Sunday, November 23, 2008

Get Thanksgiving right, and the rest is gravy

Ten years ago this week, I hosted my first Thanksgiving. I was newly married and was determined to cook a turkey and all the trimmings, despite my tiny New York City apartment kitchen. I went a little over-board on the menu.... with butternut squash risotto as a first course, all kinds of fancy additions to my mashed potatoes and other side dishes, and I made an almond- plum tart for dessert. As much as everyone ooo-ed and ahh-ed (okay, maybe just my mother and new husband, who are required to be supportive), it was really a bit much. Leave it to my younger brother to set me straight. "What happened to all the 'regular' stuff?" Well, he was right. Thanksgiving is all about tradition, and from that point forward, there would be no fussy first courses, I'd make simple side dishes, and some good ol' "regular" apple pie for dessert (I'm all about apples these days).

The one thing I did do right was the turkey. I got the idea from one of my many cooking magazines--- I believe it was Bon Appetit. There was nothing extraordinary about the preparation, except for the glaze brushed on near the end of the cooking time. The glaze? Red currant jelly--right from the supermarket. It is also added to the pan gravy to create a rich color and fantastic flavor. Some fresh sage gives it some texture and even more flavor. It was such a hit, I've made it every year I've hosted since that first time ten years ago. The butternut squash risotto is for another meal, but the glazed bird and red currant gravy has become turkey-day tradition around here.

While I was teaching my "Sauce Basics" workshop last week, I mentioned this gravy and one of my students requested I put it on the blog---so here it is...with the back-story to boot!

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Pan-tastic Red Currant Gravy

Once the turkey is done, place your pan on top of your stove burners and create this yummy gravy.

4 cups chicken broth
3 tablespoons cornstarch or flour
3 tablespoons water
1/4 cup red currant jelly
1/4 cup fresh sage, chopped

In a small bowl, make a slurry by whisking together the water and cornstarch. Set aside.

Turn the burners on high and add 4 cups of stock to deglaze the roasting pan. Use a wooden or silicone spoon to scrape up all the brown bits on the bottom of the pan.

Add the slurry to the pan and WHISK vigorously to prevent lumps from forming.

Add the jelly and fresh sage and continue to whisk until thickened. Check seasonings and add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve hot with roasted turkey.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pumpkin without the Pumpkin

Pumpkins This time of year, I always have pumpkin on my mind. As much as I love dishes made with fresh pumpkin (or their seeds--check out my recipe for "Parmesan Pepitas" which I posted on my other blog, Season to Taste), sometimes all that peeling, seeding, de-gooping, and chopping can be a bit of a drag. There are lots of fantastic recipes made with packed pumpkin (the kind in the can)...but through my freelance recipe development for the Bigelow Tea Company, I've discovered a whole new way to get great pumpkin flavor in foods....pumpkin tea!

Two of my more recent recipes developed for Bigelow are Pumpkin Spice Waffles with Walnuts and Pumpkin Spice Meringue Cookies with Pecans. Both have the wonderful flavor of pumpkin without having to use a peeler OR a can opener. The key is to brew the tea extra-strong for maximum impact. Even when added in small amounts (like in the meringues--which would fall flat with any larger amount), it adds fantastic flavor and color to these recipes. I also pair each recipe with a different type of nut---- I love how the flavor and texture of the nuts compliment the pumpkin.
Check out the recipes and let me know how you like them! I think you'll be surprised by the wonderful pumpkin flavor---without the pumpkin!

Check the Bigelow website soon for my Pumpkin Spice Quick Bread with Raisins!
Photo above by Jiffy Cat.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Restaurants: Valencia Luncheria, Norwalk, CT

I have no idea why it took me so long to eat at Valencia Luncheria. A number of years ago, a co-worker who lived in Norwalk raved to me about this little "hole in the wall" Venezuelan restaurant that I just had to try. She ate there frequently and was certain I'd love it. I wrote the name and address on a piece of paper and stuck it on my bulletin board.

"It's not in South Norwalk," my colleague explained. "It is in regular Norwalk." I wasn't really familiar with "regular" Norwalk, but figured I'd check it out on one of my frequent trips to South Norwalk. Well, several years later, that piece of paper is still on my bulletin board and I never ventured much beyond the trendy restaurants in SoNo.

Then, one weekend, our plans fell through, but our sitter was still booked. This would be the night of Valencia Luncheria! I called and spoke to the owner, who explained that they do not accept reservations, it is BYOB, and it is very tiny (only 20 seats) and therefore fills up fast. That evening, the sitter had barely taken off her coat and I was pushing my husband out the door so we could beat the 7:30pm rush.

The restaurant is located on Main Street in downtown Norwalk, in a very "regular" neighborhood. There is nothing fancy or trendy about it, but even on the rainy night we went out, there were still plenty of people out and about (on the very next block is Lime Restaurant, a vegetarian enclave also on my bulletin board "to try" list). True to the word of the owner, the space is definitely small, but very lively with its orange walls and modern stainless steel tables.

