Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Dinner Menu for the Best of Friends

When you just want to hang out with friends and make them some really good food...


  • blue cheese and walnut spread with water crackers, red pears and fresh black figs
  • bacon-wrapped dates
  • parmesan spirals


  • Four Vines Zinfandel
  • Blue Fin Pinot Noir
  • vodka tonics
  • martinis with bleu cheese-stuffed olives

Main Course:

  • beef shank and sausage ragu with spaghetti
  • green beans with garlic and parsley
  • assorted Italian breads


  • flourless chocolate cake served with fresh whipped cream and strawberries
  • coffee

*All recipes from Everyday Food by Giada, except for ragu. Ragu taken from Bon Appetit, May 2009*

end of a dry martini with bleu cheese-stuffed olives

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Progressive Dinner Menu with Giada D.L.

Last week, Chef Reiton emailed that he'd gotten a new cookbook, Everyday Italian: 125 Simple and Delicious Recipes by Giada de Laurentiis. In it he had found a recipe for one of his favorite dishes in Italy, spaghetti alle vongole, and he wanted to make it with me. We decided that Saturday night would be all Italian, and the menu was set: caprese salad for the antipasto, spaghetti alle vongole for the primo, grilled lamb chops for the secundo, and tiramisu for the dolce.

Chef R did some research online to find a fish market very close to home that sold fresh Manila clams. Saturday afternoon after he arrived with the cookbook, we made our list and hit the stores. Items to buy? Well, besides fresh clams—lamb chops. Fresh mozzarella. Fresh basil, rosemary, thyme and parsley. Mascarpone. Cream, wine and lady fingers. (Just writing the ingredients again is making my mouth water.)

We came home, cracked a bottle of Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel,

and started preparing for the evening.

First we prepped for the tiramisu and made the cream filling. I could have eaten the entire bowl of it just as it was. Amazing what chocolate, cream, and mascarpone can become when blended together. Chef R made several pots of espresso, and we finished building dessert.

Next we worked on the marinade for the lamb chops: a blend of olive oil, fresh rosemary, garlic, and sea salt. We rubbed the chops well, then stuck them in the fridge to marinate while we took a nap. Dinner was going to be late, and we wanted to enjoy every moment of it.

When we got up, it was time to start the quicker elements of dinner. First task? Scrub the clams. We soon got a system down. I'd take a Scotchbrite pad to the poor fellas (they're still alive at this point), then he would take a veggie brush and get in the buggers' grooves. Soon the poor guys were beautifully clean—for our bellies.

Here's a look at them before the fire started:

Next Chef R started the dressing for the caprese salad. It was so simple: olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt, and fresh pepper. He sliced some Roma tomatoes, slivered the basil, and created a gorgeous dish.

At this point we put the spaghetti on to boil and started steaming the clams. Within minutes you could smell them as they simmered in the wine. I have never been much of seafood person, but I've been trying to alter my mindset about foods, as I've discussed before (thank you, Julissa), and I was rather excited about trying this dish. I was happy to notice that the aroma of it wasn't fishy; it smelled deep, actually, and full of earth. A peek under the lid showed the shells opened, and the dish was ready to be finished. Chef R drained the spaghetti, tossed it with the clams and the sauce, poured it all into the serving dish, and we garnished it with lemon zest and more parsley. Beautiful.

Now, begin eating! We sat down to our caprese salad and spaghetti alle vongole, as well as a bottle of Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau. Chef R had been looking to find a wine that was like the local table wines of Europe—nothing deep and complex, just a simple fruity wine that paired with a simple Italian meal. This is what we picked:

To say simply, as I took my first bites, our antipasto and primo blew me away. I knew I'd love the caprese, but I wasn't sure about the clams. But I can honestly say that I would make it again in a heartbeat. I loved what the lemon and wine did together, and again, the deep but not overpowering flavor of the clams. Nothing was too intense. Each taste—the lemon, garlic, wine, clams—when you thought about them individually, could be detected, but yet each bite melded the flavors together to create a very light but satisfying mouthful.

We did discover upon eating that the recipe made a TON. We had cut the recipe in half, and we still threw out enough to feed at least another person, if not two. So if you make this recipe, be prepared for a lot.

After our primo course, it was time to cook the secundo. I had pulled the chops out of the fridge while we made the clams, so they were pretty much
to room temperature. We heated the grill pan on the stove to "almost smoking," and Chef R threw the chops on to sear. The amazing smells that arose from that pan made me marvel at how people don't cook. You don't have to go out to eat like a king! And lots of times the food you make at home is BETTER than what you would pay for in a restaurant! (Oh, the joys of cooking!)

In short time, the secundo was done, and we sat down to taste the first lamb chops either of us had ever made:

OH MY GOD. Perfectly grilled. Perfectly seasoned. Perfectly sized. (Yes, Giada, we did evenly divide the chops among the two plates.)

