Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Secret Loathing - Zucchini Bread?

"Zucchini bread has become more of a symbol of neighborly affection and goodwill than a dish that people enjoy eating." - Bakers Illustrated
In fact, the referenced cookbook, which claims it is the practical kitchen companion for the home baker, asserts that rarely do people actually eat the green-flecked bread they "make, give and receive with abandon."  (I took some to my neighbors today.)

To save us well-intentioned quick-bread makers the embarrassment of giving lead-gut loaves that end up covered in frost in the back of someone's freezer, the editors of this tome of baking advice came up with their own squashy loaf, departing from what they describe as the "standard zucchini bread recipe published in countless collections of community recipes and home-style cookbooks." 

These "collections" use vegetable oil, which the food testers found flat tasting and bland.  Instead, they substituted butter.  They also used plain yogurt and lemon juice for tanginess and acidity to counter the blandness of the other ingredients, and eliminated flavorings such as vanilla and cinnamon, which they found out of place.  Other common mistakes:  too much zucchini made the bread gummy, too much sugar (more than 3/4 cup) made the bread too sweet.  They gave the thumbs-up to nuts, which added textural contrast to the moist bread.

Below is the resulting recipe, which the master bakers dub "a brightly flavored, lightly sweetened quick bread with a moist crumb."  I like it, but next time I will check for doneness at 50 minutes.   Ovens vary, you know.

I think the best part of this bread is not the bread at all.  It's Ina Garten's (yup, there she is again!) cream cheese spread.   You'll find that beneath the bread, but it really should go on top.  Hee..hee...

Zucchini Bread
(Baking Illustrated)
Makes one 9-inch loaf

2 C unbleached all-purpose flour
1 pound zucchini, washed and dried, ends removed, cut in half lengthwise and seeded if using large zucchini, each half cut into 1-inch pieces
3/4 C sugar
1/2 C pecan or walnuts, chopped coarse
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 C plain yogurt (whole-milk, low-fat, or nonfat is fine)
2 large eggs, beaten lightly
1 T. juice from one lemon
6 T. (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

  1. Adjust oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees.  Grease the bottom and sides of a 9- by 5-inch loaf pan; dust with flour, tapping out excess.
  2. In a bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, process the zucchini and two tablespoons of the sugar until the zucchini is coarsely shredded, 12 to 15 one-second pulses.  Transfer the mixture to a fine-mesh strainer set at least two inches over a bowl and allow to drain for 30 minutes.  Alternatively, you can shred the halved zucchini (don't cut it into one-inch pieces) on the large holes of a box grater; toss with the two tablespoons of sugar, and drain.
  3. Meanwhile, spread the nuts on a baking sheet and toast until fragrant, five to seven minutes.  Transfer the nuts to a cooling rack and cool completely.  Transfer the nuts to a large bowl; add the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt, and whisk until combined.  Set aside.
  4. Whisk together the remaining 1/2 cup plus two tablespoons sugar, yogurt, eggs, lemon juice and melted butter in a two-cup glass measure until combined.  Set aside.
  5. After the zucchini has drained, squeeze it with several layers of paper towels to absorb excess moisture.  Stir the zucchini and the yogurt mixture into the flour mixture until just moistened.  Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface with a rubber spatula. 
  6. Bake until the loaf is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 55 to 60 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking.  Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and cool for at least an hour before serving.  (The bread can be wrapped with plastic wrap and stored at room temperature for up to three days.)
A note about loaf pans - These baking experts recommend metal loaf pans with a nonstick coating and their favorite was el-cheapo Baker's Secret Nonstick for $4.  Now there's a tip!

Cream Cheese Spread
(Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics)

6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature (I used less-fat variety)
1/3 C granulated sugar
1 T. grated orange zest

With a mixer, beat the ingredients on medium speed until just combined. 

Sweet and simple.  Smear a big glob of this on that bread and your bread will be loathsome no more!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Throwin' Down Bobby's Pork and Peaches

Last night I made grilled pork tenderloin and peaches, a recipe that I tore from the pages of the August 15 Parade newspaper insert.  It was a winner.  I followed Bobby Flay's instructions to a tee, except that I don't care for my pork on the really pink side, so I cooked it to a temperature of 160 degrees.  It was still succulent and the peaches were bursting with flavor. 

Pork tenderloin can be boring and the peaches and glaze give it a nice kick-start.  This is a good way to use your garden rosemary and seasonal peaches.  It's also fast and easy.  Here's a link to the recipe:

Friday, August 27, 2010

Go Here: Pane Rustica

I subscribed to the Zagat Report before moving to Tampa, but I didn't see the point in renewing my online subscription when so few restaurants here managed to achieve over-the-top ratings.  Among the select few garnering high scores when I canceled my subscription three years ago were Armani's, Pelagio Trattoria and Pane Rustica.  We went to Armani's for our anniversary in '07 and it didn't disappoint, but when you drop a whopping $400 on dinner, it better not.  Alas, those were pre-recession days.  Notice the reviews you see here are for restaurants in the affordable range.  Sadly, I have never made it to Pelagio Trattoria and now the acclaimed chef is moving on to the Four Seasons in St. Louis.  That leaves Pane Rustica (pronounced pahn-ay roos-ti-ka).  

The first time I visited this South Tampa strip-center eatery was a few years ago, when a friend and I met for breakfast.  Unbeknownst to me when I suggested the place, it doesn't serve a full breakfast but offers coffee drinks and baked goods.  Two other times when I would have popped in, it was closed.  Guess those were Mondays.  Finally, a couple weeks ago when I stopped by for lunch, my timing was right.  The place was packed at 1:30, as I stepped up to the counter to see what was what. 

