Thursday, April 29, 2010

Il Posto Cafe, New Orleans

Il Posto Cafe is a quaint and adorable little Italian cafe, located in a charming but so-off-the-beaten-path residential New Orleans Uptown neighborhood (on Dryades near Napoleon and St Charles) . The dining room is rustic, calm, filled with gorgeous raw wood tables and bentwood chairs, cool dark floors and flowers.

When you walk in, the staff is likely to be up to their elbows in rosemary sprigs, Brussels sprouts or cupcake batter, navigating your meal between fresh ingredient preparations. They are friendly, if a bit preoccupied.  The counters overflow with baskets of beets or lemons or breads.  The menu features an elegant, well edited array of antipasti, panini, tramezzini (cold pressed sandwiches as opposed to hot... I learned that today), salads and desserts. They are, quite simply, right up my alley.  I can't believe I didn't even know it existed 'til a month or two ago.

I've been twice since then, both times for lunch, although they are open for dinner and breakfast as well.  The first time, I enjoyed the Insalata Bresaola.  It was my first time eating bresaola, a beautiful dark red, very thinly sliced cut of air dried salted beef somewhat like a dry prosciutto.   It was the main feature of the salad, piled high over greens that were very lightly tossed with a lemon herb vinaigrette.  The salad was topped with generous shavings of Parmesan Reggiano.  What a lovely salad.  My only complaint was that it was so light that I was still hungry at the end.  At $9, that seemed unfortunate.  I think it might be better shared with a friend as an accompaniment to a sandwich.

Today, I went again with a friend.  We both ordered Italian sodas (hazelnut, vanilla or strawberry are the Monin syrup options) and were happy to find them not overly sweet.  My friend ordered a cup of tomato basil soup ($5.25), which was served with a slice of fresh bread.  The soup was nice, well balanced, not too tangy and tasted of San Marzano tomatoes, celery, garlic and basil (if my taste buds serve me well... who knows.).   

Inspired by the gorgeous basket of beets near the cash register, I ordered the Beet and Walnut Salad ($9), which was generously proportioned and beautiful to behold.  Deep red cubes of beet, walnut halves and chunks of incredibly good Mountain Gorgonzola from St. James Cheese Company nestled among lettuce dressed gently in a balsamic vinaigrette.  The ingredients were all excellent, but it could have benefited from a bit of bite.  I think the entire salad would have been better over arugula or a more bitter salad green.  Nonetheless, it was very good.

My friend selected the Italian Tuna Salad ($9.50) which was also large and beautiful.  Well flaked Italian tuna with a barely there, lemony dressing was flanked by sliced avocado, red onion and grape tomatoes over Bibb lettuce.  Parmesan Reggiano was showered over the top as well.  A delightfully light and refreshing lunch salad.  

I think Il Posto is great.  It is obvious that the ingredients take first priority and that much thought and attention is given to creating fresh, genuine dishes.  Our only wish is that they would offer half sized salads at half the price making it easier to enjoy more than one thing at a sitting without overeating and overspending.  

Il Posto Cafe on Urbanspoon


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Beaucoup NOLA

I thought that the first time I tried Beaucoup NOLA, I'd want a fresh fruit juice snowball.  That was my plan going in.  But, I got there and there was this whole wall of smoothies beckoning me and I caved.  You might too.

Dustin, the guy behind the counter, told me that the most popular smoothie is The Tipitina (or The Local) featuring ponchatoula strawberries, farmer's market peaches, banana, local honey and soy milk.  Since peaches aren't in season yet, he would substitute with something else that was good and delicious.  I left it to his judgement and he added pineapple and a bit of watermelon.

Delicious.  Fresh, beautifully textured and super satisfying.  My favorite part was how wonderfully present the honey is.  I tasted it throughout the entire smoothie and it made my heart sing.

In summary, Beaucoup NOLA smoothies are 1000x healthier and more delicious than Smoothie King (super official scientific data *slurp*)  They have a great Freret St location, are full of local art and have a full juice bar.

Next time, I'm definitely going for the snowball.  Just look at the flavor options!

