24 March 2008

Iron Chef Krikava

I just got back from a business trip to Washington, DC. While I was there I attended a reception in honor of Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. When I got the invitation, it said that it was a cook-off in her honor.

When I replied that I would attend, I asked, “So what does it mean ‘cook-off?’ Is this like ‘Iron Chef DC?’” Well it turns out that this is an annual event, and several members of Congress, including Rep. DeLauro, and other DC luminaries do indeed prepare specialty food items for the reception. I noted that I would be interested in preparing my personal specialty – Risotto alla Cardinale – for the event.

I got a reply indicating that I would be welcome to participate in the cook-off.

o.m.g.

As I began to think about what would be involved, it suddenly struck me that I had rashly volunteered for something that was way outside my comfort zone. For those of you who have read Krik’s Picks for a while, I think you realize that I like to cook for my family and friends. But as I started to think about the implications of my impulsive gesture, I realized, “Hey, I could embarrass myself.”

It was probably an irrational fear. I’ve made this recipe probably on average of every other week for years. I know I make it well. The reason why I picked it is because it’s one of my wife’s favorite recipes. It’s simple. Really, all it takes is good ingredients and a little experience with cooking rice.

Nevertheless, the anticipation began to weigh on me. When I’ve made this recipe, it’s been in the controlled environment of my own kitchen. My wife and I designed it ourselves. We planned it to accommodate making food that we enjoy ourselves and share with our family and friends. So while I was confident that my risotto recipe would turn out well in my own kitchen, I started to worry about my ability to prepare it in another kitchen.

As the date of the event approached, I found myself lying awake at night trying to anticipate just how it all would work out. Then came the coup de grace. I got an e-mail with some instructions for the event, and it became clear to me that most of the participants would be preparing their food at home and just bringing it to the restaurant for the reception.

o.m.g.

My home is 900 miles away in Edina, Minn. I contacted the event organizer and explained that I obviously could not prepare the risotto at home and simply bring it to the restaurant. Should I drop out? No, I was told. There will be other participants who will use the restaurant kitchen to either prep or finish their dishes.

What might have been a convenient excuse to drop out evaporated with the assurance that I could in fact prepare my risotto at the restaurant. Now I began to get seriously nervous. The week before the event, my wife and I were in the Napa Valley and San Francisco. I found myself waking up at 4 a.m. thinking through everything that might go wrong.

We returned from San Francisco on Saturday. On Sunday, I packed for DC. I packed the dry ingredients for the recipe. I also packed a Land O'Lakes apron and cap to wear while cooking. I planned to visit a DC grocery to buy the remaining ingredients – butter, shallots, and canned tomatoes. I took care of that on Monday after dinner. (By the way, I had called earlier in the day to make sure that they did indeed carry Land O'Lakes butter.)

After my meetings were over on Tuesday, I gathered my ingredients and left for the restaurant. The venue for the event was Ristorante Tosca. It’s a highly rated Italian restaurant downtown. Very elegant. I arrived at 3:30 p.m. and was introduced to Massimo Fabbri, the executive chef. He was very reassuring and accommodating. We talked about what I needed to do to prep the dish and the timetable for getting it done for the reception.

I put on my apron and cap and started chopping the shallots and crushing the tomatoes. Paolo Sacco, one of the co-founders of Tosca, came in and greeted me. We joked about the fact that I was the only cook in the kitchen wearing a tie. He said that he also wore a tie when he cooked. He asked what I was making. When I told him it was risotto with tomatoes, I sensed a bit of surprise. I got the recipe from a traditional Italian cookbook. But I clearly sensed that this was not a method of preparing risotto that they use at Tosca.

Massimo put the tomatoes and broth on the range to simmer, and I got out of the way of the kitchen staff as they worked on the evening’s menu items.