Pane Rustica has changed in the last three years.  Yes, there is still the place-your-order and pay-at-the-register counter service; displays of pastries, cupcakes, cookies, and croissants; and bread racks beckoning you to tote a loaf home.  But now there is an additional area of the restaurant, complete with a circular bar surrounded by booths and tables.  They have expanded.   

I had heard good things about the dinner menu but always thought it strange that one would order a $20 entree at a counter.  Now the place gives you a choice.  Half the space - the expansion side - is table service, and the original half remains counter service.  Since there isn't a hostess, it's not clear what to do when you first walk in.  I was the only confused person around so I figure it attracts a crowd of South Tampa regulars and business folks.  

I pretended to know what I was doing and joined the line, surveying the pretty pastries and prepared pizzas.   After glancing at the chalkboard specials, I mulled over a paper menu that I picked up off the counter.   I remembered from my continental breakfast and the previous Zagat review that the bread is outstanding.   A sandwich was my inevitable selection.  I ordered the roasted vegetable sandwich, chose my weapon of choice in the bread department - rustic Italian - and told the woman at the register that, yes, I would like my sandwich to be hot.  She mentioned that it is usually served cold and she offered to make it to my liking.  Nice.

I plopped myself down on a long cushioned bench with tables dotted in front of it.  The tables are a bit tight along the bench, so choose another location if you are saying anything top secret or if you like additional personal space.  On the counter-service side, where I was, you prop a sign on the table to signal to the runner which order is yours. 

My sandwich arrived hot and gorgeous, accompanied by roasted red potatoes, which are served cold.  I can't get excited about roasted potatoes since I make them all the time, but the sandwich was spectacular.  I savored every mouthful of eggplant, red pepper, zucchini and herbed goat cheese, warmed beautifully on the best bread I have eaten this side of Bread Garden in Atlanta.  The sandwich was dressed with a basil aioli that totally completed the superb confluence of flavors. 

The bustling atmosphere is conducive to dining alone, which I normally avoid like the plague.  But I didn't mind it here, and when I remarked to the man next to me how delicious the food was, he said he dines there at least three times a week.  Armed with that knowledge, I wasn't about to let him go back to his novel.  He raved about everything, especially the pizza.  He also indicated a dish popular with the lunchtime crowd is chicken salad cradled in an acorn squash.  Intriguing.  Sounds like I'll be back this fall.

I told him I was surprised that no one was tipping the food runners, who happily checked on me and refilled my refreshing raspberry tea, offering to put it in a to-go cup since I was leaving.  He said patrons tip at the counter, which I always do anyway when I see a tip jar, and the employees split the pot.  On my way out, I threw in some additional "bread" of my own and bought a loaf of  "pane rustica" (rustic bread) to take home. 

Because I like to visit a restaurant a couple times before I start blogging about it, I returned yesterday with Hubmeister, who was primed to emerge from his dining-out doldrums.   I grabbed a raspberry tea at the counter and a table at 11:45.  By noon, the place was filling up fast.  Seated on the table-service side this time, I noted laminated menus and a printout of specials placed on each table.  A couple of women were seated at the bar and the bartender was waiting tables.  Since you've now got the lay of the land, I'll cut to the food.

We ordered off the specials menu, which included a wide assortment of innovative salads, sandwiches and entrees.  One entree was called "Shut up and eat!  Don't ask, you'll love it!" and I was tempted by the mystery, but I ordered the Marsala-grilled portobello mushroom topped with tomatoes, arugula and grilled red onions.  The douse of flavorful Gorgonzola and herb aioli convinced me that careful attention to sauces and spreads - not to mention the bread - are helping set this place apart.  My rustic Italian bread was toasty and buttery.  The ho-hum cold roasted potatoes and an olive came alongside the sandwich.

Hubmeister ordered an entree described as pear and cheese fiocchi, blackened chicken, cranberries, shallots, arugula, toasted garlic and Madeira brown butter.  This selection shot him out of the recesses of the dining trenches.  He didn't converse much at this meal, except for raving about his lunch, as he gorged himself with his newfound friend - fiocchi.  He showed his love for me, however, by parting with some of that fiocchi and chicken.

Fiocchi, which was completely foreign to me, are cute little ruffly pouches of pasta.  These contained ricotta and some other cheeses that imparted a sweetness from the pear.   In contrast, the blackened chicken was salty and spicy.  The fiocchi and chicken were served atop arugula swimming in a sinful pool of brown butter, cranberries, shallots and slices of toasted garlic.  The roll, at the top of the photo, came in handy for sopping it all up.  All I can say is, "Wow!"  This was 12 bucks well spent.   FYI, my sandwich was $9.  Our total bill for this stellar meal, including tax and tip, was around $30.  

Not one to pass up phenomenal crispy-crust breads - there are nine or 10 varieties from which to choose - I bought a loaf to go and a croissant for the teenager at school.  Unfortunately for him, he waited too long to eat it and, winning no mother-of-the-year award for this gluttonous act, I confess I just ate it.  Could you pass up a flaky croissant, knowing it was filled with almond pastry cream?  (I'll get him another one.)

In my experience, Zagat is pretty reliable when it comes to rating restaurants.  In this case, it was spot on.  With any luck, Tampa's culinary world will expand and more restaurants will warrant outstanding Zagat ratings.  Maybe I'll renew my subscription after all.

