Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Running Into Aldi, Literally

In case you missed it, Aldi has blueberries on sale for $1.19 a pint.  I don't know the current price in your neck of the woods, but here that is really cheap.  The sale lasts until July 6.  I bought them Sunday, and they are sweet and juicy.

While in the store, you might want to pick up a tasty German coffee.  Let me preface this by saying that we are coffee freaks, try tons of different coffee, and usually order Italian coffee by the case online. We prefer mild coffee for everyday consumption, so if you are a fan of strong brew you might not care for this one, but it is available in other strengths too.  It is Grandessa Signature German Coffee, mild roast.  It's an incredible value at $3.99 for 17.6 oz.

Now if only Aldi would relocate to a safer shopping center where I don't feel the need to run from my car into the store (loathsome!), and where I don't get approached by sketchy people begging for money while I load my trunk (downer and sometimes scary).   Referring to my Aldi runs, Hubmeister has looked at me incredulously, asking, "Is it really worth it?"  Hey man, the coffee's good. 

Attention, Aldi shoppers, let me know your favorite food find at that store.  I know you're out there.  Remember, you can comment anonymously. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Bernini: A Happy Marriage of Art and Food

After running five miles yesterday morning in what only could have been 100 percent humidity, I did what every diet guru tells you not to do:  I rewarded myself with food.  Hubmeister invited me to lunch and had me choose the restaurant.  I picked Bernini, one of my favorite Ybor City haunts.

Housed in an historic bank building, Bernini exudes the Roman charm of its namesake, Giovanni Bernini, a 17th-century Italian sculptor, architect and painter.  Prints and sculptures attributed to this influential Baroque artist peer down at you while you savor the mouthwatering sights, smells and tastes emerging from the laudable kitchen.  

Here is Bernini's David, ready to pounce on my pasta:

The two-story setting features an attractive full-liquor bar running the length of the first floor, with tables and a wood-burning pizza oven comprising the remaining space.  Plenty of windows usher in natural light, as well as the lively street scenes of  Ybor City.  And lively is a mild word to describe Ybor at night.  Upstairs seating also is available, and Hubmeister, who went snooping on the second floor on another occasion, informed me that they have transformed an old bank vault into wine cellar-type storage.

Sitting at our table, staring longingly at that pizza oven (see it at the far end of the bar?), I was tempted to try the pizza, but opted for the pescatore, a pasta dish to which I gravitate.  It's hard to resist seafood and linguine dressed in a red clam sauce.

Served tongue-burning hot, right off the stove, this dish features the heavenly combination of linguine, shrimp, fish, clams and mussels.  The zesty clam sauce had just the right amount of garlic and pepper to complement the seafood.  If we hadn't already demolished the fresh Italian bread, which was accompanied by a saucer of rich, basil-infused olive oil, I would have sopped up every last drop of that savory sauce.  There wasn't much seafood left, either.  The shrimp was plump and succulent, the mussels tasty, the clams tender, and the fish, well, it was salmon.   I would have preferred a white fish, but the rest of the dish made up for it. 

The photo below is my meal in progress.  It looked much prettier when it first arrived at the table.

Hubmeister raved about his selection, Jason's Favorite Pasta.  This offering featured angel hair pasta tossed in a marinara sauce of garlic, basil, olive oil and Parmesan.  A typical sauce, this one was distinguishable by a pleasing hint of sweetness.  He added the optional chicken, which was unnecessary and unfortunately, overcooked. 

In addition to pasta, lunch offerings include appetizers, sandwiches, salads and creatively topped pizza.  Although the eatery had a sparse crowd on this visit, Bernini usually bustles with activity, especially at night.  The dinner menu features such classic Italian favorites as osso buco, veal lasagna and a killer veal chop.

Service is friendly and efficient.  Servers wear shirts emblazoned with the saying, "Where Taste Is a Matter of Art."  At Bernini, I delight in both, making it worth every huff and puff of that grueling morning jog.

Restaurant Info:
Bernini of Ybor
1702 East 7th Avenue

Bernini on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cooking Up the Produce

Remember all that produce I bought last week?  As of last night, I still had several tomatoes, a couple of cucumbers and an eggplant, which I couldn't let go to waste.  I didn't have much time to make dinner, so I got out pork chops for the hubmeister to grill, and I prepared a tomato, cucumber and Vidalia onion salad.   Hubmeister doesn't care much for eggplant but he likes stuff fried, so I marched to the bookshelves and pulled out Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. 

