Maybe There Is Something To This “Chef” Thing

I posted a recipe for marinated pan-seared tuna steak a few weeks ago. I got a few comments, but the comments from “stillnolongerachef” made a lot of sense. So I incorporated his suggestions into the recipe, and discovered, much to my chagrin, that successful, classically trained chefs know what they are talking about. At least this one does! I took his advice and the tuna turned out better than my first attempts. What is interesting is that the changes were minor, but the dish was noticeably better. I have updated the recipe to reflect those changes, so maybe I should call it “Jim’s marinated, pan-seared tuna steak.” Just in case anyone is curious about what ex-chefs do after they hang up their toques, he now makes spectacularly beautiful furniture and cabinetry.

Hot Or Cold? Wine, That Is!

I store our wine, both red and white, at 56°F. But what temperature is appropriate for drinking? I think that for reds, cellar temperature is just about perfect. All too often I have been served red wines at temperatures that I normally reserve for hot chocolate. The wines, and the waiter’s tip, have suffered. Wine Library TV has an excellent segment about the effects of heat on red wine. It is interesting, amusing, and well worth watching. For me, warm wine all tastes pretty much the same. It loses depth and complexity, and tastes flat.

White wine temperature is a more complicated issue. My wife likes her wine straight out of the refrigerator. And for most of the whites we drink that seems to work pretty well. As the wine warms slightly, whatever complex flavors are present begin to emerge. Of course, some of the wines aren’t complicated at all, just straightforward fruit and oak bombs. But that is fine too. They survive the cold very well. It is the more complex wines that may suffer from low temperatures. Those complexities that we pay so much for? They just don’t exist at 38
°F. That Kongsgaard 2005 Chardonnay I just bought with the kid’s college fund? She better not drink it straight from the refrigerator!

Perfect Every Time? Not In My Kitchen

I made a simple pasta dish last night for dinner. Nothing complicated — it certainly didn’t stretch my knowledge or technique. And I had made this dish several times before, with excellent results. But last night was…boring. I couldn’t point to a particular problem, just that it wasn’t quite as good as all of the other times. What went wrong? I have no idea. Did I sauté the garlic and shallots incorrectly? Or maybe the shrimp was mislabeled, and it was really harvested in a Chinese shrimp pond next to a sewage treatment plant? My bet is on the arugula not being particularly good. But whatever happened didn’t ruin the dish, it just toned it down so each bite wasn’t a pleasure.

This has happened to me before, and it will certainly happen again. Consistency is tough — just think about your favorite restaurant and the occasional disappointing meal. It doesn’t mean that they are going down hill, just like my relative failure in the kitchen last night doesn’t mean that my wife will have to take over the cooking.

A Diner’s Bill Of Rights!

This is an article from the Los Angeles Times titled, “ Diners, stand up for your rights!that lists the 25 rights to which we are entitled as restaurant patrons. Apparently, the scene in Los Angeles is getting a bit arrogant on the part of the restaurants, and this is a great way to fight back. Some of them are a bit trivial, but some are just perfect. Number five and number nineteen are classics.

What Do You Serve A Real Chef?

I just got a call from a relative, asking for a bit of help with a dinner she is planning. They have invited the owner of their favorite restaurant, his wife the chef, and his nephew the sous-chef over for dinner. It’s a serious restaurant — these folks can cook, so a bowl of chips and a steak isn’t going to cut it. Or maybe that is exactly what these folks want? They are around food six days a week, probably twelve or more hours each day, so perhaps the perfect meal is a bag of Doritos and some take-out Chinese.

This reminded me of a similar circumstance in my youth, when I wasn’t quite the (sometimes) good cook I am today. I had befriended the owner and chef of a local restaurant that I really enjoyed. We became friendly and I invited them over for dinner on one of their rare days off. I realized as soon as I had extended the invitation that I was incapable of cooking anything like what they prepared every day, but I tried anyway. Needless to say, I failed, but the evening was a success, because we had a nice time. And that is the point, isn’t it? We invite people to our homes to enjoy their company, not to provide sustenance. The meal is just a nice bonus. And if the food is boring? so what!

Of course they reciprocated, and proceeded to serve a spectacular meal that I still remember. I guess being a chef does have its advantages.

Brooklyn Brewery Local 1 Belgian Ale

What do you drink with steak, when the other people at the table aren’t drinking red wine, and the wine-by-the-glass list is boring? I started with a martini at the bar, and after a few sips, I realized that it was one of those rare beasts — a martini better than most of my own creations. And that is grand praise indeed (the writer says, blushing). So I was primed for an evening of fine drinking, but that was not to be had from the wine list. There are few things that irritate me more than a poorly thought-out wine list. And it isn’t even that tough to create a list that has a bit of spark. But this was obviously a canned list from the restaurant’s distributor. My wife lucked out with a Chardonnay that was quite good, but I was left to fend for myself.

I had noticed a Local 1 Belgian Ale behind the bar, and it intrigued me, but only when I nodded off reading the red wine list did I think about ordering it. It arrived in a 750-ml. bottle, with a cork and a champagne cap. It looked impressive, and when the waiter poured some into a tall glass (faintly irritating in its own right . . . come on, I can pour my own beer). I immediately noticed some interesting sweet aromas. My first sip confirmed it. This was a very sweet beer. But I wasn’t put off by the sweetness. There were other flavors, and some nice bite from hops that balanced the sugar. It stood up to the excellent steak, and the last sip even held its own with the pecan pie. I liked the malty flavors of this beer, and while the sweetness is a bit startling at first, it is well worth trying. But be aware that it packs a respectable punch at 9.0% alcohol.