Restaurant Info:
Pane Rustica Bakery & Cafe
3225 South MacDill Avenue, Suite 119

Pane Rustica Bakery & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cooking Channel Hit List

Okay, the gloves are coming off.  Before I continue, let me say I respect anyone who can get on camera and project himself as anything other than a blithering idiot.  I have had some embarrassing moments on TV and I know it's weird to speak in front of a camera.  It must be incredibly challenging to cook, be articulate and charming, and tape a show.  It's a TALENT, a GIFT.  Few people have the magic and here's my two cents on who's got it - and who doesn't - on the new Cooking Channel:

"Chuck's Day Off" is still leading the pack as the only new cooking show I would record.   I owe Chuck for that tip about the oven fries, and from the hits that post (What I'm Learning from Cooking Channel) gets on this blog, others appreciate it too.  I would not only go to Chuck's restaurant, but I'd also buy him a beer.  Chuck seems like a nice guy who wants you to learn something from his show.
"French Food at Home" makes me want to stick an ice pick in my eye.  The host does not come across as likable.  This woman rivals Martha Stewart and Madonna in the affected and deliberate enunciation of all syllables, which I could tolerate if the show wasn't a good substitute for Ambien.  The shoobie, doobie, do music is so annoying I would rather watch the show muted.  Because I feel the need to say something nice, I think she has a lovely French accent.  This show might actually be better if she taped it in French.

Now, on to Giada.  I love Giada but I don't love her enough to watch her flashing those perfect teeth a gazillion times a day.  Cooking Channel goes so far as to put her on in the morning and give her an afternoon double feature.  Is this really necessary?  Give someone else a crack at the Nutella.  My favorite "Everyday Italian" episodes feature Giada cooking with her feisty aunt.

"Spice Goddess" may be a winner.  I've only watched it once, last weekend, and the host seems pleasant and interesting.  I love trying new spices and she could teach me a few things - no, make that everything -about cooking Indian food.  I don't see myself making crunchy lentil cookies but I'll watch her do it.

I also caught an episode of "My Country, My Kitchen," which featured the Brennan family, of New Orleans.  This show provides some insight into regional cuisine.  I like the way it zeroes in on the subject's favorite places in his hometown.  This weekend's edition will feature Eric Ripert touring the mountains of Andorra.

"Nigella Express," another resurrected oldie, is entertaining because Nigella loves to eat.  Adorned in a silky robe, she is constantly shown raiding the fridge in the middle of the night.  I am convinced the production team has her cooking breakfast all the time to keep her slinking around in that robe.  In fact, I recall an episode of "Top Chef" in which the cheftestants served breakfast in bed to pajama-clad Nigella and Padma.  I am sure the male viewership spiked, as well as parts of the male anatomy.  Anyway, it's fun to watch Nigella indulge without apology.

I would like to "Ask Aida" to leave Food Network, Cooking Channel and all broadcast media.  She is okay, but we don't need to see her geeky sidekick reading off his computer screen, posing lame cooking questions.  Someone please tell the producers this is not cutting-edge material.

"Simply Delicioso" host Ingrid Hoffman can be entertaining but I saw her once on the worst Food Network show ever, "Paula's Party," and she commandeered Paula Deen, which I found obnoxious.  This faux pas remains implanted in my mind's eye and I can't watch her objectively.

Although "Paula's Party" is not on Cooking Channel - and I pray it will remain buried in the cooking show graveyard - I must interject that whoever told Paula to flirt with the male guests and pepper the show with double entendres was severely misguided.  Paula, please stick to hoecakes and grits, Granny's pound cake and fried green tomatoes.  And here's a suggestion:  Instead of plastering your kids' mugs all over your show, how about cooking with well-known Southern cooks and chefs?  There are enough great cooks in Georgia alone to keep you going for a coon's age.

Last and perhaps least - "Bill's Holiday." Australia is not known for its cuisine and Bill isn't going to help much.  Bill and the "French Food" host should go off into the outback together, and take the long nap they seem to crave.  It's almost as if they bore themselves.  I have yet to make it through a full "Holiday."

Julia, Mario and Sara rule.  They are Cooking Channel's talent trifecta, and they are hard to beat. 

Have you watched any of these shows?  Let me know what you think.  Send me some comments.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Trader Joe's, Come on Down

So....Trader Joe's knows there's a market in Florida but distribution infrastructure prevents it from expanding here.  Say it ain't so, Joe!   

Take a gander at this: 

When Trader Joe's came on the scene in Atlanta, foodie groupies familiar with the store went nuts.  We always enjoyed shopping there, though not to the euphoric level of the food crazies.  Let's just say I've bought my share of Two-Buck Chuck.  In fact, I have a list of things I buy at Trader's whenever I visit Atlanta; some items are in my pantry right now. 

Much of what is said in the Fortune article has been my experience. The employees are outgoing and enthusiastic, and on a recent visit one saw me buying a certain type of mustard and told me all about a new one they were introducing.  It's also true that people chat it up in the aisles, exchanging tips and recommending different products. 

Maybe they'll reconsider the Florida expansion.  Those goofy Hawaiian shirts would fit right in here.

Cookbooks and Spiders

I could spend hours in the library engrossed in cookbooks, but I don't.  Usually, noisy kids and their clueless parents get on my nerves and send me running to the parking lot with a pile of books in my arms.  If I check out a book more than three times, I probably should go straight to Amazon and buy the darned thing, but I don't do that, either.  Every now and then, I'll feature one of these "library" favorites on the old blogaroonie. 

