Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Shhhhhh...It's Robin's Double Secret Black-Eyed Pea Dip Recipe

Just because I love all of you, this year I am going to share my double-secret recipe for delicious (no, really) and easy black-eyed pea dip. As someone who has swallowed many black-eyed peas over the years while holding her nose and chasing it immediately with a glass of water, when I say this is good, I mean it.

  • 8 strips of bacon, diced
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 2 tsp. salt + 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 tbs. cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. coriander
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 14.5 oz. can of original Rotel tomatoes (do not drain)
  • Approximately 10 jarred jalepenos, roughly chopped (more or less, depending on your spiciness preferences)
  • 1/4 cup of the juice from the jarred jalepenos
  • juice of two limes
  • 3 tbs. sugar
  • 3 cans of plain black-eyed peas (don't get pre-seasoned), rinsed and drained
  • 1 bottle of Shiner Bock (plus more for drinking while you cook, as desired)

Heat a stock pot on medium high heat. Add the bacon, and cook off the fat until it just starts to crisp. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add the onions and 2 tsp. salt to the pan with the bacon grease. Turn the heat down to medium and cook the onions until translucent, but not brown (5-10 minutes). Add the cumin, coriander, cinnamon, oregano and garlic to the onions and cook while stirring for two more minutes.

Add the bacon back to the onion mixture along with the Rotel, jalepenos and juice, lime juice and sugar and stir until well combined. Return to the heat to medium high and bring the mixture to a bubble. Add the black-eyed peas, 2 tsp. salt and the bottle of Shiner, and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat to medium low and let simmer for two hours or until the liquid is completely absorbed/reduced. You'll have to watch it fairly closely at the end to make sure it doesn't burn to the bottom of the pot. Trust me on this one :)

Once it has cooled a bit, start smashing the peas with a fork or a potato masher. You want the texture to be chunky (where you can still tell it's black-eyed peas) but creamy, like good bean dip. This is a bit of a personal choice, though, so it's your preference. Serve with tortilla chips.

Eat this after midnight, and you'll guarantee yourself a very happy and prosperous 2009 (and possibly stave off your hangover at least a little). Happy New Year's from DallasEats!

Strong's Everyday Tavern: A Fond Farewell

Just a quick note today, to say goodbye to a neighborhood spot that will close its doors very soon.  Strong's Everyday Tavern plans to cease regular service tonight (they have a private party booked on New Year's Eve), so a few of us headed there last night for happy hour and dinner, at the suggestion of a friend.  

Food and conversation were wonderful, and a warm, fragrant fire burned in the patio fireplace as we enjoyed our meal.  The restaurant was quite busy, and spirits were high among the diners and staff.  

To see the full story on what's to come for this spot at Cedar Springs and Fairmount, click this link to head over to Pegasus News.

So long, Strong's - you'll be missed!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

T.V. Time! - Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven

We here at DallasEats are very excited about Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven, a new documentary airing Monday (tomorrow) night on HBO.  

This behind-the-scenes look at one of the most famous, most glamorous, most star-studded restaurants in the world promises to be quite a bowlful of "mental popcorn" (as mom would say) for us fans of haute cuisine.  A preview article in the New York Times also explores the film's deeper meaning - how it captures the struggles and triumphs of a close-knit family running a business together.

Don't know about you, but we absolutely can't wait - ladies and gentlemen, set your TiVo's!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Latkes!

I grew up in a family that combined two different cultures.  Each December, like many of you out there, we celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah - not on the same night, and not usually in the same house, but both holidays were always given their special time to shine.  Such is still the case today, and I look forward to this time of year twice as much for that very reason. 
Rachel's adorable Hanukkah Tree - her own tradition.

I remember many happy Hanukkahs as a child, lighting candles and squinting my eyes until each tiny flame doubled, then tripled in front of me.  We'd always say prayers, open gifts and peel foil wrappers off of chocolate coins - the whole shebang.  Except for dreidel, that is.  The famous game didn't get much play in our house, as we pretty much focused on food once the candle-lighting and present-opening were complete.  Come to think of it, games of chance still take a backseat to eating in my book.  A trip to Vegas is more about dinner reservations than ponying up at the tables, as far as I'm concerned...

