Tuesday, January 30, 2007

That's Ming & Me!



My friend, Gretchen, and I went to see Ming Tsai at Wegmans last week. What a great guy! That's him on the left (duh), me, and Gretchen. I would also say he's really cute but I'm married so I wouldn't notice such things.

My post about the event is here.

Monday, January 29, 2007

My strategy (or lack of it) for contesting “majors” ... and golf

In case you haven't noticed, the PGA golf season is now in full swing. I’ll sometimes have golf on the TV while I’m cooking, because I can follow the action while I’m listening, and look up whenever there’s an exciting shot. I have golfed since I was my 20s, and although I’m a total duffer, I enjoy playing the many beautiful, reasonably priced courses in the Rochester area. Living here has also given me the opportunity to attend several fun golf tournaments – the LPGA comes to Locust Hill Country Club every year, and Oak Hill Country Club has hosted some of golf’s “majors,” including the U.S. Open, the U.S. Amateur, and the Ryder Cup.*

Like golf, the world of cooking contests has what I call its “majors:”

The Pillsbury Bake-off contest ($1 million grand prize)
The National Chicken Cooking Contest ($100,000 grand prize)
The Southern Living cook-off ($100,000 grand prize)
The National Beef cook-off ($50,000 grand prize ... I'd post a link but can't get their page to load.)
The Sutter Home Build a Better Burger cook-off ($50,000 grand prize)

The season for the cooking majors is in full swing. National Chicken recently announced finalists for this year’s cook-off and I’m not among them (I entered three recipes at the last minute and wasn’t surprised that I didn’t get a call). Three of the others – Pillsbury, Southern Living, and National Beef -- recently announced this year’s rules.

When it’s entry time for major contests, contesters start strategizing. You see theories on the forum of Cooking Contest Central. Are your chances better if you enter early or enter late? Is there more competition in any of the categories? What food trend will get you noticed? How many recipes should I enter?

In golf, I play the best when I take a good look at where I want to hit the ball, line up my shot, and give the ball a good whack. When I start thinking too much about my swing or shot, that’s when I start whiffing, hitting grounders, or sending balls into the trees.

Similarly, my attempts to think too much about contests have not yielded great results. During the last Pillsbury contest, I figured that Pillsbury would want to have every qualifying product represented in the finalist recipes. My strategy was to come up with recipes incorporating qualifying products that I thought few people would use. I decided to work with Bugles corn snacks (not a qualifying product this time around). Not only was it an unhealthy period of eating in our family, it didn’t work. I wasn’t called to be a finalist.

I have had more success when I stick to playing around with things I’m good at cooking and enjoy eating. When I get to a point where I’ve created a new recipe that I like, I enter it in a contest that fits. Sometimes a recipe wins and sometimes it doesn’t, but at the very least, I wind up with recipes my family enjoys.

So as much as I’m tempted to go on a crazy cooking frenzy to experiment for this year’s contest majors, I’ve decided to take a page from my golf game. I’m just not going to think about them too much. I’ll cook what I like and if I wind up with recipes to enter in the contests, great. If not, at least we’re not consuming large amounts of such things as Bugles corn snacks. Plus, there’s always next year.

* For the record, I recognize that the Amateur and Ryder Cup aren’t technically counted as majors ... but they are still a big deal.

Note: I recognize it's been about a week since I last posted ... I've had a world of trouble with this post. Maybe it's moving to the new Blogger and maybe it's my own ineptitude. But I have tried to keep up with my twice a week goal...

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Da Bears in Da Super Bowl!


I'm ecstatic that the Bears are in the Super Bowl ... AND Marquette beat Pittsburgh in overtime! I'm emotionally spent, because I watched the two games simultaneously, and at one point both could have gone either way.

So ... I'll post a recipe that's great for Super Bowl parties. It's potato skins, just like the deep-fried kind you get in bars, only these are baked. They are every bit as tasty as the bar skins, and not quite as lethal in terms of fat content.

