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Archive for August, 2012

Summer Weekend Project: Moroccan Eggplant and Chickpea Salad

O.K., it’s not Tuesday so this can’t be this week’s Tuesday Project. To accompany grilled steak, a tomato involved salad, and ice cream for a summer Friday night dinner, let’s get a little flash without using any heat outside of the grill.

Presenting this fantastic Moroccan chickpea and eggplant salad that can function either as a salad course or a side course. The latter makes more sense to me. And hey, it’s vegan, gluten free, and even dairy free. So everybody can enjoy it! For the spice sensitive, the heat is very minimal here.

The salad has three parts essentially. The grilled eggplant which should receive a hefty marinade of olive oil before heading the grill in order to have a crispy char instead of a rubbery, charcoal stained one. When the crispy char is achieved, the eggplant sticks are every bit as addictive as Terra vegetable chips. Instead of cutting the eggplant into large medallions, try cutting them into thin matchsticks and grilling them on a grate. (more…)

Greetings from…Moscow! (Russia, not Idaho)

After two hours over two visits to the Russian Consulate, at least a dozen hours caring for the logistics and details of procuring a visa, and hundreds of dollars spent for the visa and the invitation necessary to receive the visa because…we do the same to Russians visiting the U.S…the chance finally arrived to set foot in Russia.

Summer Vegetable Salad with Green Tahini at Ragout

Very quickly after picking up luggage at the baggage claim, I realized mistake number one. Make sure you know the correct exchange rate (roughly 33 Rubles to 1 USD). The $3 USD to 100 Rubles ratio is easy to understand except when in a panic at an airport ATM machine. Let’s just say our initial 30 Rubles, when intended to be much more, didn’t last very long. Nearly every restaurant accepts major credit cards, but don’t for a moment think that the Moscow subway machines would accept them. The Moscow subway ticket receptionists will look at you with all the warmth of a porcupine when you ask about credit cards.

Surprisingly, many major tourist spots don’t accept credit cards either (yes, that is you The Kremlin, home of the Russian President). And of course, don’t even try to understand what the Cyrillic script on a credit card receipt says. At least numbers are universal. I think. I hope. The 1,000 should be Rubles, not Dollars, right?

While Russia has made many strides towards being a more modern, savvy nation in 2012, there are certainly elements of the country that still live in the past shadows. The lack of places where credit cards are not, but should be accepted is one. Your Iphone will struggle mightily at critical times when searching for directions. Russians still have not accepted the art of smiling yet. However, the biggest obstacle will be the language barrier. The fact is, they are not used to seeing many visitors from the U.S. and Western Europe. The visa policies make it challenging for us to visit. It is much rarer for the Russians to have the opportunity to visit our countries. English is not taught much in the Federation. With only a few English speaking visitors making the trip over here, there doesn’t seem to be the need to have signs, subway announcements, or even some menus translated, like is commonly done in China and Japan, where you’ll never be able to read the native language. The major restaurants and hotels will speak passable English. Still, exploration in a chaotic, massive metropolis like Moscow with a steep language barrier is a daunting task.

Thankfully and surprisingly, you will eat very well in Moscow if you do a little research and leave your hotel room. Fortunately a close friend of mine had just lived in the capital city for six months. Moscow is one of those cities where any corner you can cut will make life so much more pleasant when traveling. Having somebody “in the know” certainly is one of those perks because many of the restaurants and bars are not common knowledge. I gave the concierge at my highly ranked hotel the list of restaurants I was told to go to. She didn’t know a single one of them. (more…)

Beer of the Week: Buffalo Bayou Brewing, 1836 Copper Ale, Houston

On hot, humid summer days, such as about half the days of the year in Houston, nothing is more necessary than beer. Yes, you can have the worthless, light Saint Arnold Brewing Co. Lawnmower beer that belongs under the lawnmower (fortunately Saint Arnold’s new Endeavour Imperial IPA could be the beer of the week too). Really, you want an enjoyable beer that is not a heavy stout to weigh you down. Something that perks you up while watching another Astros loss.