Anyway, it's traditional on Hanukkah to eat foods fried in oil.  Rich and golden, they are a delicious tribute to the oil that burned long and bright, eight times longer than expected, inspiring this annual celebration.  Needless to say, when it comes to this custom, my family is happy to oblige.

Latkes, or potato pancakes, are perhaps the most famous fried Hanukkah delight.  Never missing an opportunity for culinary creativity, we put the family stamp on this dish in a most unexpected way.  Correction - my Dad, kitchen pioneer and trailblazing chef extraordinaire, put his stamp on the latkes some years back, and ever since, it just wouldn't be Chrismakkah without 'em.

Dad with his cast iron skillet, frying our latkes to golden perfection.

We call them Christmas Latkes, with a wink and a smile.  Much like enchiladas served Christmas-style in Santa Fe, wherein they're doused with red and green chile sauces, this name refers to the classic holiday color combination.  In our case, red and green are represented by sweet and spicy nibbles mixed into the batter before it's time to get a-fryin'.  Craisins and minced jalepeno are the additions, to be exact, and this tweak on tradition results in a treat you have to taste to believe.

The final product, ready for the feast.

It's a simple recipe, really - just take your favorite potato pancake formula and mix in the aforementioned additions in the proportions desired.  Then fry the little bejewelled beauties in a neutral-flavored oil and serve them with apple sauce and a dollop of sour cream.  Different and delicious.  When it comes to family traditions, we file this one under Holiday, Unique.


Comment Card

Planning to eat black-eyed peas on New Year's Day?  Or will you dine on a different dish to kick off 'o9 in style?

Maybe you ring in the New Year the night before with your favorite brand of bubbly?

Tell us about your traditions for the big night and the following day - we wanna hear all about 'em!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Top Chef, New York: Episode Six

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Wow. This was a seriously disappointing episode of Top Chef. Other than the greatness of Martha Stewart, it was pretty much a total let-down. I will just jump right into it.

Anytime Martha Stewart is involved, things can't be all bad. Oh, how I love and worship her. Had I been one of the Top Chefs and she walked into the room, I might have screamed like a Jonas Brothers fan before passing out cold. That being said, were any of us surprised that she was there to hock her new book? I think not.

Martha's Quick Fire challenge was to create a one-pot holiday dish suitable for a home cook. Kind of blah, but some people had trouble with it anyway. And I have to say that personally, if there is a dish with a bunch of steps where you have to remove things and wash the pan in between them, that is NOT a one-pot meal.

There were a few bright spots. I thought Hosea's paella sounded pretty tasty, and I was extremely impressed that he was able to get it done without crunchy rice within the hour time limit. I thought Jamie's scallop also sounded pretty yummy, although I am pretty biased, because I think scallops are pretty much the most delicious food on the planet. I also must admit that I thought Eugene's Korean Pork Stew sounded pretty tasty, but I figured he was out as soon as Martha asked about the corn starch in it. Ouch.

Seriously, Ariane wins again? I'm sure her steak and pureed cauliflower was good, and it definitely sounded like something Martha would be into, but give me a break. Also--not a one pot meal, my friend. Anyone cooking that at home would use one pot for the steak and one pot for the cauliflower. Oh, well.

After Martha left, things quickly started going downhill. First, the Harlem Gospel choir randomly showed up in the kitchen. Entertaining, obviously, but oh so random. The chefs then had to pick knives, which were numbered 1-12. I think we all see where this is going. They each got one of the 12 days of Christmas, all the way from 12 drummers drumming to a partridge in a pear tree. They then found out that they would be catering an AMFAR benefit, and would need to have 250 servings each of their dishes. And they would be preparing them alone with only three hours to prep after their trip to Whole Foods. OUCH.

The bigger ouch came the next day for Hosea and Radhika, who found out that the refrigerator where they had left their meats (smoked pork for Hosea and duck breast for Radhika) was left open all night long, leaving their dishes inedible. Needless to say, they were both freaked, but in the Spirit of Christmas (although we all know this was filmed months ago), the other chefs really came through for them and helped them pull together some very respectable dishes.

