Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Scallops, Risotto, Roasted Vegetables with a side of Friends

Friends gathering for yet another of our get togethers. Too fun!

Our hosts Rick and Patty

After a glorious weekend with the family in Florida, I’m back at the Rhode Island office to teach a class. It was last week sometime that my colleague Rick emailed me and asked if I wanted to come over and cook. Our dinner party gatherings during my frequent trips to New England have become a ritual I just adore. What’s not to love? I’m cooking, I’m with great folks, I’m drinking wine and when I’m on my game, I get accolades! How cool is that?

This menu had a main course that was a first for me. I used a fellow blogger’s scallop recipe. Matt Wright is a brilliant foodie in my humble opinion. His blog is a joy to read and he’s quite an accomplished food photographer as well. He has offered to give me a few pointers but I fear my little Panasonic Lumix would need a serious upgrade. I like to call my photography candid and rustic as opposed to amateurish but hey, that’s just me. Matt’s American food perspective comes from the Pacific Northwest and is influenced by the fantastic array of regional ingredients at his disposal. Some of my favorite food blogs are written from here. I highly suggest checking out this British expat’s blog.

So last week, after Rick’s invitation, I began thinking of a Menu. I’m not sure if it’s a kin to a writer’s block but I couldn’t get my arms around anything to prepare. I hadn’t seen Food TV in 3 weeks and my typical “food surfing” web time had been interrupted by sightseeing in Scotland and England. The well was dry. Knowing I had a few days to figure it out and also knowing that I often plan a menu at the market the day of, I didn’t stress over this too much.

Then Friday morning, during my usual coffee and bleary eyed perusing of some of my favorite sites, I stumbled across something that piqued my interest. Matt Wright had a scallop dish that I was just drawn to. It wasn’t so much the scallops (they were beautifully but simply seared) but the red onion confit, toasted pine nuts and sage infused oil was simply brilliant to me. Well this is a must try. Sadly I tried a version of the onions over the weekend in Florida and I was unimpressed. It didn’t look like Matt’s nor do I imagine it tasted like his. They were too thick, too sticky and too sweet. I must have followed the recipe too loosely so after a bit of improvisation I was willing to give it another go in Rhode Island (but I was a bit nervous).

After paying a bit more attention to the original recipe, Matt's perfect Pan Seared Scallops with Red Onion Confit, Toasted Pine Nuts and Sage Oil was perfect.

The next item came to me from the season. Monday was the 1st day of fall. Now for me fall means gourds. Pumpkins and Squash are the way to go and in New England that is the pervasive theme. So I felt a Butternut Squash risotto with asparagus was in order. Most of the ingredients are in the title. It was pretty simple but like all risottos, a bit time consuming. Ah, I tried this over the weekend as well and again, I was not pleased. It was gummy and not creamy. I was going to have to rethink this one also but at least I felt the concept was sound. Rounding out the meal were some basic and fall themed roasted root vegetables.

So you can imagine that heading to make dinner for 8 with a couple of dishes that turned out less that perfect for me was a bit concerning. Even in the grocery store a couple of hours before dinner, I was rethinking my decision. But I gathered my ingredients with sagging confidence and headed to Rick’s.

As usual we set to the no fun chopping tasks but having Noel help moves things along. As other friends arrived, we all just hung out around the kitchen island and drank wine. This is really nice for the guy cooking because I get to visit as well. 90 minutes later, we had our meal.

All I can say is thank goodness I tried these at home 1st because with just a few very minor tweaks on my part, both Matt’s dish and the risotto were just exquisite. The onions and scallops were a perfect pairing to close a summer and welcome in the new fall. The risotto dish was perfectly creamy with the Autumnal squash and the crisp air outside complimented the roasted vegetables well. A huge success. After 3 weeks, it’s good to get back in the saddle.

The final menu:

Pan Seared Scallops with Red Onion Confit, Toasted Pine Nuts and Sage Oil (recipe here).

Only difference is that I used the same number of onions but doubled the amount of scallops to 2 lbs.

