Friday, August 31, 2012

Back to Buca's for Bolognese and Barolo

It had been a few years since we'd dined at Buca's Tuscan Roadhouse, but last year when we stopped for a post-dinner glass of wine we were reminded we needed to get back. That visit followed a few frustrating experiences with otherwise decent restaurants mistreating their wine (e.g. storing it by the oven). Buca's clearly puts a focus on a good wine list, and they know how to treat the wine right. But of course, there's much more to the restaurant than the wine!

A year might seem like a long time to wait for a full meal, but we only get to Cape Cod once or twice a year. Vacation fell around the time of our anniversary last week, which seemed like the perfect reason to visit this Harwich restaurant. We pulled up to restaurant, with its Capey weather-beaten exterior a bit in advance of our reservation. We were not all disappointed to hear our table wasn't quite ready, and happily made our way to the porch to offer a pre-dinner glass of wine. We went went with a very full-bodied Italian rosé, which we enjoyed with a nice view of the sunset.
Sipping rosé from Buca's porch @ sunset
We didn't have too much of a wait before being escorted into the cozy dining area. We started by splitting an   arugula salad, very tasty with pancetta, pistachios and a lemon basil dressing. I was pleased to see them split the salad in the kitchen and serve us each a nice portion, without even being asked. We had a bit more of the rosé with this, a nice match.

I went with the Buca's Bolognese, made with wild board meat, a bit of tomatoes and some fresh ricotta. The hearty meat combined nicely with the fresh tagliatelle pasta. I was very pleased with the dish--but not my photo of it, so you'll have to use your imagination on that! Jodi ordered the grilled sirloin served on bruschetta and melted fontina cheese for her entree, and was pleased with it.

Now, back to the wines. There was a special Italian red blend that sounded interesting, but the $60 Barolo really caught my eye. That seemed to good to be true, and I basically asked my server if there was a catch. She offered to let me try some of both to make my choice. I readily accepted! The red blend was good, but the 2007 Paolo Scavino Barolo had a powerful acidity and nice long finish. The wine adhered to the classic Barolo style yet was approachable for the young Barolo age of 2007. Pleasant enough to drink on its own, it had the heft to stand up to the meat in the sauce and the acidity to go with the tomatoes.

There was still a glass or so left in the bottle when dessert time came, so I was looking for something savory rather than sweet. The only cheese on the dessert menu was a soft blend of three cheeses served with bruschetta. I was hoping more for a sampler of a few hearty cheeses that would complement the wine. The lack of a cheese selection to go with their nice list of red wines was my only small disappointment with the offerings.

Don't get me wrong--I still enjoyed that last glass of Barolo to conclude our nice evening at Buca's. The food and service was high very high quality, and I suspect it won't be long before we are back at Buca's again!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Farro with Grilled Eggplant, Tomatoes and Mozzarella

When I set out last weekend to make a concerted effort to bring down our weekly food bill, making good use of items on hand was key to the strategy. I had eggplant, tomato and pesto that wouldn't last much longer. We'd already been eating a lot of pasta the previous week with these same items, so I was looking for a change of pace. Then I remembered we still had some hearty farro grain on hand that ought to get used. Previously, I've made a main course with farro by combining it with steak and mushrooms. I thought grilled eggplant could provide a similar heartiness to go with the earthy grain. I was pretty pleased with the taste of this new dish, as well as the way it might good use of the ingredients on hand. I was off to a good start with my Frugal Food Challenge!
1 1/4 cup farro, soaked for 30 minutes and rinsed
1 large ripe tomato, diced
1 large eggplant, sliced into circles about 1/2 inch thick
1/2 zucchini, sliced into 1/2 inch thick circles
3 tbsp pesto, optional
2 tbsp olive oil
extra parmesan cheese for serving
3/4 cup fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
After you slice the eggplant, spread it out and sprinkle it with salt. Let it sit that way for about 30 minutes, then wipe the salt off. This improves the flavor and consistency. Preheat the grill to medium as the end time for your salting approaches.
After the salting of the eggplant, spray both sides of the eggplant and zucchini with olive oil, then place on the grill. Turn them over once, grill for about 8 to 10 minutes until the veggies are nicely browned and soft. The zukes need a bit less cooking time. I put the eggplant directly on the grill and the zukes in a grill pan. Remove from grill and spread out to cool. After the veggies have cooled a bit, slice them into bite sized pieces.
Meanwhile, boil a large pot of water to cook the farro. When it's boiling, add the farro grain. It takes about 25 minutes to cook until softened. Drain the farro when it's tender. Toss with the olive oil, grilled veggies, tomatoes, pesto and mozzarella. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with parmesan cheese for people to use at the table if they wish. This can be a good, hearty vegetarian entree, or substantial side dish. This would go nicely with a green salad or in our case, we served a cold cucumber soup. I almost forgot until I was looking at the photos that we had a small piece of grilled swordfish along with this, a nice bonus!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

