25 October 2013

Recipe: Broccoli Cheddar Soup warms a chilly Oct. day

Since retiring in July, I’ve had to start planning things to have for lunch. When I was working, I’d either have a lunch meeting, or I’d eat in the cafeteria, or I’d skip lunch (especially if I’d had a good breakfast that day). I might still choose to skip lunch, but that would mean my wife would have to eat lunch alone, and she’d prefer not to. So I’ve been planning leftovers and other dishes that I can quickly heat up for lunch.

Now that it’s October and the weather is getting chilly, soup is a logical choice. This week, I decided I wanted to make a cheese soup. I had an ulterior motive. I may have mentioned in a previous post that I had a particularly robust crop of Serrano peppers in my garden. They were ripening faster than I could use them. So I went looking for a recipe for homemade pepper sauce. I settled on the recipe I found on the Food Network web site from Emeril Lagasse. (Click here: Homemade Red Hot Sauce.) SerranoPeppers

Here is a photo of my beautiful Serrano peppers. I followed Emeril’s recipe as posted.

I decided a cheese soup would taste good with a little bit of the pepper sauce stirred in. So I started looking for a cheese soup recipe. I actually was a bit frustrated that it wasn’t easy to find one … at least it wasn’t easy to find a recipe that sounded good to me.

Finally I found this recipe for Broccoli Cheddar Soup from the Cabot Creamery co-op in New England. It’s pretty easy to make – sauté with butter half an onion and two cubed potatoes. Dust the vegetables with flour and let it cook a couple minutes. Stir in equal amounts of milk and chicken stock (I used a homemade turkey stock). When the broccoli is cooked tender, stir in grated cheddar cheese, season, and serve.

One modification of the recipe, of course, I added a scant teaspoon of the pepper sauce to my bowl when I ate it. The pepper sauce created a warm glow in my mouth while eating the soup. (Instead of the homemade pepper sauce, you could use Tabasco, New Orleans Hot Sauce, or any other kind of hot sauce that you might like.)

The other major modification was that I blended the soup after the broccoli was cooked. If you look at the photo on Cabot’s web site, you’ll see that it’s more of a chowder consistency, with chunks of broccoli and potato. I wanted more of a smooth soup with smaller chunks of broccoli in it. So I poured the batch into my blender and gave it a quick whirl. Then I poured it back into the pot and stirred in the grated cheese. It turned out great.

I did actually make one other modification. Cabot’s recipe calls for Cabot butter when sautéing the onions and potatoes. I used Land O Lakes.

Sorry I didn’t take a picture of my final version.

So here’s my verdict. My wife and I ate about half of the pot of soup for lunch. I’ll have the rest for lunch over the next couple of days. My wife doesn’t like the potatoes in the soup. She asked if next time, I would make it with only one potato. My feeling is that the potato primarily helps to make the soup thicker. By blending it before stirring in the cheese, I’m not sure it even needs the potato. Next time, I may simply leave the potatoes out.

24 October 2013

La Mediterranee NYC – good food, comfortable ambiance, jazz

My wife and I arrived in New York on a Thursday afternoon. We were looking forward to a long weekend of good food and jazz music. We did our typical prep for our trip, looking up restaurants in the neighborhood of our hotel (Omni Berkshire Place, Midtown East) and checking menus and online ratings.

For our first night, anticipating that we would be tired from traveling and not yet very familiar with our locale, we picked a restaurant that also had music. La Mediterranee was a 6-block walk from the hotel. We liked the menu (French bistro) and on Thursday nights, in addition to the house piano player (French and American standards), they also have another guest combo. DSC00544

Because we had had a late lunch, we delayed our reservation until 8:30. We arrived in time for the last few minutes of the house pianist’s performance. Sipping a cocktail and listening to him, we could tell that he really enjoyed performing. He played with intensity and enthusiasm that was easily conveyed to the diners. We were disappointed when he closed his book at 9 p.m.

While the guest combo set up, we ordered our food.

One of the things my wife and I both liked about our past trips to France was the fixed price menus that offer a three-course meal. That is one of the options at La Mediterranee, and that’s what my wife decided to order. She started with the French onion soup, which was very rich, and she enjoyed it very much. Her entrée was pistachio crusted salmon, which also was delicious. For dessert, she ordered mixed berries with cream.

I decided I wanted the beef Bourguignon for my entrée. It was offered on the fixed price menu. But the salad I wanted was not. So I decided to order off the ala carte menu. I started with a goat cheese salad with pistachios, tomatoes and orange segments. Excellent. My entrée was very flavorful and fork-tender. I was very pleased by the meal. Lucky me, my wife shared some of her dessert.

The guest combo that started playing shortly after 9 was great. We liked them so much that we asked where they would be playing the next night. (In the end, we didn’t go listen to them, but kind of regretted it.) They quit playing at 11, maybe a little early for our preference; we would have happily ordered more drinks and stayed until midnight. But not bad for a Thursday in an unfamiliar city after a day of travel.