Beaucoup NOLA on Urbanspoon


Monday, April 26, 2010

a Mano, New Orleans

I gave up going to Italian restaurants in New Orleans a long time ago. None of them ever gave me what I was after. I craved restaurants more like those I've experienced in tha San Francisco Bay area like Oliveto, Incanto,  the blissfully Sardinian La Cicca or even Delfina Pizzeria . I wanted local ingredients, house cured salumis, handmade pastas!  New Orleans doesn't really do artisanal, rural Italian food. At least it didn't (that I knew of).  When I heard that Domenica and a Mano had opened, both offering just these things, I was thrilled.

For my birthday, we went to a Mano for the first time. What a treat.

We started with glasses of Fantinel Prosecco di Grave.  They are currently doing a version with local strawberries as well but we stuck with it straight.   I am crazy for salumi so I greedily ordered the Affetati Misti even though I knew Kid Cayenne wouldn't be eating any of it.  The plate of house-cured meats included duck and lamb which were both delicious.  A bit of pickled vegetables and a pickled strawberry helped cut the richness of the meats.  Pickled strawberry!   I could only eat about half, but brought the rest home for a snack.

Kid Cayenne ordered the Burrata con Barbietola e Balsamico (Burrata cheese, roasted beets, balsamic and local greens).  It was great and I stole many bites from her plate.  Creamy and sweet, balanced by the beautiful pepperiness of the arugula and tartness of the balsamico... wonderful.

We considered making a meal of starters but in the end decided to try a couple of the entrees.  Kid Cayenne got the Pici all'Aglione, handrolled pici pasta with olive oil, garlic, chili, parsley and breadcrumbs.  It sounded perfect for her right off the bat but when our server warned her that it was very garlicky, it became all the more alluring.  This was incredibly good!  The pasta was perfect, the seasoning was perfect, the texture from the toasted bread crumbs was also perfect.  For such a simple dish, it was executed beautifully and I wish I had more of it right now.

Kid also ordered a side of Rosemary Potatoes.  Again with the perfect.  Just stupidly delicious, really.  I mean, I know... it's just potatoes, but so crisp, so golden, so beautifully seasoned.  Crazy, crazy good.  I wonder what they cook them in.  I should have asked.

I ordered the daily pork preparation and maybe I could have made a better choice because after the salumi, I had had quite a bit of meat (and fat) already.  The pork selection was thick slices of coppa, braised and then grilled.  They were placed over a thick slice of grilled polenta and then topped with a salsa verde that included capers, oregano, and a few other nice things that I've forgotten already.  The dish was nice, but rich and so meat-centric that I couldn't finish it.  I might have done better by ordering one of the pasta dishes.  Next time.

Our server provided excellent service and advice, recommending lovely glasses of wine and two delightful desserts.  We got the chocolate and pistachio semifreddo (packed to the rafters with pistachios, yumyum) and the panna cotta with saba and strawberries.  Both were nice.  Not outstanding, but quite nice.

I was happily surprised by the relative affordability of the menu because it means we can go again soon.  I am truly looking forward to it.  Highly recommended!

P.S.  No parking, no valet but two pay lots within 2 blocks.

A Mano on Urbanspoon


Thursday, April 22, 2010

...In Which I Am Easily Entertained

Look at the pretty colors!

Fork Mashed Purple Potatoes with Butter
and Sautéed Carrots with Garlic


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Polenta Torta with Wilted Chard

From the Alice Waters cookbook, The Art of Simple Food, I made the Polenta Torta recipe, adding the Wilted Chard variation.  It is wonderful.  Possibly not terribly photogenic (or maybe that's just me and my terrible plating and photography skills), but otherwise, truly wonderful and simple and good.

First, make the polenta.


4 c water
1 c polenta
1 t salt
3 TB butter or olive oil
1/2 c grated Parmesan cheese

In a heavy bottomed pot, boil 4 cups of water.  Whisk in the polenta and salt.  Turn down the heat and stir constantly until the polenta is suspended in the water and no longer settles to the bottom of the pot.  Cook for 45 minutes to an hour at a bare simmer.  Stir occasionally.  Add water if the polenta gets too thick.

Stir in butter and parmesan.  Taste and add more salt if needed.  Keep warm until ready to prepare the torta.

In the last 20 minutes or so of the polenta cooking, begin the chard.  I used rainbow chard because I can never resist the beautiful colors.