Nobody makes eggplant like the Italians, and she has the best eggplant Parmesan recipe going, in my humble opinion.  That's another post.  In her book, fried eggplant is the entry before that extraordinary Parmesan recipe, and fried eggplant sounded good. 

On to the recipe.  She said you should peel the eggplant first, and why question Marcella, but, of course, I took a shortcut and left the skin on.  I got the oil piping hot in my electric skillet, cranking it up all the way to 450 degrees, then dropped in a couple of slices at a time.  A few minutes later, they were golden and draining on  paper towels.  Hubmeister asked me if we were going to dip them in ranch dressing.  No!  There was no dipping them anyway because they were too tender.  I think I would have liked these better if I had breaded them in seasoned bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese, which, I later discovered, is actually a variation of Marcella's recipe for breaded eggplant cutlets.  Breading them would have added a crispy element and additional flavor.

One thing I noticed about Marcella's eggplant recipes is that she often slices the eggplant lengthwise, and then salts the pieces, allowing the liquid to drain off for about 30 minutes before patting them dry and frying them. This is what she calls purging the eggplant of its harshness. 

Why no skin?  It is stringy, bitter and generally unpleasant, but it slipped right off.   Eggplant is so spongelike that I don't know how you could fry it and not have a somewhat greasy result, but surely Marcella could convince me otherwise, and I erred somehow in following her recipe.   I was spared a loathing moment because this dish was still edible.   Hubmeister snuck some creamy dressing onto his portion.

Enough about the eggplant.  I feel I owe you a recipe that I like, and it's the tomato salad.  This takes 10 minutes to prepare and is a delicious way to use those summer tomatoes adorning your kitchen counter.

Tomato, Vidalia Onion and Cucumber Salad
(Inspired by Tomatoes Lutece in Gulfshore Delights)

8 ripe tomatoes, cut in eighths
1 Vidalia onion, sliced thin
1-2 cucumbers, sliced down the middle and then sliced in half moons
1/4 C fresh parsley, chopped

For the dressing:
1/4 C olive oil
2 T red wine vinegar
2 tsp. prepared yellow mustard
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 garlic clove, minced

Combine tomatoes, onion, cucumber and parsley.  Mix dressing ingredients with a whisk and pour over tomatoes.  Refrigerate 30 minutes to allow flavors to blend.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Cravin' Some Craisin Scones

When the buttermilk in the fridge is nearing its expiration date, it's time to make scones. 

I stumbled upon this recipe a few months ago and the family really liked it.  I throw in craisins instead of raisins. You could probably use any dried fruit and get the same satisfying results.  Many scone recipes contain eggs and cream, but I was searching for one that was less indulgent.

Scones and biscuits are simple once you get a feel for the dough.  The trick, which I learned through painful trial and error (loathing alert!), is not overworking the dough, handling it gently. 

When I lived in Georgia, I asked my sweet neighbor Angela, an outstanding cook in a neighborhood full of good cooks, for some biscuit advice.  She said her mother could whip up a batch of biscuits in minutes and all she used was the recipe on the Martha White Flour bag. Well, boy howdy (as they say in the South), that's what I did and it was the first batch of biscuits I ever made that couldn't be used as hockey pucks.  Her other useful tip was to pat the dough with your hands instead of rolling it out.  I apply that same advice to scones.  Angela, if you ever read this, thanks. 

Hot Raisin Scones
(from Southern Living Christmas Cookbook)

2 C all-purpose flour
2 T baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
2 T sugar
1 tsp grated lemon zest
1/2 C cold butter or margarine (I use unsalted butter)
1/2 C raisins (craisins, dried cranberries or other dried fruit; I use a bit more)
3/4 C buttermilk

Combine first 6 ingredients in a bowl.  Cut in butter until mixture is crumbly, using a pastry blender.  Add raisins, tossing lightly.  Add buttermilk, stirring until dry ingredients are moistened.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead lightly 6 times.  Divide dough in half.  Shape each portion into a 7-inch circle on an ungreased baking sheet; cut each circle into six wedges. 

Bake at 425 degrees 10-15 minutes.  In my oven, they are golden, with a slight brown tinge, at 12 minutes.  Cool on wire racks.  Scones are best when eaten fresh, but these are fine the next day if zapped in the microwave for a few seconds.  From start to finish, you will be enjoying these scones within 25 minutes.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Real Jersey Subs at Subport

With all the hoopla surrounding "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" and the cast of clowns from "Jersey Shore," it's almost embarrassing to admit that I spent many summers of my childhood vacationing in New Jersey.  Unlike the scripted scenes enacted by classless degenerates in these lame shows, my Jersey experience included playing miniature golf and riding my bike to the boardwalk, five-and-ten, and Tasty Freeze, all neatly situated in the wholesome beach community of Avalon.

