Thursday, November 18, 2010

Baking a Better Biscuit

Mmmm....biscuits.  Is there any better breakfast food on a cool fall morning than a homemade biscuit?  For me, biscuits are the bomb, especially when they turn out towering, moist and flaky. 

Son of Hubmeister shares my fondness for biscuits.  He has sampled all of my attempts, which have been numerous because I can't leave biscuit recipes alone.  My official biscuit (and pancake) guinea pig, he has become a pretty good judge of them in my house and beyond.

On our recent trip to Georgia, we were starving and pulled off the highway for breakfast at Cracker Barrel, where I ordered eggs and biscuits.  I thought their biscuits were bread-y inside and overly buttery outside, but I liked their loftiness.  Son of Hub said he didn't care about the mile-high rise, agreed that the Barrel's product had a breadlike consistency and said he liked mine better.  No fool, this kid.  Son of Hub is going to make some woman very happy one day!

While in Athens, we had a quick breakfast at a college hangout called Daily Bread.  Son of Hub ripped off a piece of his biscuit and said, "Mom, taste this."  Sweet.  Neither of us cared for the sweet taste, especially when it was sandwiching eggs.  If you travel and order biscuits at a number of restaurants, you will notice how the biscuit's taste and texture change as often as the landscape. 

On the home front, I made these fine specimens last weekend.  Because I wanted more poof to a recipe on which I made the notation, "Best Biscuits Ever," I added an additional 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder to the original measurements.  

I cracked open one of my few remaining jars of spring strawberry preserves and relished a bit of biscuit bliss.  

Give thanks for the Almighty Biscuit and make these next week.  They will take about 15 minutes to prepare and, except for buttermilk, you probably have the ingredients in your fridge and pantry.  Go get you some buttermilk!  My recipe is specific because I have discovered that a ton of factors affect the outcome of biscuits, from the brand of flour and baking powder to the pan used for baking.  

Buttery Buttermilk Biscuits
(Food and Wine, February 2007)

2 C all-purpose unbleached flour (King Arthur)
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder (fresh Rumford Double-Acting)
1 tsp. salt
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into cubes and chilled
3/4 C buttermilk (Friendship Light)

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  In a large bowl, combine 2 cups of flour with the baking powder and salt.  Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut in the cubed butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal.  Add the buttermilk and GENTLY stir with a fork or wooden spoon until a soft dough forms.  Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead 2 or 3 times, just until it comes together.  If the dough is falling apart and crumbling, add a touch more buttermilk.  A touch!

With floured hands, pat the dough out until it's about an inch thick.  This is when I let the dough rest a couple of minutes.  Using a lightly floured biscuit cutter or the rim of a standard drinking glass, stamp out biscuits as close together as possible.  Don't twist the cutter as you stamp; go straight down.  Pat the dough scraps together and stamp out more biscuits.  You'll end up with 5 or 6 biscuits.  Handle the biscuit dough as little as possible.  It's as temperamental as pastry, if you ask me. 

Transfer the biscuits to a 9-inch round cake pan.  Place biscuits, touching, in the pan.  If you like your biscuits with crispier sides, place them a few inches apart on a sheet pan.  Bake for about 20 minutes, until the biscuits are golden.  Brush hot biscuits with additional melted butter, if desired.

Note:  In an amazing coincidence, today I saw someone making biscuits on "Martha Stewart."  The chef, who swears by White Lily Flour, doesn't pat or roll the dough after mixing it but forms each biscuit roughly by hand.  More experimentation awaits.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Falafel Find: Byblos Pitas

One of my favorite bloggers in Atlanta, The Blissful Glutton (, got me in the mood for falafel.  Blissful takes awesome pictures and she recently posted an article about a pita place she loves in the ATL.  Her photos of falafel and other Middle-Eastern delights made my mouth water. 

Unlike the Glutton, I am neither an adept photographer nor a falafel expert.  The first time I tried the fried chick pea concoction was in London, where almost every streetside restaurant claimed to have THE BEST falafel.  The Food and Loathing family looked at each other and wondered, "What the heck is falafel?" 