Houston’s newest brewery, Buffalo Bayou, comes to the rescue. Too new to even have a functioning website, Buffalo Bayou’s sensational rendition of an amber can be found at the Hay Merchant, the new massive craft beer bar from the folks behind Anvil, at some 80 taps strong. The 1836 Copper Ale is named for the year Houston was founded along…the banks of the Buffalo Bayou, a form of a river meandering through Downtown.

Downtown Houston, home of Buffalo Bayou Brewing

A beautiful penny colored copper hue with a stout-like head, definite notes of caramel, orange zest, and sticky toffee hit you, all without being sweet. This isn’t a malty amber at all. In fact, slight hop notes make it almost lean slightly in an IPA direction. At 5.9% ABV, it’s a border-line session beer and would pair perfectly with summer barbeque. I’m certainly thinking beef brisket sandwiches here.

This is one of the best debuts of the summer. Consider it the Bryce Harper or Mike Trout of 2012 craft breweries. Expect Buffalo Bayou to give Saint Arnold and the big names of craft brewing in Austin some Texas-sized competition over the next few months.

Wine of the Week: Arianna Occhipinti, “SP68 Bianco,” IGT, Sicily

Arianna Occhipinti is a bit of a burgeoning rock star in the natural wine industry. The wines she crafts in Vittoria, Sicily, in the island’s southeastern corner, are bold and pure, nothing like the sharp, ripe reds often known in the U.S. from Sicily. From Albanello and Moscato di Alessandria grapes, the SP68 Bianco arrives as a bright golden hue, cloudy from being unfiltered.

Initially, the nose perks up thoughts of juicy, not overly sweet fruits, such as melon and honeydew. The beauty of the wine arrives though after the initial taste. You first think of a bone dry Fino Sherry, or at least for me, a similar bone dry, nutty white I sampled recently from the Jura region of France. Then the wine opens up, presenting a hint of cardamom, mingling with plenty of citrus zest, and a much smoother finish than the start. Sampled recently at San Francisco’s superb restaurant Flour + Water, it paired perfectly with an albacore tuna confit with butternut squash and black eyed peas. I could easily see this with a summer tomato salad or even roasted chicken with panzanella, using more of those summer tomatoes.

Occhipinti is making headlines from her 30 acres of grapes, at just 29 years old. She also makes her own olive oil…which one can only imagine how sensational that would be if the terroir creates wines such as this SP68 Bianco.

Crafting riveting wines, Occhipinti soon will be on the short list of in demand wines worldwide. Look out sommeliers everywhere, Sicily is the next Italian wine region in vogue.

Plat du Jour: Saturday August 18, 2012: Blueberry Pie and Basil Gimlet for Summer and Last Word on the 50 Best New Restaurants

It’s the heart of summer on this mid August weekend, meaning tomatoes, peaches, basil, mint, and company are being served on tables everywhere. What will Trev’s Bistro be serving, besides ribs on the grill and caprese for salad every night with fresh heirloom tomatoes and burrata?

You can certainly count on this magnificent “Live Basil Gimlet” from Scott Beattie, now the mixologist at Goose & Gander in St. Helena, in the northern part of the Napa Valley. (You may even want to double the recipe since it is not a particularly spirit forward cocktail…) The key is to not cheat on the basil. There is no such thing as too much basil in this recipe. Beefeater gin works perfectly with the basil and an intriguing variation would be to try basil and lime juice with either tequila or mezcal, and agave nectar instead of simple syrup.

