Saturday, May 30, 2009

Good Times Revisited -And I was on TV

What an amazing time we had last night. I’ve started a few other posts with similar sentiments but few things come as close to this particular evening. We gathered once again at my friend Rick’s house. I was in New England on business this week and seeing my old friends from days past was just really special. I’ll give you a little history and maybe you’ll understand why. Just over 6 years ago I began working for a relatively small medical software company based out of Westerly, Rhode Island, right on the Connecticut border. It was a great job. The company was privately owned and very tight knit. I could pick up the phone and talk to the CEO (owner) about any issue. I became close friends with my Vice President and dined at a sidewalk cafĂ© in Brussels with the president (the owner’s lawyer brother). As with many successful small companies, this one was gobbled up by a much larger company. While my company became less a “mom and pop” operation, it was still a fantastic place to work and I circled the globe for them. Unfortunately, the times shifted. The economy worsened and large capital purchased began drying up. The layoffs began. An office that was once busting at the seams with no more cubicles for people to squeeze in was becoming a ghost town. It was only a matter of time for me. I had been promoted to a position that in good times was much needed but, unfortunately, in leaner times was not. I knew this. I’d known this for some time. It was actually more stressful in the months leading up to my layoff than in the days, weeks, and months that followed. The only super sad part in the whole deal was the instant loss of my friends almost 1800 miles away. I spent more time with my extended family in Rhode Island than I did with my own. We worked, ate, drank and travelled together to many exciting and fun places. I have blog post after blog post about our dinner parties and restaurant adventures.

Little did I know back in January that my next job would have me in New England again relatively soon and perhaps often. This week was the second time. The first was in an ice storm and we just couldn’t hook up. This time though, the plans were set. Not only was I headed to Rick’s for one of our coveted dinner parties and not only was I going to cook for friends who put me on a pedestal (completely unnecessarily) for preparing the meal, but the show I taped back in January with the Food Network was coincidentally going to debut. I couldn’t have scripted a better time. The menu consisted of variations of things I’ve posted before: Bacon wrapped scallops seared on the grill (I used monkfish for the original post) with a lime and sriarchi aioli, Orzo salad with radishes, dill and cucumber, and a cold cucumber and yoghurt soup. While the food turned out better than I even hoped for, this night was really a celebration of friendship. There was a time that I didn’t think I’d see these folks again and here we were just a few months later, laughing, joking and eating just as we always had.

The show, Dear Food Network, features viewers asking questions of the celebrity chefs and they usually answer them from afar. I was told they were going to do a small viewer profile of me doing a cooking demo in my back yard. It was all a scam. The plan was to surprise me with the Nealys (a husband and wife celebrity chef team) really showing up to grill with me. It worked. They got me and it was all featured on the show. I had a pretty large segment, I thought. My phone was ringing off the hook. My Facebook and emails blew up. My friends were calling to let me know they were watching. It was pretty surreal to me. As much as I hated to end this night, I had an early plane to catch. These are good people. The kind of people we all strive to have as friends. After a round of warm embraces, I was off to bed.

Still on cloud 9 over the whole experience, I’m currently at 35,000 feet headed home. A touch bleary eyed from little sleep, I’m hoping this Bloody Mary will have some rejuvenating magic. Probably not. Even so, I’m looking forward to getting back home to the family. My son is visiting from Alabama and he’s only there a few more days. He was, by the way, accepted to the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the fall. I’m quite proud.

I now have a recipe to share with you that tops all I have ever posted. Take note.

8-12 good friends (that means the kind you don’t mind telling them how special they are)
Some good food (You can order take out if you don’t want to cook)
Good beer and wine
Warm thoughts
Engaging conversation
A few jokes
Optional- someone in the crowd is on TV that night.