Outside the British Museum at a fascinatingly unfriendly little restaurant - you read it right, I said unfriendly, as in these people were mad at the world - I ordered it.  And it was okay.  Probably should have gone across the street to the other guy who claimed his was the best falafel in all the land.  Unlike the Falafel Commando, the competition might have offered a greeting, forced a smile or feigned customer appreciation.  Picture the Soup Nazi on "Seinfeld."

After reading Blissful's blog, I decided to order a falafel appetizer the other night at Acropolis.  Again, I was unimpressed; it was passable but lacked something. 

Yesterday, it was time to do some comparison shopping.  Maybe falafel is not my thing.  I stopped by Byblos Pitas near USF. 

Thank you, Byblos.  I knew I would like falafel.  These were loaded with garlic and parsley flavor and included a spicy kick.  Maybe ground red pepper?  The patties were fried to a golden crisp and stuffed into a pita with my choice of toppings.
I asked the guy at the counter to suggest toppings because they have several sauces, dips, veggies and pickles displayed.  I figure the folks who make this stuff every day know which flavor combinations work well.  I ended up with really fresh cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes and onions drizzled with a ladle of tzatziki sauce (my request).  The college kid helping me was pleasant and patiently answered all of my questions.

This is a quick-bite or takeout type of place with a bright and cheery atmosphere.  A full menu of Mediterranean-inspired pita choices is available, as well as soups and salads.

Cost:  $5
Verdict:  I'll be back.

Restaurant Info:
Byblos Pitas
2734 University Square Drive

Byblos Pitas on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Deliciously Modern: Pelagia Trattoria

"All of our pasta is made in-house," explained the cordial server. 

Okay, stop right there.  No need to go any further.  Who cares about the salmon?  When I hear homemade pasta, I swoop down on it like a vulture on a dead armadillo. 

That's exactly what I did Saturday night at Pelagia Trattoria, the highly acclaimed restaurant located inside the Renaissance Hotel at International Plaza.  How often do you find a noteworthy restaurant located inside a hotel?  We actually have a couple of them in Tampa, but let's face it, most hotel restaurants are mediocre and people dine at them out of convenience or necessity, not as a final destination. 

Oh, the lucky guests getting room service from Pelagia, or dropping in for a convenient dinner.  What they'll discover are carefully executed Italian dishes and first-rate service.  That's the kind of surprise I like when I travel, but traveling we were not.  We are fortunate to have this fine trattoria right in our back yard.

To my dismay, we comprised one of only a handful of occupied tables on a Saturday night at 7.  This is a crying shame, and I'll tell you why:  the food, service and atmosphere are a top-notch change of pace from the ordinary Tampa offerings.

As we selected a bottle of wine, we munched on crispy bread sticks and a couple of Italian breads that were accompanied by a pate of ground olives, herbs and citrus.  I'm all for shaking up the usual bread-and-butter routine.  My palate was primed.

For appetizers, I kept the olive theme going by ordering crunchy fried olives stuffed with three meats, and Hubmeister selected an oven-dried tomato, goat cheese and pesto-topped garlic baguette.  In the local food world, word has spread about these olives, so I knew they would be on my personal menu.  Salty and crunchy, they are tasty and would be awesome with a cocktail.  

Next time, I'll pair gin with these babies.

I recommend them, especially if you are having drinks at the bar, but I wouldn't pair them with a glass of red wine again.  Olive pate and olive appetizer equal olive overkill.  Amateur mistake on my part.

Hubmeister's appetizer was splendid, with warm, creamy goat cheese acting as a sassy conduit for the basil pesto and tangy tomato.  My blurry photo doesn't do it justice. 

We both ordered Caesar salads.  Have you ever received a present but you didn't have the foggiest idea what it was or what to do with it?  That's how I felt when this salad innovation was served. 

On the left are focaccia croutons preparing for takeoff.
 "Have you ever had one of these before?" the server inquired. 

"Uh, no, how do we eat them?" I asked, as I stared at what the server described as a deconstructed Caesar salad.  

"You can eat it with your hands or just dump it out on the plate and mix it up like a normal Caesar," she offered. 

Oh boy, I love to play with my food.  I was delighted, and Hubmeister was game, too.  This is what going out to dinner is all about.  We separated the warm, slightly oiled and charred baby romaine leaves, rolled up part of the fresh Parmesan, broke off some giant crouton and proceeded to dunk our lettuce wraps into creamy Caesar dressing.  On the menu this dish is called Caesar Fondue.  I have a feeling I will be "fonduing" this again.