Butternut Squash and Asparagus Risotto

Butternut squash, peeled, seeded and chopped into very small (½”) cubes.
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (divided)
4 tbsp butter (divided)
1 cup Arborio rice
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth (give or take)
1 ½ cups chopped fresh asparagus (top half of stalk only)
1 cup grated Parmesan-Reggiano cheese
Salt and pepper for seasoning

Add 2 tbsp olive oil and 2 tbsp butter to large sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the squash and sauté. Season with salt and pepper. Stir every few minutes. What we are looking for here is caramelized edges with cooked through bits. This should take about 12-15 minutes. Remove the done squash from the pan and reserve to the side. Add the remaining oil and butter to the same pan as well as the rice. Again, salt and pepper. Lightly toast the rice a minute or so before adding liquid. Here comes the tricky part of risotto in general. You have to constantly babysit your dish from this point until cooked. Leaving the pan for more that a couple of minutes could leave you with a sticky or burned wad of inedible goo. Not inviting is it? So grab your wooden spoon and glass of wine and hang by the stove.
After toasting the rice for a minute begin adding the broth 2 ladle full’s at a time. Stir. As the liquid is absorbed into the rice and it is almost gone, add more broth. When you first pour in the broth, you have a moment of stirring reprieve but as it becomes absorbed, constant stirring is needed.
Tasting is the best gauge for doneness. Al dente isn’t close, soft but sticky is great for sushi but more liquid is needed for the final creamy goal. As a rule, when I think my Risotto is about done, I add 2 more ladles of liquid and stir a while longer.
Now add the squash and asparagus and stir in evenly and be prepared to even add a touch more liquid in the final moments. Remove from heat.
Move to serving dish, and sprinkle some cheese over top and reserve the rest for individual use.
IF I made this sound too complex, I’m really sorry. I just want your first attempt to be perfect but just remember 3 things stir constantly, slowly add liquid, when you think you’re done add a bit more liquid.
It should take about 20-25 minutes and serves 8-10.

Roasted Root Vegetables

Pick your favorites but here's what I did.

1 rutabaga, peeled and diced into 1”-1½” cubes
4-5 large carrots peeled and diced into 1”-1½” pieces
1-1½ cups beets peeled and diced into 1”-1½” cubes
2 large Spanish onions, coarsely chopped
1 large fennel bulb, coarsely chopped
1 whole head of garlic, top sliced off
4-5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Combine all of the vegetables (except garlic) and toss with olive oil and generous amount of salt and pepper. Spread on a baking sheet or baking dish (in our case, 2 baking dishes). Drizzle a bit of the olive oil onto top of garlic head and place in dish with vegetables. Place in a preheated 350 degree oven for 1 hour. Remove and serve. Garlic can be served with bread, or just added to the vegetables once removed from the paper. It should pop out with a little squeeze but be careful, it’s hot.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Another Magical City

How many places can you go that are so old that people don’t even have records of all that has transpired there? How far from Italy can you get and still see remnants of Roman baths? Are there cities that were inhabited by both Vikings and Romans during different times whose primary defenses could be high walls and moats? And if such a place exists, what’s it like today? Could it be a vibrant city that finds little time for sleep? Are the streets perhaps lined with century old buildings with modern storefronts? And is it possible that there is still excavation going on where more is being learned each day? And more importantly, where could this place have anything damned good to eat?!

Well friends, Welcome to York!

York Minster Cathedral

What a gem. A small, vibrant and ancient city in the heart of England. Its known history is beyond rich and virtually inconceivable to us Americans whose history dates back just a few centuries. Walking the streets here is literally walking through time. The Roman occupation from 43 AD to 410 AD is more than lightly evidenced. They built a wall that surrounds the entire city that can be walked on to this day. The gates and bars that are strategic entrances are amazingly constructed and breathtaking to see.

After Roman occupation, there is little documentation of what went on here. There were actually several hundred years of unknown. Evidence suggested that city infrastructure fell off for a period and it is believed that people mainly farmed and lived in nearby local lands. Eventually, in a quest to bring Christianity to England, Pope Gregory re-established York in the early part of the 7th Century. For the next 2 centuries there was a continued settlement.