Let's begin today, shall we?  Here's one that's been on my library card a few times:  Miami Spice by Steven Raichlen. 

If you have any interest in South Florida cuisine, you should consider checking it out - yeah, really checking it out at your local library.  It is a lively departure from the usual cookbook layout and design; it's well-written, informative, and fun to read.  I am not the only one who thinks so.  It has a big gold sticker on the cover proclaiming it the winner of the Julia Child Cookbook Award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

Raichlen, a cooking teacher and food writer, provides a look at the melting pot which is Florida cuisine.  He offers 200 recipes, incorporating the exotic flavors of Latin America, Cuba and the Caribbean fused with ingredients native to Florida.  

The reason I got this book again is for the plantain spider recipe.  I made these another time and my son and I went crazy for them.  It uses green plantains, which are as plentiful in Florida as poorly dressed tourists.  Basically, these are fritters that look like spiders after they are cooked.  Here you go, another crispy fried treat - just what we all need (sorry, these are addictive - trust me).

These warranted another swipe of the library card.
Plantain Spiders
(Miami Spice Cookbook)

2 large green plantains
1 piece (1 inch) fresh ginger, peeled
6 cloves garlic, minced
About 2 cups vegetable oil, for frying
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

  1. Peel the plantains as described below and grate on the coarse side of a hand grater or in a food processor fitted with the julienne disk. Cut the ginger into the thinnest possible slivers.
  2. Combine the plantain, ginger, and garlic in a mixing bowl and toss with 2 spoons to mix.
  3. Just before serving, pour oil to a depth of at least 1 inch in a small frying pan or electric skillet, and heat to 350 degrees.
  4. Using 2 spoons or your fingertips, form 1-inch balls of the plantain mixture and lower them into the oil.  Don't pack the plantain shreds too tightly; the fritters should look spiky and lacy.  Fry the spiders, turning with a skimmer or slotted spoon, until golden brown, about 2 minutes total.  Work in several batches, so as not to crowd the pan. 
  5. Transfer the fritters to paper towels to drain.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve at once.
New to the plantain scene?  Not to worry.  Just don't assume they are anything like bananas.  Raichlen provides these tips for how to peel a green one:

With a paring knife, slice off the ends and cut the fruit into 3-inch sections.  Make a lengthwise slit in the skin of each section.  Slide your thumbnails under the slit to pry off the skin.  Some chefs soak the plantains in ice water before skinning.  Others skin the plantains under running water to wash away the milky liquid that sometimes seeps from the skin.  If you do, pat the plantain sections dry with paper towels.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Olive Oil Industry Teeters on Slippery Slope

Is the olive oil industry pulling a fast one on us?  I mean, EVOO has become part of the lexicon and anybody who cooks buys it.  But is it really that pure?

I don't know whether you caught this news story last month.  I saw it briefly and didn't give it much thought.  Now, Wine Spectator has brought it to my attention again.  It seems olive oil producers are passing off run-of-the-mill virgin olive oil as extra virgin.  Anyone who buys olive oil knows extra virgin costs more.  If this is intentional - not the result of environmental factors that affect the natural oxidation process - how slippery!

Here's a link to the article:  http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/43259

Be sure to read the comments section, in which some investigative soul has listed the brands that passed and failed the test.  Ironically, you'll find on the list of failures the oily product of the one-and-only Ms. EVOO herself.

Although I have purchased a bunch of the losers, I usually buy a really good bottle online and save it for dishes that need a drizzle of something fantastic.  But now, instead of buying extra-virgin for everyday use, like for sauteing vegetables, I'll try the regular stuff - at least until more stringent standards are set and the industry complies with them.

What about you?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ina Takes the Cake

Here's the rundown on the chocolate layer cake I told you about yesterday: 

I first saw this recipe in the March, 2007, issue of Food and Wine magazine and then I discovered Ina, my best bud in the Hamptons, a.k.a. the Barefoot Contessa, published it in one of her cookbooks.  You know she's got some confidence in this baby if she's blanketing the media with it.  And rightfully so.  Ina is quoted in Food and Wine saying it's the most fabulous chocolate cake she's ever made.  I bet she's made quite a few. 

The gang at the weekend crabaganza (see previous post) gave this cake high marks, and believe me, that's one tough crowd.

Double-Chocolate Layer Cake
(Also called Beatty's Chocolate Cake in Barefoot Contessa at Home)

1 3/4 C all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 C sugar
3/4 C unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Hershey's dark chocolate)
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 C buttermilk
1/2 C vegetable oil
2 large eggs
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 C. freshly brewed hot coffee

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Butter two 8-inch round cake pans.  Line with parchment paper, then butter and flour the pans. 

Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed until combined.  In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, oil, eggs and vanilla.  With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry.  With the mixer still on low, add the coffee and stir just to combine, scraping the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula.  Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake 35 to 40 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean.  Cool in the pans for 30 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack and cool completely.

Place one layer, flat side up, on a flat plate or cake pedestal.  With a knife or offset spatula, spread the top with frosting.  Place the second layer on top, rounded side up, and spread the frosting evenly on the top and sides of cake.