Mix all of these ingredients in one room until smooth. Serve warm and enjoy.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Just in Time for the Holiday: Smoked Duck

Do you have a smoker? I do. It’s not something I would have run out and bought because smoking food has always sounded too elaborate for me. I picture beer drinking, back country men gathered around this contraption for hours poring over the right combination of woods and charcoal to get the meat just right. It’s just too much work. I love cooking in my kitchen and I love grilling but smoking just eluded me.

Then the Food Network came to my house to film an episode about BBQ beef ribs. They left me the grill they bought while here and it is also a smoker. I’m told it was about $150. Not bad. Now I’m a huge advocate of smoking meats and it is incredibly easy. I’m sure there are various devices that smoke meats but mine has a separate chamber for your coal or wood and the smoke flows through the main chamber and then out a chimney. The idea is to allow the smoke to permeate the meat adding great flavor while providing very low heat (175-200 degrees). The meat cooks very slowly over hours. This process breaks down connective tissues leaving the meat unbelievably tender. The process is simply to get a fire going in the outer chamber, put the meat in the smoker, close the lid, tend the fire by adding wood or charcoal over the next few hours, remove the meat then eat. The aforementioned elaborate part comes from the myriad of combinations of woods and techniques to get just the right “smoke”. Since I’m not a competitive griller/smoker I just use charcoal and hickory with the goal of keeping the fire hot and smokey. Again simple.

So what meat should you smoke? The answer is, whatever you like. Since my recent grill acquisition, I’ve done pork, beef and chicken; pretty standard. All of them came out perfect and delicious. A few weeks ago though, I bought a duck. I bought it on a whim not having a clue what I was going to do with it. Every time I opened the freezer, there was that duck. Still unsure of what to do with it, I decided I should defrost it. That would force my hand and make me cook it. A day later I had a defrosted duck but still lacked inspiration. When the light bulb finally went off I went outside to get the smoker fired up. With the coals flaming and while I waited for them to settle, I returned to my kitchen to dress this thing. While many folks have eaten and enjoyed duck, far fewer have prepared it. I’ve only made whole duck a few times myself but it has been years and I most certainly have never smoked or grilled duck before. I was up for the challenge.

I decided to stuff the cavity with a few flavors that I had on hand. After trimming the excess fat from around the cavity (there’s a lot of extra fat on a duck), I stuffed in a few orange wedges, onion, garlic, fresh thyme and rosemary. Then I very generously seasoned the outside with salt and pepper and headed to the smoker. On she went.

Over the next 4 hours I added a generous amount of new coals and water soaked hickory wood. I’d say I went out about once an hour to do this. It’s important to resist the temptation to open the lid too much but I did open it once just to make sure all was well. It’s a man thing. Not sure what I was thinking because it wasn’t going anywhere. It was missing head, feathers and feet (all the things required for escape). Now, four hours later, my duck looked perfectly smoked. To the kitchen with it because I wasn’t done. Since the fat layer on the outside of the duck is so thick, I wanted to be sure it was exquisitely crispy. To accomplish this, I popped her into a 450 degree oven for another 20 minutes. Her golden brown color now intensified, she was done.

Of course this was never going to pass Lisa or Olivia’s lips. Duck is completely out of bounds for them. So that left me and Lisa’s visiting father to enjoy this. Removing the breasts and slicing them, the pink smoke rings, a hallmark of a good smoking, permeated a full third of the way into the meat. The flavor was strikingly bold. Crispy, peppery skin surrounding moist perfectly smoked duck infused with the flavors of the garlic and oranges. I couldn’t have hoped for more. I followed up by enjoying the thigh and leg which also shared these striking qualities.

Ok not everyone has a smoker. I understand that. If you’re not ready to run out and buy one, the next best think would be to simply roast this same preparation at 200 degrees for four hours then remove from the oven. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees, then return the bird for another 20 minutes. Let rest for at least 15 minutes before addressing again. Certainly you will be missing the smokiness, but the duck flavors will stand very nicely on their own.