Brooklyn Brewery makes a fair number of beers, and most of them are worth drinking, or at least trying. Local 1 Belgian Ale is certainly on my short list of interesting beers that I would be happy to see in any restaurant or bar.

Pasta With Spicy Sausage And Spinach

This a great dish for a hearty, last-minute meal. I bought the sausage at a local market ( The Market Basket) that makes its own. The sausage is nicely spiced, so I knew that I wouldn’t have to do much in the way of thinking about flavors. If all you can find is commercial sausage, add a bit of bite with some extra red pepper flakes and maybe some anise. The butter and ½ & ½ smooth out the spiciness and the saltiness of the sausage, so even finicky eaters will like this dish.

Pasta With Spicy Sausage And Spinach

1.5 lbs. spicy Italian sausage, casing removed

2 oz. olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced fine

6 oz. white wine

10 oz. fresh spinach, washed, and stems removed

6 oz. ½ & ½

1 oz. unsalted butter

4 oz. Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 lb. pasta (I used shells, but any ½- to 1-inch shape would work well)

Boil a large pot of salted water for the pasta.

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan on medium-high heat. Cut the sausage into ¼- to ½-inch pieces and then sauté until the sausage is cooked through and lightly browned. Remove the sausage from the pan, leaving the fat and the oil (now would be a good time to put the pasta in the boiling water). Turn the heat down and add the garlic. Cook for a few minutes and then add the wine. De-glaze the pan on high heat, making sure to scrape all of the little bits of sausage and garlic into the liquid. When it has reduced a bit, add the spinach and cover until the spinach has wilted completely. It won’t take long, so don’t walk away for another glass of wine. It is a little disconcerting how little spinach is left, but it is enough to flavor the dish. Turn the heat down to medium and add the ½ & ½ and the butter. Swirl the sauce around until it thickens a bit more and the butter is completely incorporated. Put the sausage back into the pan, and when it is reheated, dump it over the pasta. Toss the pasta into the sauce as you sprinkle the Parmesan cheese over the whole thing, and serve hot.

If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

Then you shouldn’t go to Fratelli Tratoria.

What to do on Saturday night with a thirteen year old in tow? Our old reliable Porter House was out of the question. Smoky bars and kids don’t mix. And when we called another local restaurant, Janice, we were told that it would be an hour and a half wait for a booth! Sorry, the food isn’t that good. Actually, I wouldn’t wait that long for any restaurant on the planet. To be fair, Janice is a nice bistro, with some well-made food, if you order carefully. My suggestions were quickly dismissed. Barbecue? Who would eat barbecue on Saturday night? I would, happily, and maybe even for breakfast on Sunday morning. But that was not to be. We weren’t out of choices however. How about a really crappy Italian restaurant that makes you feel like you are eating in a crowded, loud bar, but without the benefit of, you know, booze? And to make it just perfect? The service is really bad. Great choice! 

The last time we ate in this restaurant, the waiters started putting the chairs onto the tables around us as we were eating. Admittedly it was late, but it was before closing time, and we weren’t the only people in the place. So I knew what to expect, and I wasn’t disappointed. We were seated quickly, and the table was set correctly, and with clean linen. This was the highlight of the meal. Our waiter offered us sparkling or still water, and in our naiveté we said “still,” assuming that it wasn’t going to come out of an overpriced bottle of filtered municipal water. We were wrong. And when we told the waiter that all we wanted was tap water, he went off in a huff. We had to ask three times before we got what we wanted, and the last request was in my “I am leaving if I have to ask again” voice. In his defense, he was probably instructed by the boss to sell as much over-priced water as possible, if he wanted to keep his job.

Yes, yes, you say. So the service was awful. Most restaurants in America have awful service. But how was the food? My wife ordered Bruschetta. It was soggy, although the toppings were nice. I ordered Polenta al Funghi, which sounded pretty good; “mushrooms sautéed in white wine and herbs served over grilled polenta.” But in reality, the white-wine-and-herbs was canned gravy, and the mushrooms were…I have no idea what they were, but they didn’t taste much like any mushroom I have eaten. Although that might have been because the sauce was so salty my mouth dried out. The polenta wasn’t bad. It wasn’t grilled either. Oh, the Caesar salad? Resoundingly mediocre.

Shockingly, they partially redeemed themselves with a fairly good Margherita pizza. Nice crust, the sauce wasn’t too sweet, and the cheese didn’t overwhelm the rest of the ingredients. My ravioli Bolognese will be left to your imagination. However, I can say with complete confidence that they did not use Marcella Hazan’s recipe for Bolognese sauce. We also got a side of spaghetti with a plain tomato sauce that wasn’t awful, although it was better the next morning fried up with some prosciutto, parmesan cheese, and a couple of eggs.

This kind of food is not difficult to prepare. These are simple dishes, and executed well are wonderful to eat. But in the interest of maximizing profit, some restaurants will skimp and cheat and take the easy way out. Combined with indifferent (or, more accurately, bad) service, one would expect a brief life. But this is the ‘burbs, where any restaurant, no matter how bad, has a decent chance of survival, and in this case, success. But not with our money anymore.

Another Quick And Easy Meal

Those sautéed tomatoes that I wrote about a few days ago? Fantastic with penne and prosciutto. Use another ounce of olive oil, and when the tomatoes are cooked, add 4 ounces of prosciutto (cut into strips works well) and one pound of cooked penne. Toss to coat the pasta with the oil, and serve with freshly grated Parmegiano Reggiano (or regular parmesan cheese if you don’t have a large trust fund). I added a bit more of the herbs while I was cooking the tomatoes, because they would be doing double-duty, flavoring the tomatoes and the pasta. And as I write this, I realize that the spicy Italian sausage I had just bought would have been great with this dish (and less expensive)!