Wilted Chard and Onion

1 bunch of chard
2 TB olive oil
1 onion, diced

Wash and drain the chard.  Pull the leaves from the ribs.  Trim the ends of the ribs and cut them into thin slices.  Cut the leaves into wide ribbons.

In a heavy pan, heat the oil until shimmering and add the onion.  Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally,  until soft, about 5 minutes.  Add the chard ribs and continue cooking for three minutes.  Add the chard leaves and salt.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the leaves are tender.  Add a bit of water if the pan gets dry or the onions begin to stick or brown.

When both the chard and polenta are ready, you will begin to prepare the torta.  It is important to prepare the torta as soon as the polenta is ready, otherwise it will begin to set.  You need the polenta to be soft and spreadable.

Polenta Torta

2 c soft polenta
2 c tomato sauce
1 c Parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 lb fresh mozzarella (about 2 medium balls)

Oil an earthenware or other low-sided baking dish.  I used a 9x13 and questioned afterwards, whether it was too large.  A slightly smaller one might have been more appropriate.  Alice Waters does not specify.

Ladle in 1 1/3 cups of soft polenta and spread it over the bottom of the dish.  Spread 1 cup of tomato sauce over the polenta.  On top of the tomato sauce, arrange half of the mozzarella slices.  Sprinkle with half the grated.  Parmesan cheese.  Layer half the chard.  Over the chard, ladle another 1 1/3 cups of soft polenta, spread on the rest of the tomato sauce, then the mozzarella and Parmesan and the remaining chard.  Ladle the remaining polenta over the top.  Allow the torta to sit for 30 minutes before baking to allow the polenta to set.  Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Bake the torta until hot and bubbling, approximately 30 minutes.


Friday, April 9, 2010

Sauteed Cauliflower with Garlic

I have an excellent reason for never having picked up an Alice Waters cookbook before.  I once saw an episode of Sundance's Iconoclast with Alice Waters and Mikhail Baryshnikov.  Alice Waters annoyed me. A lot.  There you have it. 

Of course, I sometimes come across recipes credited to her that seem right, right up my alley.  After having that happen enough times, I figured I might be missing something.  I found a copy of  The Art of Simple Food at the library last week and have been engrossed in it ever since.

The first recipe I tried was for Sauteed Cauliflower.  The only ways I've cooked cauliflower in the past was as a simple puree or mash.  I've considered roasting it (my favorite way to cook any vegetable) but hadn't gotten around to it.  A saute sounded very simple and potentially very good.  And it is.

1 head of cauliflower
olive oil
minced garlic

Remove the leaves from the cauliflower.  Remove the base of the stem with a sharp knife.  From the top down, cut the cauliflower into 1/4 inch slices.

Heat olive oil in a heavy bottomed pan over medium-high heat.  When the oil is shimmering but not smoking, add the cauliflower and salt.  Let the cauliflower sit until it begins to brown.  Turn or toss, cooking until the cauliflower is tender, about 7 minutes total.  In the last minute or two of cooking, add minced garlic and toss.  When finished, season with additional salt if needed and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.

That's it.  It's lovely.  She offers a number of variations as well including adding parsley, chopped salt cured anchovies and capers, hot chili flakes and coarsely chopped olives and using it to dress pasta.  I put it alongside seared pork chops and beets.


Eating My Way From New Orleans to Austin

My birthday is this month and as is customary, I plan to eat my way through it. Birthdays are for gluttony. To start, we are planning a road trip from New Orleans to Austin and back, via Lake Charles and Houston. Who has suggestions of really wonderful places we might eat in Austin or at any point along the way? We can take Hwy 90 or I-10 through Louisiana depending on where the better eats are. I'm interested in anything that's really good, whether it be a hole in the wall or something exquisite and fancy. What do you recommend?


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Crispy Stuffed Chicken Cutlets With Ham, Cheese and Sauerkraut

Faye of Fayefood, in an effort to help me find something new to do with boneless, skinless chicken breast for the lovely but meat squeamish Kid Cayenne, pointed me to this New York Times article from January, 2010 in which the author seeks to find out why boneless skinless chicken breast, once a mainstay of French cooking, had lost it's foodie credibility. In doing so, she discovers a number of interesting chicken breast recipes provided by various chefs who would admit (sort of) to still cooking chicken breast at home.