Now here's the deal on the frosting:  I didn't use Ina's recipe because it has a raw egg in it and that grossed me out.  Turns out there's a big egg recall today so I may have made a wise decision.  But if you are brave, here is her recipe for the chocolate frosting, followed by the one I used:

6 oz. semisweet chocolate (Don't use chocolate chips because they contain stabilizers)
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 extra-large egg yolk, at room temperature
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 C sifted confectioners' sugar
1 T. instant coffee powder

Chop the chocolate and place it in a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water.  Stir until just melted and set aside until cooled to room temperature. 

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium-high speed until light yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Add the egg yolk and vanilla and continue beating 3 minutes.  Turn the mixer to low, gradually add the confectioners' sugar, then beat at medium speed, scraping down the bowl as necessary, until smooth and creamy.  Dissolve the coffee powder in 2 teaspoons of the hottest tap water.  On low speed, add the chocolate and coffee to the butter mixture and mix until blended.  Don't whip!  Spread immediately on the cooled cake.

6 oz. semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (Don't use chocolate chips)
2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 C half and half
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
4 C confectioners' sugar, sifted
1 T. instant coffee granules, mixed with 1/4 C hot water

In a microwave-safe bowl, heat the chocolate at high power in 30-second intervals, stirring, until most of the chocolate is melted.  Stir until completely melted, then set aside to cool to room temperature.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle, beat the butter at medium speed until pale and fluffy.  Add, one at a time, the chocolate, coffee, half and half, and vanilla and beat for 1 minute, scraping down the side of the bowl.  At low speed, slowly beat in the confectioners' sugar.  I keep adding confectioners' sugar until I get the frosting to spreading consistency.

Notes:  This cake was in the trunk of my car for 4 hours and when I reached my brother's house, the icing was melting.  I put it in the fridge for an hour or so, tidied up the frosting and I think it ended up looking better than in the picture, which I took before the trip.  I suggest storing this cake in the refrigerator.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Crabmas

I haven't been blogging for a few days because we went to Ft. Lauderdale last weekend for a little family reunion.  It's a rare occasion when my four siblings and I all congregate in one place with my parents.  Unlike most normal families, we don't descend on a park or a beach and have a big cookout, where everyone brings a covered dish.   Oh no, not this displaced group of Marylanders.  When we manage to herd the group together, we get crabby and haul in crustaceans by the dozens. 

This year's count totalled 12 dozen.  My Brothers Crab have taken to calling the get-together "Crabmas," complete with crab lights strung around the dining room, with a few Christmas items thrown in for good measure and holiday ambience.   It makes for an eclectic, yet festive, atmosphere.

It all began several years ago as a birthday crab bash for my brother.  With each successive year, this Old Bay fest has attracted different family members, friends and relatives.  This year, in addition to our immediate clan, we welcomed our crab-loving, Baltimore-born cousin and her sweet daughter, a new crabeater extraordinaire.  It's always fun to indoctrinate a newbie, especially when she's a willing participant who dives right in.  Must be in the blood.

Here's a peek at Crabmas Day: 

The morning of the party, my brothers round up the crabs from one of a couple of local seafood purveyors.  My father is in charge of worrying about whether the locals will have enough crabs and whether my brother's driveway will accommodate a million cars.  My mother worries about additional food to have on hand for the non-crabeaters, like herself, although rarely does anyone eat anything other than crabs.  This does not prevent her from cooking and transporting a turkey breast, a spiral-sliced ham and a crock-load of chili.

The cooking begins after everyone arrives at Birthday Brother's house.  My other brother is Steamer-in-Chief.   He starts cooking the live crabs after everyone arrives because it doesn't take long to steam crabs and he has a method.  He fires up a few turkey cooker elements and puts those crab pots right on top, where you would normally place the vat of oil in which to fry the turkey.  He heavily seasons the crabs with Old Bay and pepper because we like our lips burning and our cuticles on fire. 

This is where the ice-cold beer comes in handy.  Beer is an integral part of any crab gathering, and for some unknown reason, it's fun to drink cheap beer with crabs.  The Brothers Crab ice it down and place coolers tableside, making them easily accessible to grimy, crab-encrusted hands.   For the underage set who eye the beer longingly, there is a cooler of water and soft drinks.

Once cooked, the crabs are up for grabs in big buckets placed at intervals on a long newspaper-covered table.  Several rolls of paper towels are interspersed along the crab route.  Hours of hammering, picking, intellectually stimulating conversation about our most-hated Food Network celebrities, and beer guzzling ensue.

No brews for these three characters, who outlasted the oldsters by only a few crabs.

The evening culminates with a decadent dessert smorgasbord.  This one consisted of cheesecake, key lime pie, pineapple upside down cake, and chocolate layer birthday cake.   A sweet treat and coffee are a must when ending a spicy crab feast.  Watch for tomorrow's post about the chocolate cake. 

Crab feast cleanup is a breeze at Birthday Brother's tiled house.  He wheels in a gigantic garbage can, and the men do a wrap-and-roll routine with the newspaper, gathering up every bit of feeler, claw, shell, and lung that has been scraped off in a frenzy of seafood gluttony, the pillage piled high on the table. 

The entire mess gets dumped into the can, leaving the garbage men to wonder what the heck went on at the house over the weekend, and probably leading them to put a hex on the place. 

Have you ever smelled crab guts that have been baking in a garbage can in 90-degree heat for a few days?  I am sure they will be counting the days till next Crabmas - just like the rest of us.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

In a Pickle Over Pickles

A couple weeks ago I made pickles for the first time.   Forbes Road Produce had a bunch of fresh kirby cucumbers and I was in the mood to do some canning.  Why I find making stuff and putting it into jars so rewarding I don't know - probably something only a shrink could answer - but I love looking at the finished product, knowing I made it. 