Another significant historic event for all of England was the Viking invasion and occupation of York in 866. Tiring of the long battles for this northern city, King Alfred of Wessex turned over the city to Danelaw 2 years later. This was the 1st true north and south division of Britain. The Vikings presence was significant because they advanced the city as a true and contemporary center for trade and marketing. Streets that were built then (Coppergate and Stonegate) are walked to this day.

Well the Danes fell to the Saxons eventually and while the history continues through the great British Monarchies, this city has continued to flourish and is now a major Euro hotspot. And what of the food, you ask? OK, so I have to admit that the Brits still find greater comfort in beer than food. And I think Pub fare is a direct ancestor of my middle school cafeteria lunch. But that being said, there were definite culinary jewels in this crown of thorns.

After a long day of touring the city, I was quite hungry. I was told by one of my new friends that I must go to the Blue Bicycle. This is supposedly the foodie destination in the city. After some directions, off I went. It was only a few minute walk from my hotel (actually the whole city was only a few minute walk from my hotel). Unfortunately for me, the rest of York’s visitors had heard of this place too because when I asked for a table for one without a reservation, I was practically scolded. Well, it WAS Saturday at 7 PM. So I made a reservation for the following night and strode off to take my chances elsewhere. Here’s the kicker. Just a few storefronts away was Mason’s Bistro Bar.

Apparently a newer player in the York food scene this unheralded place seemed eager to see me. It was small but charming. Now to be fair, I was set up to be disappointed. I was so looking forward to my original plan. Having a seat here felt like a consolation prize and I was still smarting a bit from the gentle scolding I’d received for not having a reservation down the road. But I ordered a glass of wine and perused the menu. I settled on a Salmon Gravadlax starter and a Braised Oxtail as a main course (after the tongue I’d had earlier in the week, I thought why not have a go at the other end?). Now I’ve made Gravadlax a few times and it was right tasty, but this was unbelievable. Presented in a Martini glass over some baby greens, this dish was as beautiful as it was delicious.

The salmon from this part of the world is more delicate that its American cousin and has a fitting place in this dish. The texture was creamy and the savory, elegant mouthfuls just melted away as they passed my lips. The perfume of the dill exquisitely enhanced the fish. In my 17 day trip, this was the only dish I would describe as succulent.

Next came the Oxtail. Now I said I was ready to be disappointed but the Nordic gods who once were heralded in this city were shining down upon me. This beast was tender with a hearty and beefy flavor. This almost indescribable dish was presented over some wonderfully mashed potatoes with a beef broth and a side of roasted root vegetables. This was comfort food, British style. And with the light nip in the air it was well received.

Making the meal even more enjoyable was the proprietor. He was a gentlemanly elder chap who knew his way around a conversation regarding American football. When he told me who his all-time top 3 quarterbacks were, I’d say he got it pretty correct. He also kept me company as I was dining alone.

Now as most of you may know, I’m not one to chat about desserts much. In this instance though, my eye was drawn to a plumb cheesecake. I’d never heard of such a thing. I gave it a whirl. Not the cheesecakes that we are used to texture wise and there would probably be a few New York Italians that would scoff but this was damned good. I found it sweet and plumby and could have easily eaten another.

Thus far this was my favorite place. I walked out with a much higher spirit that I anticipated. I then pub crawled my way back too my hotel because I had another full day in York.

After another day of sightseeing and pubbing, my dinner reservation at The Blue Bicycle was at hand. Like most buildings in York, this establishment has a rich history as well. There’s a downstairs area that during the 18th century was a place for ladies of the evening to entertain their gentleman callers. The carved out wall spaces are still there. I am told this practice has since ceased (OK I asked).