My Nine Julia Moments

I won't have a chance to make Boeuf Bourguignon tonight 
All summer, I've been getting a great recipe in my inbox each week from the organizers of Julia Child's 100th birthday celebration. I agreed to be on the list and part of the process of honoring her legacy by preparing and sharing about one or more of her recipes. Alas, it's been a busy summer, and it seems like the recipes coming in haven't dovetailed well with my schedule or the temperatures. (no, not going to roast chicken in 100 degree weather!). Now, today is the big day, Julia's 100th birthday. And there will be no Boeuf Bourguignon made in our house today--I'll be out leading our softball team in a big playoff game!

But I do want to pay tribute to Julia's legacy. Anyone who participates and enjoys America's vibrant and diverse food culture today certainly owes Julia a debt of gratitude. I'd say it was a combination of her passion for food and people that made the difference, providing both the motivation to get into food but also a comfort level that made the cooking process accessible.

If you've read My Life in France or seen Julie and Julia, you are familiar with the singular moment when Julia had an amazing French meal that include sole meuniere cooked to perfection and a bottle of Chablis. The exquisite treatment of the simple ingredients and the passion for the food and service shown at this restaurant turned her on to the potential of great food. In her words it was "An opening of the soul and the spirit". Not too long after that she was scouring Parisian markets for ingredients every day and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu. And the rest is history.

I started thinking back to recall if I had a similar moment that turned me on to cooking and enjoying great food and wine. I realized that for me, there was no single epiphany, but a series of experiences that have moved me along in my culinary journey. In honor of the great Julia Childs' 100th birthday today, I recall my "Nine Julia moments." Would love to hear about yours!

didn't have pics of my early food days
so here's our young foodie!
Starting young Unlike Julia, who got her food inspiration a bit later in life, I've always been pretty interested in experimenting with food. As a kid, I liked to play around with combining different foods on my plate. I came to love the combination of mashed potatoes with peas and/or corn (and of course, plenty of butter). I planned to start a restaurant dedicated to serving this concoction exclusively. No immediate plans, but stay tuned! (maybe a food truck at least?)

Be bold A few visits to the original Olives in Charlestown, back in its heyday, helped me develop appreciation for big, bold flavors. Though it's been over a dozen years, I can still taste the wild mushroom risotto dish with succulent truffles. Realizing we couldn't eat at Olives regularly, I got two of Todd English's cookbooks and began attempting with some success to recreate the experience at home. More recently, the food at Craigie on Main has been an inspiration in terms of letting great ingredients shine forth.

The things we do for love Jodi may not share my passion for cooking, but she does play an important part in my food journey! Cooking fettuccine primavera for one of our first dates nudged me to move beyond the two dish repertoire I featured in my first year living on my own. And she convinced me to try Indian food on one of our first trips together (it was hard to come by in Kentucky), and that is now one of my favorite cuisines. While I may be the main cook, enjoying good food with Jodi and now our son is an important part of the fun.

Wine country We'd been getting a bit interested in expanding our enjoyment of wine in our twenties, but a visit to California's wine country took my interest to another level. I'd love to tell you my wine epiphany occurred at a small boutique cult cab maker or something like that, but it was a visit to Ravenswood, a pretty big name, that got me going. Jodi and I visited during a slow time in late November, and we were the only ones in the tasting room for awhile. The server had deep knowledge of each wine and would show us where the grapes came from for each thing we were trying. This helped me begin to appreciate the link between a wine and the terroir of its grapes.

Passion for Pairings Fortunately, we had a chance to a enjoy a few wine dinners at Boston's Aujourd'hui before it closed. Now, there are some other good programs like this in the Boston area, such as the one at L'espalier . But what made this really special was the way sommelier Brick Loomis would transport you to the region featured that night with his stories and passion for pairing food and wine. The Rhone dinner we went to was especially memorable, with Brick conjuring up a feeling that we were at a great restaurant in Lyon as we sampled our Chateauneuf du Pape. Aujourd'hui is closed but my desire to appreciate the interplay of good food and wine continued, helped in this journey by Pairings Wine and Food and of course, the wine dinners we do ourselves.

No pesto for you! I was wowed by the food in Italy during my first visit right after college. Heading there for our honeymoon, with some cooking experience under my belt, I was eager to sample the authentic Italian food once again. I was especially looking forward to having some pesto, which I'd started to enjoy making at home. But alas, there is no fresh basil available in March, so they weren't offering it then! At first, I was frustrated about this. Then I began to appreciate that this commitment to using what is fresh and seasonal is key to great food in Italy and anywhere, for that matter.