After deciding on the old-fashioned bread-and-butter variety, I referred to recipes from Southern Living and the Web site http://www.pickyourown.org/, and then went to work.  Everybody says pickles are easy to make and that it's a fun thing to do with kids.  That might be true if the kids are adept with knives, or you have the patience of a saint. There's a lot of chopping involved with bread-and-butter pickles, which require loads of thinly sliced onion and cukes sliced into 3/16-inch rounds. 

That was the most time-consuming aspect of this project, other than waiting while the cukes and onions iced down for four hours in the fridge.  After that, it was simply a matter of boiling up ingredients and plopping them into sterilized jars. 

Now, the real time-consuming part - waiting to open them.  The pickyourown people want me to wait four to six weeks!  They can't be serious.  I can't wait to try them.  What if they are terrible?  Cucumber season doesn't last forever, and I'll have to make another attempt.  I think I'll open them tomorrow...just one jar.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Dessert So Easy, Sandra Lee Would Be Proud

Ice cream and cake...ice cream and cake...let's all do the ice cream and cake!

This dessert is so easy it's stupid.  And it is so good.  One of my daughter's favorites, this is a cake I have made for years and everyone loves it.  Since it was her birthday, I decided to make it last weekend.  It takes about 20 minutes to prepare ahead and a few minutes to whip the cream right before serving.   No oven required, it's a great icy treat on a hot summer evening.

Coffee Toffee Ice Cream Cake
(Inspired by Southern Living)

2 (3-ounce) packages plain ladyfingers
2 T. instant coffee granules
1/4 C hot water
1 (8-ounce) package toffee candy bits, divided
1/2 gallon vanilla ice cream, softened
3 T. Kahlua or other coffee liqueur
1 C whipping cream
1 to 2 T. powdered sugar
  1. Stand ladyfingers around edge of 9-inch springform pan; line bottom of pan with remaining ladyfingers. 
  2. Combine coffee and 1/4 cup hot water in a small bowl, stirring until dissolved; let cool completely.
  3. Stir 3/4 package of toffee bits and coffee into softened ice cream.  Spoon into prepared pan.  Cover with plastic wrap and freeze at least 8 hours.
  4. With mixer on medium speed, whip cream until foamy.  Gradually add powdered sugar and beat until soft peaks form.  Gently fold liqueur into cream and dollop around edge of ice cream mixture.  Sprinkle leftover toffee bits on top of cake.  Let stand 30 minutes before serving. 
Notes:  The original recipe calls for an 8-ounce container of frozen whipped topping, thawed, in place of whipped cream.  This makes it even easier and more Sandra Lee-like, but I am not a big fan of all the mystery ingredients in Cool Whip.  Streamlining it even more, you can also substitute coffee ice cream for the vanilla ice cream and coffee mixture.  You can find packaged ladyfingers in the bakery department at Publix or among the frozen foods at Fresh Market.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Totally Tasty Find: Beignets at Nola Cafe

My daughter is home from college this week, on break between summer and fall semesters at the recently ranked No. 1 party school in the nation, University of Georgia.  With that kind of parental-pride-inducing competition (insert collective sigh here from parents, administration and academia), we try to show her a good time when she visits dear old Mom and Dad in Tampa. 

What better way to entertain your partying coed than to take her to a museum!  No, really.  She appreciates art, and since none of us had ever been to the Salvador Dali Museum, we went to St. Petersburg Tuesday to check it out.   A fascinating collection, even if Dali is not your artistic cup of tea, it's located in the happening heart of St. Pete.  If you know St. Pete, you know that "happening" is a stretch, but at least it is situated in an area of town near the water, the pier, and an assortment of shops and restaurants.  After touring destination Dali, we wandered over to the waterfront, Beach Drive specifically, and stumbled upon Nola Cafe.

It was about 3 p.m., an off time in the restaurant world and, as expected, the place - located in Parkshore Plaza among other eateries and shops - had a single diner reading a newspaper.  A smiling server, probably the manager, and the only employee I saw besides a cook who wandered outside for a break, told us to choose any table and then came to greet us and take drink orders.

A cursory glance revealed an inviting coffee shop atmosphere, roomier than most, with an L-shaped bar available for diners who opt for counter service or for a front-row seat to view the plasma television.  The environs are warm, the chairs are comfy, and a New Orleans theme is reflected in the music, menu and cans of Cafe du Monde coffee and a few other food-related items exhibited for sale.

Listed on a chalkboard near the coffee bar were the day's specials, which included vanilla French toast, catfish po' boy and lobster bisque.  Among Big Easy favorites on the lunch and dinner menu are jambalaya, po' boy sandwiches, gumbo, and red beans and rice.  Sandwich wraps, soups and salads are also available. 

Since my philosophy is to stick with the restaurant's theme, I ordered a bowl of chicken and andouille gumbo.  Mostly andouille sausage cut into a small dice, the gumbo was flavorful with a dark roux and a pleasant, smokey heat, but contained only one strip of chicken along with scant white rice.   For $9.99, it wasn't exactly a meal.

A few puny slices of unremarkable baguette were shared among us.  Dieting Hubmeister had a lackluster house salad, comprised solely of lettuce, tomatoes, and croutons.  The grilled chicken topper he added to it didn't help this lame effort, which was so boring it came with bottles of oil and vinegar. 