We arrived at 7:15 and there were still about three tables open. We opted for one against the side wall, lined with a banquet. The regular menu is extensive, and includes starters and small plates (soups, salads, appetizers), "Platos Tipicos de Venezuela" (typical Venezuelan dishes), and an additional list of entrees and side dishes. In addition, there is a full page of specials each day, including a number of soups, salads, appetizers, and entrees, each one looking even better than the one before it.

Everything we ate was delicious. The house salad was very simple---it was even made with iceberg lettuce (gasp!), but the combination of the tomato, bacon, avocado and queso blanco was surprisingly good. My husband ordered the Crispy Calamari Salad---which combined greens and fried calamari and was large enough to be an entree. For an entree, my husband opted for "The Works" which was like a sampler platter. This started with a choice from six different soups (he chose the standard black bean), and then included an arepa (a type of corn bread), one empanada (a stuffed pastry, for which he got to choose the filling from a VERY long list of combinations), rice, beans, plantains, tostones (like a fried plantain chip) and ceviche. It was a feast, so luckily, he shared tastes of everything with me. I decided to make my dinner from two appetizers on special that evening. The Soft Shrimp Tacos were wonderful, and I also thoroughly enjoyed another dish prepared from Venezuelan roasted pork.

Although we were both stuffed, the gentleman at the next table (we seemed to be chatting with everyone since the place is so small) insisted we get the chocolate bread pudding for dessert. We managed to find some room and we were happy we did. As a person who does not, as a general rule, love any sort of pudding (rice, bread, custard--you can keep them all!), I was very impressed. It was really fantastic.

The truly fantastic part about this delicious meal was that it was incredibly reasonably priced. The BYOB helped considerably....but we felt the food was a great value on its own. I'm happy to announced that "Regular Norwalk" is now one of my eating destinations! I'll report back once I try out Valencia Luncheria's neighbor, Lime Restaurant.

Valencia Luncheria

172 Main Street

Norwalk, CT


Open for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner:

Mon & Tues 6:00am-3:00pm

Wed-Fri 6:00am-9:00pm

Sat 7:00am-9:00pm

Sun 8:00am-8:00pm

Monday, November 3, 2008

Restaurants: Bobby Q's Barbeque & Grill, Westport, CT

In 2004, Bobby Q's Barbeque opened in downtown Westport, in the space that was formerly occupied by Onion Alley. Since that time, owner Bob LaRose and his "pitmasters" have been serving up really excellent barbeque in a fun, casual atmosphere. The story behind the restaurant is something out of the movies. Bobby, who often visited family in Kansas City, became passionate about good barbeque, and decided to quit his job and open a restaurant in Connecticut that would rival any southern barbeque joint. After eating there several times, plus taking a class from him on smoking, I think he has achieved his goal.

The menu at Bobby Q's is large, and incorporates all the traditional barbequed fare. The most popular dishes are Pulled Pork, Smoked Sausage, Baby Back Ribs, and Beef Brisket. Some are served with Bobby's signature House Original BBQ Sauce (also called "Nice Rack"), but diners can add any of the other house sauces tableside. All the sauces, which are playfully named, also include "Sweet Rack" (honey bbq sauce) and "Big Rack" (bold bbq sauce), which are available in bottles both at the restaurant and online.

Over the course of each of my visits, I've enjoyed everything I've eaten, but I must say my hands-down favorite was the baby-back ribs. They were juicy and succulent, and had lots of meat. I also enjoyed the St. Louis Ribs, which are prepared with a dry rub rather than a sauce, but I think the baby back ribs have more universal appeal, particularly in this part of the country. My husband loved the "burnt ends" (which are not always available), but being that I don't care for my meat so well-done, I skipped trying that one. The pulled pork was also excellent, the brisket was delicious, and my kids and I both loved the sliced turkey breast. There is a kids menu available, which features all the usual suspects (chicken nuggets, hamburgers, etc) plus ribs and steak, but I opted for them to split an adult meal instead. They are almost always healthier and seem more substantial than what is offered on most children's menus. Besides, I have made it my mission to not pidgeon hole my kids into only eating the holy trinity of "kid food"--- mac & cheese, chicken nuggets, and hamburgers. Now I'll get off my soapbox and get back to Bobby's!

The entrees are served with your choice of two side dishes, and the list from which you choose is large and diverse. I think I've tried just about every one, and they are really all great. My favorites were the Cheesy Corn and Edamame Succotash, the Mac & Cheese, and the Pit Beans, but I also loved the Sweet Potato Fries and Housemade Applesauce. The sandwiches, wraps, and burgers are served with fries or coleslaw, but any of the sides are available a la carte as well.

For those of you who aren't into barbeque (although why would you go here if you weren't?), there are also salads, various grilled chicken and fish dishes, and even lasagna. They also serve one of my favorite can chicken! So, there is really something for everyone.

Bobby Q's is a great place to go with family or friends of all ages. On weekends, they apparently have a lively bar scene on the rooftop deck, although I haven't been out late enough to say how it is one way or another. I can say what I think about the food----and it definitely gets a big thumbs up from my family!

Bobby Q's Barbeque & Grill

42 Main Street (next to Banana Republic)

Westport, Ct