So respectable, in fact, that Hosea and Radhika both ended up in the top four with their respective 11 Pipers Piping Smoked Pork and Potatoes with Paprika and Partridge in a Pear Tree Duck over Brioche with Pear Chutney. They were joined by Stefan's 12 Drummers Drumming Chicken Pot Pies and Jeff's Ten Lords-a-Leaping Island Hopping Salad (I guess it was Greek?).

Hosea was named the winner, and in true Top Chef fashion, was awarded guest judge Michelle Bernstein's book. Shocking.

The bottom three all sounded pretty terrible this week. Eugene made Five Golden Rings Fish Stew with Golden Pineapple Rings--get it? Geez, could that be more obvious? Perhaps only if he had done onion rings. But in any case, the dish was deemed to be under-seasoned and too sweet. Melissa made Eight Maids-a-milking Beef with Gorgonzola. Sounds promising, but apparently the cheese was VERY over-powering and basically ruined the whole dish.

I actually thought for a second that Jamie would be the one kicked off this week, because her dish sounded pretty gross. It was Seven Swans-a-swimming Scallops in Vichyssoise. Raw scallops. In room-temperature soup. Ewwww! Tom also mentioned that the scallops weren't of particularly good quality and were very slimy. Double ewwww!

Then, before making a decision, in order to totally irritate me, Tom decided he wanted to make an announcement to all of the chefs. He confronted them all in the stew room, telling them that even the top dishes were pretty ho-hum this week, and that none of the chefs were cooking like they wanted to win the competition. He ranted for awhile about this, then told them that in the spirit of Christmas (in July), they would not be kicking anyone off this week. GAG. I watched this for an hour and fifteen minutes - yes, it was an extra-long episode - and nobody got kicked off? Not cool, Top Chef. Not cool at all.

Maybe next week TWO chefs will get kicked off in order to satiate my need for carnage. I doubt it, though.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sweet Speckled Squares: My Favorite Cookie

When I was little, the cookies would come to us.  

A week before Christmas, my grandparents' long, shiny Caddie would pull up in front of the house, and after spreading around the hugs, they'd pop the cavernous trunk and begin unloading more packages and parcels than could fit in Santa's pack.  Each of us kids were piled up with presents multiple times, boxes towering and teetering in our arms as we headed up the front walk into the house.  We'd rush inside, quickly assessing the weight and potential contents of each package before depositing it beneath the tree and heading back out for another load.  It would be an eternity before we could open them.  

Once the trunk was relieved of its contents, we'd move on to the Caddie's passenger cabin, still neat and tidy despite the thousand-mile trek from Indiana (much like Grandma's auburn beehive and Granpa's crisply creased slacks).  Therein were the treats that we wouldn't have to wait for.  In tins and Tupperware, packed tight with care, were dozens of Christmas cookies, all the family favorites.  The selection was non-negotiable, not that anyone wanted to change it, and as sure as our stuffed angel would grace the top of our tree, we'd find Oatmeal Crispies, French Pastry Bars, Buttercreams and Toffee Squares in the back seat of that Cadillac each year.

Now that I'm a grown-up, there are no magic gift and cookie mobiles pulling up in front of my condo at Christmastime.  I have to brave the malls just like all the other grown-ups I know, and bake my own cookies to boot.  The former can be a hassle, but the latter is always a treat.  My  mom and I schedule a day each holiday season to bake, setting out butter to soften at the crack of dawn and carefully lifting the family recipes from their filed-away place in the original Joy of Cooking on top of the fridge.  The cookies we make, the traditional selection, are simple and absolutely perfect.  Don't get me wrong - we decorate other things, and over-decorate many things, but the cookies are wonderful just the way they are.  

Baking Day is my favorite holiday event.  We use the same recipes, from the same recipe cards, that my Grandmother used, and by some miracle they emerge unscathed each year.  They are time-worn to a yellow tint, but have otherwise escaped harm (no dishwater dunking, no chocolate coating).  I've scanned them for the first time today, to capture their beautiful simplicity for the blog.  My very favorite are the Toffee Squares, as you may have guessed from the title of this post, so I've also shared that recipe below.  It's a real, old-fashioned gem.  Delicious and gorgeous, Toffee Squares make a wonderful gift.  And, yes, the recipe really is that easy.

The gift of cookies always gets a smile.  Right, Hott Rodd?

