Sunday, October 31, 2010

My Favorite Thing This Week

I had another entry all set up for My Favorite Thing, but then I went out to dinner last night and encountered a new Favorite Thing.

Mr. Kim Chee and I were set up to go on a rare, childless date, and were in Rochester for the weekend. We wanted to go somewhere we hadn't been before, and somewhere we knew we would have a great time and a great meal. We got a recommendation to go to The Restaurant.

From the restaurant's website
 The Restaurant is in a beautiful old house. Even though it's downtown, it's got a great ambiance and really, for the location, a great view.

It used to be known as Chardonnay. I always wanted to eat there, but as a high schooler with unromantic boyfriends and then later as a poor college student, it just didn't fit into the budget. I was so glad to finally get the opportunity to try it out!

The Restaurant tries to use local ingredients--a true farm-to-table experience. I noticed on their menu that the trout in their Trout Piccata is from Bullfrog Farm, one of my Favorite Things from the past.

And their food is amazing. We opted not to have any starters (as amazing as they sounded), because we wanted to save room for dessert. So we went straight to the entrees.

Their specials sounded so appealing (including lobster mac 'n cheese with black truffle oil, pan seared scallops served with lobster risotto and wilted arugula, and pork tenderloin with butternut squash risotto, wilted arugula, and peas finished with a lavender honey sauce), but I just can't turn down duck when I go out to eat. And I was not disappointed.

We started off with soup or salad--I chose the soup. There was a red seafood chowder, a Greek avgolemono soup, and a broccoli and cauliflower soup, which is what I picked. Mr. Kim Chee had the salad (which unfortunately I didn't get a picture of), but it had some beautiful greens and was tossed in a vinaigrette sweetened with honey.

Here's a pic of my duck (sorry for the cell phone pics, I forgot the camera :/ ). It was perfectly done, and topped with a sweet Grand Marnier glaze. On the side were steamed carrots and green beans, a citrus-y wild rice, and a puree of butternut squash, which was flavored with what I suspect was maple syrup and creme friache. Oh my. I could have eaten a bucket of this. I'm going to have to give recreating at home a try.

Mr. Kim Chee had the Steak Au Poivre. It was a gorgeous New York strip steak, crusted in peppercorns, served medium-rare, and topped with a rich sauce made of cognac, cream, and Bourdelaise sauce. His meal had steamed vegetables, too, and the surprise of two starches--the butternut squash puree as well as a mound of garlicky potato puree, made with blue potatoes.

Our service was excellent (the person who recommended The Restaurant to us mentioned their incredibly friendly staff, and she was not kidding!) and the food even better. Very rarely do we have the time for a leisurely meal, but we spent nearly two hours at The Restaurant, sipping wine and very locally microbrewed beer (which unfortunately we forgot the name of. Sorry, nameless stout...) The only thing that made us leave was the fact that our movie was about to start.

To prevent dinner from coming to a close, we decided to linger over dessert. There were quite a few desserts to choose from (including an apple pie made of local, organic apples, a chocolate torte, Italian cream cake, a raspberry white chocolate baklava, and a strawberry parfait made with spiked whipped cream), but I just couldn't say no when the waiter said they had creme brulee cheesecake.

We also chose pears poached in red wine and filled with an almond liqueur-spiked cream. It reminded me of the recipe for pears poached in champagne in my possession--yet another dessert that will someday become a blog entry ;)

I would go back there in a heartbeat. The service, the ambiance, and the food together combined to make the perfect evening. Food was reasonably priced and there was plenty of it (did I mention that I have an entire duck breast left to nibble on tomorrow?)

If you're ever in the Rochester area and looking for a high-quality meal with an intimate atmosphere, I recommend giving The Restaurant a try! You will not regret it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Creamy Polenta

Tired of potatoes at every meal? Sick of rice? Giving pasta a break? How about giving polenta a try?

Polenta's an easy side and is so very versatile. It can be creamy like potatoes or firm like bread. You can cut it into shapes and use it instead of crackers, and eat it hot or cold. Like gravy or risotto, it can seem off-putting and scary to make, but in truth it's really very easy.

To start, you need some liquid. The ratio of polenta to liquid is 1:4 (that is, one part polenta, four parts liquid.) If you're planning on slicing your polenta later and want something more firm, then 1:3 would be a better bet. But today I'm serving it under pot roast, so I want it to be creamy and smooth.