Bring on the eggplants! Last year we participated in a community supported agriculture (CSA) program for the first time. Getting a big bin of whatever veggies were ready for picking every week has certainly been a great way to learn more about cooking seasonally and finding creative ways to use vegetables. Until this time, beets and eggplants were two vegetables that I shunned. But they are also abundant around here in the summer, so I experimented with different ways to prepare them. I've now found several preparations of both beets and eggplants that I enjoy...grilling them being a key starting point.

Yipes, 40%! I was already pretty focused on trying to make use of most of the food we have on hand, and have gotten pretty creative in my use of leftovers. But reading that Americans waste approximately 40% of our food really hit me, and I've redoubled my commitment to avoiding food waste by being strategic about using what's on hand. Also, I try to anticipate when I won't be able to use something, and either freeze it or share it.

Foodie friends Cooking tasty, healthy meals at home for our family of three is my primary focus as a cook. But it's good fun to get together with a group of passionate foodies and kick things up a notch, too! Several times a year, we'll get together with a group of friends that shares an interest in creative cooking and good wine and have a special multi-course dinner. This is a great way to get new ideas and share some new creations. Great food and wine is definitely meant to be shared--something Julia certainly appreciated!

So these are some of the experiences that have inspired my journey into enjoying the world of food and wine. What are your Julia moments? Whatever they may be, I'll wrap by wishing you bon appetit! in memory of our passionate foodie inspiration.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Frugal Food Challenge, Part 1

The Challenge: Following back-to-back weekends hosting parties, and the associated higher food bills, it's time for some budget austerity in our home. We've still got some ingredients left on hand from the gatherings and last Tuesday's community supported agriculture box (CSA), including some homemade pesto carrots, parsnips, green peppers, beets, eggplant and fresh mozzarella. I've also got some of the cold Zucchini Cucumber Soup I made yesterday. Making good use of what's on hand is key to a frugal shopping strategy, not to mention the moral virtues of not wasting.

Adding to the challenge, I've got two days in a row midweek when I won't be home to cook. One of those days also happens to be our CSA pickup day, so there's that element of unpredictability.

The Initial Plan: I'm thinking tonight (Saturday) I'll make pesto pizza with the mozzarella I have on hand, along with a salad. I simply use the ready made crusts from Whole Foods which are allergy safe for our son (he likes his with just olive oil and soy cheese!). Tomorrow I'm thinking I'll find a meat to grill, preferably on sale, and serve it with some faro (have a good bit on hand) tossed with grilled root veggies (mostly the parsnips and carrots, I think the beets might be a bit funky thrown in there). I'll aim to make enough of that to simply reheat the leftovers for another meal.

still have some good cheese on hand to use!
The rest of the week, I'll keep things a bit looser, and see how much is left after my weekend cooking. My rough plan for Monday is to either do some kind of pasta with remaining veggies and mozzarella, or perhaps some bean burritos with some grilled peppers and onions. I'll get one meat I can freeze for use later in the week, along with what rolls in through the CSA. I find balancing a plan and flexibility is key for keeping things under budget and using things up. Planning too many meals can lead to things going bad before we get a chance to eat or freeze them.

So that's the game plan...any ideas on what to do with what I have on hand? Strategies for frugal shopping that doesn't sacrifice on taste and health?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Bold and Smooth, We Enjoyed Our Chile Olive Oil

If you are of a certain age, you may recall the great "tastes great" versus "less filling" debates that raged on commercials for Miller Lite decades ago. Well, we staged a version of that in our home recently, but in this case the choice was between "Bold" or "Smooth" Chile Olive Oil. We had the opportunity to hold a special Chile Olive Oil tasting dinner at our home for a dozen foodie friends. Our dinner is part of a series of special events designed to increase awareness about the high quality of extra virgin olive oil (referred to at times here and on Twitter as "CEVOO").

Preparation: In many ways, this was the easiest dinner party we have hosted (Jodi may disagree, after volunteering to finely dice the Yukon gold potatoes!). On Friday, our Chile Olive Oil sampling kit arrived from New York with several bottle bottles of bold and smooth Chile Olive oil, tasting cups, and lots of useful information. Then on Saturday I picked up a couple big bags of super-fresh ingredients provided by Whole Foods Market Woburn (thanks Nora!) and I was pretty much good to go...except I couldn't simply stick with the original menu, I had to add a few wrinkles and thus grab some additional items. And of course, some Chilean wine from Pairings Wine and Food.

Of course, there was still plenty of work to get things ready. I haven't done much baking, but might have to do more after seeing how much my seven year old enjoyed helping make the eggless chocolate cake! I tried to get as much prep as possible done before the party, getting the dip, pesto and dressing made, chopping vegetables and so forth. Alas, I did not get to the step of dicing the Yukon gold potatoes before the guests arrived; fortunately Jodi jumped in to take care of that tedious task.

