars.

We enjoyed this rich, luscious spread on fresh fennel and the delightful Ines Rosales Savory Olive Oil Tortas.  Of course, crusty bread and other things would be great, but fresh fennel brought out the subtle fennel in the infused vodka and the savory tortas provided a great textural counterpoint.

Warm Mascarpone and Toasted Almond Spread
     Adapted from How Sweet It Is

6 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature (I used Neufchatel due to the fat content in the mascarpone)
6 oz. mascarpone, at room temperature
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste
1 cup sliced toasted almonds, divided

1.)  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2.)  In an oven-proof serving dish or crock, mix together the cream cheese, mascarpone, Parmesan, nutmeg, salt and pepper.
3.)  Stir in 1/2 cup almonds.
4.)  Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes.
5.)  Remove from oven, sprinkle with remaining almonds and serve with crackers, pita chips, or fresh fennel.
6.)  Makes about 2 cups.

May your tastebuds dance!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The moral dilemma of being a food snob

“The visionary lies to himself, the liar only to others.”
                                                                                    Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

I am the omnivore that Michael Pollan warned you about. 

I rarely eat locally produced foods.  I do not always eat organically grown foods.  I am passionate about non-GMO foods, but have found it is impossible to eat strictly non-GMO.  I occasionally eat junk food but will avoid farm-raised salmon because wild salmon just plain tastes better.  I will never be a vegan, nor a vegetarian (damn you, pigs!).  I tend to favor costly and rare ingredients that have been, at times, on the list of 10 most-wanted politcally incorrect foods. 

Do I need to be concerned about eating more locally and organically grown foods?  I'm sure it would benefit me and my local farmers.  Should I worry about genetically modified foods?  If I read and take the research seriously, then probably the answer is yes.  Should I feel guilty about eating junk food? Not being a vegan or a vegetarian?  Maybe.

And this is the lie I tell myself: I eat and drink what I do because I want to.  More importantly, I eat and drink what I do because I can.  I spend a great deal of my disposable income on food and wine and I feel very privileged that this kind of lifestyle is possible for me.  I can exercise a considerable amount of personal liberty where food choices are concerned.  I can select breakfast cereal, if I wish, from an aisle in the grocery store that is brimming with over 50 choices.  I can afford to eat in a totally decadent manner when I go on vacation.  And yes, I can proudly state that I am a food snob.  My vision is that I lead a bon vivant lifestyle, teetering romantically on the verge of financial hardship or world collapse, the moth flirting with the flame.  I am a near-catastrophe visionary, never saving for a rainy day and always pulling out all the stops.  I believe I live well because I eat well.

Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

But my food choices can cause me a great deal of internal struggle at times because I wonder if I am being irresponsible with food.  I am unabashedly fond of politically incorrect foods, of foods that involve large carbon footprints, of foods that are directly connected to the use and abuse of animals, and of foods that are far beyond the scope of what the mainstream is satisfied with.  And with all the polarizing rhetoric about what food will currently redeem my soul, I often feel confused about where my moral compass should point.

Photo from
Foie it.  Veal...osso bucco, piccata, saltimbocca, Oscar: it's all good.  Black truffles, white truffles, chocolate truffles...can't live without them.  Caviar of all types...a necessity.  Blood oranges, citron, kumquats, Rangpur limes...whenever I can get them.  Cheese of all kinds, from around the world: YES!  Duck prosciutto flown in from Washington State?  If I want it, yes.  Venuzelan chocolate--to die for.  Orange blossom water from Morocco--of course.  Doesn't everybody have orange blossom water in their pantries?  And anything that can be called pork: definitely.  Who wouldn't want to live without a regular dose of jamon Iberrico, along with wines from Spain, France, Italy, Argentina, Portugal, South Africa and the far-flung regions of the continental United States?  Not to mention single malt scotches from remote distilleries in the Hybrides, as well as Barbados rum, Jamaican allspice dram, British creme de violette, and other obscure liquors.