It seems as though Christmas used to take up at least a quarter of the year.  Maybe half.  As a kid, I remember waiting.  Now that the season is filled with hustle and bustle and plain ol' work, however, it pretty much plays out in four fast-paced weeks, just as the calendar would indicate.  Patience is no longer the key; these days, I struggle to keep up.  My coupon-receipt from the drugstore yesterday offered 10% off holiday gifts and $2 off pain reliever - that pretty much sums it up.  Toffee Squares are the perfect remedy.  They take me back to long, sweet Christmases past, and I love to share that feeling with my favorite people.

Toffee Squares

1 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg yolk (beaten)
1 tsp. vanilla
2 cups flour

Mix in order and pat out on a greased 11 x 17 cookie sheet.  (Cover the sheet completely, as though you were making a crust.  Be sure to use a sheet with edges, as opposed to one that is completely flat.)  Bake at 350 degrees for 15 - 20 minutes, until lightly browned.


2 large-size Hershey bars (available on the baking aisle)
chopped pecans

Remove pan from oven and, while warm, top with Hershey bars, broken into pieces.  Be sure to distribute the pieces evenly across the surface of the pan.  Wait 5 minutes for chocolate to melt, then spread out with a spatula and sprinkle evenly with chopped pecans.  Press pecans lightly to adhere to chocolate.  Allow to cool at room temperature, and place in refrigerator, if necessary, to set.  Cut into squares.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Top Chef: New York, Episode 5

Gail's Bridal Shower

I'm just going to jump right in here, because my favorite part of this episode was the Quick Fire Challenge, and I am dying to talk about it. Rather than just do the usual cooking challenge, this week we had a tasting challenge in the form of a tournament-style pallate test. The chefs would have to taste an un-named dish and identify as many ingredients as possible. In the first round, this meant that the chefs had to go head-to-head against each other, and in the style of Name That Tune, they had to place wagers as to how many ingredients they could name, and whoever was gutsy enough to guess the highest would be asked to "Name Those Ingredients".

I found this challenge absolutely fascinating. The first round they were all asked to taste a shrimp/lobster bouillabaisse. Apparently, it had pretty much every vegetable under the sun included, so basically anyone who took a crack at naming the ingredients won this round. Other than poor Eugene, who inexplicably guessed "fish sauce". Not so much, buddy.

The next dish was Thai Green Curry, and once again, those who dared guess generally won their rounds. In the final round, the three remaining contestants - Hosea, Carla and Stefan - were asked to fight it out spelling-bee style. The dish? Mexican mole sauce! I loved it, because there are like a zillion ingredients in mole, but it doesn't particularly taste like any of them. Carla was out on her first guess, peanut butter. Wow. I'll bet she was cringing when she watched that at home. Stefan and Hosea didn't embarrass themselves, however, and got through several rounds. Finally, though, Stefan incorrectly guessed "tomato paste" and Hosea was crowned the winner.

After the fun of the pallate tournament, the teams were broken up into four teams, "old, new, borrowed and blue." They were then told that their challenge would be to cater a bridal shower lunch for host Gail, which Padma was throwing. Of course, their dishes would have to somehow tie into the theme of their teams. Yawn.

Team Old: Jeff, Stefan and Hosea (pretty dang strong)
Team New: Eugene, Daniel and Carla (I smell trouble)
Team Borrowed: Jamie, Radhika and Ariane (definitely has potential)
Team Blue: Fabio, Leah and Melissa (has Fabio, so I must root for them)

The guest judge for the round was revealed to be Dana Cowin, the editor of Food & Wine magazine. Pretty intimidating, although she was so cute in her little bridal outfit that it was difficult to think of her as some kind of food hard-ass.

Behold Team Borrowed's dish, an Indian-spiced rack of lamb with carrot puree. They shoe-horned the "borrowed" in there by mentioning that they borrowed their inspiration from Radhika's culture. Side note - is Radhika Indian? I hadn't noticed, and they certainly haven't harped on that in every episode so far. Anyhoo, apparently this dish tasted as good as it looked, because all of the ladies clearly LOVED it.

The other hilarious part of this round was team old. They chose to do a trio of heirloom tomato dishes, one of which was Jeff's tomato sorbet. Stefan thought this was a terrible idea, and very cockily (not sure if that's actually a word, but it's perfect here) told everyone as much. Jeff did it anyway, and this ended up being the most popular part of their plate. Ha! Take that, you bald Euro.

