Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Truffle Season In London

London seems to have the best Italian restaurants outside of Italy.  And it just happens to be black truffle season in London.  I really don’t know much about truffles but now I know there is a season for them, and that the white truffle season begins a bit later than black truffle season, and that black truffles are fabulously expensive and white even more so.

We had dinner with London friends at the lovely Eleven Park Walk in Chelsea and tried their special truffle menu. Pasta with truffles, carpaccio with truffles, risotto with truffles – everything with generous amounts of fresh black truffle shaved over the dish tableside and all absolutely delicious.  A 2006 Brunello di Montalcino paired perfectly with the unique aroma and taste of the truffle.

It is easy to understand why Americans love England.  It is such a civilized place.  Very few high-rise buildings in central London to mar the historic charm, taxis with very pleasant gentleman drivers and practically large enough to stand in, and we can mostly understand the language!

Our hotel in London was the charming Cadogan hotel in the heart of Knightsbridge - a lovely, small, old world hotel with a great location in a residential neighborhood and only a short walk to major sights.  We stayed in the Lillie Langtry suite.  Lillie Langtry, a mistress for some time of the future king of England, Edward VII, sold her flat at 21 Pont St. to the Cadogan hotel owners and then she proceeded to live in her old bedroom, which was then part of the hotel.   There is also an Oscar Wilde Suite – room 118.  Wilde was staying in this room when he was arrested in 1895 for some activities thought unsavory in that time period.  (The arrest was the subject of the poet laureate John Betjeman’s poem The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel.)

Eleven Park Walk
11 Park Walk, Chelsea, London

Cadogan London
75 Sloane Street
Knightsbridge, London

Friday, September 23, 2011

Austin, Texas

I have visited Austin about 10 times over the past 3 years and I’m still a bit befuddled on how to describe this 4th largest city in Texas:  scrappy, unpretentious, small town, up-scale, scruffy, hip, university town, music town, high tech town.  Nothing and everything seems to fit.

I do feel that the gutsy decision to do a major revitalization of downtown Austin has turned out remarkably well.   I haven’t been back for about a year and was pleasantly surprised on my recent visit to see that the 2nd Street renovations have been pretty much completed.  A new “W” hotel – (wow – I haven’t seen the rooms but its bars, restaurants, sitting areas, fireplace lounge, etc. etc. are very cool and cosmopolitan like all W hotels but still in keeping with the hip Texas western vibe), the new music studio and theatre for Austin City Limits (home of the long running PBS series by the same name) and numerous luxury high-rise residences, trendy restaurants and boutique shops are complete and open for business.  

Downtown Austin fortunately still continues to feel like a small town even though it is: home to the University of Texas (50,000 students in Austin alone), the self-described “music capital of the world” (and it’s 6th Street is probably the coolest place for checking out live whatever is the current music trend), the capital of this the 2nd most populous state in the country, the site of the now famous annual South by Southwest music, film and high tech festival (you might remember hearing about the “start-up buses”–heading from major cities to SXSW), and the site of the Republic of Texas Biker Rally (and it’s a big one – I have been in town when this is going on – beautiful motorcycles and very!...!  interesting people).

Growing up in the era of Dallas, the oil boom, and John Wayne movies, I have always been a bit in awe of Texas and its history but even more so after visiting the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, which I highly recommend, and even more in awe after touring the State Capital.   It is an impressive building.  It is the largest (of course - this is Texas), state capital in the country, and while not larger square footage wise, it is a smidgen taller than the US capital in DC.   The guide on my tour seemed to indicate that this was done to make a not so subtle statement about states’ rights.

Texas is a big state and has a big history.   Settlers from the US and from Mexico carved out a life in this inhospitable territory and became first and foremost Texans.  Wanting independence from Mexico, Texans organized to win their independence, and after many bloody battles (the Alamo one of the most famous), the Republic of Texas was declared in 1836 and was an independent nation until it chose to join the United States in 1845.  I must say I understand the little bit of arrogance and streak of independence that continues to permeate the Texas mystique.  I think it has earned the right.

A food aside:  I suppose beef has fed the growth of this bigger than life state.  Austin is known for its beef barbecue and there are plenty of barbecue restaurants and dives and hangouts at which to gorge oneself.   But this town also fosters top-notch Mexican food and I did find the second best fish tacos I’ve ever had right downtown in Austin.   First place still has to go to Firewood Pizza in Murphy, California.   But Cantina Laredo on 3rd St. in Austin has “Tacos de Pescado”, made with mahi mahi, queso fresco, marinated vegetables and a chipotle aioli, served with fresh homemade tortillas.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Run Don’t Walk for Basil

There is a short time in the summer where basil is plentiful and inexpensive and it is now.  I may be preaching to the choir here but I cannot recommend too highly having pesto in the freezer to use throughout the year. I am never without it:
  • for emergency crostini
  • to make the easy and delicious salmon baked in parchment you can find in my August 14th blog
  • to add a small spoonful to bean or minestrone soups - adds great flavor and looks lovely
  • to spread on bread and top with a tomato slice for the kids when they come home from school
  • to put under the skin of a bone-in chicken breast before baking
  • and of course for spaghetti with pesto (pesto pasta in a lovely bowl, surround with in-season tomato wedges).
I just bought 3 good leafy bunches and made a batch of pesto for the freezer.  You probably already have your own recipe.  Mine is 4 cups of basil leaves, 6 cloves of garlic, olive oil to make a smooth paste, ½ cup pine nuts, and ½ cup grated Parmesan.   I use the Cuisinart to blend and then mound large spoonfuls on a cookie sheet and then freeze.  When frozen, I like to wrap each one in parchment (twist the ends like a candy wrapper).  This is totally not necessary as they will keep well all together in a zip lock bag but it just appeals to me to grab one wrapped in paper – and no messy fingers!