Unfortunately, my predilections also cause me some geographical anguish and time constraints because most of these items--except the most mainstream of pork products--are unavailable where I live.  So I drive to Austin in my older model gas-guzzling (and oversized) vehicle to reward myself, or I do a lot of mail order food shopping in order to quell my insatiability and the cosmopolitan appetites my beloved maternal grandfather inspired.

So what do my preferences tell you about my moral character?  What do they say about my consciousness as we watch food choices become more and more polarized?

You say "meat eater" like it's a bad thing. 

Presently, I live in an area that is woefully bereft of not only healthful, but even decently competent restaurants and eating establishments.  In a small town of less than 6000 in Central Texas (and as still technically part of the Austin SMSA), my town is graced with over a dozen Mexican restaurants, non of them remarkable, several BBQ joints (at least one or two are reportedly of lengendary fame), and couple of very disappointing places that attempt to provide "home cooking" or a "steakhouse atmosphere" or worse, Asian cuisine. We also have two major-chain pizza restaurants, and your standard fast food assortment.

But I didn't move here for the food.  I spend little time eating at restaurants in my town.  It is hard to eat out in my town for meals other than breakfast, since my palate demands excitement and my own cooking skills and reperatoire outshine that of the establishments in town.  And you can't call it braggin' if it ain't true.

But I'm also not a locavore, except for an occasional visit to my local farmer's market and dealings with my Egg Lady and the farmer that offers exceptional grass-fed beef.  And that is because it is a difficult task for me to eat locally, either by way of patronizing my local dining establishments, or, as Michael Pollan suggested, eating foods that have only been sourced locally.  But Mr. Pollan has had his critics

I have mine.  They have been among the family, friends and relationships that have objected to my food choices, remarked about my food snobbery, have been held hostage by my refusal to eat at certain restaurants, and have even kept quiet about my obvious contradictions.  And yet, I continue to do what I do: I eat and drink what I want, openly and honestly.  And I lie to myself that one day, I will be a better person if I could just eliminate foie gras from my list of favorite foods.

But that lie has also made it possible for gratitude to co-exist: I am so glad I don't live in California.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Two wines to drink now

I recently sampled some excellent, pocketbook-friendly wines I want to share: one rose and one red, both made with the varietal grenache noir.  I love this varietal for several reasons.  It is a component of one of my favorite styles of wine, Cotes du Rhone, a lovely, light, silky red that is spicy, fruity and soft.  The grenache grape also lends itself well to pale, lovely roses, especially those produced in the Provence region of France.  Provence tends to yield wines that are distinctive for their light, herbaceous and floral qualities.  Those roses, in my mind, are among the most delicious and elegant roses available.

You might think grenache has no backbone because as a stand-alone grape, it tends to lack color, tannins and acidity.  But grenache plays well with others, and it adds body and fruit, which round out other varietals in a blend.  The schist and granite soils that grenache thrives in also add a pleasing minerality, which provides depth and a smooth finish.  That minerality also makes grenache-based wines extremely food friendly.

In Central Texas, we are just about to turn the corner and get smacked upside the head with warm weather.  For my friends in parts north and east, there are still many inches of snow to go before a typically muddy spring arrives.  So for my Texas friends, drink the reds while you still can; the rose will carry you through the early summer, since by the time we are limp with heat exhaustion in July, you'll want a rose with a little extra fruity sweetness to quell the heat.  For my Yankee friends, buy a case of the red and quaff away.  You might be ready for the rose about June.

Photo credit: Martin Poole; CNN eatocracy

Commanderie de la Bargemone 2010 (France) offers classic aromas of wild strawberries and red currants, with a light, floral character and a crisp, bone-dry palate.  This wine is pale and apricot-colored in the glass and the nose is floral with fresh cut roses, orange blossom and strawberry.  The fruit is at first crisp and sharp, then melts into a structured softness bracketed by a soft minerality balanced by a nice amount of acid.  This is an elegant, structured wine and it amazes me that it cost only about $15 at your local Spec's.

