Saturday, August 29, 2009

Mastering My Domain (My Kitchen)

A couple months ago, I was lucky enough to snag a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking at the Book Barn before all the Julie & Julia hype hit full force. Last night, with all my good CT friends tied up with other plans and not really feeling great enough to go out (getting over a nasty summer cold), I decided to cook myself and Noe a restaurant-quality meal at home.

This was my first Julia entree. I've dabbled with some of the soups and side dishes, but this was my inaugural main course. I selected Coquilles St. Jacques a la Provencale for several reasons, not the least of which was it did NOT have a note anywhere commenting that it would take approximately three hours to prepare (it was actually a fairly short forty-ish minutes). I also picked it because the only thing I had to go purchase was the scallops - everything else (butter, herbs, cheese, etc) were more or less staples that I had on hand.

My chosen recipe

After swinging by Thames River for wine tasting (even though my senses were definitely still compromised from the cold) I picked up the fresh sea scallops and a baguette (this recipe looked pretty butter-rific and I figured the baguette could soak up some sauce) and headed home to work.

Of course, I started by pouring myself a glass of wine. I chose my current favorite white wine, the 2008 Chateau La Rame Bordeaux Blanc. Not only is this sauvignon blanc extremely tasty to sip; I was planning on using some of it in the recipe. I had seen further down that the scallops would be simmered in "dry white wine", and I thought the minerality of the La Rame would add some nice flavor and the citrusy acidity might cut through some of that butter.

A great thing about Mastering the Art of French Cooking is that it breaks down recipes into sections and lists the ingredients you need for that section by the instructions - so you know what you need, when you need it. I began chopping a yellow onion, shallot, and garlic clove in preparation to heat them with some butter (I think every step of this recipe called for butter) in a small saucepan.

Onion, shallot, and garlic

After setting aside my fragrant stove top mixture, I dried my scallops (just patted them with a paper towel), seasoned them with some salt and pepper, and dredged them lightly in flour, shaking off the excess (cheater's note: I did NOT sift the flour as the recipe instructed. It was the only step I skipped).

Seasoned scallops

Lightly dredged scallops

While I was dredging, I was letting a skillet with some butter and olive oil get hot on the stove. After the final dredge, I threw the scallops in the screaming hot skillet and let them get a light sear on each side (this took maybe two or three minutes, tops), at which point I dumped in the aforementioned wine, some thyme, a bay leaf, and my onion mixture, threw a cover on the skillet, and let the whole mess simmer down for about five minutes.

Simmering on the stove top

When the five minutes were up, I took the cover off the skillet, brought the whole mixture to a quick boil to thicken up the liquid, then divided the scallops and liquid between a couple oven-safe Pyrex dishes. I covered each dish with some grated Gruyere and dotted them with pieces of cut up butter, then through them under the broiler until the cheese began to brown.

About to be broiled

WOW. Noe and I were knocked out first by the smell - this dish is heavily aromatic. But the flavor was out of this world. First of all, that much butter can never be bad. The wine's flavor had cooked down and concentrated, and it complemented the butter and seafood exactly as I had hoped. We had thought the dish might have a strong onion flavor with all the onion and shallot I had included, but it was a subtle, delicious flavor. The herbs added a delicate finishing touch.

The scallops themselves? Slightly sweet and not at all tough - in a word, perfect.

I didn't even make a side dish for this meal -we ate it with a simple salad and some cut-up baguette to soak up the excess butter mixture (which was almost as delicious as the scallops). I served it with more Chateau La Rame Bordeaux Blanc.

Tumbler of wine; sliced baguette; finished scallops

This was quite possibly the best meal Noe and I have eaten in the past six months. He even gave me a high five when he was finished eating it. If you are intimidated by Julia's recipes, or by cooking seafood, or by the thought of eating six tablespoons of butter, I highly recommend getting over it. You won't be sorry.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Hall of Famers

Sometimes I hear myself say something and think "Wow. Did I really just say that?" Like when someone asked "Hey Amy, what did you do this weekend?" and I replied "Well, I spent Sunday drinking Chardonnay while sitting courtside at a grass-court tennis match in Newport."