It took me too long to realize the Blue Bicycle in front was not a coincidence

For a starter I went with another Salmon dish. This was more of a ceviche style that was marinated in lime and brown sugar and served with a Vodka and Beet mousse. This was over cucumber and pickled fennel. Here’s a “Louis Loves Food” first. I didn’t like this dish at all. As wonderful as this dish looked on the chalkboard, it was way too busy for me. Not only that but I didn’t see how the elements blended or complemented each other. I was also blasted a couple of times with lime juice that went to my nose. And the salmon tasted like some raw salmon that was just placed in the middle of this cacophony. Strike one. Now to be fair, this did come from the specials board which is often a place where a chef can whimsically play with his entrées.

Well disappointed with my starter, my main course is set before me. I was now staring at 3 beautifully rare slices of Lamb loin, a pumpkin puree topped with wilted spinach and black pudding (yes, a blood sausage). Knowing that every hill top in the UK has a herd of sheep on it, these are fresh and local. These lamb graze on open pasture that is remarkably lush with an unending supply of fresh grass. The end result is a tender and more delicate flavor. Distinctly different than its American or even New Zealand cousin. I loved each bite of this. The black pudding was different than the Scottish version I’d had or even the ones I’d eaten since (black pudding is part of all traditional British breakfasts). It was more delicate and less dense. It had a moistness to it that I hadn’t appreciated with the others. There was nothing bad to say about this dish at all.

Ok, so how do I rate the Blue Bicycle? Well it was excellent really if you take away the appetizer. And considering that it’s not a menu staple, I would say I would return. It was a bit pricy though. In fact most of the UK was. My Lamb alone was 22 pounds which is about 40 dollars. That’s high even by UK standards but even modest restaurants were more expensive that you and I are used to in the states. And if my boss reads this (she does at times), I did not expense the Blue Bicycle dinner.

No food discussion of York would be complete without a quick Yorkshire Pudding reference. So to accompany the Haggis, black pudding, and various Ox parts we have enjoyed, Yorkshire Pudding was also born from the impoverished English (there must have been a lot of poor people here at one time). The difference is that Yorkshire Pudding is made with normal ingredients and it is NOT pudding. It’s sort of a cross between a puff pastry and a dinner roll. The idea is to fill up on this bread component so you eat less meat, a practice not lost on today’s restaurants. It is traditionally served doused in onion gravy but there are many variations. Yorkshire pudding is made with a batter. It is added to a super hot cooking vessel of some sort, often cast iron, which has been greased with pan drippings, traditionally from an accompanying roast beef. It is then baked off for 15 to 20 minutes until it puffs and rises. The result has deeper brown edges than most rolls and the pan drippings sort of meld into the crust making for a very savory flavor. As the old saying goes, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a pub or restaurant that serves Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding. I probably ate this 4 or 5 times over 3 weeks and loved it. This one was my favorite. It was from a Carvery (original name for a buffet style place where the bloke cuts your meat from a CARVING station) called Russels. Also for this one, I chose Ham instead of the Roast Beef. The accompaniments listed below were delicious as well.

Clockwise from 12 o'clock: pickled zucchini and pearl onions, ham with gravy, caramelized onions and fennel, Yorkshire pudding, dressing and braised leeks

Well folks, I’ve taken you through York and it was really exciting. I’m less than an hour from landing in Tampa. I haven’t seen Lisa or Olivia in 17 days and I miss them terribly. I can’t wait for the hugs and a rousing game of Candyland. I’m only home a few days before heading off to New England and then Houston. I plan on spending some time back in my kitchen so I’ll get back with you very soon.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Food That Put the Brits on the Map