As the last bite of chop was devoured, we both sighed. Everything had been so good, and we weren't even done. Next, the sweet end: homemade tiramisu.

We had questioned some of Giada's directions in the making of the dessert. She says to dip the lady fingers in the espresso, but what exactly is the timing of a dip? If I take a dip in a pool, I take that to mean a good 30 minutes, at least. My mom's dip is about 5. So when you dip a cookie, is it a 1-second dip, or is it a 1-2-3-4 dip? Chef R and I decided to experiment. Layer 1 was a 1-second dip. Layers 2 and 3 were 1-2-3-4 dips. Layer 4 was a mix of both. When we cut it we would see the results.

Well, it was time. We inverted the cake and sprinkled it with cocoa powder, and I handed Chef R the knife. He made the cut.

What wonders were beheld. Even layers. Espresso-soaked cookies. A rich, chocolatey cream to mellow the intensity of the coffee. My mouth couldn't wait. I put the camera down and took a bite.

About the hundredth sigh escaped my lips that evening. My taste buds were silently screaming with pleasure. And I kept thinking, "But it was so easy!"

(Afterwards, the two of us did decide that a 1-second dip was the best way to go. The cookies that went for a longer swim were a bit strong and wet; we determined that the cream would sufficiently soak into the lady fingers as it rested in the fridge, creating a nicely moist, but not wet, cake. I'm so willing to test the revised method very soon. I'm sensing a dinner party coming on...)

As the last bite of dinner settled, Chef R and I sat and stared at our empty dessert plates, then reached for our wine glasses and, for the fifth time that night, toasted each other. "You rock, Chef Reiton," I said.

And he did what I love to hear: he laughed. "Thanks," he said. And, bellies full and happy, we both smiled.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Tips on Making the Perfect Steak

The following blog is not censored for your socially-appropriate enjoyment. It may not be suitable for all audiences:

The thing I love about cooking is that you can sit in your own kitchen and scream, "I AM THE SHIT!"

I just made a steakhouse-worthy steak! I just made some kick-ass croutons for my embarrassingly large salad that I will eat by myself! I just concocted a cocktail from heaven! I am bragging up a storm about my own cooking, but I'm ALLOWED! It's MY kitchen! And it's MY food!

medium rare New York strip steak with mushroomsI LOVE TO COOK!!!

Want to make the perfect steak? Here's what I do:

Step 1: Liberally salt a 1-inch thick (or thicker) steak on both sides with kosher salt and let rest at LEAST 30 minutes on the counter (here's when I prep a veggie and salad).

Step 2: Heat a cast iron skillet until super hot. Pat steak dry with paper towels on both sides. Add a tablespoon of butter or olive oil to skillet.

Step 3: Cook steak 4 minutes per side. Remove steak from skillet to your dinner plate and tent with foil to rest for at least 5 minutes.

Optional Step 4: If you feel like sautéing some mushrooms, turn the heat down, melt a tablespoon or two of butter in the same skillet, then toss in several handfuls of sliced mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes, allowing them to get nice and browned.

All steak recipe credit goes to Chef Reiton, who so graciously passed on his secret recipe for the advancement of beef: Cows. They're what's for dinner.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Relaxed Italian Dinner Menu for Feeding My Army

Two weeks ago I invited my army of best friends over for a dinner party. I call them "my army" because that is exactly what they are: my backup, my support, my armada. And last night I needed them, so in exchange for their services, I (and Beth) decided to feed them.

And—surprise, surprise—what a fantastic time we had together. An evening with tears of laughter, full bellies and empty wine glasses.

Our appetizers were simple: Vodka-Spiked Tomatoes with Pepper-Salt (from 150 Best American Recipes) and cheese straws. Beth worked on the cheese straws

cheese strawswhile I prepped the tomatoes for the vodka marinade. To share in the experience, we both peeled the tomatoes together. My father, I believe, is the only one who can appreciate the peeling bit—so I took a picture of the "after" so he can have a little flashback:

peeled grape tomatoesFor the main course, Beth made antipasto-stuffed shells. Delicious.

antipasto stuffed shellsFor the entree, I wanted to make something different but easy, so Beth lent me her copy of "Best Make-Ahead Recipes" by Cooks Illustrated. I decided on stromboli. I hadn't had it since I was a teenager, and I thought it would be fun to try. I adapted my pizza dough recipe with a bit more whole wheat flour and then made three different strombolis: Pepperoni with Provolone and Mozzarella; Mushroom, Onion, and Roasted Peppers with Mozzarella, Provolone, and Romano; and Caprese with Mozzarella. They all turned out to be delicious. Will definitely do again. Easy to make the dough, easy to put together, easy to bake.

homemade stromboliAnd, then...Beth made dessert. OH MY GOD. She brought dough for beignets, which I'd never had, and rolled, cut and fried them right then and there. I masterfully sprinkled the steaming beignets with powdered sugar, thank you very much. And took the pictures. Just try to keep from drooling:

homemade beignets
homemade beignetsTo say the least, I thoroughly enjoyed myself: cooking, talking, eating, drinking, sharing old stories, relaxing in the presence of those I trust and love. But I don't think I was the only one. I believe, as Beth says, "A good time was had by all." For sure.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Il Mito—Wauwatosa, WI—A Restaurant Recommendation

The food:

- Bread - Warm, thick Italian bread, cleanly sliced (major pet peeve of mine when it's not) into chunks, served with a roasted red pepper puree with a swirl of basil pesto, to dip. Delicious. Nice segue from the classic olive oil and parmesan.