BAKED POTATO SKINS
from Taste of Home Magazine

4 large baking potatoes, baked
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon paprika
1/8 teaspoon pepper
8 bacon strips, cooked and crumbled
1 ½ cups (6 oz) shredded cheddar cheese
½ cup sour cream (I use reduced fat)
4 green onions, sliced (I don’t use)

Cut potatoes in half lengthwise; scoop out pulp, leaving a ¼-inch shell (use pulp in Penzey’s twice-baked potato casserole!). Place potato skins on a greased baking sheet. Combine oil, Parmesan cheese, salt, garlic powder, paprika and pepper; brush over both sides of skins. Bake at 475 for 7 minutes; turn. Bake until crisp, about 7 minutes more. Sprinkle bacon and cheddar cheese inside skins. Bake 2 minutes longer or until the cheese is melted. Top with sour cream and onions (or serve on the side). Serve immediately. Yield: 8 servings

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Brunch recipes

Aunt Cathy emailed me a request for brunch recipes, so I thought I'd post a couple of my favorites.

5 Grain Rolled Cereal Daybreak Cookies

I believe I got this recipe from the Cooking Light board (although it's by no means light). I made these for friends who were traveling through Rochester and spent the night at our house. They wanted to get an early start, so I thought I'd make them something that they could eat in the car without making a mess. I kept some for us, of course. Coconut is not usually my favorite ingredient, but it added a great flavor and texture to this recipe.

1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 c flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups five-grain cereal (I used oats)
1/2 cup sweetened coconut flakes
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup pecan halves -- chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Blend melted butter and sugar with a whisk until smooth. Add vanilla and egg to butter mixture and mix well. In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and cereal. Stir flour mixture into egg and butter mixture until just combined. Add remaining ingredients, mix until combined. Drop 1 1/2 inch balls (about 2 tbsp per ball) onto parchment lined cookie sheets.

Bake 10 minutes or until lightly brown on edges but still soft in the middle. Cool 2 minutes on cookie sheets and then remove to wire racks to cool completely.

Makes 20 cookies.

Swedish Coffee Cake

A former neighbor brought this to me when I had one of my babies, and I begged her for the recipe. I was surprised at the ingredients. It doesn't taste like boxed mixes, and it doesn't taste strongly of butterscotch. By the way, I'm not sure what is Swedish about it.

Cake:
1 package yellow cake mix
1 package instant butterscotch pudding (vanilla also works)
4 eggs
2/3 cup oil
3/4 cup water

Streusel (mix together):
1/4 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon cocoa
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Glaze (mix together):
1 cup confectioners sugar
2 Tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix together all the cake ingredients and beat for 10 minutes. (Why so long? I don't know.) Grease and flour Bundt or tube pan well (Baker's Joy or another cooking spray with flour works great.) Pour 1/3 of the batter into the pan. Sprinkle with struesel and use a knife to swirl. Repeat two times. Bake 35-40 minutes, until tester comes out clean.

Cool 10 minutes in pan, then turn onto a baking rack or plate. Cool completely. Drizzle with glaze.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

New blogging gig

I have agreed to start contributing to Edible TV, one of several group blogs on the Well Fed Network. My first post on Edible TV appeared today! It's here.

If you happen to be coming to this blog from EdibleTV, welcome! You may want to check out myFavorite TV Shows of 2006.

On an unrelated note, how about da Bears and the Marquette Golden Eagles? I'm very excited about my two favorite sports teams!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Golden Port Dim Sum and Mona Lisa Cafe

Last weekend B. and I decided to have one of our mother/son nights. We decided to try Golden Port Dim Sum on East Avenue, and then head to the Mona Lisa Cafe in Webster for dessert. Both places were new to us. The night ended up being what B. called, “our best night out ever.” B. has a tendency to use superlatives – as in his frequent use of, “this was my worst day ever!” – but in this case I tend to agree with him.

Golden Port Dim Sum is on East Avenue, in a part of Rochester called the East End. I parked in the East End garage, about a block from the restaurant, where parking was free. East Avenue had a nice city neighborhood feel to it. The street was lined with trees with white twinkle lights on them, and dressed-up people were milling about. The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra must have been playing at the nearby Eastman Theater.