Next came the homemade pasta.

Did someone say pumpkin gnocchi?  That would be me.  I had Pumpkin Gnocchi with Barbera Braised Short Rib Ragout.  The server described this as a wintry dish, and that nails it perfectly.  This rustic and homey creation is guaranteed to warm you on a chilly night.  Void of the big globs of fat usually found in short ribs, and chopped in a small dice, the fork-tender rib meat conveyed the intoxicating essence of its red-wine braise and generously encircled pillows of pumpkin-and-potato pasta.  Have no fear of a strong pumpkin flavor.  I couldn't detect the pumpkin at all.  Maybe it lends an underlying sweetness to the dish, which reminded me of a pasta version of roast beef and potatoes - a really good stew, with an incredible gravy. 

Hubmeister had Pappardelle with Traditional Bolognese and Pecorino Cheese.  A rich and meaty sauce accentuated broad ribbons of hefty pasta.  This evoked nods of praise and I had to remind Hubs that he wouldn't be sent to bed early if he didn't clean his plate, but there was no stopping him. 

Bring on dessert!  I couldn't eat another bite, but in the interest of the blog (yep, this is a good excuse) we split the chef's creation for the evening - a lemon cheesecake accompanied by a cherry-lemon sauce.  Except for a novel biscotti crust, the cake itself was a bit dry and unremarkable, but the lemon sorbet that topped it was a pleasant twist and a nice bite for those of us who could barely budge from the lovely environment. 

As with its cuisine, Pelagia is not what one expects in terms of typical Italian restaurant ambiance.  You know the kind I mean, where you half-expect to see Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack emerge from a dark and mysterious private dining room.  No, this space is smart and colorful, artfully lit with rainbows of pendant lights.  Seating is comfortable, though not intimate, but private dining is available.  An open kitchen and adjacent bar span the length of the restaurant.  Because it was slow, the dining room was quiet but I can envision plenty of action and a very different environment on a busy night.  

Also open for breakfast and lunch, Pelagio would be a swank venue for business dining.  Personally, I'm planning a break in my Christmas shopping to sample their pizza.  If shopping proves laborious, I'll be in the lounge with a gin and tonic and fried olives.  You can access the restaurant easily from the mall; it's just outside the food court and you can't miss the hotel.  Valet parking is available and complimentary. 

Restaurant Info:
Pelagia Trattoria
4200 Jim Walter Boulevard

Pelagia Trattoria on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Sad Cuban: The Cuban Sandwich Cafe

Bring up the Cuban sandwich around here and everybody has an opinion.   

People in Tampa love their Cubans and when you move away, you realize how much you do too.  It's a staple of the Tampa food landscape, a sandwich that blankets the city like pawn shops and stripper bars.  You can get them anywhere, from delicatessens and Cuban restaurants to bakeries, grocery stores, meat markets and gas stations.  The Cuban sandwich is old hat in these parts and, unfortunately, that's what some of them taste like.

For my readers far and wide who are unfamiliar with the Cuban's ingredients, the traditional sandwich consists of fresh Cuban bread, seasoned, roasted pork, ham, salami, Swiss cheese, dill pickles and yellow mustard.  After layering, the sandwich is pressed flat in a sandwich press, thereby melting the cheese and crisping the bread to a delightful, noisy crunch.  Over the years, the sandwich has been bastardized to include lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise, so many establishments inquire if you would like these additions and also ask if you wish to have it pressed.   If you don't get it pressed and add all of the other toppings, just order a sub from the Publix deli and call it a day.  But don't call it a Cuban!  

The president of the Columbia Restaurant, Richard Gonzmart, was so obsessed with re-creating the Cuban sandwich of his youth that he embarked on a quest to locate the perfect oven for roasting pork.  He purchased a $30,000 combination steam and heat oven, which he had installed in his landmark Ybor City restaurant, where he now claims to serve the authentic Cuban sandwich, complete with the roasted pork of his dreams, imported peppercorn-filled Genoa salami, and fresh ham marinated in sour orange and garlic.