It doesn’t take long to prepare risotto. About 45 minutes before the beginning of the reception, I went back into the kitchen and began sautéing the shallots. By now, the kitchen was a hectic scene with people preparing a myriad of restaurant offerings. Meanwhile, other participants in the cook-off started arriving and coming into the kitchen to finish their items. I was both proud, but also self-conscious, of my Land O'Lakes apron, cap, and box of butter as I stood amongst them stirring my risotto.

At the station next to me, another cook was preparing the restaurant’s risotto for the evening. As I began adding my tomato and vegetable stock, he asked me if I wanted to use some wine. I know that it’s traditional to use a good pour of wine at the beginning of a risotto. But my recipe did not call for it, and I somewhat sheepishly declined.

As I was working Massimo came by and asked if he could taste it. I would be honored, I said. He tasted it. Needs a little salt, he said. I did add a little salt. But I told Massimo that the cheese would add salt as would the butter that I planned to use to finish the risotto.

Despite my trepidation, the risotto finished just exactly as it does when I cook it at home. I stirred in the parmesan cheese, some minced parsley, and some butter to finish it, then covered it and let it sit. (You’re supposed to quit cooking risotto when the grains are still slightly al dente and the dish is still kind of soupy. When you let it sit, the rice absorbs the rest of the liquid.) Massimo provided me with a serving bowl. I transferred my rice to the bowl and left to join the guests at the reception.

As a symptom of my excitement, I had alerted several of my friends and colleagues in DC about the event. I guess if you’re going to embarrass yourself, you might as well do it big. But to be honest, now that I was done cooking, I shifted into a kind of hyper-drive. I sought out the judges and began schmoozing them. When the guests started moving through the reception and sampling the food, I positioned myself behind the table and invited people to try my risotto.

The rest of the evening actually was pretty much a blur – greeting people, good-naturedly hyping my risotto, joking with the other cook-off participants.

As the evening drew to a close, Rep. DeLauro made a few remarks, introduced all the participants, and then asked the judges to announce their decisions.

First place was Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., who made a pulled pork with two kinds of barbecue sauce. Second place was Richard Michalski, a labor union official, who made a wonderful roasted tenderloin of beef with a horseradish, mustard sauce.

This is the truth. I was congratulating Richard, and I wasn’t even listening to who won third place. As we were chatting, the organizer came up to me and told me that I had won third place. My award was a gift certificate to DC restaurant that I have never been to before. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted, honored, and pleased beyond description. (I’ll try the restaurant on a future trip to DC. Keep watching Krik’s Picks for the review.)

By the way, Rep. Berry is a farmer and a rice grower from Arkansas; he was very happy that I cooked rice. Please – eat at Tosca and try my risotto recipe!

19 March 2008

Dinner at UVA Trattoria, Napa, CA

After a day of wine-tasting and sightseeing in the Napa Valley, we checked into our Bed-and-Breakfast in the town of Napa. Though we have visited the Napa Valley many times, we’d never stayed there. As we considered where to stay, wavered between staying in a quaint little wine town like Yountsville or in a bigger town like Napa where we might find a little nightlife. We opted for Napa.

Our lodging for the night was the Blackbird Inn. We checked in, got settled in, then went downstairs to enjoy the nightly wine reception with the other guests. Then we strolled downtown to find someplace to eat.

We had done a little research on line, so we weren’t wandering aimlessly. We read about two places that advertised live music, so we walked to both, checking out other places along the way. We were surprised how lifeless downtown Napa was fairly early in the evening. Nearly all of the shops were closed and there weren’t many people on the street. Most of the restaurants though were reasonably busy. I read at least one other travel guide lamenting the fact that the town shuts down in the evening; I’m sure our experience at least partly can be explained by the fact that early March is not prime tourist season for Napa.

One place we checked out seemed promising for the music, but it was mostly a burger bar, and that’s not what we wanted to eat. Across the street was a tapas restaurant. We like tapas and we considered eating there and then going back to the bar for music. But before committing, we decided to walk to the other end of Main Street to check out UVA Trattoria.