The restaurant was bustling when we got there, with nearly every table full. The waiters were moving around with urgency, perhaps to get the theatre crowd to their destinations in time. We were seated promptly and given menus, along with printed sheets for circling our choices. The dinner menu had 188 selections to choose from, including dim sums and soups, as well as Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese dishes. Plus there was a sushi menu with 70 items. I had two reactions to this:
1. My experience is that most restaurants with huge menus don’t do any of it very well. But I decided to keep an open mind.
2. Uh-oh. What the heck are we going to order? I have never eaten dim sum and have had very little sushi. I wish someone knowledgeable were with us to give us some guidance on what to order.

I had stuck an old newspaper review in my purse for the address, so I surreptitiously took a peek at what they had ordered. Based on the article, I chose crab meat rangoons and scallion pancakes from the dim sum menu. B. wanted to try sushi, so I picked California roll, because it seemed like a good “beginner” sushi. B. also wanted egg rolls. I tried to talk him into fresh spring rolls, but he wanted the fried ones he was familiar with. We chose Pad Thai Noodles with shrimp as our entree.

I expected the food to be served to us in a sequence, like the way Chinese restaurants serve egg rolls, then soup, then the entree. Golden Port must serve it to you when it’s ready. In short order, we had a whole bunch of plates of steaming hot food on our table.

The crab meat rangoons were our favorite. They were pretty fluted half moons of crispy deep fried goodness, filled with a creamy crab mixture. We also devoured the sushi. I had B. try one with some green wasabi on it. “What are you trying to do, kill me?” he almost yelled after he tasted it. I liked the wasabi. It clears the sinuses.

The shrimp egg rolls were larger than the ones I’ve had elsewhere. I was sure that if I ate one, it would sit like lead in my gut. I reluctantly took a bite. The wrapper, which is thick and greasy at most places, was thin and crispy. Inside were lots of crunchy, fresh-tasting veggies and shrimp. I would rather eat a fresh spring roll, but if you like fried egg rolls, this is the place to get them.

The two dishes we wouldn’t order again were the scallion pancakes and the Shrimp Pad Thai. The fried pancakes were mildly flavored and heavy. The Pad Thai was ok, but I prefer the version I’ve had at Pattaya in Penfield.

At the end of the meal, B. exclaimed, “This is my new favorite Chinese place. It’s even better than Wegmans!” (Wegmans has a Chinese buffet that’s better than the fare at Chinese buffet restaurants, but pricey.) So I said, with a straight face to our waiter, “my son thinks your Chinese food is even better than Wegmans.” The waiter looked stunned at my comment and not sure of how to respond. When I broke into a grin, he laughed. “I would hope so!” he said. The tab, including beverages (tea for B., pop for me) and tip, was $32.

We’ll definitely go back to Golden Port, but I’d like to be prepared next time. If you’ve been there, or if you like dim sum or sushi in general, what are your favorite things to order?

I wanted some time to digest before we went somewhere else, so we took a drive through Rochester’s Park Avenue neighborhood. This is a trendy area with row houses and charming old houses that either are divided into apartments or rehabbed into spectacular homes. The residents consist mostly of 20-something renters or hip homeowners who refuse to live in the ‘burbs. The area also has several fun eateries and shops. As we drove, I pointed out the landmarks of my single days to B.. Then it was onto Mona Lisa Cafe in Webster.

Mona Lisa Cafe is in a strip mall on Ridge Road, right near Five Mile Line Road. The first thing you see as you walk in the door is a case of colorful, creamy looking gelatos. It is a long, narrow space, with bakery cases and counters to the left, and tables and chairs to the right. The bakery cases hold confections including Italian cookies, squares of birthday-type cake frosted on all sides, and gorgeous pastries. I asked where they got their baked goods, and they said that some came from Italy, others from New York City, and the rest from a local family bakery.

