Jan 25, 2011

An Evening at Slate Restaurant in Philadelphia

Back in early December I snagged one of those excellent online coupons for a restaurant. This particular one was dinner for two (drinks, entrees, desserts) for $40.00 at Slate, a chic little neighborhood restaurant on 21st Street, between Chestnut and Sansom. We used the coupon on Friday night, to celebrate Mr. Dream Kitchen's birthday. I met him in the lobby of his building and we walked through the extreme cold for a neverending 8 1/2 minutes. What with the wind and the hood on my jacket, I was having a thoroughly bad hair day. Which I forgot about right away when we were led to our draft-free table in a side alcove.

(By the way, we know it was Restaurant Week, but ever since being served a dull Caesar salad at Brasserie Perrier (R.I.P), in a brightly lit banquet room, not even the fun part of the restaurant, we have religiously avoided Restaurant Scam Week.)

When it comes to deciding which chair to sit in, I have a strong preference. I want to face the action, not a wall. I assume that's how most people feel. Mr. Dream Kitchen had the "good" seat this evening, as birthday boy. I did get to evaluate a painting with super gloppy brushwork--I can't think of the formal word for that right now, but I'm sure it's French--the paint was so thick that the lighting created a nightlike shadow under the biggest glop. Browns and greens were stripily smeared, vertically and horizontally, in a large checkerboard pattern. It was the way a forest would appear, if you had observed it while spinning on a whirligig and jumping on a pogo stick.

I'd always wanted to try a Manhattan, so I ordered the "Slate Manhattan," which had sour cherries and some of their juice. It was very strong and very good. The cherries were a nice match for the bourbon and the whole concoction went smoothly with my cassoulet. Not an especially complex drink, but regal and warming. John ordered a ginger pomegranate mojito, which was wonderfully herbal, astringent, and sweet in the same sip, just the way a mohito should be.

Now don't you think it's a little strange that our server came up to me and said, "Our chef accidentally started to make the Glazed Duck Breast instead of the cassoulet. We wanted to give you the opportunity to order that if you want." I stopped myself from saying "I already had the opportunity to order it, and I didn't, so why would I order it now?" Instead, I politely said, after a brief pregnant pause, "I'd like the cassoulet," without making a fuss. Making a fuss or being sarcastic isn't my style in a restaurant. The server should not have made me rethink my order, thus feeling a little guilty for whatever food waste may have been incurred. That was the kitchen's problem, not mine.

Speaking of making a fuss, the next day I took my Dad to lunch, not where I planned to go, but to a restaurant conveniently located next door to where my car had broken down. I should really have made a fuss about some desultory blobs of Cheez Whiz that were lying obscenely in my taco salad, instead of actual cheese. However, I was too busy keeping an eye out for the tow truck's arrival in the parking lot next door. I was also pretending my Dad and were having a nice lunch when we weren't (the company was great, not the "food"), and so creating unpleasantness was not on the agenda.

I need to wipe the image of the Cheez Whiz blobs out of my mind, so let's return to Slate. My cassoulet was perfect, with crisp duck and smoky, creamy beans. John's filet was rare and tender, with a truffly sauce. And he had very civilized mashed potatoes with decorative ridges from a pastry bag.

Now for the dessert. Be forewarned that I often find dessert choices problematic. John ordered chocolate cake with a hazelnut praline filling, and I ordered a chocolate cake with a citrus filling and a blueberry compote. I thought the hazelnuts in John's were not fresh, but my cake was very fine. I'm not totally convinced about blueberry and chocolate, but it was a nice try. Our other choices were Rollo bread pudding and--yawn--crème brûlée. I detest this fad in which pastry chefs get cute with processed candy, and am dying for it to be over already. In between the faddish Rollo bread pudding and the tired crème brûlée the only other options were two chocolate cakes? Slate must try a little harder. I always look for cobblers, crisps, tarts, and pies in a dessert menu. Or what about rice pudding? Stop trying to be clever. Have one chocolate option. Just use the freshest ingredients and execute the dishes well.

And, dear reader, why does crème brûlée persevere so?