Photo from Cellar Tracker
This wine pairs perfectly with a bouillabaisse, a classic, traditional seafood stew of Provence.  Try it with either Julia Child's recipe for Chicken Bouillabaisse which you can find reproduced by another blogger named Karen here (if you have the book Julia Child and Company, the original recipe is there on p.41) or with this seafood bouillabaisse recipe from the sadly now out-of-print Gourmet Magazine May of 2007 issue.  My favorite version is to make Julia's base without the chicken and sub seafood instead.  It's exquisitely lovely, perfumed with fennel, saffron and orange, and it melds with the rose very elegantly.  In any case, you should not miss out on making a lovely rouille, which adds even more depth and body to this already phenomenal dish.  Find Julia Child's recipe here, with another seafood bouillabaisse recipe as well from the same blogger mentioned previously.

The next wine, Domaine de Cabasse Cuvee Garnacho 2009 (France), made me fall in love with it on the first sip.  Rich, full of spices and fruit and beautifully aged in French oak, this wine has a seductive quality that made me want to drink it all up immediately.  Approximately $18 per bottle, Domaine de Cabasse is charming and opens beautifully.  Black cherry, leather, spice and nougat enchant while you sip.  This intensely garnet-colored Cotes-du-Rhone is superbly structured and very satisfying.  We enjoyed this wine with a braised beef and green olive dish served alongside oven-roasted potatoes.  It was a heavenly combination.  Find the recipe here

Happy sipping!


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

When Spain met France by way of Mexico...

...they had a threesome and fell in love.

Great food is sensual.  It can be earthy, rustic and comfortingly familiar in its sensuality, it can grab you by the short hairs and make you crave it, drool for it.  It can interrupt your thoughts during the day, commandeer your tastebuds with an explosion of flavor, and make you lust for it in the middle of another meal.  Or it can romance you and seduce you, leaving you misty-eyed and a little sad that the affair is now over.  The best food can deliver all three experiences to you at one time, something that even a good lover would find an exhausting challenge.

Although I would welcome stories about your experiences, if you care to divulge.

Mexico has always charmed me with its chiles and chocolate.  Tease me with something fiery, then romance me with rich, dark chocolate, and you'll successfully stimulate all my dopamine receptors AND give me a big endorphin rush.  I will always believe that an expertly-made mole negro is waaaay better than sex.  Just ask my husband, the budding food critic.

I love the food culture of Spain as well.  It has its own mystery and richness.  Rustic, earthy, full-flavored foods fill the Spanish table, as well as oranges from Seville, Marcona almonds and that fabulous nougat made from honey and almonds known as turron.  Spain delivers big flavors and impressive, memorable foods.  Who can forget a gorgeous shellfish-studded paella?  When has jamon Iberico disappointed?

French cuisine, on the other hand, seems to have built its lofty reputation on subtlety and sophistication.  The French like to compose a dish of flavors and components that are married elegantly together.  It is a glorious alchemy; the result of wringing every last drop of flavor from the ingredients.  It is not enough for the French to simply combine cooked rice with a few herbs and some other things and call it "dinner."  The rice must first be cooked in a broth that is the product of reducing water and something like roasted bones, shells or peelings, along with some salt and herbs, and then enhanced with a little dry white wine.  Then the warm, flavor-infused rice is combined with onions, shallots or garlic (or any combination of same) that have been cooked gently in fat--either olive oil, butter or bacon fat (or any combination of same).  Then you would add some salt and pepper.  And some fresh herbs.  And some freshly grated Parmesan cheese.  And some egg yolks or cream.  And sometimes some fresh bread crumbs.  And of course, more cream.

And then you would use this lovely rice mixture for stuffing any number of things (although the rice is so delicious it might not make it into the cavity of anything but the large one in your face), like hollowed-out vegetables or hens or rabbits or eels.  And then you would put more cheese and bread crumbs on top and roast whatever you had stuffed.  And while you are roasting, you would baste with some of the same broth that infused the rice and some more dry white wine.  And then whatever you had been roasting would be eaten with a glass of good French wine and perhaps little else.  And what you had roasted would taste like nothing else you had ever tasted.  And it would be meltingly tender.  And your house would be perfumed for several hours afterward with the aromas of your efforts, rather like the scent of your lover lingering on your bed linens.  Lingering with you like the remnants of a dream.