We knew almost immediately as we walked up that this is where we would spend the evening. Warm, golden light spilled out of the door and the front window as we walked up. The décor was comfortable and inviting. The walls were covered with photos of sports figures and movie stars (a common theme for casual Italian restaurants, I’ve noticed). A jazz trio was performing in front of the dining room and bar. This is just what we were looking for.

We asked for a table where we could see the musicians and were told it would be a short wait. Really short. We ordered drinks. I’d had about enough wine for the day, so I ordered a martini. Linda had a glass of California Viognier. Before our drinks were delivered, our table was ready for us.

UVA (it usually appears in all capital letters) has a very varied menu. You can get pizza or pasta or casual dinners, or you can order a full dinner including nightly specials. We decided to go with the specials.

My meal was seared diver scallops served on linguine pasta. The sauce had toasted garlic, lemon, and Calabrian chilis. The dish was topped with tender fava leaves. I thought it was fantastic. The scallops were prepared perfectly – very tender and moist, not at all rubbery. The linguine and sauce were very nice together. The lemon was very refreshing and the chilis were very flavorful without being the least bit hot. At first I thought the fava leaves were beet leaves (and maybe they were, but the menu said they were fava leaves).

Linda had the fish special. It was grilled swordfish with a warm frisee salad, crab meat, walnuts, radicchio and candied kumquats. The piece of fish was cut quite thin. But it was very carefully done so that it was cooked through (as Linda likes it) but still moist and tender. The frisee salad resembled a bed of wilted spinach. The accompaniments all were good, but the highlight were the candied kumquats.

Both meals were fantastic. We savored the flavors as the trio played a series of jazz standards. We paid our check just as the band finished its second set, and we walked back to the Blackbird to rest up for another day of our Northern California vacation.

17 March 2008

Lunch at Bouchon, Napa, CA

Thomas Keller has a bistro in Yountville just up the street from his world famous destination restaurant, the French Laundry. It’s called Bouchon. During an afternoon of touring Napa wineries, my wife and I decided to give it a try.

We didn’t have reservations. Fortunately for us, it was a Wednesday afternoon in early March. The hordes of visitors hadn’t begun to descend on the Napa Valley yet, and we were able to get a table.

When they designed Bouchon, they spared no expense on making it look and feel like a French bistro. Everything – the lights, the wall tiles, the bar, the brass rails – conjures images of a casual restaurant that serves simply prepared, delicious food. Which is, of course, what a bistro is.

We’d just come from a winery and planned to visit more after lunch. So we decided not to have a glass of wine at lunch. Instead, I had iced tea and Linda just had water. Our server brought some French bread and a small pot of butter that we enjoyed as we perused the menu.

Lunch at Bouchon can be anything from a multi-course feast to a simple sandwich, quiche, or soup. It’s hard to choose. The menu tempts you with many appealing alternatives. Since we planned to have a full dinner later that evening, we decided to keep it simple at lunch.

I had the ‘tartine du jour.’ It was tuna salad with Nicoise olives. It was generously piled on a piece of toasted levain and artfully arranged with a row of sliced hard boiled egg, each piece of egg topped with a paper-thin slice of radish. It was served with a side of pomme frites. The sandwich was very flavorful and ample for lunch. The fries were crisp and light.

Linda had the daily quiche. Our server said it was prepared in the style of a custard. As we waited for it to be served, we wondered what that would mean. It turned out to be a rich, creamy mixture inside the pastry and wonderful, crusty, buttery top. It was served with a mixture of greens and a light vinaigrette which Linda asked be served on the side.

It was a wonderful dining experience all the effort to create an authentic bistro experience comes at a price - $35 for a tuna salad sandwich, a slice of quiche, and a glass of iced tea, no wine, no dessert, no coffee.

