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Thomas The Accidental Gourmet

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Giving Away the Sangria--Free Milk and a Cow

The first time I had sangria was on a beach in France when I was 15. Fruity, fortified wine, topless women, sand, the Mediterranian sea...what's not to love about that? I've been a fan of sangria ever since.

If you've had sangria bought in the store...I'm sorry for you. You should know better. Mine's better, but it's a bit dangerous. When we first bought our home, we had an open house, and I caught my neighbor trying to serve some to his grandson (he thought it was punch). Be warned if you serve this at a party: you'll likely end up with people sleeping on your lawn.

All I've got to say is that those of you that read this better not start skipping my parties, and give credit where it's due when you serve it. :)

Oh, and as a bonus, a little cranberry drink I blended up last night.


10 liters medium body red wine--I usually use Franzia boxed. One box of their "chillable red" and one of Chianti.
About 1/2 - 3/4 liters gold rum (Cruzan works great)
1/2 bottle blue curacao
1 large can frozen orange juice (plus the water to make OJ)
Sugar to taste (err on the side of "not quite sweet enough" until you've let it sit for a couple of hours)
Add thinly-sliced and quartered oranges & limes, plus red grapes.
Let sit overnight (preferably where your dog can't get to it)

Add ice just prior to serving (obviously, enough to make it cold). We often serve this at Halloween, so we use dry ice for the "double, double, toil and trouble" effect.

Holiday Daiquiri

OK, technically it's not a daiquiri since it doesn't have any rum or lime in it. But it's a lot easier to say "holiday daiquiri" than "frozen cranberry cocktail and cognac with spices," plus it just sounds better.

1/4 blender ice
1/2 blender frozen cranberry sauce (preferably some made with oranges). And if it's from a can, please turn in your apron, along with the remaining dregs of your pride, and exit the building.
1/8 blender cognac or brandy
1/8 (or so) blender sprite (or similar)
2 Tbsp. cardamon
1 Tbsp. cinnamon

Blend. Drink. Be merry.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Southwestern Ribollita

As Thanksgiving fades and Christmas approaches, we're all filled with the same feelings: "What in the *@!#*! am I going to do with more turkey leftovers?" Let's face it: turkey sandwiches lose their shine after two or three, and there's only so much turkey tetrazzini you can pack away before you really don't want any more.

When Jenn and I went to Italy, on our second day we discovered a soup called "ribollita." In a nutshell, it's a hearty soup with a lot of bread in it that has been boiled twice. Like a lot of soups, it's a way to get rid of some leftovers, and it's stone soup at the same time--you add those fresh ingredients you think will make your soup better (if you don't know what stone soup is, google it).

Well, a couple of days ago we were trying to figure out what to do with a few leftovers: turkey, cornbread dressing, gravy and black bean dip we had made, plus a few vegetables that were past their prime. I'm quite pleased with the way this turned out. Frankly, it doesn't have the "leftover" feel to it that turkey tetrazzini does. I'd almost expect to see something like this at a new American cuisine restaurant.

Southwestern Ribollita

32-48 oz. Chicken Broth
2 Poblanos, diced
Leftover smoked turkey (if you don't have smoked turkey, roast the poblanos in a skillet, and you might want to try about 1/4 tsp liquid hickory smoke, but don't over-do it...add 1/8 tsp at a time)
2 medium potatoes
2-3 tomatoes, peeled & diced
3-4 carrots, chopped
1/2 red onion, chopped
4 celery stalks, chopped
Leftover cornbread dressing (if you don't have it, make a little cornbread WITHOUT sugar)--don't add more than two cups, crushed
1 clove garlic, minced
1 lime
6 sprigs cilantro (for soup and garnish)
2 tsp. Cumin
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tbps. Oregano
8-10 grinds of black pepper
1 can corn
1/4 cup olive oil
1 Avocado
Grated monterrey jack cheese
1 cup pureed black beans--we actually used black bean dip, which has sherry, cumin, shallots, garlic: but if you don't make the bean dip, add:
(1 tsp sherry)

What to do with it:

Sautee your hard veggies (poblano, onion, carrots and potatoes) in olive oil until the onions are translucent, then add the celery and sautee until the potatoes are relatively soft, but still firm.

Squeeze in 1/2 the lime and add everything EXCEPT the avocado, the cheese and the dressing (or cornbread). Cover with lid, boil, then simmer (still covered) 30-45 minutes.

Add the dressing, and bring to a boil again. Simmer another 15-30 minutes.

Dish up into bowls, squeeze a bit of lime juice, add a slice of avocado, a sprinkle of cheese and a couple cilantro leaves. You might also throw a tortilla chip or two into the soup for presentation purposes, or a corn pone if you've made cornbread.

Serve with a granache wine (we used a spanish wine, Las Rocas de San Alejandro: Garnacha, 2006 vintage)

Saturday, December 6, 2008

My Dinner With Nana

For our anniversary, Jenn and I ate at Nana in Dallas. I'm glad we did: the chef was very experimental, and we had a lot of flavors we wouldn't normally have tried. I don't think I'll ever go back.