Jan 18, 2011

My First Miso

Can you believe I've never cooked with miso? In the recent Bon Appetit there's an article about it, which includes a recipe for apple cobbler with miso in the biscuit topping!

So a couple days ago I found myself picking up some white miso, the mildest kind, just to taste it and sense what it wanted me to do with it. To just back up for a minute, miso is a fermented soybean paste from Japan. It's injected with a mold from either rice, barley, or soybeans, and then aged. The white miso does reminds me of cheese, which makes sense.

I didn't have the right apples for cobbler, but I did have several turnips on hand, so I made a dish from Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything. It's called "Braised and Glazed Turnips with Miso." I braised peeled, cubed turnips in white wine and butter, and when they were almost done, added a half-and-half mixture of white miso and water. I thought the miso tempered that turnipy bitterness and gave the dish a satisfying level of complexity. My older son's pithy review of the dish was, "It makes me want to gag." My younger son didn't even bother to taste it. I guess for the boys, turnips are too deeply disgusting to be garnished, sauced, or even disguised. Not to be deterred, I'll no doubt I'll offer them more turnips in a couple of weeks.

Why is it that some of us constantly search for ways to add complexity to a food's flavor, while others want to leave well enough alone? All I know is that when I get some decent cooking apples, I'm making that cobbler.

Jan 13, 2011

Tandoori Popcorn

I can't leave popcorn alone. To me, its blandness begs for something more. Somehow, I discovered that popcorn is delicious with powdered buttermilk, and today I added some, as well as a sprinkling of Penzey's Tandoori Seasoning. I've also tried smoked paprika, Penzey's Turkish Seasoning, and chili powder. Not all at the same time. About a quarter cup of buttermilk powder is good for a big bowl of popcorn (I start from almost a cup of unpopped). I salt to taste and add the spices to taste. The kids love this popcorn, too. It's great to pop up a batch on a day when there are no other snack foods in the house.

I did look up Tandoori Popcorn on the web, and only found it here among some Scottish folks who like to write in a brogue. This laddie does not add powdered buttermilk,just a wee bit o' butter.

Jan 7, 2011

A Farewell to Crockpot Cooking; Or, How to Break Up Ethically with a Kitchen Appliance

It finally happened, the old gal had just been stuffed with one too many stews, briskets, chickens, and chilis. She started smelling like burned plastic and not heating enough, so I transferred her last meal, a White Chicken Chili with Root Vegetables (from The Food Matters Cookbook), to my big pasta pot. A pasta pot isn't quite the thing, because it's too tall to heat the food evenly, but it was the only one big enough to hold everything. (And yes, I know I should use the term "slow cooker" but I just like "crockpot" for its succinct cuteness.)

Since I'd been contemplating breaking up with the whole crockpot idea for a while, anyway, I was less than heartbroken. Callously, and without a proper mourning period, I Amazoned (sure, it can be verb) a nice big red 6-quart ceramic-lined cast iron Dutch oven. It's Lodge, not Le Creuset--what with college tuition approaching in eight years, and all that. Crockpots, while they're handy, aren't quite my style. For one thing, I don't like to smell food all day. Plus meat is much better seared first, and if you're going to do that you may as well use the same pan and braise everything in the oven. In the end, though, I just can't stand leaving that much food in a pot and then not being allowed to peek or fuss with it until almost the end. Just can't do it. Plus my new Dutch oven is much prettier than that big old ugly crockpot. See, I have no loyalty.

Even bigger and uglier than a crockpot is a bread machine. A couple years ago I broke up with the idea of a bread machine as a worthwhile investment, mainly because annoying little parts would break, and replacing them was mind-numbingly complicated. I'm sure I could give it a go again, but why? It's not hard to make bread without one.

Now I'm stuck with a bread machine that technically might work if anyone bothered to contact the company again about the basket problem, and how they sent the wrong replacement basket, and also a crockpot that has a little electrical problem. There's nothing wrong with the ceramic crock or lid. I refuse to throw this stuff away but I can't in good conscience drop them blithely off at Goodwill.

How do you liked being dragged into my mundane, banal ethical dilemma? Want to give me advice? Of course you do.