(Freshly made and frozen is so much better than the expensive jars of pesto found in grocery gourmet aisles.  But I must confess that I tried Costco’s Kirkland brand a few months ago and thought it was excellent. It came in a huge jar so I proceeded to freeze small portions in an ice cube tray because it was a bit runnier than my homemade pesto.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

New York City – La Bonne Soupe to the Rescue

It is pouring rain and the US Open matches have been cancelled for the evening.  Drat!  I have ventured out two times this morning and have gotten completely soaked each time – especially my shoes.  I now understand why my daughter insists that rain boots are such a necessity here.  My third time out I don’t want to venture too far but it’s past lunchtime and I’m famished.  Fortunately our hotel is almost around the corner from our old standby - La Bonne Soupe at 48 W. 55th.  The waiter who seats me does not look askance at my wet shoes and dripping clothes, sweet man.  We have been coming to this restaurant for the last 25 years and the menu has stayed pretty much the same.   The restaurant did undergo a renovation in 2009 and I feel consequently has lost some of its worn wood, creaky stair, timeless charm but the bright new bistro look is I suppose a nice change.

We typically order the fondue and salad with a carafe of the house wine – an inexpensive, casual, fun dinner or lunch.  But what I think really keeps us coming back is the salad dressing.   We love this dressing!  20 years ago we asked the cook for the recipe and fortunately one of our party spoke Spanish as the chef couldn’t speak English (yes wacky...).  He proceeded to give us his recipe but it was for gallons of the dressing - 4 cups of Dijon mustard, 8 gallons of oil, etc. etc.  Well, we pared his recipe down and came up with something we could use (thank you Bill!).  This is basically a vinaigrette recipe but the special ingredient is a smidgen of chicken broth which gives the dressing a bit more body, flavor and creaminess.

A few years ago the restaurant came out with its own cookbook which I would not highly recommend especially since I will give you the ingredients for our version of this tasty salad dressing.

La Bonne Soupe Vinaigrette
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1 shallot, finely minced
  • 1/3 cup good white wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon chicken broth
  • 2 teaspoons dijon mustard
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil (not olive oil!)
  • Salt & freshly ground pepper

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Gazpacho in Philadelphia

Smoked Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho:  Heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers, red onions, scallions, garlic, salt, parsley – all smoked for 20 minutes or so.  Olive oil, sherry vinegar, tomato juice, jalapeno, touch of sugar.  Puree in blender.   Garnish:  dried sweet corn, avocado slices, thinly sliced radish, pea shoots.  Serve in cold bowl (cold drink, cold glass; cold soup, cold bowl…)

Tomato season has finally arrived in California but apparently it has been in full swing on the East Coast for some time now.   We had dinner in the lively and lovely Rittenhouse square area, home to some great restaurants, boutiques and the lovely historic square.  Our restaurant was the Alma de Cuba restaurant.   The food was superb:  Black bean soup (with rice croquettas and a drizzle of crema fresca on top served in an appealing oblong bowl), smoked heirloom tomato gazpacho, a remarkable creamy coconut quinoa main course with chayote squash and an unforgettable chocolate dessert crepe with streusel crumbles.

Most memorable was the gazpacho – it was excellent.  I love gazpacho, order it wherever I find it, and feel I am a bit of an aficionado on the subject of this fresh, light, tomato based soup.  I asked for the ingredients from our very competent and gracious server who proceeded to write them down for me but only after double-checking with the chef to make sure she had included everything in that evening’s soup.  She also told me about the video that was made featuring the chef preparing his signature gazpacho:  "Chef Alfonso's gazpacho".  The ingredients for the soup are “cold smoked”.  I really don’t know if I will take the time to cold smoke my ingredients.   It is probably best that one doesn’t perfectly replicate all the wonderful dishes at restaurants.  The memories of those meals are sometimes best left on their own.   But I will indeed make my version of this gazpacho with these ingredients and garnishes and most especially I will remember to chill the bowls…

I have many gazpacho recipes in my files but I’d like to share one that think is simple and excellent.  It happens to be from the South Beach Diet Cookbook – one of my all time favorite cookbooks. 

South Beach Diet Gazpacho:
  • 2 1/2 cups tomato or vegetable juice
  • 1 cup peeled, seeded, finely chopped fresh tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped celery
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped cucumber
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped green onion
  • 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Combine everything in a glass or stainless steel bowl.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.  Serve cold.  

Serves 5
117 calories per serving.