A pint and a view at The Slug and Lettuce Pub in York

Streets were designed here long before cars

Notice no bar stools at the pub

Bars and restaurants throw me for a bit of a loop here in the UK. As a solo diner, I’m used to sitting at the bar and ordering. This really keeps you from feeling like you’re eating alone. Sitting at a table by myself is uncomfortable. I feel like the entire restaurant is staring at the guy by himself wondering WHY he’s all by himself. Is he a stalker? Perhaps just a weirdo? I know I’m not alone in this feeling because I’ve talked to plenty of folks who feel the same way. I’ve found that other business travelers in the states eat at the bar too. It gives us a chance to chat with each other and sort of commiserate. I didn’t know this unwritten tidbit before I began travelling for a living but I quite like it. Here in the UK though, that little bonus doesn’t work. No one really sits at the bar. There are no stools. People can stand at the bar and chat but sitting is not really an option. As far as eating there goes, there are a few rules as well. If you wish to eat in the bar area, that’s fine. You order at the bar, pay in advanced, and go find a seat where the bartender will bring your food. I see no real value in that. I might as well go the restaurant area and just sit for table service (which I did). From here I feel the eyes upon me. This is a complex I need to overcome because I know I’m not interesting enough for anyone to truly ponder but I hate the idea of being perceived as “creepy”.

So in lieu of being uncomfortable for EVERY meal, I decided to see what I could snack on from the local grocery. This was a brilliant idea. Obviously I cannot cook anything but if you ever decide to walk into the store and select things that can be eaten as is with no prep, you’d be surprised at the large number of options available to you. The Ox tongue from the deli was superb with English Stilton blue cheese and Scottish oatcakes. The smoked Scottish Salmon was like Salmon flavored butter; rich and delicate with a much milder flavor than the Salmon I’ve had in the states. I always thought Wild Alaskan King Salmon was my favorite but this Scottish version has overtaken it in my mind. The deep colored blackberries were quarter sized and perfectly sweet and the figs were the size of small apples. I have stumbled across a goldmine. I ate in my room on 3 different evenings after enjoying my shopping. What I don’t understand completely is that if I’m stuck eating the Ox tongue (which I found quite tasty), what happened to the rest of the Ox? Is someone sinking their teeth into a luscious and perfectly prepared Ox loin with elderberry sauce? I’ve not seen such a thing on a menu.

Wednesday, Neil (my UK colleague) and I visited a customer in the coastal community of Grimsby. Grimsby is a fishing village that sits at the mouth of the Humber River on the North Sea. It boasts a fishing industry that at one time was the worlds largest (although no one could tell me exactly WHEN it was the worlds largest). I was informed however that going to Grimsby without eating fish and chips would be heresy. It was along this coast that the British standard was invented. Who am I to be a heretic? Upon a recommendation from my local customer, we went to a place called Seaway Restaurant.

Don't go here for the atmosphere but their Fish and Chips is heaven

Calling this a restaurant is a stretch. Seaway is a greasy spoon at best with tattered upholstery, wobbly tables and poor service. The menu has a limited theme: Haddock and Chips, Cod and Chips, Prawns and chips etc. I have to honestly say, I was a bit nervous but we ordered none the less. I went with the Cod (and Chips, of course). I noticed the place became quite busy after we arrived. That is always a good sign. The fish came out quickly. OK, so it looked like fish and chips but little did I know what a treat I was in for. This was exquisite. Delicate, moist and not greasy, this epitomized what fish and chips should taste like. The flavor was perfectly mild and oh so fresh. Some conversation produced a bit of education for me as well. I learned that this place gets its fish fresh from the docks daily here. Their batter is a tried and true recipe that has been going strong for decades and I cannot say enough about it. I’ve had lots of Fish and Chips in my day and I’ve had a go at making them too (and I like my version) but these were clearly better than any I’ve had. A crisp crust that wasn’t too thick, not at all chewy or bready and didn’t flake into many small pieces with each bite. The fish inside was moist and buttery and just perfect. The portion was generous but I could have eaten much more.

These were the perfect example of how Fish and Chips should be

I am so pleased with this find. My trip was a bit out of the way but pleasant. The days in Scunthorpe that were marked with constant gray skies and rain have come to a close and I’m now in a hotel in York. The sun has wormed its way out in this marvelous and ancient city that I’ll be telling you about in the coming days. I’m so proud to have found food that intrigued me in a part of the world known for… well… not the best food.