Among my fondest Jersey food memories are La Rosa's subs.  Although I was just a little kid, I still remember how excited my brothers and sisters and I got when my parents brought home those Italian torpedoes of goodness.  It explains why I now feel compelled to try any sandwich shop proclaiming to serve them.  

I did just that on a recent visit to Subport.  Although I passed this place on numerous occasions, I never managed to stop - until last weekend. 

Talk about hitting the nail on the head, these subs were just as I remember.  To me, the defining ingredient in a Jersey sub are the onions.  Sliced extremely thin, they are soft and pliable with a subtle flavor and slight bite.  Their natural flavor gets a boost with the sub's second distinguishing feature:  a simple dressing of olive oil and a splash of red wine vinegar.  That's it.  Neither mayonnaise nor mustard should mask the taste of the freshly sliced cold cuts, provolone, tomato and shredded lettuce.  Seasonings are limited to salt, pepper and oregano.  The bread, also key, is soft on the outside yet still chewy inside.

Ordered "all the way," my Number 5 sub had all the right stuff, and giant is not an exaggeration.  This is half a sub, cut in half  (sorry about the bites - couldn't help myself!).  The Giant Jersey version is 16 inches long.

According to the owner I spoke with, the outstanding bread is baked fresh at a local bakery, and the cold cuts are ordered from the same vendors they have used for 30 years - roast beef from Philadelphia and hams from Massachusetts.  She said the founder -- her partner -- is a USF graduate who opened the original Subport in 1979 near USF.  He saw a need for a sub shop like those he frequented while living in New Jersey.  As the neighborhood around USF deteriorated, he eventually moved the business to its current Carrollwood strip mall location at the corner of Ehrlich Road and Dale Mabry Highway.

Quirky and comfortable, this mom-and-pop sandwich shop is peppered with an eclectic mix of newspaper clippings, nautical accents and personal collections.  The deli cases and stacks of newspapers and magazines scattered about remind me of a neighborhood bagel shop, a perfect dine-alone spot for a cheap, quick bite.  They also sell ice cream and, for whatever reason, bagged ice.  What a find!

Restaurant Info:
14932 N. Dale Mabry Highway

Sub Port Giant New Jersey on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Recipe Gem from Tampa Treasures

After treating my father-in-law to sauerbraten and crumb cake (see previous posts), the pressure was on to come up with a gratifying Father's Day meal honoring the "World's Greatest Dad" in our house.  I picked up a few New York strip steaks at The Fresh Market and whipped up a chocolate peanut butter pie. I grilled the steaks and they were flavorful, but the star of this dinner was dessert.

Randomly pulling a cookbook off the shelf, I leafed through the Tampa Junior League's Tampa Treasures, a beautifully photographed cookbook I bought when I lived in Tampa in the early '90s.  I landed on this recipe because it's a million degrees outside and a chilled pie sounded refreshing; my husband loves peanut butter and just about anything with a graham cracker crust; and it contains chocolate.  Sounded like a winner to me. 

Considering it was the first time I made this recipe and I didn't screw it up, I thought you might like to make it this summer for the peanut butter lovers in your life.  The only thing I did differently was add shaved dark chocolate to the top.  You must prepare it ahead, so plan accordingly.  Also, if you don't have a double boiler, which I don't, just put the chocolate in a stainless steel bowl over a pan of simmering water, or melt it slowly in the microwave.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie

1 C graham cracker crumbs
3/4 C lightly salted peanuts, coarsely chopped
3/4 stick butter, melted
1/4 C sugar
6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate (I used 1/2 bag of chocolate chips)
3 ounces sour cream, room temperature
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 C sifted powder sugar
1 3/4 C heavy cream, divided
1 C smooth peanut butter
2 T vanilla extract

Night before:  Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Combine crumbs, peanuts, sugar and butter; press into a 9-inch pie pan or springform pan.  Bake 7 minutes; cool.  Melt chocolate in top of double boiler over warm water; thoroughly beat in sour cream.  Pour chocolate mixture into crust; smooth; chill.  Beat cream cheese and powdered sugar until light and fluffy.  Add 1/4 cup cream, peanut butter and vanilla, combining well.