B. ordered a chocolate hazelnut gelato called Bacio (in case you haven’t surmised, they’ve got an Italian theme going). I also let him order a half-shot mocha – he’s almost a teenager, after all. I ordered a confection called the Mona Lisa Kiss. It was a thin layer of a spongy chocolate cake, topped with mounds of hazelnut mousse, covered with chocolate ganache and garnished with hazelnuts. I didn’t have my camera on me – I feel dorky taking pictures of food in restaurants and would rather enjoy the food – but in this case I wished I had it. My drink was a cup of flavored black coffee.

We enjoyed a local music duo until they ended at 11 – much past B.’s usual bedtime. All in all, it was a great evening.

Golden Port photo by Yoshisushi uploaded from Flickr

Monday, January 08, 2007

What to do with your turkey leftovers

My Aunt Cathy sent me an email asking if I had any ideas for what to do with the turkey leftovers she has in her freezer. I've made this recipe, from Desperation Dinners, a number of times and it's tasty. I know some foodies and healthies (for lack of a better term) will frown at the processed ingredients in it. I don't use them a lot, but they sure can come in handy sometimes.

Wild Turkey Skillet

from Desperation Dinners

2 packages wild rice blend (like Uncle Ben’s)
1 cup frozen green peas (you can leave out if you have fussy husbands/kids)
12 oz leftover cooked turkey or chicken (about 3 cups)
1 can reduced fat cream of mushroom soup
1/2 can reduced fat sour cream (In other words, fill the mushroom soup can halfway with sour cream. It's probably about 1/2 cup.)
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

Cook rice according to package directions. Add peas during the last 2 minutes of cooking.

Chop turkey and set aside. When rice has cooked, reduce heat to low and add turkey, soup, sour cream, and Worcestershire sauce to skillet. Stir well.

Evenly distribute rice in pan and sprinkle cheese on top. Cover pan and simmer until cheese melts and casserole bubbles around edges, about 5 minutes. Serve at once.

The recipe says it serves 4, but that would be 4 huge servings.

If you make this quick recipe, you'll have plenty of time to enter my cookbook drawing! Click on the link to the right for details!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Culinary resolutions and win a cookbook!

My culinary resolutions for 2007 are:
1. Try one new recipe per week from my extensive cookbook collection and magazine subscriptions.
2. Use my recently aquired gadgets, particularly the pressure cooker, mandoline, and electric steamer.
3. Plan meals more. Go to Wegmans less.
4. Get better at cooking veggies. Use all the veggies I get in my Porter Farms CSA bag.
5. Cook more ethnic recipes.

Yesterday I posted my blog resolutions, and mentioned that you can help. I could use some feedback so that I know whether I'm on the right track with what I'm putting on the blog.

To give you an incentive to take the time to give me this info, I'm going to have a drawing for the cookbook shown here. It's a hardcover cookbook, "Easy Exotic: A Model's Low-Fat Recipes from Around the World." The author is Padma Lakshmi, host of my favorite food TV show, "Top Chef." The recipes are from Spain, France, Italy, India, Asia, and Morocco, and they look simple and interesting. There are various anecdotes and photos of Padma throughout the book. I got the book at a discount bookstore, and, of course, got a copy for myself.

All you have to do is leave a comment on this post. I'd appreciate feedback, such as what you like to read on my blog, or food blogs in general, and what you don't. I just need an e-mail address (if your profile links to an e-mail, I'll get it from your profile). At the end of the month, I will do the drawing, and will contact the winner to get a mailing address -- U.S.A. addresses only. (I'll pay the shipping.) The deadline to enter is: January 31, 2007.

Thanks, and good luck!

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Weekend Dog Blogging and Blog Resolutions


I decided to make a few blog-related resolutions for 2007. The first is to participate in at least one blogging event. This post, if I've done it correctly, takes care of that resolution! It's for Weekend Dog Blogging, hosted by Sweetnicks. This is Charlie, who I've written about before, and it was taken on Christmas Eve. Doesn't he look like he's laughing? I think he's cracking up at his new "Good Dog" bone, because he's so full of mischief. I could tell many tales about his antics, but instead I'll just direct you to my post about our gingerbread houses. If you'd like to look at the other photos of dogs from weekend blogging (many are cute), go to Sweetnicks on Monday.