Get the picture?  The French know how to make love to food.  Or rather, they know how to make food make love to those who eat it.

This past weekend, my friend Bill the Wine Guy and I teamed up again for another afternoon of wine and food pairings for friends who gather around The Voluptuous Table.  Bill always does a great job of picking wines that are affordable and really delicious. 

Bill picked grenache noir as the varietal for this tasting, which made it very easy to find foods that would sing in concert with the wine.  We enjoyed sipping, tasting and discussing all things wine and food (as we always do; see the complete menu here), but the point in the afternoon that brought complete silence to the table was the combination of a Spanish Garnacha and a "fusion dish" of Spanish, Mexican and French flavors that belted out the Hallelujah Chorus.


This was the wine, Santo Cristo Seleccion Garnacha 2009, full of wild raspberries, vanilla and a spice finish without any traces of oak.  This wine is made from old-vine grenache.  It is a lovely bottle, the fruit and tannins beautifully balanced, for about $10 or so; ask your wine guy at your local Spec's to help you find it.

And this was the dish, a Poblano pepper, stuffed with Provencale-style creamy, aromatic rice, roasted in the oven with bread crumbs and feather-grated Manchego cheese, then topped with a rustic rouille that was adapted from a Provencale recipe, but tweaked in the direction of Spain with a little sherry vinegar. 

The rouille.  Which, incidentally, tastes good on just about everything.

Smoky, garlicky, creamy, sophisticated and addictive, these rice-filled peppers are great dinner party food.  Serve with a Spanish rioja, or a red wine that is dry, fruit-forward and not too oaky.

Roasted Poblanos with Provencale-Style Rice Filling and Rouille

4 poblano peppers, cut in half lengthwise and seeds removed (make sure pepper halves can lie flat on the baking sheet)
2 slices thick bacon, finely chopped
1 small onion (or substitute shallots), finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup warm rice, cooked in a broth of your choice and a little dry white wine
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
6 leaves fresh basil or any fresh herbs of your choosing, finely chopped (or substitute 1 tsp. dried herbs)
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 to 1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
smoked paprika

Rouille (recipe follows)

1.)  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2.)  Lay the poblano pepper halves on a baking sheet and set aside.
3.)  In a skillet heated to medium-low, gently cook the diced bacon and onion together.  The idea is to render the fat from the bacon and cook the onions without browning.  This should take you about 8 to 10 minutes.
4.)  Stir the garlic into the bacon-onion mixture and cook for another minute or two, just enough to blend the flavors.
5.)  In a medium bowl (or directly in the skillet you are using), combine the bacon-onion-garlic mixture with the rice, stirring gently until all is well-blended.  Let cool slightly.
6.)  Now add half the Parmesan cheese, the fresh herbs, the salt and pepper and enough cream to bind the mixture together moistly, rather like the consistency of a meatloaf.
7.)  Divide the rice mixture evenly among the pepper halves.  I like to use a small scoop for neatness and ease.
8.)  Sprinkle each pepper half with bread crumbs, dividing evenly, then with the remaining Parmesan cheese.
9.)  Sprinkle each pepper half with a generous amount of smoked paprika.
10.)  Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until peppers are soft and topping is melted and slightly crisped.  Serve with rouille (see procedure below).  Serves 4.

Rouille (for 4 very generous servings):  With a mortar and pestle, or carefully in a food processor or blender, coarsely crush one jar of drained roasted red peppers with 4 cloves of garlic and a good amount of kosher salt.  You want a coarse, rustic texture.  Now, with a whisk, begin drizzling in some good-quality olive oil (about 1/3 to 1/2 cup), beating until you have a thick-ish sauce-like consistency.  Season to taste with some cayenne pepper (rouille should be spicy), and more salt if needed.  Stir in a generous pinch of saffron if you have it in your pantry.  You can also add an egg yolk for a richer consistency and taste if you'd like.  Then stir in a handful or two of fresh bread crumbs to give it some body, and 1 to 2 tsp. sherry vinegar.  Serve immediately or chill for use by the next day.  If the rouille is too thick after chilling, thin it with a few drops of hot water.