Our food savvy guests came ready to capture the experience!
The guests: We had a great group come to enjoy the tasting dinner with us. I'll mention and link to those that have an active food related social media presence so you can follow if you'd like. There was fellow local Woburn food blogger Raquel,  along with her husband Carlos (fresh of their honeymoon in Hawaii!). Carlos' Dad came too, and he offered us some great information as a native Chilean. Raquel has already gotten a nice post about the dinner up over on her Thoughtful Eating blog. Jeff brought his social media journalist photography skills to bear on the event, and told us of his adventures with his lunch video show. Our guest with the most creative Twitter handle would have to be Clownface3 who came with Jeff and contributed her rapid tweeting ability to the party. Speaking of prolific tweeting, few can match Eric's 100,000+ tweets, not to mention his 20,000+ Fourquare checkins. My wife Jodi may have caught the social media bug, but I think my sister Pam and her husband Doug are too busy cooking and enjoying great food to tweet about it! Doug will offer his opinions of the dinner if asked, I'm sure.

Tasting After we had had a chance to nibble on some of the appetizers (more on those below) it was time for the main event! We were gathered to learn more about the what Chile Olive Oil has to offer. Sure, we could read the nice brochures and learn how Chile Olive Oil goes from fruit to oil in 24 hours and Chile's great climate for growing olives. But that's no substitute for tasting. The Chile Olive Oil folks gave us two different oils to sample. The "Smooth" is a blend of Frantoio and Arbquina olives. "Bold" is  a blend of Arbequina, Frantoio and Leccino olives. And yes, our friends at Chile Olive Oil did encourage us to get into a bit of a debate on the merits of Smooth vs. Bold.

Getting ready to sample some CEVOO!
Olive oil tasting was new to all of us, so it was helpful to have the tasting instructions. The process is quite similar to wine tasting: swirling, sniffing, and some slurping to aerate the oil and get the full flavor. The added twist was nibbling a green apple to cleanse the palate! The Smooth has a nice, light mouthfeel, but did surprise us all with a peppery finish at the end. The Bold packed some punch from the get go, with a more full-bodied mouthfeel. Now, Clowface3 was the only guest that voiced a strong preference for the Smooth, though I suspect from the other's notes that would be the one we'd all choose if we were going to have a glass of it straight up...of course, it's about how the Chile Olive Oil accentuates the food! I enjoyed trying different oils for the various dishes, which I'll cover next.

The meal: We started with some appetizers that made good use of the Chile Olive Oil. I used Bold for the Muhammarra (spicy red pepper dip) served with pita chips:

photo courtesy of Jeff Cutler
My pesto already has a boldness to it, so I figured I'd amp up that taste by using the Bold for a batch to be served on crostini. Eric brought a bottle of Phanton Gourmet Sauvignon Blanc from Chile, which was a nice, crisp accompaniment to the pesto and spicy red pepper dip.

The Caprese Salad was perhaps the best dish of the night for showcasing the fresh taste of Chile Olive Oil. We gave people their choice of Bold or Smooth on this one, and the choices were pretty evenly divided. This one in the photo looks like it still needs more CEVOO!

photo courtesy of Jeff Cutler
The main course was Honey Chicken with Caramelized Onions and Yukon Potatoes. The chicken was cooked with CEVOO along with chicken broth, onions, thyme, potatoes and some Whole Foods Organic Wildflower Honey. It was a very tasty preparation. I served it with a basic green salad, tossed with my Balsamic Vinaigrette. Great ingredients are the key to this simple dressing, so the Chile Olive Oil made it very good! Ray from Pairings thought Carmenere would go well with this dish, and he was right! We had the Chono from their shop and the Panilonco Carmenere, a favorite of Carlos, Sr.
Photo courtesy of Eric Andersen. All rights reserved. 
Finally, we finished off the night with Eggless Chocolate Cake, made with the Smooth Chile Olive Oil instead of eggs. Between not being much of a baker and the use of oil instead of eggs in the cake, I was a bit skeptical about how this would turnout. I took my sister up on her offer to bring a backup dessert. The cake was super moist and very tasty, so the other dessert was just a nice bonus! With our son allergic to eggs, this recipe was a great find!

As you can see, we tested the chocolate and red wine pairing theory with this one, sampling the remainder of the Chono Chilean Cabernet we had opened with the main course, and also offered some port that went quite well. Both went nicely with the cake. We lingered a bit over our cake, wine and tea, chatting about our fun foodie adventure. Then it was time to go, with our guests leaving with their own CEVOO samples so they could continue to enjoy it in the days to come. I don't know about them, but I'm ready for a refill!