So those were clearly the top two teams, and it never really seemed in doubt that the winner would come from Team Borrowed. Sounded like their dish was beloved by everyone at the table. They named Ariane (who made the lamb part of the dish) the winner. This was no surprise to the viewer, but apparently a huge surprise to Jamie, who thought she was a shoo-in to win. Why? Because you made a carrot puree? Ariane actually apologized to her (gag), but she proceeded to pout anyway. I'm liking her less and less each week, although I did enjoy her totally rebuffing Stefan's advances earlier in the episode.

Team New, or Team Total Disaster, was screwed from the get-go. Eugene and Daniel started off with the idea of using pickled ingredients, saying "pickling is very new." Is it? As my husband pointed out, pickling was invented before refrigerators to make vegetables last longer. Not exactly "new". Carla (in her one act of courage) pointed this out to the gentlemen, who then settled on sushi. Again, new? Pretty sure they've been eating that over there in Japan for quite awhile, but at least it's fresh, which is kind of like new. Oh, but wait - the sushi will be cooked and will contain beef. What? And they will serve it "deconstructed" so that the ladies can assemble it themselves. What? It was so clear that this would be the losing dish that it wasn't even funny. I haven't even mentioned the over-cooked rice, always a death-blow for Top Chef.

When they got in the room, it was very clear that although Team Blue was also in the bottom two, none of them were ever in danger of going home. Their dish was basically just called boring a bunch of times. Team New, on the other hand, got an earful from pretty much all of the judges. Eugene and Carla didn't seem surprised, and voiced the things they would have done differently, but for some reason beyond all logic, Daniel proceeded to argue with the judges that he still thought their dish was great. Sigh.

In all honesty, based on the dish alone, Eugene probably deserved to be the one to go home. It was his idea, he made a bunch of the elements and he didn't properly explain the dish when it was served to the ladies. However, due to Daniel's insane decision to stand by the dish at Judge's Table, he was sent packing. Goodbye, Daniel. We will miss your enthusiasm for stupid ideas and crazy beard. But that's pretty much it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sushi Review-shi

Click the link below to check out a review of Sushi Zushi's delivery service by yours truly for the Dallas Observer's City of Ate blog:

Nothin' like delish raw fish that you don't even have to get dressed for - 
especially on a frosty day like this one!

More Handmade Holiday Hooch - Hooray!

I must have been a very good girl this year...

Shortly after I made out like a little lemon-scented bandit last week (read all about that Luscious Limoncello here), a happy hour with my sweet friend Angela Chase from KEGL netted me even more liquid holiday cheer, this time in the form of Angela's Dad's near-famous homemade wine.

Miles, the winemaker in question, with help from his brothers Frankie and Mike, has been crushing and fermenting his own home-grown grapes in Poolville, Texas, for some years now.  The fruits of his labor are reserved for family and friends, and he approaches the task with focus and thoughtful attention to detail.  

A quick phone call as we enjoyed a glass of Miles' 3-Way Blend gave insight into this process.  Not only was he eager to discuss his grapes and overall philosophy, but the fiesty amateur vintner was ready (pad and paper in hand?) to take comments and critiques on the final product as well.  

"Now, I have to ask, girls," he interjected at one point, "was the wine too sweet this year?"

"Why no, it's not too sweet at all," we replied, leaning over the speakerphone with our goblets of ruby-colored wine.

"Oh." he sighed (and you could hear the mischief in his voice).  "Next time I'll be sure to stick my finger in it for ya!"


Miles, you'd best stick to winemaking, sweetheart, 'cause I don't think Comedy Central will be calling anytime soon!


Monday, December 15, 2008

Drunk Squirrel and Other Delights

Rocky says: "Eat More Chicken!"

My favorite books have always been cookbooks. For as long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed exploring them cover-to-cover, turning the pages one after the other and reading each recipe like a passage in a novel. Much different from a purpose-driven search for the perfect recipe, this approach is more immersion than instruction. It's not about the destination; I’m just enjoying the ride.