I know how it sounds. But...its true. That is indeed how I spent my Sunday.

My classic tennis-watching pose,
trying to get players in the picture

Jonathan Edwards, the winery where I work part-time, was a sponsor for the Champions Cup - or as I like to call it, Old Man Tennis - at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Because Noe and I are kind of tennis geeks, I was able to snag us a pair of tickets from the girl who does outside sales and events.

I didn't realize that they were VIP tickets - box seats, lunch buffet, and free booze. That was a pleasant surprise.

The first match we watched was Jim Courrier versus Pat Cash. The great thing about these kind of tours is that although you are seeing high-quality play, the players are much more relaxed and interact with each other and the crowd a lot more. Courrier and Cash were full of witty remarks. The second match was between Todd Martin and Mark Phillipoussis, who, to be totally honest, I really only know of because he was on the stupid reality show a few years back that I believe brought the term "cougar" into the mainstream lexicon.

Here are some photos from our super-classy afternoon:


Pat Cash surrounded by fans

There is a such thing as a free lunch... and this is that lunch

Noe is pretty happy with our VIP status

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cool as a cucumber

Due in no small part to the near-record amount if rainfall we experienced in Connecticut at the beginning of the summer, I have ended up with a garden full of freakishly large cucumbers. The cucumber plants have literally overrun the entire space, choking out everything but my squash plant, which struggles valiantly to gain ground. Not only do I have an abundance of the crisp green fruit, but they are gigantic. To quote Noe the first time he looked at my garden: "What is that, a watermelon?"

You understand what I'm dealing with here.

Now, I love cucumbers. I like to slice them and eat them as snacks. They are cool and refreshing on a hot summer day. However, I can not eat an entire garden worth of radioactive-looking fruit. And honestly, after an entire week of sliced cucumbers, I was so sick of them I didn't even want to pick any more.

I knew I needed to figure out something to do, and quickly. There had to be some recipes other than gross cucumber salad involving cucumbers. I should have realized right off the bat this was a job for Julia Child. Luckily I ended up there after a few misplaced search efforts.

The first Julia cucumber recipe I attempted was baked cucumbers. This shows you how truly desperate I was to do something with these plants because I thought the idea sounded disgusting even as I was already counting out the ingredients from my cupboards. I mean, who cooks cucumbers?

Julia does, that's who. I read My Life in France. I know she's crazy. I just went with it.

The first thing I was advised by Mastering the Art of French Cooking to do was to soak the cut-up cucumbers in a mixture of wine vinegar, salt, and a bit of sugar. According to Les Tres Gourmands, this would draw the excess water out of the fruit and the cukes would not become much in the oven. I'm not a fan of mush. I followed the instruction.

After a while (hours?) I drained the cucumbers. Sure enough, there was a pool of liquid in the bowl. I tossed the drained cucumbers with some chopped green onions, some herbs, and - of course - melted butter. I cooked them for an hour, taking them out every twenty minutes to toss/stir them.

Noe and I were a bit apprehensive, but we dug in anyway. Surprisingly, the cucumbers were really quite good. The salt/vinegar/sugar marinade had not only drawn out the excess water but given them a very slight pickle-y flavor. It's hard to imagine something roasted for an hour in melted butter tasting cool and fresh, but these almost did. They also retained a bit of their crispness, which I thought was great since limp cucumbers sounded pretty gross.

The second Julia cucumber recipe was not from MTAOFC. It was from a later book and not quite as out there as the idea of baking the fruit. Recipe number two was a sort of cucumber salad. The two recipes began similarly, only recipe number two added water to the marinade of sugar, salt, and vinegar. After the cucumbers chilled out in the marinade in the refrigerator for a couple hours, I drained them, tossed them with olive oil and some fresh basil and parsley, salt and peppered them to taste, and served them up at Amanda's house. This cucumber recipe truly was cool, crisp, and delicious.