I was thankful, and decided to give one of the resulting recipes a try:

Crispy Stuffed Chicken Cutlets With Ham, Cheese and Sauerkraut

Adapted from Alexandra Raij

Time: 25 minutes

6 boneless, skinless chicken cutlets (about 1 1/4 pounds total)
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 large egg whites
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 teaspoons minced garlic
Dijon mustard
1 1/2 ounces thinly sliced provolone cheese (1 1/2 slices)
1 1/2 ounces thinly sliced ham (1 1/2 slices)
3 tablespoons sauerkraut, packed, more for serving
3/8 teaspoon caraway seeds
2 cups plain bread crumbs
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, for frying.

1. Season chicken lightly with salt and pepper. In a bowl, whisk together the egg whites, cornstarch, parsley and garlic until lumps dissolve and mixture is slightly foamy. Set aside.

2. Brush one side of each chicken cutlet with mustard. Divide cheese and ham among 3 cutlets and place on mustard side. Top each with 1 tablespoon sauerkraut and 1/8 teaspoon caraway seeds. Arrange remaining 3 cutlets mustard-side down on top of sauerkraut to sandwich the ham and cheese. Press to seal.

3. Dip stuffed cutlets in egg white mixture and dredge in bread crumbs. (You can do this several hours ahead and refrigerate until needed).

4. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Carefully place cutlets in hot pan and fry until dark brown and cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes a side. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain; serve hot, with additional sauerkraut on the side.

Yield: 3 servings.

I stayed very true to the recipe, making only one modification.  I used panko crumbs (because I had them) instead of regular bread crumbs.  I prepared whole chicken breasts, cut in half horizontally, for the cutlets.  I didn't get an even thickness on both sides when I cut, resulting in some areas being undercooked when I fried them.  I finished them in a 350° oven to ensure that they were cooked through without too much direct heat contact on the stove top.

How did we like them?  They were good!  Not great.  Good.  The contrast of flavors was interesting and enjoyable but not so much that I will put the recipe into heavy rotation.  A nice change though.  Thanks Faye!


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Hansen's Sno-Bliz 2010: Four New Flavors!

WOOO!  Hansen's Sno-Bliz opened today for the 2010 season!  Hooray!  I hustled down fast to get my favorite Nectar Cream Sundae (I've been craving since last summer) and because I was so quick on the draw, I only had to stand in line behind one person!  I'm the luckiest.

What's more, Ashley Hansen gave me the scoop on four new, all natural flavors she is bringing out this year and gave me a sneak peek taste test.  The flavors are Vanilla Bean, Raspberry, Gingersnap and Cardamom.  I tasted the Raspberry (delightful) and the Cardamom.  When she first told me Cardamom, it was so unexpected that I didn't even recognize the word and had to ask her to repeat it a few times.

Ashley: "Cardamom."
Me: "Huh?"
Ashley: "Cardamom"
Me: "What??"
Ashley: "Cardamom!"
Me: "What is that?"
Ashley: "It's a spice."

Yeah, I know.  I'm an idiot.  Anyway, cardamom does happen to be one of my all time favorite spices so I was thrilled to get a taste and guess what, it tastes exactly like cardamom!  Only cold.  And sno-blizzy.  It's utterly delicious.

On my way out, I stopped at McKeown's Books and picked up copies of Simple Cuisine by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper by Fuchsia Dunlop and Comfort Me With Apples by Ruth Reichl.  Looking forward to some leisurely perusing this evening.


My First Strawberries of the Season

Fage Greek Yogurt with Strawberries and Walnuts 


Monday, April 5, 2010

Pasta with Artichokes and Tomatoes

Most of what I cook is very simple.  Probably, all of it is. I've always cared about and been interested in cooking, but about 5 years ago, I started trying to get better at it.  Deliberately better.  I started being more patient, taking more time, being more thoughtful about the process.  I stopped trying to make any recipe that sounded good in a cookbook (generally with ridiculous results) and started thinking about how to make simple, every day food as well as I possibly could.  This is one of the dishes that I make frequently and that Kid Cayenne and I enjoy a lot.  It is incredibly simple.