So there. One down. The rest of my blogging resolutions/goals:

1. Get a better template. When I decided to try to keep a blog, I messed around with some of the templates on Blogger and temporarily settled on this one. I loathe it. I want three columns. I want a cool title has some personality. I want better control over where my photos go. Blogger has a new version of its software, but not everyone on Blogger has access to it. I’m one of the unfortunate ones who doesn’t. I’m sticking around to see if I can get the results I want with the new version of Blogger. Otherwise I may have to figure out how to learn HTML.

2. Get better at food photography. While my camera isn’t the greatest, there’s a lot I can learn before I need to get a new one. Have you noticed a trend here? My weakness is is in anything that's visual. I think my problem stems from my career in advertising agencies, when I had roles in in account service, PR and writing. I never had anything to do with anything visual – that was left to art directors. And photography was left to photographers. My agency experience has given me an appreciation for what looks good. I just have no idea of how to go about creating it.

3. Decide on a focus. I like that the blog gives me the discipline to write on a regular basis, but I feel like I’m flailing about in search of a focus. I've gone from restaurant reviews to contests to recipes to spouting off in general. I’ve thought about talking more about kitchen tools and gadgets and what has worked for me and what hasn’t. I’m not sure whether I need to narrow my focus or not.

And I'm going to ask you, dear readers, to help me in that area. I'll give you incentive to do so. And I'll tell you about how ... tomorrow.

Edited to say ... the next day I announced my cookbook drawing for people who leave comments with suggestions. If you've added a comment to this post, I'll also include you in the drawing. Good luck!

Friday, January 05, 2007

Best of 2006: Recipes

To complete my Best of 2006 series, I thought I'd post my favorite new recipes of the year. They happen to be two recipes that friends created for contests -- and both are relatively light!

My pal (and fellow Rochesterian), Karen, won a $10,000 category prize for her Blackberry-Almond Bruschetta in the Pillsbury Bakeoff. It's easy to prepare, attractive, and delicious, and particularly good for brunch.

My contest buddy, Anna, won even more money at Pillsbury. But my favorite recipe of hers that I tried last year was the one she created for the Cooking Light contest in 2005. This won her a well-deserved category prize. It is very moist and the coffee flavor isn't too strong. I would post a link to this recipe on the Cooking Light site, but I couldn't find it on their Web site using their search function. So here it is:

One-Bowl Chocolate Mocha Cream Cake
From the Cooking Light Reader Recipe Contest, 2005

Cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour (about 9 ounces)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup reduced-fat mayonnaise
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup hot strong brewed coffee
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/3 cup semisweet chocolate morsels
Cooking spray

Mocha Cream:
1/4 cup boiling water
1 tablespoon instant coffee granules
1 (7-ounce) jar marshmallow creme
1 (8-ounce) container frozen light whipped topping, thawed
1/3 cup light chocolate syrup (such as Hershey's Lite Syrup)

Preheat oven to 350°.

To prepare cake, lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour and next 6 ingredients (through salt) in a large bowl. Add mayonnaise and oil; beat with a mixer at low speed until well blended. Slowly add brewed coffee and vanilla; beat with a mixer at low speed 1 minute or until well blended. Stir in chocolate; pour batter into a 13 x 9-inch baking pan coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350° for 30 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely in pan on a wire rack.

To prepare mocha cream, combine water and coffee granules in a large bowl; stir until granules dissolve. Add marshmallow creme; beat with a mixer at low speed until smooth. Fold in whipped topping. Spread mocha cream over top of cake; drizzle with chocolate syrup. Chill until ready to serve.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Best of 2006: Food Books

In 2006, I went on a binge of reading food-related books, not all of which were published in 2006.

My favorite by far was The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Useable Trim, Scraps, and Bones by Anthony Bourdain. It’s a collection of Bourdain’s columns and articles that ran in publications in several different countries. Bourdain is a chef who gained fame by writing “Kitchen Confidential,” an engrossing, funny, foul-mouthed memoir of his checkered career in restaurant kitchens (and probably my all-time favorite food-related book). He has since gone on to be a food writer and TV personality with a devoted following.