Another great dinner at Stella’s in Minneapolis

My daughter was in town last weekend. We went to Stella’s for dinner. I’ve written about Stella’s before so I don’t feel like I have to give you a lot of background about it. So this will be a short post about our meal … which was fantastic! It might have been the best we’ve had of our many visits to the restaurant.

All three of us had entrées from the Chef’s signature section of the menu.

I had pan-seared scallops on mango risotto. The scallops were moist and tender, cooked to perfection. The risotto had diced pieces of mango in it. The sweetness of the mango was a delicious compliment to the scallops. It was finished with a jalapeno cream which added a contrasting heat to the overall dish.

My daughter had char-grilled seafood kabob. This might have been the best bargain of the evening. If you click on the photo, you should see an enlarged view and if you look closely, you can get a sense for how much fish was on the skewer. There were two large chunks of tuna, two large chunks of salmon, and a couple of jumbo shrimp. Also on the skewer were peppers and onions; I honestly think the skewer was 24 inches long. As if that weren’t enough, it was all served on a side of garlic mashed potatoes. Yum!

My wife had parmesan-crusted halibut. The fish was cooked through like she likes it, but it wasn’t at all dry – just moist and flakey. The parmesan crust was very light and just added a salty, pungent accent to the delicate flavor of the fish.

The restaurant was crowded on Saturday night, and the noise level was formidable. But we had a very delightful server who gave us very reliable tips about the food. She was really great. You could tell she really likes working there, and she absolutely raved about how much she likes the food at Stella’s

So do we. You should give it a try.

09 March 2008

A business dinner at Solera, Minneapolis

Why did it take me so long to try Solera? It’s been around now for several years. It gets mostly good reviews. Several co-workers have recommended it. Now, having eaten there recently, I’ve discovered that I love it and regret that it took so long to try it.

At the end of February, during the Land O'Lakes annual meeting, a group of us made plans to entertain visiting leaders from the National Milk producers Federation. The person in charge of picking the restaurant suggested Solera. I thought it was a great idea – close to the convention center where the annual meeting was being held and with a menu that would offer enough variety to suit everyone’s tastes.

We had eight people in our group; not too big, but they gave us a private room anyway. The décor in the restaurant is really fun. Our room evoked a cavern with red-draped walls and ceilings and ornate cloth hanging lanterns. The Spanish theme is reflected throughout the restaurant with saturated reds and blues.

The Spanish décor is appropriate since Solera is primarily known as a tapas restaurant. It has some entrées on the menu. Notably, it’s supposed to have a very good paella. But most of the menu is dedicated to the tapas. Personally, I like tapas. I like the opportunity to experience several different flavors. There’s sort of an ideal size group for tapas. Two people is probably too few unless you really intend to splurge. For my wife and I, we would probably order only three or maybe four tapas one dish at a time for a meal for the both of us. That’s fine, but if you have four people, you probably end up ordering and trying six to eight dishes, they get brought out two or three at a time, and that’s more in the spirit of tapas dining.

Arguably, our group of eight might have been too big. On the one hand, not everyone liked every plate that was brought out. But there were a few plates that everyone wanted to try, and there wasn’t quite enough to go around. On a few, we ordered a second round, but then we ended up having too much to eat. (Tapas can be expensive if you don’t quit ordering after you’ve had your fill.)

Solera offers a ‘tasting menu’ which is a pretty good option for a large group like we had. They take care of selecting the dishes that will be served and the pace that the food is brought out. I can’t remember all of the dishes that we tried, but I had a few favorites:

Smoked black cod with olives and smoked paprika vinaigrette – this was one of the first dishes brought out. I loved it. The smoky flavors of the cod and the paprika went well together and the salty olives provided a nice complementary flavor.

Piquillo peppers stuffed with herbed goat’s milk cheese – these were brilliantly red peppers filled with a wonderful goat cheese that had been flavored with mixed herbs. I could have eaten the whole plate myself.