Serves 2-3 as a main dish, 4 as a side

1/2 pound hearty pasta like bowtie, penne or fusili (use a nice pasta like DeCecco for even happier results)
2 TB olive oil
2 shallots, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can artichoke hearts (preferably in water, not marinade), drained and cut in halves or quarters
1/2 c dry white wine (I use Sauvignon Blanc)
15-16 grape tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise
5-6 leaves of basil, chiffonaded (cut into strips)
about 1/4 c Parmesan Reggiano and a bit more for topping
salt and pepper to taste

Set your pasta water to boil while you mince your shallot and garlic and halve your artichoke hearts.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet on medium heat until it just begins to shimmer,  Add shallots and cook gently until they are transparent.  Add garlic and cook with the shallots for about a minute.

Meanwhile, add your pasta to the salted, boiling water and set your timer for however long the package says they should cook.  This is generally about 12 minutes and will be just about how long you need to finish cooking the artichokes and tomatoes.

Back to your skillet of shallot and garlic.  Add drained artichoke hearts and stir gently to combine.  Add a pinch of kosher salt.  Let them cook without poking at them too often.  You want the sugars in the shallots and garlic to release, getting a little sticky and turning golden.  Let the artichoke hearts get plenty of contact with the pan.  Turn them now and then, but if you aren't seeing the reaction you want, turn less.  Cut your tomatoes and basil while you're waiting.

After about 4-5 minutes of cooking, you should start seeing the artichokes start breaking down and the onion and shallots caramelizing and sticking a bit to the bottom of the pan.  Add white wine and stir a bit to loosen everything up.  Let it cook down and absorb.  Add tomatoes and lightly stir in.  The tomatoes will release a little juice into the dish.  You want them to cook for a couple of minutes to get warm but not long enough to completely break down.  Lower your heat a bit if there is too much cooking happening.

Your pasta should be just about finished.  Add a 2-3TB of the boiling pasta water to the pan of artichokes and tomatoes and stir to release all the flavor from the pan.  Stir in grated Parmesan.  Drain the pasta and add it to directly to your skillet of vegetables.  Mix together and then season with salt and pepper.  Add most (but not all) of your basil  (leave a little to garnish at the end).  Add more Parmesan and basil once the pasta is plated.


Thursday, April 1, 2010

Bacon, Avocado, Arugula and Butter Sandwich

Faye knows what she's talking about in all sorts of ways.  When she says ...
Bacon, Avocado and Arugula on Toast:  That’s all there is to it.  Use excellent bread, beautiful butter, and the tiniest bit of salt on your avocado.
... do it.


I Long For Summer Vegetables

Early spring puts me in a weird place when it comes to planning what to cook.  I no longer want the warm, hearty dishes of winter but the ripe produce of summer hasn't shown up yet.  I'm left wanting a fresh, light meal with little option for creating it.  I draw a lot of blanks.  Last night was no different.  I decided on making a pasta salad that I usually do all summer, using produce that can sort of, kind of be counted on year round.  While I can't say that the dish was as delightfully flavorful as it will be when I make it in July or August, it was good and it did scratch that itch.

A note about the corn... I had planned on just adding canned or frozen corn to the salad but when I went to the grocery, there was a small stack of tiny, barely there, scraggly cobs of corn.  I knew they couldn't possibly be good yet but I couldn't resist.  Truth is, despite being a crazy .79 cents a cob, they were delicious.

Pasta Salad

1 lb fusili pasta, cooked according to the package and cooled in ice water immediately after
kernels cut from 2 cobs of corn that have been blanched in the remaining pasta water for 2 minutes, then cooled in ice water
6 stalks of asparagus, also blanched in the pasta water for 30 seconds, then cooled in ice water and chopped into 1 inch pieces
1 yellow crookneck squash, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1/2 of a red onion, diced
1/2 cucumber, peeled and diced
1 avocado, peeled and diced
about 15 grape tomatoes, chopped
about 10 pitted green olives, chopped
a few sprigs of fresh dill, minced
1 can of cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

Cook the pasta and then pull it out of the boiling water with a slotted spoon or spider instead of dumping it all into a strainer.  Immerse pasta in ice water to cool it down.  Keep the pasta water boiling and use it to blanch your corn and asparagus quickly before also putting them in ice water to stop the cooking and cool them down.  Combine all fresh ingredients together with the cooled pasta and beans.  Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste.


What are you making for dinner this time of year?


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