This was one of those books that made me wish I were still in a book group, because there would be a lot to discuss. While I enjoy and admire Bourdain’s writing immensely, he does tick me off from time to time. My biggest beef (so to speak) is his disdain for fat people, going so far as to write a snide little essay telling fat people not to eat so much at McDonald’s. As someone who has struggled with my weight for more than 30 years, I may be a tad thin-skinned (and that’s the only part of me that’s thin, ha ha) about this issue. But from what I can tell, Bourdain eats a lot (particularly high-fat meat dishes), travels a lot, and works out very little. My hunch is that his lean physique may have as much to do with his genes as with his eating habits. Plus the guy is a chain smoker, former drug addict, and a heavy drinker. Who the heck is he to make judgments about anyone’s lack of restraint?

Then there’s the melancholy essay recalling the seedy Times Square of yore, with its drugs, crime, and porn, as if it were vastly preferable to today’s tourist trap. Bullshit, was my immediate response. I made my first trip to New York City in 1983 and couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I visited Times Square last year, and while I still don’t like the area, it is vastly better now. In the back of the book he gives his updated reactions to the columns in the book – and pretty much recants that particular essay. (Speaking of which, the best way to read the book is to read each essay and then flip to the back of the book for his current thoughts about the essay.)

Anyway, this negativity is really nitpicking. Bourdain is a witty, intelligent writer with a knack for telling a good story and putting food into a larger context.

Runners up:

Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell. The appeal of this book is that the author wasn’t happy with her life and she dared to try something new, bold, and ambitious. She decided to cook all of the recipes in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” by Julia Child, in a year, and keep a blog describing the project. She did all of this while working at a mind numbing secretarial job. Some recipes were delicious and others were a disaster (and, of course, it’s the disasters that make for the best stories). She ended up gaining quite a following and getting a new career as a food writer. Although I didn’t buy a few aspects of the book, Powell is an entertaining writer who tells a good tale.

It Must’ve Been Something I Ate by Jeffrey Steingarten. He’s a former attorney, the food writer for Vogue Magazine, and the arrogant judge who appears on many episodes of Iron Chef America. This is the second collection of his essays. Some of them are laugh-out-loud funny – the essay on his quest to make a perfect pizza had me in tears. Sometimes his subject matter is a bit too arcane for me, but I have to admire his curiosity and intelligence about all things related to food.

Honorable mentions:
Fat Girl
by Judith Moore (not technically a food book)
Heat by Bill Buford
My Life in France by Julia Child
The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

I’m always looking for interesting reading material. If you have a favorite food-related book, please leave a comment!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Best of 2006: Food TV

When I first got Tivo a couple of years ago, I was so excited to record all the food shows I had heard about and had been missing. Some of them I watched a few times, found to be annoying, and stopped watching pretty quickly (Rachael Ray tops that list).

I watched a lot of “how-to” programs but eventually grew tired of those, too. I know that the TV Food Network is criticized for moving away from the “how-to” format, but I can understand it. You can only watch so much of that and then it becomes boring. I do record “The Hearty Boys,” “Barefoot Contessa,” “Good Eats,” and “Tyler’s Ultimate.” If they are making something that interests me, I’ll watch. Otherwise I delete it without watching.

I thought I’d name the best, but I ended up with my top 5. Here they are:

1. Top Chef (Bravo) – Thanks to Tivo, I don’t usually pay attention to when shows are on. But I always know when Top Chef is on, and I watch it that night (I start watching at least 30 minutes after it starts so I don’t have to watch the commercials). This show brings together a bunch of (mostly) professional chefs, each having distinct personalities and backgrounds. A competitor is eliminated each week and the winner receives $100K. They are given challenges that I would not be able to complete in my wildest dreams – like, create an amuse bouche with items from vending machines in a half hour. I LOVE this show.

2. Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations (Travel Channel) – When I first saw this show, I thought it was a travel show that also featured Anthony Bourdain eating really gross stuff. Either I was wrong or the show has changed. Yes, the show is about travel and food, and Bourdain does have a very adventurous palate, but the show really puts food into a cultural and/or political context. And he picks places you wouldn’t expect from a travel show. It’s interesting, funny, and intelligent. Anthony Bourdain in Beirut, an offshoot of the show, chronicles him and his crew getting stranded in Beirut as it was attacked by Israel. It had me biting my nails. Catch a rerun if you can.

3. Iron Chef America (TV Food Network) – I know the format of the show is getting a bit tired, but I’m still amazed by what these people can pull off in an hour. I never miss an episode.

4. The Next TV Food Network Star (TV Food Network) – This is kind of like Top Chef, but the whole process is nicer -- the competitors are likeable, the judges not as blunt, and the challenges not as impossible. The title of the show is misleading, though, because they winners get an obscure time slot and (I’m surmising) a very low production budget, because the production values of the winners’ shows are shockingly bad. (“The Hearty Boys” vastly improved in its second season. Maybe it’s a sink or swim situation – if they get viewers, they get a better time slot and production budget.)

5. Take Home Chef (TLC) – My friend, Marie, turned me on to this one. A cute Aussie chef named Curtis Stone picks up a buxom woman at the supermarket, goes home with her, and fixes a meal to surprise someone. Flirting and double entendres fly. What does he cook? I don’t really remember. Can’t say I’ve gotten a single recipe from the show. I watch it because Curtis is cute and I like his accent. (My favorite scene is where he rips off his chef’s coat to reveal his tight-fitting tee shirt.) Tom watches it because he always picks up babes. What more can you ask for in TV?

What are your favorite food shows?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Best of 2006: Restaurant Meal

To kick off 2007, I thought it might be fun to take a page from the media and declare my "Best of 2006." I'll sort of follow the categories of my blog. I'll start with my best restaurant meal of 2006 because that's the easiest.

My most memorable restaurant meal of 2006 was at the Peninsula Grill in Charleston, South Carolina. The occasion was a dinner hosted by Southern Living editor, John Floyd, for the finalists of the Southern Living contest.

I normally wouldn’t judge a restaurant based on a meal I had at a dinner for a large group. Well, this meal was among the best I’ve had, so I can only imagine that a dinner in the dining room is spectactular.

The Peninsula Grill is located in the charming historic area of Charleston. To enter the main dining room or the room where we had our meal, you walk through a pretty courtyard that’s lit up with twinkle lights at night. The room where we ate had tall windows that looked out onto the courtyard.

We started with Crisp Romaine Salad with Lemon-Thyme Caesar Dressing. The salad also had some radicchio in it, which I’m not usually fond of. The combination of the crisp greens, creamy cheesy dressing, and crunchy garlicky croutons was outstanding. Tom, who is not ordinarily a fan of salads, practically scraped his plate clean. He pronounced it the best salad he had ever eaten.

John had thoughtfully selected three entrees – two seafood and one beef – for us to choose from. I had Grilled Jumbo Shrimp Scampi with Roast Garlic-Chive Sauce. Tom had the Grilled Filet of Angus Beef Tenderloin with Green Peppercorn Jus. Our entrees were served with Hoppin John, a rice and black-eyed pea dish that’s traditionally Southern, as well as several spears of perfectly cooked asparagus. Both of us thought our meals were delectable.

For dessert, we chose between The Ultimate Coconut Cake and Chocolate Extravaganza. John highly recommended the coconut cake, as that’s the restaurant’s signature dessert. I have started to develop a taste for coconut during the past few years, but chocolate will always trump coconut in my book, so I ordered the chocolate. When John saw that I had ordered the chocolate, he told me to take a bite of his Coconut Cake, and passed his plate to me. That was my uncertain Emily Post moment of the evening. Do I politely decline or do I take a bite? I’m not sure what Emily would do, but I took a bite. The coconut cake was fabulous. Maybe as good as the chocolate.