In chilled bowl with clean beaters, beat remaining cream until soft peaks form.  Stir one-third of cream into peanut butter mixture; gently, but thoroughly, fold in remaining cream.  Fill pie shell; refrigerate overnight.  Serve chilled.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Sushi Fix: Sushi Tsu

When my husband and son took off for a sports tournament last weekend, I found myself calling for takeout. Knowing I should give other sushi restaurants a chance, I couldn't resist phoning Sushi Tsu in New Tampa. Like watching old episodes of "Seinfeld," you know it will always be good.

Sushi Tsu never disappoints. We have dined at the bar a couple of times and brought takeout home on several occasions, including a huge spread for a day-after-Thanksgiving extravaganza two years running. I hadn't been there in a while and was surprised to see some refreshing changes to the interior. They have painted and moved things around a bit, relocating the hostess station and making the entrance more welcoming. They also are revamping the sushi menu, and when I requested one, the hostess said it was so new that the prices weren't on it yet. She presented me with a list that includes more than a dozen new creations, including the intriguing sweet potato and banana split rolls.

I ordered the spicy, crunchy tuna roll (above, top) and the dynamite roll, both listed as house specialties. The tuna roll, consisting of spicy tuna, tempura chips and smelt roe, delivered a fresh, crunchy bite. The dynamite roll was a rich mouthful of avocado, cucumber, scallion, onion, conch and salmon baked with spicy cream sauce. Aptly named, the dynamite roll exploded with flavor. The rice in both rolls tasted exceptionally fresh and was just above room temperature, which I found lovely, but I guess many debate the correct temperature for sushi rice.

The only bad part of this meal was watching it disappear as I wolfed down every tasty morsel. While I relished each bite and pondered the exacting skill required of a sushi chef, I vowed to stop for sushi more often. Let me know your favorite Tampa sushi hangout.

Restaurant Info:
Sushi Tsu Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar
15363 Amberly Drive
Tampa, FL

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Cake That's Anything But Crummy

Oh, the Barefoot Contessa...if only I could be one of those lucky friends of hers, feasting on Jeffrey's favorite roast chicken in that amazing house in the Hamptons! Guess I'll have to settle for the delicious recipes she creates.

Case in point: Blueberry Crumb Cake

I've made it four times in the past six weeks using my surplus of blueberries. Perfect with a cup of coffee, this little beauty is moist, and the crumbs are plentiful.

Crumb cake is popular in New York and, according to my good friend Ina (of course, the friend part is a figment of my imagination) and my native New Yorker relatives, including my husband, the key to a good crumb cake is in the mountain of crumbs on top. Pile 'em on!

Here is Ina Garten's recipe:

Streusel (The Crumb Part)
1/4 C granulated sugar
1/3 C light brown sugar, lightly packed
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
1 1/3 C all-purpose flour

6 T. (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 C granulated sugar
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. grated lemon zest
2/3 C sour cream
1 1/4 C all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 C fresh blueberries
confectioner's sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-inch round baking pan.

For the streusel, combine the granulated sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a bowl. Stir in the melted butter and then the flour. Mix well and set aside.

For the cake, cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on high speed for 4 to 5 minutes, until light. Reduce the speed to low and add the eggs one at a time, then add the vanilla, lemon zest, and sour cream. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture to the batter until just combined. Fold in the blueberries and stir with a spatula to be sure the batter is completely mixed.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and spread it out with a knife. With your fingers, crumble the topping evenly over the batter. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool completely and serve sprinkled with confectioner's sugar.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Father's Day Sauerbraten

Yesterday I was up to my elbows in sauerbraten, red cabbage and crumb cake.

Last year I discovered my father-in-law is crazy about sauerbraten. Who knew? I made it on a whim and he's been talking about it ever since. This was the obvious Father's Day entree choice. After tackling most of the meal in the morning, I packed it up and drove to Punta Gorda for an early Father's Day celebration.

Sauerbraten is not a dish you see every day. If you are unfamiliar with it, it imparts a sweet and sour tang. Eye-of-round roast marinates overnight in a mixture of red wine vinegar, water, onion, cloves, peppercorns and bay leaves, plus or minus some chopped celery and carrot. It simmers on the stove for several hours and is served with gingersnap gravy.

My aunt was known for it. If you were going to Aunt Betty's for a family get-together, chances were pretty good she would be serving sauerbraten. I don't remember ever tasting it because my mother assured us we hated it. Awesome Aunt Betty must have known this was an acquired taste because she always had a meatball sub backup plan for the "sour beef" haters.