I have been away from my home for the past 2 weeks now and I can’t wait to fire up my new toy this long holiday weekend. Happy Memorial Day.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

I was working -REALLY!

Don't worry about any personal transgressions. My daughter, Brittany, is on my left and her girlfriend, Michelle, is on my right. I know what you were thinking though.

Miami really is another world. It feels like its own country; more of a Latin, Caribbean, and South American fusion rich in culture, tradition and architecture. English is the second language as most strangers will begin a conversation in Spanish. Calling one business, I got the message, “For instructions in English, press 1 now.” Usually it’s the other way around. If the US is the “melting pot”, the spoon that stirs in the hot spice is found here. In particular, South Beach lives up to all of the hype that it gets. Beautiful people, sparkling pools, art deco hotels, ever flowing drinks and, yes, even the white retro Don Johnson blazers are abound. I’ve been here a dozen times in my life and I’m amazed during every visit.

I’ve had a pretty packed schedule the past couple of weeks and even my weekends had been consumed with chores. I was feeling a bit stressed with no free time on my hands. When the call came asking me to head to Miami on no notice, it just totally fit in to the hectic time I was experiencing. What I was unaware of, though, was that for the next 3 days, I would only work till noon. With every afternoon to myself, it was the perfect recipe for decompressing. I stayed at a small hotel on Collins Avenue just a few blocks from Ocean Drive, the proverbial strip. Much like New York, every walk of life is well represented from affluent to modest.

It was hot. Really hot. The kind of hot they make movies about. But the pool water was cool and refreshing so that’s where I spent most of my free time. I’ve walked the streets many times before, just people watching and exploring, but I stayed very close to the hotel this time and I have no regrets about that. The food on South Beach is hip and trendy and often a bit on the expensive side. If you know where to look though (and ask the right people) you’ll find lesser known gems that will knock your socks off. If you wish to dine poolside at The Fountainbleau or at one of their 8 restaurants, that is a respectable choice, but on the first day I chose the Anthony Bourdain approach of finding the local haunt. A bit of research and I found what I was looking for. Puerta Sagua is a South Beach hole-in-the-wall filled with natives and few tourists. There is nothing fancy here and it even looks a bit out of place amid the neon hews and art deco buildings. The menu is full of classic and simply prepared Cuban dishes like Palomilla Steak (a thin pounded spiced skirt steak) with black beans and rice or Roasted Chicken. Everything is infused with citrus and Cilantro. The tables are a bit wobbly and the silverware is direct from your high school cafeteria. Perfect.

My daughter lives and works in Ft. Lauderdale so her and a friend met me for lunch. After finding a coveted parking spot right in front of Puerto Sagua we made our way in to the seat yourself dining room. They were busy on this weekday and service was slow but I didn’t expect anything different. Brit ordered the aforementioned Palomilla Steak while I settled for a Media Noche sandwich. This sandwich (meaning “Midnight” in English) gets its name because it’s traditionally eaten after an evening of dancing in the Cuban community. It’s much like a Cuban sandwich except it’s served on a sweet egg bread and is smaller than its more well known cousin.

Media Noche

On the side, I ordered some Yucca fries. Sweeter and less starchy than a French fry, Yucca is traditionally served with a cilantro, lime, garlic sauce for dipping. It’s on the thin side not resembling the westernized salsas that us gringos are more accustomed to.

This meal feels like a street market in Havana which may sound unappealing to some, but nirvana to me. After the meal, Cubans often finish with a Cuban coffee that is more like an espresso. Way more powerful than a regular coffee and perhaps stronger than espresso, its bitterness is an acquired taste to many. I enjoy it but I struggle to understand how on a hot, sticky south Florida day so many folks drink this very hot drink. It’s served in a small espresso paper cup and I’m guessing it’s just something to sip as warm conversation continues. I imagine the caffeine helps combat the post lunch lethargy as well. After the meal, I enjoyed the rest of the afternoon poolside sipping Mai Thai’s with the girls. Clad in their Bikinis and oversized sunglasses, I know folks were wondering what the old bald guy was doing with these beautiful young women. I really had a nice time and I enjoy Brittany’s company as much as I ever have.