As the evening came to an end, we struck up a conversation with the diners sitting at the next table. They were a brother and sister and their 90+ year old mother. They all were having as much fun as we were. They told us that they are regulars at La Mediteranee and really appreciate the hospitality of the owner-host. We could tell that the restaurant, perhaps not on the radar screen of the city’s Foodie scene, had an intensely loyal clientele.

It was our favorite restaurant of our visit to New York.

15 October 2013

A great meal w/ friends at Burch Mpls.

I kinda thought that I was all done celebrating retirement. But when the offer came to host a dinner in my honor, I didn’t hesitate to accept. When asked for suggestions about a venue, I offered a couple of tried and true favorites and then added Burch Steak & Pizza. I hadn’t been to Burch but wanted to give it a try. So I was pleased when the host picked that as the restaurant.

As the date approached, I asked a few acquaintances about their opinions. I discovered an interesting division of opinion. There are some people who are totally unimpressed by Burch. It’s not that they think it’s bad. But the attitude is that it’s an expensive meal and the steaks are not that special. On the other hand, I talked to others who really loved the place.

My observation is that those views are not really as divergent as they may seem. The main area of agreement is on the sides and starters. Most of the people I talked to raved about them, even to the extent of (the naysayers) suggesting that the starters and appetizers were the only thing worth the fuss. DSC00542

Our group certainly enjoyed the starters. Now, I wasn’t in charge of the meal. So I didn’t pick the starters and I didn’t get to taste everything that was ordered. What I do know is that they disappeared very quickly. Three items that I tasted and particularly impressed me were the fish starters – salmon tartar, ahi tuna, and marlin crudo.

I tasted the salmon tartar first. It’s served with shallots and kalamata olives and is dressed with a citrus-infused olive oil (called agrumato on the menu). I thought the flavors were sublime. Next I tried the ahi tuna, and it was as good as I’ve had anywhere else. Then came the marlin crudo. It was was very unique, served with peppers, onions, and pine nuts and was excellent.

One item that was in high demand was sea beans with crab. I actually didn’t get to taste any, but the consensus around the table was that they were fantastic.

Not everyone ordered a salad, but my wife and I did (and we shared with others). I thought mine was excellent. It was hearts of palm and frisee (also called curly endive) with avocado and smoked trout. I particularly liked the smoked trout – moist and delicate with a delightful smoky flavor. My grandfather used to smoke trout, and I truly loved it. But it’s a difficult thing to make without letting the trout get dried out.

As far as the sides go, Burch is known for its dumplings. Our table ordered a variety of them. They all were good. For me, the most noteworthy were the ‘Schupfnudel’ with walnuts and gorgonzola.

So at a restaurant called Burch ‘Steak’ you might wonder if they put much effort into non-beef items. Well a few at our table had fish, and they raved. In particular, the tuna that was on special that night drew big praise from those who tried it.

I opted for steak, however. Burch offers quite a variety of steak options. The menu presents multiple cuts of meat in three categories – grass-fed, prime, and Waygu. I was leaning toward the 7-oz. prime New York steak, and that is what my wife had. But one of my friends really wanted to split the 32-oz. prime rib eye. His wife said she wanted fish, so I agreed to split it with him.

The rib eye was excellent. But it reminded me that I really do prefer a leaner steak. My wife let me taste her New York steak, and I thought it was better. They do serve a small sampling of sauces with the steaks, including sautéed mushrooms. I thought they were good, but the steaks really stood on their own and didn’t need a sauce to enhance any flavors.

So going back to the views that were offered by other people, those who were lukewarm about Burch felt that it was expensive for what you got. Well since I wasn’t paying, I can’t really provide an assessment of overall value. But comparing Burch to downtown steakhouses, I would compare it favorably to any of them, and would recommend the sides and starters as truly distinguishing components of the meal.

I’d go back in a minute.

09 October 2013

Working lunch at Capital Grill, Mpls.

All right, so I’m retired. Every once in a while, my former colleagues find that they need to consult to get some background or perspective on a working matter. And I’m happy to oblige, as long as lunch is included.

So it was that I ended up at the Capital Grill in Minneapolis for a very pleasant business lunch. My colleague wanted to touch base on a few matters, and he also needed to check out the Capital Grill as a possible venue for a future business dinner. Suits me just fine. CapGrillLunch

I probably had lunch at the Capital Grille in DC more often than in Minneapolis. By and large, the chain is a good, reliable steakhouse and a nice place to have a lunch meeting. As I perused the menu, I was intrigued by the addition of a three-course lunch menu that I don’t recall seeing (at any location) in the past.

That’s what I opted for, as did my colleague.

Course 1: I started with a special soup, squash bisque with crab. Excellent.

Course 2: I was wavering between the luncheon steak or a lobster roll. If I had gone with the lobster roll, I probably would not have started with the crab soup. But the server offered me an item that was not on the menu yet – sirloin hash with an egg. That clinched it for me. I love hash.

Course 3: Green beans that were wonderfully sautéed and buttery.

At $18, this wasn’t a bargain lunch. But I liked the variety of offerings and the Capital Grille always does an excellent job with preparation and presentation.