Food is a peculiar thing. It satisfies in multiple ways by satiating hunger, elevating mood, promoting good health, mentally transporting us to places we have been and rekindling memories of people we cherish. My father-in-law told me his loving, departed wife made this dish for him. I like to think the distinct taste and aroma of this German meal conjure up sweet memories of her, just as they remind me of a special aunt.

If you can't decide what to cook this Father's Day, consider a sentimental favorite.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Forbes Road Produce

When it comes to buying fruits and vegetables, it's not the sign that counts.

It's taken me almost three years of living in Tampa to find a great fruit and vegetable stand. Sure, there are small roadside stands and people selling tomatoes from the back of pickups, but Forbes Road Produce stands alone in price, variety and hard-working family atmosphere.
I discovered this unassuming business a couple months back when I decided to make strawberry preserves. If you live around here, you know Plant City is the strawberry capital of Florida. Where better to get your berries than straight from the source? I drove out to farm country, which is 20 minutes or so from my house, and couldn't believe the flats of juicy red strawberries, and the price I was paying for them. I have been buying my produce from Forbes Road ever since, and they offer an incredible variety.

For $33, here's today's catch:

Look at these tomatoes for $2.50 a basket:

They also sell plants:

Another produce business sits directly across the street and I have visited that one also. It looks more polished, but I prefer the grit of Forbes Road. It's easy to find. Going east on I-4, take the Branch Forbes Road exit and turn right. It's right off the interstate.

UPDATE 2012:  Please scroll down and note my comment. Way to go, Forbes Road!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Blueberry Nirvana

I woke up one Saturday morning a few weeks ago with a wild hair to go pick blueberries. It all started the previous day when a friend and I stopped by Keel and Curley Winery in Plant City and discovered it was hosting the Tampa Bay Blueberry Festival.

It just so happens this winery produces blueberry wine and boasts acres of hearty blueberry bushes. Blueberry wine is something unfamiliar to me, but Keel and Curley has a lovely tasting bar housed in what seems to be a new building stocked with the fruits of their labor. Our palates did not appreciate the sweetness of this wine, but yours might. We did like the slushy-type frozen drink they offered in mango or blueberry flavors. They warned us it's loaded with alcohol. Pool party! On our way out, we picked up a promotional postcard advertising U-pick blueberries as part of the festival activities.

The next day was blueberry-picking day. I drove out to the winery, which is located a short distance off I-4 in Plant City, and merged into festival traffic. Wow! I didn't realize this event would draw such a crowd. After spending a half-hour in a line of cars waiting to park, I entered the wonderful world of blueberries. As I headed to the fields, I passed a line of fellow pickers waiting to check out. This wasn't just any line. It rivaled the lines for a new roller coaster at Busch Gardens. I almost bolted for my car, but I had waited in that traffic and, by golly, I was going to get my $3/lb. berries.

During my hour or more in the peaceful fields, I noticed people from all walks of life enjoying the ingenuous task of picking berries. I saw young adults, families, older folks, rich, poor, black, white, yellow and brown people. It's remarkable how something as simple as a berry can unite such a diverse group of people.

By the time I filled my bucket, someone had figured out how to get that line moving and it was only about 20-people deep. I left with five pounds of beautifully ripe blueberries, clothes soaked in perspiration and an overwhelming desire to make jam. And that's just what I did.

If you would like to pick your own fruits and vegetables, check out this Web site: It lists U-pick farms and contains recipes and advice.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Cool and Nutty Intro

My first post. What should it be? Considering the sweltering temperatures, I can think of nothing better than to relay a recent, refreshing experience in Vienna, Georgia.

Cruising up I-75 on our way to Atlanta week before last, I convinced my husband and son to veer off the highway at Exit 109 for a stop at Ellis Bros. Pecans. Anyone driving in this area south of Macon has seen the billboards proclaiming the Ellis folks as nuts. This is something of which they are quite proud, as evidenced by this sign, located outside the business:

This modest place is not only loaded with every kind of pecan imaginable, but also has over-the-top homemade ice cream. My skeptical family soon became believers when they scarfed down their snickerdoodle and butter pecan treats. I had a chocolate pecan cone that satisfied every taste bud. The most amazing thing about this ice cream is the cost: $2 for a single cone that has ice cream towering four inches above the rim. After stocking up on pecans, I headed outside to savor a taste of summer in a rocking chair overlooking a cotton field.

What a great afternoon stop on a hot day! Thanks to my sister for tipping me off to Ellis Bros.