These two recipes have given me confidence that I will not grow to hate one of my favorite garden items. So if you, like me, find yourself with an abundance of cucumbers, I highly suggest letting Julia guide you on your path to cucumber enlightenment. You won't be disappointed.

Photo courtesy of

Monday, August 17, 2009

Reasons why I am kind of a horrible person

4) I'm incredibly selfish. This may seem like an odd thing for someone who spends so much time volunteering to say, but it's true. I volunteer when there is something in it for me. Volunteering for town stuff is fun for me because I meet people, make good connections, do stuff that could potentially benefit my career down the road, and help plan and attend events. At the aquarium I get to occasionally feed whales and play with sea lions. Every minute I give, I gain something I consider worthwhile in return.

3) I have, on occasion, successfully faked a conversation I knew nothing about. I consider the most grave lie I have ever told to be book-related. I have indicated that I may have read and even discussed - at length - a certain book that I have never actually read (it is only one book, and Doyle, Amanda - I have NOT pretended to have read this book in a conversation with you). In fact, I've never actually claimed to have read it, per se; I have just discussed it as if I have, and this makes me officially kind of a liar.

2) I eat certain very inhumane food products. I understand animal cruelty. I give money to the ASPCA and the Humane Society. I try to buy free-range, grass-fed, small-farm meat from local farmer's markets. But you know, every once in awhile I see veal something or the other or foi gras on a menu - neither of which have any remotely humane characteristics about them - and I just can't resist ordering. I hate myself when I say the words, but honestly, I forget how much when I take the first bite.

1) I am not really interested in anyone's baby. I try. Really, I do. (Okay, I don't try that hard.) I am just not interested in babies. They are all the same to me. Don't take it personally; I do not mean it to be insulting. But I'm just not into it and can only feign interest for so long.

Well, that was rather cathartic. If I was a good Catholic I would go to confession rather than blog it, but that's a list I'm not going to make right now.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Squash-ed Hopes and Dreams

I'm not sure how or why people started eating squash blossoms. (I'm sure there is research available on the topic; to be quite honest, I haven't really looked for any.) I had never really given the squash blossom much consideration; however, I rarely give squash much consideration as a full-grown veggie. I vastly prefer the zucchini.

I don't hate squash, though, so I wanted to plant some in my garden this year (I needed something to replace that obnoxious bean plant I ripped up). The problem is that I intended to plant a couple squash plants and a couple zucchini plants. However, I was not paying attention at the garden center and picked up some squash that had been mislabeled as zucchini - resulting in a squash takeover of my garden space.

At this point, I have only harvested two whole squash, but the vines and blossoms are flourishing. A couple days ago I started getting panicky - what was I going to do with all this squash?

Someone somewhere heard my thoughts, because suddenly everyone around me was talking about squash blossoms.

First it was my friend, describing her parents' anniversary dinner at a restaurant in Providence. Then I ran across them in a couple food newsletters and food blogs I follow. When my west coast colleague Nick posted a Facebook status update about sauteing squash blossoms, the light finally clicked on in my head and I asked him for his recipe.

People eat these?

Nick's method called for stuffing the blossoms with a cheese and herb blend, dipping them in beaten egg, dredging them lightly in cornstarch, and sauteing them in olive oil (well, he didn't specify that part; I just assumed it was olive oil) for a minute or two per side.

(I had seen some references to battered, deep-fried squash blossoms when doing my preliminary research, but a couple blogs mentioned that this completely destroys the flavor of the blossom itself. Nick had seen recipes for both deep frying and sauteing, and he chose to saute, so I followed suit.)

I headed outside to pick the blossoms, not entirely sure what I was looking for (I should have researched this better). I finally decided to pick the ones that were slightly open at the ends so I wouldn't have to force them open to stuff them, but not the ones that were wilted to the point of just dangling off the vine (foodies, if anyone has any tips on selecting squash blossoms, please post in the comments!)