Measure your liquid out and pour it into a large pot (a larger pot than you think you'll need. Polenta expands quite a bit and you don't want a burned polenta mess on your hands!) I used half chicken broth and half water, but you'd be fine using all broth or all water. Turn on your stove; you'll want to get a nice simmer.

Next, measure your polenta.

Polenta is just another name for ground corn. I'm using a coarser grind but you could use plain old cornmeal, too.

Here's polenta next to everyday cornmeal (don't adjust your computer's monitor, it's white cornmeal!) You can see that the regular cornmeal is a lot finer and more evenly ground.

Now would be a good time to get your add-ins read, too. I'm going to flavor my polenta tonight with parmesan cheese. Really, any cheese would be good here. Goat cheese is really nice, but cheddar adds a nice, heavy flavor (and you get those great strings of cheese when you spoon it!)

You could use all sorts of things to flavor your polenta. Making a southwestern dish? Try roasted chilis and cheddar cheese! Maybe some roasted corn or rinsed black beans would round out the flavors. And top it with cilantro!

Going more Italian? Parm and sundried tomatoes sound pretty good. Maybe throw in some olives, roasted red pepper, or roasted garlic, too? And give it a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil before diving in!

Want a hearty vegetarian dish? Roasted or grilled vegetables would make this taste great! Stir in some silken tofu instead of the cheese if you're going completely vegan.

Serving breakfast instead of dinner? What better way to wake up than with polenta studded with scrambled eggs, cheese, and sausage?

Polenta's a pretty clean slate. Just about anything you could think of would make it taste good.

Anyway, back to actually making the polenta. I plunk a knob of butter on top of my bowl of cheese, just so it's within easy reach.

Hey, the broth and water are simmering! Get a whisk and slowly start pouring the polenta in. Be sure to stir a lot! Lots and lots of stirring will make sure your polenta isn't lumpy. Feel free to take a break from pouring to give the polenta some extra stirs, if you need to.

Once the polenta has soaked up all the liquid, you can throw in your butter.

Now switch to a spoon and turn your heat to low. Let the polenta bubble away, stirring frequently.

Don't forget the salt and pepper!

Here's what it looks like after about 15 minutes.

I let my polenta go for half an hour. The longer you cook it, the creamier it will get. Ideally I would have gone 45+ minutes, but I was in a hurry. My pot roast was done!

I added some half and half for some richness.

I also added the cheese from before.

I stirred things around and let it cook for a few more minutes. Then it was ready to serve!

I topped it with my pot roast. The perfect accompaniment! Because, you know, it's all about the polenta, right? The pot roast is just a great side dish ;)

Recipe: Creamy Polenta

4 c. liquid (water, broth, etc.)
1 c. polenta

1 1/2 tbsp. butter
salt and pepper, to taste

1/4 c. half and half
3/4 c. cheese (parmesan, cheddar, etc.)

In a large pot, heat liquid to a rolling simmer.

Slowly whisk polenta into simmering liquid, stirring rapidly to prevent lumps.

Once polenta has absorbed the water, decrease heat to low. Add butter. Let polenta cook slowly, stirring frequently. Add salt and pepper.

After 30 minutes (minimum), add half and half and cheese. Stir, and then serve.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Pumpkin-Maple Pie with Homemade Whipped Cream

One of my favorite "food"holidays is coming up, and what's more Thanksgiving-esque than pumpkin pie? There's just something about a spicy, homemade pumpkin pie that makes you go, "Mmmmmm ... " No store bought pie can do that, and using premade filling from a can lags behind, too. Pumpkin pie is one of those foolproof, anyone-can-make pies, and this one is especially good.

Start off with a can of pumpkin. You can roast and puree your own if you want, but it's so easy to get good, consistent pumpkin in the can year-round. Plus, if it is around Thanksgiving, your oven is probably overflowing with other goodies that need that heat.

I love how pumpkin smells.
Now the pumpkin's gotta get some flavor.

Add the spices and some brown sugar to the pumpkin.

Give everything a good stir.

Now comes the highlight of the pie--maple syrup!

The darker the syrup, the more maple flavor will come through.