I returned to my hotel after work the following day in the mood for something different. Filling my need for local fare, it was time to check out the internet for some cool places. I immediately ruled out anywhere I couldn’t walk. Like New York, there are great places everywhere so there was no need to drive. I decided on a Sushi place called Sushi Samba and headed out. Not realizing it was Cinco de Mayo, I was unprepared for the large street festivals I passes but I was thoroughly captivated.

Street food. Something we should all get behind.

Since I was alone, there was no street dancing for me, but watching the live music and smelling the smoke rising from the street vendor carts full of chicken, beef and fresh corn only produces a festive mood. I grabbed a $5 Margarita and just people watched for about an hour but then remembered I was kinda hungry.

Walking into Sushi Samba was like walking onto the set of Saturday Night Fever meets Miami Vice meets Rush Hour. The room was full of indirect lighting not a bit of which was white (although there was plenty of ambient light from the large windows). The neon orange glow from the bar in the back with artfully decorated liquor bottles on the shelves was a focal point and the oval shaped sushi bar in the middle of the room was a centerpiece.

Cool bar

I liked this place already. A look at the menu let me know this was no ordinary Sushi restaurant or even Japanese for that matter. I saw things I didn’t immediately recognize aside from the traditional sushi stuff. Things like sushi “taquitos” with an aji dipping sauce (aji is a Peruvian pepper) and organic chicken with aji amarillo, purple potato mash and crispy onion. Is this place really Japanese? Turns out, this restaurant is one of several Sushi Samba’s around the US. It was started based on the experiences of some Japanese migration to Latin America where a fusion of their cultures produces rich Latin dishes with a very Japanese influence. This unlikely combination of flavors is unbelievable and truly special. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have my arms around traditional Argentinean or Peruvian fare, but I can do generic Latin fare pretty well and it is abundant in the dishes. I stayed true to my desire for sushi but with a bit of a twist. Aside from the usual tuna and uni that I order regularly, I departed with tradition and ordered a house roll called the “Green Envy”. There was the rice filled with tuna, salmon and asparagus but then it was crusted in wasabi peas (one of my favorite snacks while I was in Asia) and topped with an aji amarillo-key lime mayo. Every time I think there can’t possibly be another original sushi creation, I am proved wrong.

An amzing plate of sushi

If you are in one of the cities that Sushi Samba occupies (New York, Las Vegas, Chicago, Miami or Telaviv) and you are always on the hunt for a new and spectacular sushi experience, this is a must try. What a great business trip this was.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Teppanyaki Gathering

What a whirlwind of activity since my last post. Several cities, some great food, fun new cooking adventures and moving my dad from his old place into a new, more octogenarian-friendly condo. Since this is a food blog, I’ll spare you the details of the latter but suffice to say that without my kids, that would have been a nightmare. Still, I’ve gathered enough foodie experiences to blog for a while. I find it interesting that I’ve never posted about a restaurant here in Tarpon Springs that we probably go to more than any other. It may be because I never think to take my camera. Well that changed last week.

Our former neighbors are the proverbial “snow birds”. If you’re not from Florida, that is a common reference to the folks who winter here and summer in their northern domiciles. I’ve heard the term used derogatorily but I mean no disrespect. Mary Jane and Charlie are the best neighbors one could ever hope to have. We met 10 years ago when we moved to Tarpon Springs and there’s nothing you wouldn’t love about them. From upstate New York, they consider their home here their primary house and they spend about 5 months in a smaller place up north. There they enjoy a mild summer and spend lots of quality time with the kids and grandkids that they have missed for months. When here, I didn’t swing a hammer at my old house without Charlie showing up with his toolbox (not that I’m much of a hammer swinger) and Mary Jane could be found tending her plants and snipping fresh herbs for me to cook with. Charlie would pick the grapefruit from my tree and bring me all of the fresh juice I could drink in lieu of the fact they couldn’t drink it themselves due to a medication interaction. When they see my daughter, Olivia, they always bring some sort of gift and they are in constant request for new pictures of her. Seriously, they are the best.