Back in the house, I removed the stems and very carefully removed the pistils. This was pretty difficult. Nick said he skipped this step, but I wanted to try it.

At one point I was attacked by a giant bee that had been hiding inside a blossom and apparently objected to being smothered with cheese and thrown into hot oil.

For the stuffing, I used a blend of grated mozzarella and grated Parmesan cheeses - partly because that's what Nick used and partly because those cheeses are almost always in my refrigerator. I mixed the cheese up with some basil - dried rather than fresh because my basil plants have unfortunately succumbed to whatever bug has been plaguing them since the beginning of summer.

I stuffed the bulbous part of the blossoms, continuing up to where the ends started to taper, then - at Nick's recommendation - twisted the tops a little to keep the stuffing inside.

I beat an egg in a bowl and dipped the blossoms in, letting the excess egg drip off before dredging them lightly in a plate of cornstarch. While I was dipping and dredging, I heated a small pan with enough olive oil to coat the bottom over medium-high heat.

Blossoms in the pan

After all the blossoms were dredged, I threw them in the oil and listened to the quiet sizzle. After about a minute and a half, I turned them over with tongs to saute the other side.

I removed them with the tongs and set them on a plate of paper towels to drain the excess oil. These are meant to be consumed immediately (otherwise the coating becomes less crispy and more stale and soggy, plus the cheese stuffing re-solidifies). Luckily, Noe was walking in the door from his softball game as I was removing the blossoms from the pan. He gave me a look indicating he thought this was an odd post-game snack, but he took one anyway.

Fried deliciousness

These turned out pretty tasty. Noe thought his could have used more cheese (I probably did err on the skimpy side - I was trying not to burst the blossoms) or even some crumbled bacon in the stuffing. The cornstarch provided a light and crispy coating - just enough for a crunchy texture but not so much that you couldn't see/taste the blossom. The blossoms themselves don't have a strong flavor, but they have a tiny bit of an herb-y, earthy thing going on that I could taste (though maybe only because I really wanted it to be there).

As long as I have squash blossoms, I'll continue to try to perfect the art of cooking them. I suggest you try it, too - it's a fun twist on fried snacks, and way more interesting than just another squash from the garden.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

2 Wives are better than one

I've been meaning to get in a post about 2 Wives Brick Oven Pizza here in New London for awhile now. We all knew it was opening awhile before it actually did, thanks to being plugged in with New London Main Street and downtown in general (New London is NOT a big place). We were excited to sample the four cheese pizza with pink vodka sauce at the Spring Food Stroll. We were really excited to eat there the first time...and the second time...and the third time...and even more excited when we heard they had brunch. So how come I never got around to writing about it?

Laziness, I guess.

It was going to brunch at 2 Wives that finally convinced me that the time to blog had come. With Dev's done with brunch until fall, I've felt a need to try out some other Sunday breakfast venues (Passion Coffee House and City News - you're up next). 2 Wives' brunch menu is not extensive, but it is creative and delicious (plus, I never even expected them to offer brunch, so there's a bonus point right off the bat).

But let's start with the pizza.

I suppose I didn't want to blog about another brick oven pizzeria right on the heels of Apizzo in Pawcatuck (which does have very good pizza). Yet I was very excited that New London was getting our own brick oven pizzeria. We needed some new blood downtown, and we didn't really have any pizza offerings, let alone good pizza.

I knew when I tasted the four cheese at Food Stroll that it was a winner. However, I was surprised the first time I tried the actual pizza (not just the inch-wide snippets we got at the Stroll) how much of a winner it was.

For instance, I knew that the gorgonzola gave it that little kick in the cheese department (stronger flavor than the mozz, parm and romano, but used sparingly and effectively so as not to overpower) but I had totally missed the delicious onion-y flavor in the Food Stroll sample. Grilled onions and four cheeses equal a match made in heaven. And the pink vodka sauce is a great alternative to traditional pomodoro sauce - a little creamier with a little more bite - perfect for onions and gorgonzola.