A true Cuban sandwich is not what I sampled today when I picked up some takeout from The Cuban Sandwich Cafe on Florida Avenue.  Here are eight reasons why I won't be returning to this eatery for my Cubans:

First offense, mayo on the bread.  What are they thinking?  Second, a barely-there layer of pork that had an off taste.  Unpleasant and probably a good thing there was so little of it.  Third, run-of-the-mill ham that could have come from the grocery store deli counter or my own refrigerator.  Fourth, a couple of paper-thin circles of wilted dill pickle.  Fifth, one razor-thin slice of spiceless, boring salami, cut in half, to cover at least an 8-inch sandwich.  Sixth, ditto for the single piece of Swiss cheese.   Seventh, the absence of all moisture and a shortage of mustard.  Eighth, the bread was okay but should have been brushed with butter before getting pressed.   At least that would have added some flavor to this disappointing imitation.

Okay, eight is enough!

Cost:  $4.85. 
Verdict:  Cheap, but not good.

Restaurant Info:
The Cuban Sandwich Cafe
10434 N. Florida Avenue

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Luck of the Irish Potato Soup

I don't know how you can be considered lucky when your primary source of nourishment - potatoes, potatoes and more potatoes - disappears from the landscape and your country's population gets decimated by a giant spud famine, but the Irish have certainly proven to be a resilient lot.  Perhaps the secret lies in refreshing pints of Harp and Guinness, not to mention having a good sense of humor and pubs aplenty.

Potatoes must be in the blood.  Have you ever met an Irish person who didn't like them?  Take my mother, for instance.  Only half-Irish, Mom's veins are surely coursing with potato starch (in addition to candy, ice cream sundaes, bacon and fried eggs).  Mom is the reigning Queen of Meat and Potatoes and damn proud of it.  At age 84 and slim throughout her life, she laughs in the face of carb counters, exercise advocates and nutritionists.  Her German mother, Supreme Queen of Meat and Potatoes, lived till her mid-90s, dining on roast beef, potatoes, liver dumplings and sugar-coated apple strudel packaged in a foil tin.  Unfair as it may seem, sometimes you are just blessed with good genes.

This brings me back to Mom.  I have no doubt that she could survive on tubers alone.  Baked, mashed, fried, scalloped, roasted, you name it.  As part of her "spudelicious" indulgences, Mom enjoys the occasional bowl of potato soup.   I remember making a classic French version for her a few years ago, which she found too thin.  She came home from Publix with a can of potato soup, and she dumped it in my fussy creation.  Mom likes it thick!  The Irish can be picky about their spuds, and the less gussied up the better.

Too bad she wasn't here last night for the hearty version I threw together for dinner.

I'll have to make it for her when she comes to visit in a few weeks, or she might want to make this splendid soup herself.  In her honor, I topped it with chopped bacon and grated Cheddar cheese.  The salty, smoky bacon and the sharp bite of Cheddar add to the creamy lusciousness of the leek, onion and potato puree.   I got lucky when I monkeyed with this recipe. 

Long live Mom, meat and potatoes!

Luck of the Irish Potato Soup
(Inspired by Irish Potato Soup, St. Anthony's Family Cookbook)

2 pounds potatoes (about 7 medium russets), peeled and sliced
2 onions, sliced
3 leeks, cleaned and sliced, white and some green parts
1 small carrot, peeled and diced
1 bay leaf
A few sprigs of fresh parsley
A few sprigs of fresh thyme or a 1/4 tsp of dried thyme
Salt and Pepper
2 pints (32-ounce carton) low-sodium chicken stock
1 pint whole milk
2 ounces butter
4 strips bacon, fried crisp and crumbled (for garnish)
1/2 C sharp Cheddar cheese, grated (for garnish)
1 T fresh chives, chopped, or 1 T dried chives (for garnish)

In a Dutch oven or large saucepan, melt butter over medium heat.  Add onions and leeks and cook until tender but not brown. 

Add potatoes and carrot.  Stir in the stock and milk.   Place the thyme, parsley and bay leaf in cheese cloth and tie together; add to the pot.  Salt and pepper to taste. 

Simmer gently for about an hour, until potatoes are tender.  In batches, transfer the mixture to a food processor and process until smooth.  Alternatively, you can use an emulsion blender, or a regular blender, to puree the mixture until smooth.  Return the mixture to the pan and heat through. 

Garnish each serving with cheese, chives and bacon.