Until next time… Cheerio

Monday, September 8, 2008

Edinburgh, Scotland

I am speechless. I must have started this writing over ten times. I was searching for some witty introduction to the spectacular and wonderful adventure I am in the middle of but I cannot find the words to describe the breathtaking, awe inspiring vision that is Edinburgh Scotland. I haven’t alluded to the trip that has been fast approaching nor was I thinking much of it other than another work related trip. My plan was to fly into Manchester, England then drive a couple of hours to a rather inauspicious town called Scunthorpe for a business related trip. Scunthorpe sits in an industrial area of central England and if you’ve never heard of it, there’s a good reason. Its one of those towns that exists out of necessity. The steel industry feeds the working class economy and the opportunity for growth and advancement are somewhat limited here. Yet there is a cross section of wonderful people that I’ve met that support this necessary town and my first week was rather uneventful.

If the week was unremarkable, the weekend was as adventurous as any I have ever been on. After work on Friday, I headed to the train station in Doncaster and jumped a rail north. It rained miserably the entire way making it easy to understand why the countryside was lush and green. Every hill is dotted with sheep and cattle. Skirting the coast, the North Sea waves crash against the rocky coastline and gigantic smooth stone islands arise from the ocean floor with a terrific majesty. I stared out the window simply amazed at how beautiful it was. 3 hours after boarding, I emerged at Waverly station in the Scottish capitol. Immediately upon leaving the train station, Edinburgh Castle is in full view perched atop Castle rock, an extinct volcano in the city center. It is clear why this site was chosen over a thousand years ago. It is the highest point in the city and has a 360 degree view of Edinburgh. About 180 degrees or so are sheer stone cliffs rising hundreds of feet making it much less vulnerable to attack (although the history of the castle includes several successful sieges). This is the oldest structure on Earth that I have personally witnessed and the immediate feeling of being thrust into history is overwhelming. I’m sure this feeling goes away if you stay in town long enough but after two days, it never left me.

My plan was to meet up with an old high school friend who now resides in Edinburgh. A short time later, I was ringing the bell at her flat. Apart from seeing her and catching up, she knew there was something on my agenda that was quite high on the list. She was more than happy to oblige. Across the street from her place, there is deli with a lovely restaurant downstairs. The décor is as I expect in a modern European restaurant: wave shapen high backed booths covered in bright red fabric with stainless steel tabletops. But my reason for being here sits on the menu in front of me. I found Haggis.

Haggis in an elegant presentation

You can buy Haggis in the deli and cook it at home...YUM!!!

Haggis is a Scottish dish born of necessity and available ingredients. Now before you rush to judgment, as I would too, let me begin by saying much effort went into making this product palatable in the early days. People of less fortune needed protein too but simply could not afford the more desirable cuts of meat. This has since evolved into a culinary masterpiece and truly enjoyed by most Scots I spoke to. OK, let’s just get this part out of the way. Haggis is ground up organ meat (can be from any animal really but traditionally sheep) that is generally stuffed into a sheep’s stomach with oats, onions, spices, suet (animal fat) and boiled for about 3 hours. I agree with you, just typing that made me a bit nauseated. It sounds gross. But folks, if that stops you from trying Haggis then so be it, but you are missing a treat of epic proportion. There is nothing gamey or unappealing about the texture, aroma or taste of Haggis. In fact, if I had to liken this to something else, I would say a spicy breakfast sausage has a somewhat similar flavor and even texture. My only disappointment with the whole meal was that I was hoping for a more traditional presentation. I have seen where the Haggis is brought to the table still in the stomach casing about the size of a small melon. There it is cut open revealing a dark and mealy contents that somewhat resembles cheap taco meat. In this instance, the presentation reminds me of a Sheppard’s Pie. The portion of Haggis is topped with mashed potatoes and a rich white gravy. The entire meal is hearty and, in fact, the term “hearty” would sum up most Scottish cooking. After a plate of this, I’m ready to put the kilt on and run into the street with my sword and swear allegiance to the now extinct Jacobites. Either that or go get some sleep. It’s been a long day.