Bäco Mercat, in Los Angeles, one of the top 10 new restaurants

Blueberries are everywhere and if you can resist snacking on too many of them, use a bunch of cartons in this magnificent blueberry crumble pie I make multiple times each summer. The recipe comes courtesy of Rebecca Charles, chef-owner of the terrific Maine seafood shack in New York’s West Village, Pearl Oyster Bar (also try the lobster roll! As wonderful as the pie is at the restaurant…I like to think for some reason it is even better at home!). This year having been away on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July when I traditionally make this pie, we’ll just call mid-August the unofficial summer holiday occasion for blueberry crumble pie…terrific with a scoop of blueberry ice cream. Be certain to follow the technique of smashing roughly a quarter of the blueberries so their juice moistens the filling. The 1/2 teaspoon of lemon zest is pivotal for tempering the cup of sugar and you will appreciate the added pinch of freshly ground black pepper.

The pie crust by the way is very simple to make, you don’t need to follow any rolling out instructions, but you do need to pre-bake the crust before adding the filling.

A last note this week on Bon Appetit‘s top 10 new restaurants list and the 50 best new restaurant semi-finalists. Andrew Knowlton recently took a fascinating look at some of the themes shared by these restaurants. (more…)

Greetings from…Copenhagen!

Copenhagen, Denmark, what an intriguing and important city in the world’s gastronomic landscape. The city itself is truly unique. There are dashes of Scandinavia intertwined with the quirkiness of Portland, Oregon, the flatness of the Midwest, the individual pride and creativity of San Francisco, and momentary flashes of New York and Tokyo subways at rush hour when you see a Copenhagen bike lane around 5 pm.

This is a city built on two islands (Zealand and Amager), within a stone’s throw of Sweden to the point that Malmö is essentially a branch of Copenhagen (or vice versa depending who you ask), yet Copenhagen certainly does not have the strict, orderly manner or the sparkling, Monte Carlo-esque cleanliness of that country to the north. Copenhagen resides on two islands with more man made islands to go with that. Copenhagen is a city where 55% of its residents commute by bike. On one street in Copenhagen’s Norrebro neighborhood reside not just one of the city’s best restaurants, wine bars, bakeries, and coffee bars– they are all among the world’s best in their genres. And they are all within two blocks on the Jaegersborggade.

Kødbyens Fiskebar

Copenhagen has two islands and it also has two main canals, along with various other tiny canals. It’s Venice without the classic elegant architecture. It’s Amsterdam without the orderly city planning. It’s hard not to get lost in Copenhagen. Those two canals are excellent landmarks– the larger canal separates the center of the city from Christianshavn (the man made island where Noma and the stunning opera house can be found), while the other side of the city features a set of smaller canals that serves as the unofficial morning jogging route for locals.

Of course, Copenhagen is home of the Little Mermaid (she wouldn’t want to swim in these canal waters…), who is indeed petite compared to Venus di Milo, for sculptural comparison. It is home to arguably the world’s greatest amusement park, Tivoli Gardens, where “amusement” has not yet been lost on corporate greed. Copenhagen boasts several excellent museums, especially the NY Carlsberg Glyptotek next to Tivoli with its terrific French impressionist collection.

Copenhagen is one of the world’s leaders in environmentally friendly products and ideas, with its imposing bike lanes being the most obvious evidence of that. One feels the same in Copenhagen when bike-less as you might in Los Angeles without a car.

All of this and Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital only has a population of just under two million people. It may be an important European capital, but Copenhagen is not a striking power à la Paris, Vienna, Rome, et al. (more…)

Cocktail of the Week: The Brave and Pliny’s Tonic, Anvil Bar & Refuge, Houston

Every time I tried to order “The Brave” at Anvil, the epicenter of craft cocktails in Houston on a randomly culinary dense stretch of Westheimer in a very residential neighborhood, the bartender would ask if I really wanted it. Am I brave enough? Can I handle it? It’s 96 degrees and humid…and you want this?

I hesitated at first, instead going a safer route. But I’m brave…or at least with cocktails. I love mezcal and I’d trust anything created by Anvil’s co-owner Bobby Heugel. I enjoyed a drink recently in San Francisco called “None but the Brave,” so this shouldn’t be a problem. None but the brave could enjoy that drink and it has been one of my favorites of the year. I’m brave enough. Right?

My final Houston drink was indeed “The Brave.” (more…)