A problem that a lot of chefs have is that they focus on a process, or an ingredient, and they forget that ultimately we eat food because we like the way it tastes. Good food with a gimmick is just that: Good food. With a gimmick. It's not great food, and it's not enough to make you want to go back again and again. Unfortunately, at least that night, the chef was so concentrated on pushing boundaries and being clever that he lost focus on making food that tasted great. And what could have been one or two surprising and exciting courses became a tedious and overwrought meal.

We enjoy ordering chef's pairing meals because it forces us to go outside of our normal favorites, so we did just that: seven courses with wine pairings.

There were a couple of bright spots on the menu. The beginning and the end. The meal started with squares of "tuna tartar" (in other restaurants, known as "sashimi"). The twist was a bit of watermelon, which initially sounded a bit odd, but added a nice balance to the other flavors. The surprise was that the tuna and the watermelon were about the same size and color, so you never knew what you were going to get. I enjoyed it. From there, things got...interesting.

The next item was day boat scallops with celery "root beer" puree (more like foam) and maple syrup. On the plus side, the scallops were perfectly cooked. On the down side, I don't know if there was actual root beer in the foam or not, but it certainly tasted like it. In case you're wondering, root beer foam and scallops tastes as bad as it sounds.

The third offering was veal sweetbreads on cauliflower couscous with prawns on the side. The "couscous" was imaginative and complemented the richness of the sweetbreads, which were really good. And normally, I'm not a fan of sweetbreads. Rather than being fried, they were grilled, exceptionally rich, and perfectly cooked. Now the prawns...they were an afterthought on the plate for the non-sweetbread fan, that showed a lack of confidence by the chef, and simply didn't go with the rest of the dish.

The sweetbreads , followed by "snickered" foie gras and then pork belly, were the first of a trio of rich, fatty dishes with nothing to separate or cut them. I couldn't tell you if the pork belly was any good or not because by the time I was two bites into it, my mouth felt as if it had been coated by lard, and not from the fat of the pork belly (which was not crispy, and so if not bad was at least undercooked). We actually requested passion fruit sorbet instead of the next scheduled dish to try to cleanse our palate a bit prior to dessert.

I have to go back to the foie gras: chocolate, caramel, peanuts and foie gras instead of nougat. This was a daring dish. It tasted good. The chef didn't know if it was a dessert or main course, as the waiter readily shared with us. Neither did I, but in between sweetbreads and pork belly it was misplaced and confusing. Furthermore, the foie gras was whipped (I guess you can't make a foam out of foie gras) and had been squeezed through a pastry bag so that it made a little mound that reminded me of a cross between soft serve ice cream and a novelty toy that imitates a bodily substance not fit for discussion in polite company: it was off-putting.

In all, the food was imaginative and well cooked. The wine pairings were generally decent, although nothing knocked it out of the park for me. The food pushed us outside of our normal box. However, the menu was not well thought through, and several of the dishes seemed to be accompanied by an apology or excuse. Ultimately, Nana is not a restaurant I would recommend.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Getting Sauced

A few years ago, my wife requested a red currant sauce to go with some venison we were cooking. After about 30 minutes, I had what can only be described as an utter failure. It was tart. Among other things. Fortunately, I hadn't started cooking the venison. So, a few teaspoons of molasses, some tomato paste, and a few spices later, and I had red currant barbecue sauce. Talk about accidental gourmet! Grilled venison with red currant barbecue sauce: it doesn't get any more accidental than that.

The problem is that sauces are a bit scary. Or are they? Have you ever made gravy for biscuits and sausage in the morning? If so, you've made an integral sauce.

I believe that integral sauces are the easiest way to get into making sauce and gain some confidence. Basically, an integral sauce uses either drippings or fond (the stuff stuck to the bottom of the pan when you've braised meat) and some sort of liquid. To that, you can add spices, thickener (flour or corn starch, for instance), onions, mushrooms...

So, here's a simple sauce for steak.

Start with a pan-seared steak. Prior to cooking your steak, mince half a shallot and 4-5 mushroom caps. Cut a lemon in half. If you've got some fresh oregano, prep about 1 tsp. (pull the leaves off the stem and mince them); otherwise use dried.

While the steak is cooking, sautee the shallots and mushrooms in a little olive oil.

Once your steak is almost done, pull it up and place it on a plate in the oven on "warm." Add 1 cup liquid directly to the pan you just pulled the steak out of. Try 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup wine (use the wine you're going to drink with the steak). Throw in the shallots, mushrooms, oregano, a few dashes of pepper and salt, squeeze in some lemon, and then scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spatula. Turn the heat up to medium-high. Keep cooking until you've boiled away about 2/3 of the liquid, occasionally scraping the bottom of the pan. Take a quick taste to make certain you don't need any more salt or acid, pull your steak out of the oven, and ladle on a little sauce.

Once you're comfortable with something simple like this, branch out. Add some corn starch to thicken it up. Add a little yogurt or sour cream to make it creamier. Throw in some butter to make it richer. Experiment. The worst thing that can happen is that you don't end up using your sauce.