My daughter chose the lobster bisque, which she lapped up, and my son had a roast beef po' boy, the most impressive-looking plate on the table.  Juicy, shredded roast beef was served on a long French roll with an accompanying romaine lettuce-based salad.  The beef was topped with fresh diced tomatoes, the bread smeared with mayo. 

What we ordered next were the highlights of this late lunch, and appropriately enough, they are highlighted in a box on the menu.  Somebody once said always order the dish the restaurant puts in a big box on the menu because that's the item the restaurant is most proud of.  Makes sense, doesn't it?  If it's something I like I'll order it, and in this case it was not a problem to order:  drum roll, please...beignets.
Cafe au lait and beignets are worth a visit to Nola's in Tampa or St. Pete.

We shared an order consisting of three fluffy fried pillows of dough covered in a blizzard of powdered sugar.  Straight from the fryer and into our mouths, those, and the cafe au lait chaser - half chicory coffee and half hot milk - were a scrumptious combination. 

When I asked our friendly server what coffees they offered and she answered, "Everything, because we are mainly a coffee shop," I did a mental head slap.  A more attentive look at the menu indicated a lengthy list of coffee drinks.  Hello!

Nola's is okay for a sandwich or bowl of soup, but the real reason to stop in is for coffee and beignets. 

Restaurant Info:
Nola Cafe & News Stand
300 E. Beach Drive N.
St. Petersburg, FL

301 W. Platt St. #C
Tampa, FL

Nola Cafe on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Making the List: La Septima Cafe

We move around a lot, or so it seems.  About every five years Hubmeister's company moves him to another location and we go through all the aches and pains of packing up, buying and selling houses, settling kids into schools, saying goodbye to friends and neighbors, and leaving all that's become comfortable and familiar.  It's exciting yet sad, a blessing yet a curse.  In food terms, I guess you could say it is bittersweet.

So, I read with interest a recent article on a local news blog about a young Tampa woman who decided to visit all her favorite restaurants before departing for law school in Miami.  She had some intriguing choices and they got me thinking about which dining establishments I felt compelled to visit before my big moves.  The future lawyer had a couple high-end spots on her list, such as Sidebern's and Mise en Place, but the majority were affordable local favorites, including La Teresita, Zudar's Deli, and Crab Shack.  

The restaurants that crop up on my list from past moves also tend to be casual hangouts where we took the kids and had fun, not the upscale, celebrate-the-anniversary-type spots.   All had decent food but not award-winning cuisine.  I believe a pizza joint has made the list at every locale. 

A restaurant that would probably make my list here is La Septima Cafe.  Located in a tiny strip mall on Parsons Road in Brandon, La Septima is a restaurant I have visited on several occasions since my return to Tampa a few years ago. 

Exuding the intimate charm inherent in a family-run operation, this small Cuban eatery appears stuck in a time warp, as if some of the decor could be seen on "That '70s Show."  But it's a retro spot you're happy to visit and nobody seems to care about the dated wallpaper, the dark carpet, or the Tiffany-style fixtures illuminating the tables.  La Septima hasn't redecorated in a while, if ever, but it's a prime example of a comfortable place to hang out, like visiting an aunt who has lived in the same house as long as you can remember, offering you delicious meals from her trusted kitchen.

Named after Ybor's historic Seventh Avenue and bedecked with vintage photos of Ybor City, this 15-year-old cafe offers Cuban-style breakfast, lunch and dinner.  I have sampled all three menus, with multiple lunch visits to my credit.

A generous breakfast of eggs, potatoes, and Cuban toast really hit the spot, and if I lived in Brandon I would be eating it all too often.  Lunch and dinner menus incorporate traditional Cuban dishes, such as Palomilla, Picadillo, and Arroz con Pollo, and daily specials are listed on a white board near the hostess station.  Ropa Vieja with black beans and yellow rice, a menu item and often a special, has been my go-to dish until this week, when Hubmeister and I had lunch at La Septima and I ordered the Lechon Asado special with black beans and yellow rice.

Lechon Adado with Black Beans and Rice (and a side of onions)

The Lechon Asado, pork slowly roasted in sour orange mojo, was ambrosial.  The citrus and garlic marinade permeated the pork, which was so tender you forgot there was a knife on the table.  The black beans and rice were nicely seasoned and satisfying, and on all my visits the server asked if I would like onions to accompany them.   Oh yeah!  The onions are sweet with a sour bite, perhaps marinated in that same sour orange mojo mixture.  They are the perfect crunchy accent to the soft rice and beans.  When I was finished my meal, there was nothing left on that white plate.

Hubmeister, on a downward spiral in our restaurant excursions lately, didn't fare as well with his selection of the Elena Ruiz sandwich, a special listed on the board.  Excited because he discovered a similar sandwich recently in Miami and came home proclaiming he experienced sandwich heaven, he was disappointed that it was not representative of his much-beloved new find, the Elena Ruth sandwich. 

Although Ruiz and Ruth are two different names, the sandwiches are the same.  I looked it up and I have no idea why the names are different, but the ingredients are the same for this sandwich, which has several aliases:  Elena Ruth, Elena Ruz and Elena Ruiz.  Interesting name confusion.

Elena Ruiz Sandwich with Spanish Potatoes
The Miami Elena Ruth featured turkey, cream cheese and strawberry jam on sweet bread - the traditional ingredients - but La Septima's Elena Ruiz was served on regular Cuban bread with a guava spread.  Hubmeister says the key to the sandwich is the sweet Hawaiian-type bread.   Not all Cuban sandwiches are created equal, nor are all Elena Ruiz/Ruz/Ruth sandwiches.  Such is life in Cuban Sandwichland.