Stir the maple in, and then add some half and half. If you don't have half and half on hand, you could use evaporated milk (this is different than condensed milk!), cream, or even coconut milk.

A little flour goes in, just to bind everything together.

Finally, whisk an egg and then pour it in. Then do the same to two more eggs.

All right, now that your filling is done, you need a crust. I'll admit it, I use premade crusts. I used to make my own crusts from scratch, but then I noticed that Mr. Kim Chee was not eating much of the crust, and decided it wasn't worth the effort. Plus, our kitchen is small and it's sometimes hard to find the space to roll out dough. I did find a recipe not long ago for pie crust you can make in your stand mixer--I'll have to give that a try sometime.

I get the refrigerated pie crust. The frozen is fine, too, but sometimes can crack and since it's frozen there's not much you can do to fix it. But the problem with refrigerated crust is that it's usually just large enough to fill the bottom of the pie tin, so you don't get that pretty, crimped edge. Since I usually only make one pie at a time, I use the second crust in the package to make an edge.

I find a little cookie cutter and cut out shapes from the second crust.

Looks like I need some autumn-themed cutters.

Here's a stack of shapes.

The second crust should give you just enough to go all the way around the base crust.

Then I get out some liquid--milk, half and half, or egg is what I usually use. Today I used half and half. Brush one side of your shape with whatever liquid you're using, and then press it gently onto your base crust.

I let them overlap a little. Here's the whole piecrust.

Now that my crust is ready, my filling can go in.

As a last touch, I brush the edges of the crust with more half and half.

Then I sprinkle the crust with some decorating sugar.

All ready to go into the oven!

While your pie is baking, it's a great opportunity to make some whipped cream. Yes, yes, I know they sell whipped cream (and Cool Whip) already made. But there's just something about homemade whipped cream. Plus, you can lick the beaters when you're done. 

Grab a bowl. If you've got time, it works even better if your bowl is cold and has spent some time in the freezer. But it works out pretty well with a bowl fresh from the cupboard, too. Pour some heavy whipping cream into your bowl.

Let your beaters do their job.

If you've got a kid in your house with a lot of extra energy, or a spouse wandering around looking like they're not busy, you can do this by hand, too. It just takes a little longer.


When your cream starts to thicken, add a tablespoon of sugar.

And don't forget to add vanilla. I'm using paste here (yum, vanilla bean specks), but regular vanilla would be fine, too.

Now get back to beating!

Beat until your whipped cream is fluffy and can hold its shape. I like my whipped cream on the stiffer side. It keeps better overnight that way--it loses some of its thickness when you store it, and if you don't beat it enough the night before than you sometimes end up with some not-very-fluffy whipped cream.

Now slap a big spoonful of your vanilla cream onto your pie, get out a fork, and dig in. Who cares if the turkey's not done yet? That just means you can have another slice for dessert.

Recipe: Pumpkin-Maple Pie with Homemade Whipped Cream

1 can pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling!)
1/2 c. packed brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger
1 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cloves
1/2 tsp. allspice
1/2 tsp. salt

2/3 c. maple syrup

1 1/4 c. half and half
1 tbsp. flour
3 eggs

1 piecrust

Preheat oven to 350F.

In a large bowl, combine pumpkin, brown sugar, and spices. Stir to combine.

Add maple syrup; stir well.

Add half and half; stir well.

Add flour; stir until just combined.

Beat each egg before adding, one at a time.

Pour into piecrust. Bake for 1 hour. Cool before serving.

Whipped Cream:
1 c. heavy whipping cream
1 tbsp. white sugar
1 tsp. vanilla flavoring (paste or extract)

In a large bowl, beat whipping cream until it begins to thicken.

Add white sugar and vanilla. Continue to beat until fluffy and whipped.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

My Favorite Thing This Week

We celebrated The Kid's birthday yesterday, and rather than taking on the task of making both mealtime food and birthday desserts, I opted to hire a professional to do the cake instead. And I knew just who to choose--Decadent Desserts of Mankato!

I ordered 5 dozen cupcakes--three dozen Triple Chocolate Decadence (seriously, how could those be bad??) topped with buttercream frosting, and two dozen red velvet with cream cheese frosting.

We picked them up in these cute boxes:

Aren't they pretty? They made edible crowns for the top of the cupcakes.

They taste amazing, too.