Grilled Spanish and Portuguese sausages with white bean flan – this was another dish that I really liked, but there were others around the table who didn’t, so I was able to have more of them. The sausages were very flavorful and not overly spicy. They mixed very well with the white beans (which to me were more like a puree rather than a flan.)

Braised lamb with almond-date couscous and harissa – the lamb was cooked to perfection and was fork-tender. The couscous was slightly sweet with the flavor of dates. The harissa added a nice, spicy kick to the whole dish.

There were many more plates served over the course of an hour. I liked most of them, but these were the ones that I would definitely order again on a return visit.

For me, there definitely will be a return visit. Solera is a restaurant that I truly enjoyed for it’s wonderful food and exotic ambiance.

After-dinner drinks at the ice bar at the Chambers Hotel in Minneapolis

After dinner at Solera (previous post), our group walked across Hennepin Avenue to the Chambers Hotel to experience their ice bar.

None of us had ever been there, even the locals. But the concept of an ice bar was pretty alien to our guests. A bar, literally formed from ice, serving iced vodkas, outside, in the middle of winter, temperature hovering in the mid-teens (Fahrenheit) – now that is something they don’t see in Washington, DC, or California (or many other places either, for that matter).

There was a small but friendly crowd huddled around the open fireplace in the courtyard of the Chambers. I think the ice bar probably is pretty conducive to breaking down social barriers so that total strangers feel comfortable joking with you and taking your picture.

In the summer, they have a traditional bar in the same courtyard. The restaurant at the hotel (Chambers Kitchen) is one of my favorites in Minneapolis. I’ve written about it twice on Krik’s Picks.

Preview of coming attractions: Porter & Frye, the Ivy Hotel, Minneapolis

After Land O'Lakes annual meeting, we stopped in to check out a new luxury hotel and condominium complex – the Ivy Hotel & Residence – and the new restaurant there called Porter & Frye. It looks very promising.

We had a cocktail at the bar while checking out the menus for the restaurant. The bar is very stylish. It’s at street level and looks out on the 2nd Avenue traffic. It almost has the feel of an English pub (and I suppose the name it intended to convey the same comparison). While you can order food in the bar, the main dining room is in the basement level, very similar to the configuration of the lobby bar and lower-level restaurant at the Chambers.

Unlike Chambers Kitchen, which is more open, Porter & Frye has several small nooks and private dining areas.

I thought the lunch and dinner menus looked very promising. Porter & Frye also is open for breakfast, but seemed expensive, even for a high-end hotel.

As we were leaving, we bumped into a couple other Land O'Lakes people who do our company meeting planning. They were getting a tour of the hotel and meeting space, so we tagged along. It was very impressive, but also very expensive. It’s a great addition to downtown Minneapolis.

The Ivy Tower has quite a history. For more than 20 years, it stood derelict – a historic site but too small to restore and renovate and still make any money. So the solution was to preserve the structure but build a gleaming new complex around it. We’ll see how well the concept is accepted in Minneapolis. I’m glad to see it preserved, and I’m looking forward to trying the restaurant. When I do, you will see my opinion here on Krik’s Picks.

Food and the Academy Awards

On the Thursday before Oscar night, the Taste Section of the StarTribune ran in item on food in the movies. The article singled out two movies with food-related themes that came out in 2007. they were Ratatouille and The Waitress.

So far, I haven’t seen either, and I probably won’t see The Waitress. From the Strib article and reviews I’ve read about the movie, I don’t think I’d like the plot. I also would quibble with the Strib about the food theme, which sounds pretty incidental to the plot of the movie.

Ratatouille, on the other hand, is on my list of movies that I’d still like to see someday (maybe when my granddaughter is old enough to watch a movie with me). It sounded like a clever story, and food certainly plays a central part of the plot. I love how when the movie came out, it inspired a (brief) renewal of interest in ratatouille as a dish. It began appearing on menus and recipes were published for people to try. I’m glad the movie picked up an Oscar for best animated feature film.