With this in mind, some of my favorite cookbooks to explore are those spiral-bound, community compilation volumes, usually sold to raise money for a chapter of the Junior League or the local Methodist Church. I always find myself seeking them out in tiny bookstores when I’m on vacation, or behind the counter at diners and bakeries when I’m on the road. They’re all different, yet somehow comfortingly the same. I love their simple, yet often unusual, categories (Appetizers? Check. Salads? Check. Congealed Salads? Really? They get their own chapter?), and the fact that they will almost always offer at least two versions of Broccoli Rice Casserole and 7-Layer Dip.

Many of these community cookbooks also showcase the cultural heritage of a region. Such is the case with many spiral-bounds from Central Texas, chock-full of traditional German recipes that have largely been forgotten in the commericalized world of the big box bookstore cooking department. Still others feature heirloom recipes of a different sort – can combo concoctions from the 40’s and 50’s that never fail to put a smile on my face (though they seldom tempt my tastebuds).

Over Thanksgiving this year, my parents went to visit my brother and his family in Savannah, Georgia, and while I missed them terribly, I was delighted to be presented with a little souvenir upon their return: The Apalachicola Bay Cookbook by The PHILACO Woman’s Club of Apalachicola (Celebrating 110 Years of Community Service). What a treasure! This one is a real gem, and I just couldn’t resist sharing a few of its more interesting entries here on the blog. I’m sure there are more than a couple of you out there who share my little obsession, so this post’s for you – I’d also love to hear about your favorite community cookbook recipes!

Selections from The Apalachicola Bay Cookbook
by the PHILACO Woman’s Club of Apalachicola, Eastpoint, Florida

Drunk Squirrel

I really have nothing to say about this. Except that I did know a sweet guy from Louisiana who used to keep squirrel in his freezer. He said his mom made gumbo out of it sometimes…perhaps this recipe would be up her alley.

3 squirrels, cleaned and dressed
salt and pepper to taste
sprinkle of cumin

Clean and dress 3 squirrels. Cut into pieces as for frying chicken. Salt and pepper to taste, dredge in flour. Heat deep fat in fryer and drop in squirrel; cook until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Place in casserole, cover with beer and sprinkle with cumin. Bake covered at 300 degrees for at least 2 hours until tender. Serves 4.

Five-Can Casserole

This recipe is in the “Hurricane and Emergency” section of the cookbook. In Florida, hurricanes are a fact of life, and this book offers tips and recipes for those times when stocking up and hunkering down for a few days is necessary due to severe weather.  While I can't say I'm itchin' to whip this one up, I have to give them props for not resorting to SPAM.

1 small can boned chicken
1 small can evaporated milk
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 5-oz. can chow mein noodles

Stir all ingredients together in a lightly greased saucepan. Cover. Cook on low heat for 15-20 minutes.

Baked Shrimp Scampi

This one looks like a keeper - simple and flavorful.  It would figure that Floridians know their way around a shrimp!

½ lb. butter
2 Tbsp. Grey Poupon mustard
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. garlic, chopped
1 Tbsp. parsley, chopped
2 lbs. raw shrimp (medium sized), peeled, with tails on

Combine all ingredients except shrimp in a small saucepan and cook over low heat for about 10 minutes. Arrange shrimp in a shallow baking dish. Pour butter mixture over shrimp. Bake at 450 degrees for 12-15 minutes, or until the shrimp lose their translucent look. Garnish with additional parsley and lemon wedges.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Quesorita: Why Didn't We Think Of This?

The lovely ladies over at our newest "dallaseats loves" link, Quesorita Senoritas, have a pretty darn good thing going. For a couple of months now, they've been eating at some of Dallas' most well-known Tex-Mex haunts, sampling the queso and margaritas. They then rank them on a scale of one to four. They go to a different restaurant each week, and they plan to keep this up for two years!

Thankfully, Dallas has more than enough Tex-Mex joints to support that habit. Hopefully they will compile their findings for all of us at the end. Well done, Lauren (or L.G., as I prefer) and L.E.! I'll be more than willing to serve as a guest-judge come April. In fact, I predict that I will be begging you to let me guest judge, come April!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Top Chef, New York: Episode 4

Today Show

This episode was a little boring to me after the excitement of the Foo Fighters last week. Even the Quick Fire, which usually scares the crap out of me, was a little tame. The challenge, with guest judge Rocco DiSpirito, was for the contestants to create a breakfast amuse-bouche. Rocco hinted at the beginning that he would like to have bacon involved in the dishes, as it is his favorite. Seeing as how I saw him on the Biggest Loser a couple of weeks ago espousing the virtues of healthy eating, that seemed a little counter-productive to me, but I digress.