They did the desserts at The Kid's party last year, too. It was a jungle theme, and they made the cutest zoo animal cookies ever. Their sugar cookies amazing (and you can tell they're homemade!)

They make regular cookies and cheesecakes, too. And it looks like they're starting to make cake pops and brownie pops, too! I've tasted their cheesecake, it is to die for (I'm tempted to order an eggnog cheesecake for the holidays ... ) They're also great to work with, and are incredibly accomodating to special requests. Whether it be a party, a holiday, a simple get-together, or just because you need some sugar, give Decadent Desserts a try!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Chunky Minnesotan Chili

I promised myself not to post another soup recipe this week--but then thought about it, and figured chili isn't necessarily a soup. Especially not my chili recipe. I do the Midwestern thing and add noodles. And beans. If you want to get technical, I guess it's more like a spicy goulash (or stovetop hotdish, or chili mac) recipe and less like chili, at least in the traditional sense. But this is the style chili I grew up on, made by my grandma on cold days.

It's a one-pot meal, and, if you remember any of my other soup recipes (like this one or this one or this one) then you'll recall that I like my bowls of food on the chunky side.

When you serve it, be sure to be extra Minnesotan ("Meenn-ay-SOH-tuhn.")

I actually knew a woman who had the Fargo accent. And she said "Oh yah" a lot. But at least I never heard her say "Don'tcha know."

My chili starts with ground beef. It's the Midwestern thing to do.

Brown it up in some olive oil in a big ol' pot.

After your beef is browned, you can add in your veg (sorry, we've been watching lots of Wallace and Gromit here. Just be glad I can't convey Wallace's expression of "Cheeeeese!!" into text effectively. And if you don't know what I'm talking about, or just a W&G fan, go here.)

My peppers are straight from the freezer. I like to buy them when they're on sale, cut them up into strips, and toss them in a bag. I always have bell peppers on hand, and I know I've gotten a good deal on them (sometimes they cost as little as $1 each, other times they can cost upwards of $4!)

I used to add diced jalapeno too, but after surgery last year, I just found that the jalapeno made it too spicy. If you like it hot, the jalapeno might be for you.

Spices are next! Chili powder is a blend of spices. You can buy them pre-blended, or you can make your own. I like to use both.

Next come your canned ingredients.

Diced tomatoes and chili peppers go into the pot. They just get a short stir.
Then I add in some tomato paste.

One trick I like to use with tomato paste is to freeze it in plastic bags. I rarely have the opportunity to use a whole can of paste at once, but hate to waste it. So once I'm done using it, I spoon the rest into a Ziploc bag and flatten it out. Then it goes into the freezer. It makes it easy to break off chunks of the remaining paste if I need it for anything else.

This is a frozen chunk o' tomato paste.

Use the can the diced tomatoes came into add in three cans of water.

Regular vs. large elbows
When the chili is bubbling, you can add the noodles. I like to use the large macaroni noodles, but regular-sized elbows are fine too. Stir everything together to keep the noodles from sticking.

Let everything in the pot boil away. Keep coming back to check on it and give it a stir once in a while.

When the noodles are cooked, you can add your beans. Don't do it too soon or your beans will get mushy.
Here's the view from my spoon. How good does that look?

Serve your chili with any topping you like. My favorites are sour cream and shredded cheese, but you could also top with salsa, onions, mango, lime, cilantro, olives, scallions, bacon, tortilla chips ... the list goes on!

Chunky Minnesotan Chili
1 lb. ground beef
olive oil

1/2 onion, diced
1/2 pepper, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced

2 tbsp. chili powder
1 1/2 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
salt and pepper, to taste

1 regular can diced tomatoes
1 small can diced chilis

3 cans of water (using the can from the tomatoes)

2 c. elbow macaroni

1 regular can red kidney beans, well rinsed and drained

Brown ground beef in oil. Once the beef is no longer pink, add onion, pepper, and garlic, and saute until all vegetables are softened.

Add spices; stir well.

Pour in tomatoes and chilis. Stir to combine.

Use tomato can and pour in three cans of water.

Once chili is lightly boiling, add macaroni. Stir frequently to prevent sticking.

When macaroni is fully cooked, add kidney beans.

When beans are heated, chili is ready! Pour into a bowl and devour!