The other pizzas we've tried have been very good, though none have rivaled the Four Cheese (that's not a bad thing - every restaurant is entitled to at least one stand-out dish, as long as the other dishes don't suffer). The Garden Pesto was completely LOADED with veggies, and the pesto actually tasted like basil, not oil. The Margharita is basic but tasty - adventurous isn't for everybody, anyway. I did think the Lasagna Pizza with meatballs was on the bland side - but perhaps that was in comparison to the other things we'd ordered? (I'd have to try it again to find out, and quite frankly, my love affair with the Four Cheese will probably prohibit that action.)

(I have not yet tried 2 Wives paninis or salads, although several look intriguing. I have heard from one person that their panini was fantastic and another that they were less-than-impressed. Both were people I would trust food judgment from. At some point I'll have to order one and find out.)

Already enamored with the pizza, I decided to go with Amanda for brunch this morning. The idea of a pizzeria serving brunch was just too intriguing to pass up.

As I said before, the menu is not extensive - there are only four things on it, with only a couple variations (but I believe you can get the regular pizzeria menu as well, which gives you the options of salads, etc) but the few things on it are VERY good.

I want to personally thank whoever invented the Eggs Benedict Calzone. People know from previous breakfast posts on this blog that I can not resist eggs benedict (although after reading Anthony Bourdain's Ktichen Confidential, I almost reconsidered my position on hollandaise sauce - almost). This delightful concoction swaps out the Canadian bacon for prosciutto (who in their right mind would complain about that substitution?!) and wraps up the eggs and the salty, delicious meat into pizza dough, which is then baked and drizzled with hollandaise.


This thing is SO good, I just might prefer it to real eggs benedict. It's huge, though - two small-ish calzones - Amanda and I could have split it (but...we didn't).

The other standout on the menu - which has been ordered by both Amanda and Carrie - is the French Toast Panini. 2 Wives dips their panini bread in egg, toasts it, then stuffs the "sandwich" with cream cheese and berries and provides the diner with a carafe of syrup to drizzle over the top. The panini bread stays nice and crisp, never falling into that "too goopy" category I feared this dish might.

The breakfast pizza seemed pretty average, nothing special (but how could a breakfast pizza compete with the two dishes I've just described? It couldn't. It was set up to fail by comparison).

2 Wives has a fairly extensive wine list for a small pizzeria - many varietals are represented (not just Pinot Grigio and Chianti, as is too often the case with "Italian" restaurants) and much of the list is available by the glass. They feature five draft beers and a selection of bottles. (There's also a very good, generously poured $5 mimosa available on the weekends to compliment your brunch.)

While I need to go back to try the salads and paninis, the pizza alone made 2 Wives a great addition to our local dining options, and I am thrilled that they do such a good weekend brunch as well. I'm looking forward to eating there many more times in the future.

Oh, those summer nights (or days)

I always blame work for my lack of blogging lately, but the real thing that has made blogging so difficult lately is that New England really can be an amazing place to be in the summer. I know I hated it when I first moved here, but we moved mid-September - by the time we unpacked and were settled, it was the gross, drizzly shoreline winter (which I'll never love).

But summer on the East Coast (when it actually shows up for a day or two at a time - we're having awful weather this year) can be truly spectacular. And the ocean is a mile and a half from my house, and the sound is NOT infested with jellyfish this year. The water was actually warm yesterday. It was awesome.

Here are some pictures of our group at Amanda's birthday party last weekend at Lake Terramuggus. Who would rather be blogging than grilling out, swimming, and spending time with friends in the sun?

Not me!

Jonas Brothers plates - you know it's a party when...

Dev's vegetable dumplings - Amanda's stroke of genius

Trifecta toasting summer with our favorite summer wine:
Don David Torrontes

Noe and Greg attempt to mow people down in the paddle boat.

Everyone in the lake - I love summer.