In our family, my wife used to make ratatouille quite often, back when we had a yard that was more suitable for a garden. We grew lots of zucchini and tomatoes and it was pretty simple to buy a few additional ingredients and cook up a batch. In our current house, we have too much shade and too many hungry critters to have a very successful vegetable garden. But my son and his family now have a house and a yard that will produce a beautiful garden. So perhaps he’ll share some of his bounty.

Back to the subject of food in the movies, I have three all-time favorite food-related movies.

Like Water for Chocolate: The main character in this movie must sublimate a burning passion for a man she cannot have, so she redirects her passion to food. I loved the Mexican imagery and mysticism of this movie.

Big Night: This is a sad and wonderful story of two brothers who share a vision for a restaurant that will serve authentic Italian cuisine. They are so dedicated to the purity of their vision that fail to recognize that it is not shared by their patrons, and they can’t understand why their business is failing.

Mostly Martha: The title character of this movie also is a chef who is driven by an uncompromising vision of the cuisine that she prepares. She is volatile and prone to confronting diners who fail to appreciate the exquisiteness of the food she prepares. Because her food enjoys wide acclaim, she is a success. But her personal life is a mess until she must deal with caring for a young niece and an Italian co-worker.

I’ve seen other good food movies. But these three are the ones that I keep coming back to.

Recipe: Pizza Rustica

For our Academy Awards dinner this year, I made Pizza Rustica. I made the recipe once before several years ago and it turned out good. When I decided to make it again, I looked it up on Epicurious. When I looked it up for my encore preparation, one of the user comments referred to a better recipe on the Food Network web site. There actually were several on that site. I liked the one by Giada De Laurentiis the best. The recipe below is adapted mostly from Giada’s version. I decided to layer the ingredients instead of combining them all in the ricotta mixture. I also substituted mushrooms for sausage, I included roasted red peppers in the mixture, and I didn’t include any prosciutto. It turned out really well. Try it and enjoy!

Pizza Rustica

2 tablespoons olive oil
8 ounces white mushrooms
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 (10-ounce) package frozen cut-leaf spinach, thawed and drained
1 (15-ounce) container whole milk ricotta
12 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan
2 roasted red bell peppers

Pastry Dough, recipe follows
1 large egg, beaten to blend

Position the rack on the bottom of the oven, and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Squeeze the spinach to drain as much liquid as possible. Into a large bowl, add egg yolks and beat lightly. Stir in the ricotta and 1/3 cup of Parmesan cheese. Add the spinach and garlic to the mixture and stir to combine.

Roll out larger piece of dough on a lightly floured work surface to a 17-inch round. Transfer the dough to a 9-inch springform pan. Trim the dough overhang to 1 inch. Spoon ½ of the ricotta mixture into the dough-lined pan. Layer in the red pepper, mushrooms, and half of the mozzarella. Cover with remaining half of the ricotta mixture and remaining mozzarella.

Roll out the remaining piece of dough into a 12-inch round. Place the dough over the filling. Pinch the edges of the doughs together to seal, then crimp the dough edges decoratively. Brush the beaten 1 large egg over the entire pastry top. Sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons Parmesan over the top. Bake on the bottom shelf until the crust is golden brown, about 1 hour.

Let stand 15 minutes. Release the pan sides and transfer the pizza to a platter. Cut into wedges and serve.

Pastry Dough:


3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs, beaten to blend
2 to 4 tablespoons ice water

Blend the flour, the butter, the shortening and salt in a food processor until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Blend in the eggs. With the machine running, add the water 1 tablespoon at a time until the dough forms. Gather the dough into a ball. Divide the dough into 2 pieces, with 1 piece twice as large as the second piece. Flatten the dough pieces into disks. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until the dough is firm enough to roll out, about 30 minutes.

Yield: 2 dough pieces (enough for 1 Pizza Rustica)
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Inactive Prep Time: 30 minutes