- Drink - Hendricks Gin & Tonic sans Cucumber. Il Mito does not include cucumber in any of their salads, and so did not have a cucumber to put in my Hendricks G & T. They all felt really bad about it, and Deanna told me that if the supermarket across the street were open she would have run across to buy one. Sweet. I missed it, but Hendricks is so fucking good, I somehow survived. Deanna actually recommended that the next time I make a Hendricks G & T to add one twist from a black pepper grinder to finish the drink. I am very intrigued. Will definitely try that. Sounds very Violet Hour.

- Insalata Mista - a mix of baby greens and sliced lettuces, including basil, which gave the salad a delightful kick every couple bites, with diced tomato and julienned carrots, tossed in a creamy white balsamic dressing. Note: the julienned carrots were pretty, but annoying to eat. And my salad server only gave me one twist of black pepper???

- Ortagi Pizza - a nicely sized vegetable pizza with spinach, grilled tomato, eggplant, zucchini, basil pesto and mozzarella cheese. My waitress, Deanna, recommended adding some goat cheese to it. I usually am not crazy about goat cheese, but I said 'yes' since she recommended it. Wow. I'm glad I did. A light, crisp, thin flour crust. Needed a sprinkling of salt, but just a teeny bit.

- Flourless Chocolate Hazelnut Torte - an individual flourless chocolate cake flipped from a ramekin over a swirl of chocolate and raspberry sauces, garnished with a dollop of fresh whipped cream and a sliced strawberry. Thank you for not including mint! The chocolate flavor could have been a bit headier--darker--for my taste; it finished a bit bland, but the sauces and whipped cream helped curb that.

- Coffee - Alterra Coffee, roasted by two local brothers in Milwaukee. Delicious. I'd put it up there with LaVazza. Almost.

A Single Diner's Observation—and the Creating of a Food Blog

This evening was not unlike other nights. I was hungry, and I wanted to eat.

Being in Milwaukee for a weekend alone, I decided to take myself out for dinner. After a quick search on Open Table, I found a highly recommended little Italian restaurant called Il Mito on the western edge of the city in Wauwatosa. I booked myself a reservation for 6:30 and got ready to take myself out.

Upon arriving at the restaurant and being seated, I began to take note of something I had never noticed before: there are definite perks to dining alone. Servers aren't used to individuals--and I'm going to assume here--especially women, dining out alone. I think most people find the thought of not having anyone to talk to during the meal uncomfortable, and so find it slightly out-of-the-ordinary when someone does come walking into a restaurant, especially with a reservation, to eat a meal alone. And because of this supposed oddness, servers feel bad for you. And intrigued. I was asked by the host as I was seated if I had been in last week. I told him, no, this was my first time here. My waitress, Deanna, came to the table and said, "You've been here before, correct?" Again, I said no. She told me that I looked familiar. That I actually looked like someone from TV. We began to chat and laugh about my "twin," and the atmosphere for my evening out, right then and there, was set. Deanna and I were buddies. I was going to be taken care of.

And I was. But not just by Deanna. The bartender talked to me several times. The host stopped by again to check on me. The waiter from two tables over chatted with me a couple times. I was an anomaly. I was unattached. So I was approachable. Deanna and I talked repeatedly, about my food, my drink, the coffee. I got more personality from all of them than anyone else in the restaurant. And that made my dining experience especially enjoyable.

My royal treatment might have also been because I had a notepad on the table and wrote continuously during my meal. I could see it being eyeballed during the course of the evening: what is it that she's writing? Honestly, it began as notes for the bottles of wine that I saw on the bar. But I suddenly realized as I ate that I was having a dialogue in my head about the food that I was eating, just as I do with my friends when we go out. And it came to mind--why don't I write this stuff down? Take notes about the food I eat. What I like about it. What I don't like. Ideas that I have to try. Restaurants that I'd recommend. Stories of dining.

And so my notebook became not just a list of wines that I saw on the bar, but a record of what I ate and what I thought about it. A running tab of random thoughts--about my food.

And so, here I am, beginning another blog for myself and for my friends: a track record of everything food- and drink-related. For ourselves and the food that feeds our souls.

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