The next morning a good Scot’s breakfast was in order. Meeting my friend Kristi and her husband Matt at their flat, we headed to a neighborhood favorite of theirs. While Kristi ordered a beautiful looking Salmon and scrambled eggs, Matt and I had the traditional breakfast. This consists of one sunny side up egg, bacon (which is really a piece of ham but still quite delicious), sausage, sautéed mushrooms, grilled tomato wedge, baked beans, toast, a potato waffle and black pudding. The potato waffle was this 1st bit of unique gastronomy on the plate. I’m not sure if it begins as a batter or some type of pressed product but it is shaped as a waffle and tastes much like a hash brown. As with most things fried there are only good things to say. The inside has a moist and willow like texture while the brown crispy outside has a deep flavor. Quite delicious.

I saved the most unique part of breakfast for last. Black pudding does not look, feel or taste anything like any pudding you’ve ever tasted. It comes in a patty form but is darker; black in fact. Texture wise, it is a bit dry but this was combated by eating the sunny side up egg with it. The richness of the yolk blended exquisitely. Flavor is rather easy to describe. It tasted a bit like Haggis making me think a similar oat and spice combination goes into the mix. What ingredient makes black pudding black, you ask? Blood. I ate it, I liked it and I’d eat it again.

Hearty Scottish breakfast

Black pudding and potato waffle

There, I said it. Ultimately, admitting British food tastes good is almost like being “outted”. There is no question the foodie community shuns the food of the UK. Mostly for reasonable reasons. Often things are boiled to oblivion and the few great things are traditionally battered and fried requiring a constant dose of Lipitor to prevent instant blood pooling in the heart. The “mushy peas” served with many English meals is reminiscent of a green colored elementary school glue that might hold the cut out construction paper eyes to the paper plate face. But Scottish food is different than its lower UK cousin and dining in Edinburgh proved a tremendous experience.

The rest of Saturday was spent being a true tourist. Kris and I went to the castle and then down the “Royal Mile” to Holyrood House. Holyrood is the royal residence that is currently in use when the royals are visiting Edinburgh. The attention to royalty that the folks of Britain and Scotland pay is difficult to grasp for us Americans. The idea that fame is a birth right that transcends generations is just beyond us. Our attention span doesn’t allow for that. Even the most famous Americans are lucky to pass even one generation of fame to their heirs (Kennedy’s for example). We just can’t keep up with all of the goings on but those Brits are damned good at it and have been for centuries.

In front of Edinburgh Castle

Well, I’m now on a train out of Scotland. If I stay on, I end up in London in about two hours but my stop at Doncaster is 45 minutes or so away. The sky is finally turning a mix of clouds and sun. In the 8 days I’ve been in the UK, I saw sunlight for a few hours the other day but otherwise it has been overcast and rainy. Perhaps we’re in for a break.

This has truly been as exciting as any journey I have embarked on and I can’t believe I have another week and a half in the UK. I will keep you posted on any new adventures and I will hope your open mind allows you to enjoy the thought of these meals.


Thursday, September 4, 2008

Lessons in Gnocchi

While it is true Florida is called the “Sunshine State”, during the height of hurricane season we see tons of rain even when there is no hurricane to discuss. While this must be quite upsetting to the average tourist, I don’t mind at all. What are tourists doing headed to Florida during hurricane season anyway? I would never go to southern California during earthquake season. Oh well, it gives me an excuse to play indoors. Frankly, I can head into the kitchen on days like this and next thing I know the day is gone.

Some weeks ago I wrote about my adventures in Providence and specifically dinner at Al Forno. I know I drone on about this place but it is stuck in my soul unlike almost any restaurant. This could be a problem. According to Google, Al Forno is exactly 1,329 miles from my house door to door. Even if they delivered, I’d be out of range, I bet. I don’t know if there are any 12 step programs for specific restaurant addictions but I should look in to it. For now though, I just don’t want to.