My memories of the Peninsula grill are not only of a delicious meal, but also of being surrounded by great people. John Floyd was an enjoyable and gracious host. Chef Robert Carter of the Peninsula Grill popped in and said a few words. I met Nathalie Dupree, a judge for the contest, who I used to watch on TV and whose cookbooks I own. Best of all, the other finalists I met at the Southern Living contest were great people that I remember with fondness. We had a lot of laughs. The photos that were taken came out blurry due to the dim light in the room, but this one gives a sense of the fun we had.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Rochester at Today's Inauguration

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Elliott Spitzer gets sworn in as New York’s governor this afternoon. After the inauguration, there will be a reception during which regional specialties from the state will be served. I think the concept for the event is very cool. In fact, I wish I could go. What pains me, though, is that the items that will represent Rochester are:
- Nick Tahou’s “Garbage Plate”
- Zwiegles hot dogs, and
- Abbott’s frozen custard.

For those of you who aren’t from Rochester, let me give you a little description of these items.
- “The Garbage Plate” is a copyrighted name fiercely protected by Nick Tahou’s restaurant. Nick Tahou's invented the concoction, but just about every local burger or hot dog joint serves some version of it. At Nick Tahou’s, it consists of home fries, room-temperature canned baked beans, and ready-made macaroni salad, topped with two burgers or hot dogs, and slathered with a meat-based hot sauce. It is served with some bread and butter.
- Zwiegle’s makes a line of very good hot dogs, which are called "hots" here. (In Chicago, where I grew up, the gold standard is Vienna Beef. I think Zwiegle's hots are head and shoulders above those.) A product that's unique to Rochester is a white hot, which is sort of a grayish color. The texture of a white hot is softer and its flavor milder than the customary red hot, which is actually pink. When you order a hot dog here, you’re usually asked “red or white?”
- Abbott’s makes very good frozen custard. There are a whole bunch of locations throughout the area. My stepmom’s custard shop in Antioch, Illinois, has better custard, but Abbott’s is the best in our area.

I can see Zwiegle's (particularly white hots) and Abbott's representing Rochester at the inauguration, but I just don't get the Garbage Plate and its popularity in the media. (As I recall, a Food Network show did something about it awhile back). Basically, it's a dish that tastes good if you’ve had a few beers, and even better if you’ve had several. (In my college days in Milwaukee, the equivalent was Real Chili.) If the Garbage Plate had hot, homemade baked beans and a good homemade macaroni salad, it would be wonderful. But the only thing that is interesting about the whole concoction is the sauce, which, again, every local hot dog and hamburger joint serves.

I do think the hot dog sauce is unique to the Rochester area, and deserves some status among regional food specialties. It's a meat (presumably ground beef) based sauce with a smooth, thin texture and a flavor that's both sweet and spicy. When you order a hot dog "with everything" here, it usually comes with mustard, onions, and that hot sauce. It took me a long while to figure that out when I moved here. I never could figure out where the ketchup was.

From what I’ve been able to research, the culinary contributions from other cities include:
- Knishes from the Yonah Schimmel Bakery in New York City
- Syracuse's Dinosaur Bar-B-Que
- Chicken wings from Buffalo's Anchor Bar
- “Beef-on-weck" sandwiches from Charlie the Butcher's restaurant in Buffalo
- Potato chips made from spuds grown on Long Island's century-old Martin Sidor farms
- Spiedies from Lupo’s in Binghamton
- Cheesecake from Junior’s in Brooklyn.

Am I the only one who would rather eat the food from the other cities? Honestly, I don’t think our contributions do much to enhance the image of Rochester. But for the life of me, I can’t think of what else would be appropriate.

I do get some consolation knowing that the Rochester area will shine when it comes to its cultural contributions to the festivities. Garth Fagan Dance will perform (Garth Fagan is best known for choreographing Disney’s Lion King on Broadway). Nancy Kelly, an excellent jazz singer, will also perform (she’s from Rochester, but I don’t believe she lives here now).

I’m curious to know ... if you went to Spitzer’s inauguration which foods would you eat? Do you think these are the right choices to represent Rochester? What else could they have picked?
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