As they get ready for their annual trek back up north, we neighbors have had a spring get together for their sendoff. Usually Mary Jane would cook to clear her fridge out for the summer or we gathered at one of the other neighbor’s houses for some cocktails and general communion. This year I thought we should go out to dinner somewhere. In all of the years we’ve been friends, we’ve never been out to dinner together. Our sites were set on Hiro’s Tokyo Japanese Steakhouse. Most people have eaten at a place like this. Its Teppanyaki style Japanese, meaning they cook it on a flat top grill right in front of you and the chef puts on a little show while he’s cooking. I’ve enjoyed this style of Japanese since my mom and dad used to take me to places like this as a kid. What’s more is that it’s a perfect place for a good size group to gather since the seating is circular around the cooking so folks can chat with each other even from across the way. There were about 14 of us so we encompassed 2 tables that were together and 2 chefs prepared our meal.

Tokyo, as we call it, has gone through some transformations over the years and not all of them positive. I remember when it was built, some 20 years ago, and it was a pretty good place to go at first. Unfortunately, in a community bustling with retirees looking for the “blue plate special”, the higher priced seafood and steak restaurant didn’t last. After closing, it sat idle for quite some time then reopened as one of those places that you can go paint your own ceramics. My daughter Brittany, now 20, attended a girlfriend’s birthday party there. She must have been about 7 or 8 then. My failure to remember the ceramic she created is an analogy for the establishment. It didn’t last long at all. Again idle. Then roughly 10 years ago a new owner came in. He did a great remodel and opened as Hiro’s Tokyo. With glistening new cooking tables shipped from Japan (at ten grand a piece) and a sushi bar, they opened to little fanfare. Lisa and I were fledgling in our relationship when we walked in the door during its first week. Our experience was terrific. The food was fresh and delicious. We frequented this place and were known to order their fried rice with extra “Yum-Yum” sauce for takeout. Lisa even fell in love with sea scallops, the big meaty ones (a big deal for a sworn seafood hater). And so began our bi-weekly dining until a few bad things happened. Noticing a drop in food quality and an interior in need of some repair, we took a hiatus. Finally about 4 years ago, we stopped back in and things seemed to turn around. The menu was new, the interior was redone, a new deck was put on and the sushi was high quality. We were back and haven’t looked back.

I don't think I've ever seen my son Josh, 21, in a tie

Their menu is quite large and typical for a Teppanyaki restaurant but they also prepare traditional Japanese in the back kitchen of you like. Their Sushi bar is as respectable as one could hope for outside of a major city and they often have some of my favorite and more rare finds. In the Teppanyaki room, the meal begins with the chef wheeling a cart to the table. He starts with the rice and vegetables. The show always includes a few standards such as the onion volcano and flipping an egg around on his spatula until finally cracking it on the grill for the fried rice.

Pouring oil into the about-to-be-lit onion volcano

Kids love this stuff although the fire that the chef starts can be a bit startling for the youngest guests. Olivia, age 4, is an aficionado of the performance and will not hesitate to call out the chef if he skips a step in his performance.

This night was wonderful. I enjoyed a rare beef filet and scallops cooked just perfectly and the entire group seemed to have a great experience. If you’ve never been to a place like this, I recommend you go. It’s not a quiet romantic dinner place and they will seat you at a table with others if you aren’t in a group. Every time Lisa and I go alone, we meet folks that have never been and are mesmerized by the unique way they prepare the meal. For now, Hiro’s Tokyo is our favorite restaurant in Tarpon Springs and we can be found there a couple of times a month.