If anyone wants to treat me to a business lunch, I’d happily return to Capital Grille.

07 October 2013

At long last! Tomatoes from my garden

I think it’s been about 25 years since I successfully grew tomatoes in my garden. I used to have great success with tomatoes as well as zucchini, snap peas, string beans, even one year Brussels sprouts. And roses, too. I grew beautiful roses.

That was in our first house in Minneapolis on Vincent Ave. I had a great garden then. I think that’s at least partially why my son has become an enthusiastic gardener. It reminds him of his childhood when he would go down to the garden and pick fresh vegetables. Now his kids do the same thing.

(A short anecdote: I also had a lot of success growing peppers, especially jalapenos. Our neighbor to the south was a very nice man, I suppose about the age of my parents. He was nice but a bit of a curmudgeon. In one of the houses abutting our backyard was a nice young family, just a little older than us. One of their kids was a bit of a rascal; nothing really bad, just noisy and rambunctious. One day the curmudgeon slyly picked a jalapeno and gave it to the rascal, innocently encouraging him to take a bite. Of course the boy went yowling home. Just a little bit of neighborly revenge in Linden Hills.)

We lived in that house for 10 years, but eventually outgrew it and moved to Edina. Our first house in Edina had a great yard. But for some reason, it was impossible to get a garden started. Nothing got well established. Not tomatoes, not roses, not even peppers. (In retrospect, I think I should have excavated a patch of grass and brought in some good garden soil. Instead, I tried to make due with what I had.)

After 9 years there, we moved again to another house in Edina, where I still live. This house has also has a great yard, but it’d heavily wooded. There’s so much shade that it’s been nearly impossible to grow vegetables. Year after year I’d buy a flat of tomato plants. Year after year, we’d harvest one or two tomatoes per plant. Sometimes we wouldn’t even get that much. My wife and I sadly lamented our $3 tomatoes. Finally I gave up.

I accepted the fact that I needed to treat my yard like a shade garden. So I put in a lot of hostas and other shade-loving perennials. In a very small plot that got a decent amount of direct sun, I planted various herbs and pepper plants. Peppers, by the way, have thrived in my garden. Especially jalapenos.

My son, as I’ve mentioned, is an avid gardener. He even starts his own tomatoes (and other plants) from seed in his basement while there’s still snow on the ground. This spring, he said that he had a few extra tomato plants and some Serrano peppers. He asked if I wanted some.

The peppers were easy. But I was reluctant to take the tomatoes. Even with free plants, did I want to risk the humiliation of a crop failure? I had a couple of trees removed and hoped that would increase the amount of light in my small patch. Against my better judgment, I agreed to take four plants. Tomatoes2013

Well hallelujah! I don’t know if it was getting rid of the trees or if the basement-started plants were more productive or if the weather this year was just right. But for whatever reason, I had decent tomatoes. All four plants grew and thrived and bore fruit – not just a few shrunken consolation prizes, but real, delectable, juicy ripe tomatoes. We’ve eaten them all either on their own or as part of salads. For my various recipes that call for fresh tomatoes (pizza, ratatouille, tomato jam, oven roasted tomatoes), I still used ones that I bought at the Minneapolis Farmers Market.

Now, as autumn makes its inexorable journey, I’m still harvesting ripe tomatoes from my plants. And most of the plants are heavy with green tomatoes. I’m planning to leave them on the vine until the threat of frost. Then I’ll harvest the green ones and hope that they ripen.

I hope that my son has a few extra plants again next spring.

01 October 2013

Pizza Postscript–a Word of Explanation

In yesterday’s post I commented that despite having a pretty good experience at Pig Ate My Pizza, my wife and I likely wouldn’t trek to Robbinsdale just for pizza. The main reason is because we like the pizzas we make at home better than any restaurant pizza.HomemadePizza

So for example, this photo is of a pizza that we made a few weeks ago.

You can find pizza crust recipes basically anywhere. The recipe we use is from the New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook. I guess its out of print now. Our copy is copyright 1971. We probably got it as a wedding present in 1974. The pizza crust recipe is very basic, just flour, water, yeast, and olive oil. We like it because it produces a crisp crust that doesn’t interfere with the toppings we put on.

We topped this particular pizza with fresh Roma tomatoes from the Minneapolis farmers market, fresh basil from our garden, and supermarket mozzarella cheese (from Cub).

We most often make pizza on Sunday nights. After a busy weekend, we usually just want to relax with a simple pizza, salad, and a martini. I mix up the dough for the crust and grate the cheese while my wife prepares the toppings. (We like to have all the knife work done before pouring the martinis.)

Then while the pizza dough is rising, we relax with a martini, usually featuring olives stuffed with gorgonzola or blue cheese. When the pizza dough is ready, we pre-bake it for a few minutes, then put on the toppings and finish it off. When the cheese is nice and melted, dinner is served.

Really, this is so simple, good, and relaxing that we have no motivation to go to a restaurant for pizza. Even if that restaurant takes reservations.