This is not to say the traditional Cuban bread at La Septima is forgettable - quite the contrary.  The restaurant is proud of it, too, boasting on the menu that its purveyor is Tampa's Casino Bakery, which has been making Cuban bread since 1912.

La Septima's Cuban sandwich is praise-worthy, too.  In fact, we brought one home for the kids and they scarfed it down in minutes. 

On my next visit, I will try the tempting cheesecake slices rotating in the old-fashioned glass dessert carousel in the dining room.  There is a guava cheesecake calling my name, and I want to be sure I taste it before we move again.

Restaurant Info:
La Septima Cafe
140 N. Parsons Avenue
Brandon, Florida

La Septima on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 2, 2010

Order Up: Spicy Quesadillas

Sometimes I feel like a short-order cook.  Somebody hates onion. Somebody else hates chicken. Somebody likes their food spicy. Somebody else detests spice.  Somebody is trying to gain weight.  Somebody is trying to lose weight.  The list drones on with mushrooms, green peppers, and blah, blah, blah.

Whatever happened to the time when you ate whatever Mom put in front of you, and if you didn't like it, your choices consisted of either going to bed hungry or making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?  Oh, those were the days!  I grew up in a family of five kids, and my mom never would have put up with this multiple choice nonsense. 

I bet Martha Stewart wouldn't tolerate it.  Can you imagine her contempt?  Her awesome quesadilla recipe would have been the only one prepared last night, not three different quesadilla concoctions.  I know, you're saying it's my own fault - and it is!  Mom also wouldn't put up with whining, so let the complaining cease and the fiesta begin.

The full monty.  These were fantastic, Martha.

Omnimedia-maniac Martha and her gang of culinary wizards have come through with another fabulous dish.  First, the ricotta cheesecake, and now, adobo-marinated chicken quesadillas.  Oh my word, these were spicy specimens of smokey goodness!   I rarely make Martha's recipes, but with these recent successes, I'm starting to reconsider.

Except for a quick trip to the store for additional rice vinegar and some tortillas, I had all the quesadilla ingredients on hand.  Easy and quick to prepare, these Mexican treats are hearty enough that they need no accompanying sides.  If you have picky eaters in your house - ahem - you can modify the recipe in many ways.  They have a great kick to them for those who appreciate the spicier side of life.

Adobo-Marinated Chicken Quesadillas
(Martha Stewart Living)

1 can (7 oz) chiles in adobo sauce
1/2 C water
4 chicken cutlets
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
2 jalapeno peppers, thinly sliced crosswise
1 C rice vinegar (not seasoned)
1/4 C sugar
8 eight-inch flour tortillas
5 ounces low-fat Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (1 1/3 C) (I used full-fat Colby Jack)
  1. Puree chiles in adobo sauce and water in a blender until smooth.  Pour mixture over chicken to coat.  Refrigerate 1 hour.
  2. Meanwhile, place onion in a small bowl.  Combine jalapenos, vinegar and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat.  Bring to a simmer and cook until jalapenos are soft and sugar has dissolved, about 10 minutes.  Pour over onion, and let stand until mixture is cool.  Strain though a fine sieve/colander.
  3. Heat a grill pan over high heat.  Grill chicken about 2 minutes per side, depending on thickness.  Slice into strips.  Wipe pan clean.
  4. Place 1 tortilla onto a work surface.  Arrange strips of 1 cutlet to cover tortilla.  Sprinkle with 1/3 cup of Monterey Jack cheese and some onion-jalapeno mixture.  Top with another tortilla.  Repeat with remaining tortillas, chicken, cheese, and onion mixture.
  5. Carefully place quesadilla onto hot grill pan, and cook over medium heat until tortillas are crisp and cheese melts, about 4 minutes per side.  Cut each quesadilla in half, and divide among 8 plates. (This is funny because I ate an entire quesadilla, both halves.  Explains why I thought they were so hearty!) 
Notes:  I spray the outside of the tortillas with cooking spray before grilling.  If you don't have a grill pan, cook them in a skillet as you would a grilled cheese sandwich.  You won't get the grill marks, but it will still taste great.  I haven't tried these on an outdoor grill, but why not?  A medium-low temperature would probably work best.

These are missing the colorful red onion and jalapeno peppers.  Criminal!

#2  Not-So-Spicy, Low-Fat Adobo-Marinated Chicken Quesadillas
(for the I-hate-onion-and-spicy-foods-but-like-chicken-and-I'm-also-on-a-diet eater)

Omit onion-jalapeno mixture, and substitute black bean dip.
Use whole wheat, low-carb tortillas, fat-free dip, and reduced-fat cheese.

My kid raved about these simple meatball quesadillas.

#3  Easy Meatball Quesadillas
(for the skinny, chicken-and-onion hater)
Makes 1 quesadilla

6 to 8 small frozen meatballs, thawed and crumbled
1 to 2 T black bean dip (I like Fresh Market)
1/4 C Monterey Jack cheese (I used Colby Jack)
Fresh cilantro, optional
Salsa, sour cream for dipping
2 eight-inch regular flour tortillas

Spread bean dip on one tortilla.  Place meatball crumbles on top of dip.  Top with shredded cheese and cilantro, if desired.  Place tortilla on grill pan and grill a few minutes on each side until the cheese melts and you have some nice grill marks.  Cut into wedges, and serve with salsa and sour cream.