Their Gnocchi in a Tomato and Sausage Broth is unlike any gnocchi I’ve had and I decided to try my hand at it. I originally thought it was in their cookbook that I bought but it is not, so I was on my own. With the magic of the internet no recipe is too far away. A little keyboard massage and a handy gnocchi recipe is in hand. The broth though… hmmmmm that’s another story. It was such a perfect compliment to these melty clouds of poached potato dough. I’m not sure how to accomplish something even close. Ah, I’m always up for a culinary challenge so off we go.

Little did I know that I was about to hit a few major hurdles in project gnocchi. The recipe only calls for a few ingredients and the steps are just a paragraph or so long so I falsely made a some assumptions. First of all, the recipe called for a few large baking potatoes. I had smaller Yukon Gold spuds. I thought nothing of using these but their starchier nature makes them quite sticky and difficult to work with. Once the flour begins working in, those problems go away but the initial problem is significant. More importantly, I don’t have a potato ricer. This is a kitchen gadget that I’ve thought several times about acquiring but up to now, I have not. Fancying myself as creative and capable of kitchen improv, I assumed that working in batches in a food processor would suffice. While this idea was eventually fruitful, this was a pain in the ass. Because these Yukons were starchier, they were also stickier. I had to use an extra egg yolk than the recipe called for and a touch of vegetable oil just to get them into a workable paste. Even then there were some chunks that would have been yukky in the gnocchi so I had to get those out by hand. Add to that a good cut on the end of my finger from a sharp food processor blade and you have a difficult and messy process. Since I plan on making these again, I will most certainly invest in a ricer. My finger will be happier.

As mentioned in my previous post, Olivia can hear flour coming out of the cabinet. She looks forward to the ensuing mess and emerges from her room to help knead out the dough. With a large amount of flour we begin working the potato mixture out on the counter. A short time later, we have what looks like a traditional and fantastic dough. After a rest, we begin rolling it out into long tubes. My daughter’s years of Play-Dough experience really pays here. It’s obvious she’s done this before. My next slight error was that I cut the gnocchi a touch too big. I would have preferred them a bit smaller as I recalled from my heavenly dish at Al Forno. This didn’t take away from their flavor or delicateness at the end but smaller bites would have been more aesthetic.

Still, once the gnocchi were cooked, they were ready for whatever one might do with gnocchi. To take a test drive, I melted a tablespoon of butter in a small sauté pan and added a couple of gnocchi. Once they had the slightest brown to them (about 1 minute per side), into a bowl they went with the butter to coat. A touch of good sea salt and some nutty fresh grated Parmesan cheese and what we had here was magnificent. The richness is subtle. Certainly it’s there but much like a perfectly airy cheesecake, the heaviness is hidden in the pillow-like nature of each bite.

Now that I know they are perfectly done, on to my sauce. Here’s what I think you’ll find if you give this sauce a go. It’s really more of a broth that a sauce and my intention was to form a suspension for the gnocchi rather than a bold compliment. Because I have recently taken some good cookbook advice, I was dead on with this goal. The broth was equal parts chicken stock and tomato juice. The sausage was removed from its casing and crumbled fine so that there were no rustic style pieces. I wanted small bits to cling into the handmade crevices of the gnocchi. This was about compliments.

After this project was completed, I’ve decided that we don’t have enough rainy days.

Potato Gnocchi in a Sausage and Tomato Broth
Inspired by a dish I tasted at Al Forno in Providence, RI.

1 to 1½ lb potato gnocchi (if you chose to make fresh this is a good recipe. Follow it closely)
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
½ lb Italian sausage, casing removed
2 cups tomato juice
2 cups chicken broth
3 cloves of garlic
2 tbsp butter (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh grated Parmesan cheese.

In a sauce pan over medium heat add the olive oil and sausage. Cook the sausage slowly and do not allow to brown. Once cooked mostly through break up into as small of crumbles as possible with a wooden spoon. Add tomato juice, chicken broth and garlic. This is the best time to generously season with salt and pepper. Simmer over medium heat about 10 minutes. Add the butter and whisk until melted. This adds a slight rich thickness but optional. Add the gnocchi to the pan and turn to coat. Simmer another 5 minutes or so then serve.

Serves 6 as a main course 8-10 as a side.