My favorite part of this challenge was Fabio referring to DiSpirito as being, "not really Italian", but some of the dishes were at least a little interesting as well. Stefan's Huevos Rancheros in an egg shell was very cool-looking, and Jamie's breakfast BLT sandwich sounded pretty dang tasty as well. I also thought Fabio's brioche and banana with espresso sounded tasty, but apparently Rocco doesn't like sweet breakfast dishes. I guess we should have been tipped off by the bacon comment.

As they were going through the dishes, I couldn't help thinking, "These are appetizers. Where are the amuse-bouches?" Then Leah verbalized the same thing I was thinking, and I realized that I loved her a little bit. I'm a stickler for the rules too, so I appreciated her actually listening to the directions on the challenge. Her dish was a true amuse-bouche (the only one out of the whole bunch, mind you), and her bacon, quail egg and cheese on bread was named the winner.

Then it was onto the Elimination Challenge. This week, the chefs had to learn to sell themselves as well as their food by performing a 2 and 1/2 minute cooking demonstration. They weren't given much direction, other than that the time limit would be strictly enforced. They were then given time to shop and an hour in the kitchen to prep for their presentation. Let the idiotic decisions begin!

It was clear from the time they left Whole Foods that Alex was totally screwing himself over. By picking a creme brulee, which he would have to prepare, bake, rest and cool in an hour (impossible), he pretty much guaranteed that he would end up in the bottom three. Jamie, up until now one of the strongest competitors, screwed herself by not allowing herself enough time to finish cooking the egg that lay atop her frisse salad. Melissa (or Gareth from the British Office's sister, as my husband has nicknamed her) screwed herself by making shrimp so spicy that the judges couldn't even eat it. Shockingly, they all ended up in the bottom three.

Other chefs managed to make good decisions, though. Ariane picked a very simple salad dish of beefsteak tomatoes, watermelon, basil and feta, Fabio (God, I love him) made a very simple tuna with roasted veggies, and Daniel made a marinated skirt steak. I thought Jeff's malfouf roll-say it with me, Mal-fouf!-seemed totally over-wrought for a home chef, but apparently the judges loved it. They named Ariane, Fabio and Jeff the top three.

When they didn't name a winner, it became clear that the challenge wasn't over yet. That was confirmed when Tom Colicchio showed up at 3 in the morning to wake the top three for their final challenge. They were escorted to the Today Show studios, where their creations would be judged by some ladies from the Today Show, including Kathie Lee Gifford and Meredith Viera.

Not at all surprisingly, the Malfouf roll wasn't a hit with the ladies-hence the above picture. Kathie Lee even spit hers out. Yikes. The did, however, enjoy the simplicity of Ariane's salad, and they named her the winner. Wow, Ariane has really redeemed herself after her first two crappy weeks, hasn't she?

Now onto the poor final three. Again, no real surprise here. Although Rocco smacked down Jamie pretty violently for her pouting on camera when things didn't go her way, and everyone agreed that Melissa's dish was pretty much inedible, poor Alex was sent packing. He never had a chance, but it was his own fault. Come to find out, the dude was getting married in a few weeks anyway, so he wasn't all that broken up about it. Although he did accuse Melissa of throwing him under the bus about wanting to leave, even though she didn't say a word about it in front of the judges. Basically, he just made himself look like kind of a jerk right before he left.

One interesting side-note--a romance between Leah and Hosea? They certainly implied something was cooking (hah!), but we'll have to wait and see...

Monday, December 8, 2008

Seasonal Spirits: Luscious Limoncello & The Wisconsin Lunchbox

Wrapping up a visit with friends last weekend, my hubby and I dunked the final bites of our biscotti in the last few sips of our coffee, feeling warm and ready to head back out into the cold afternoon.  What a lovely visit, I thought, resting my mug gently on my saucer and dabbing the corners of my mouth with my napkin. We must get together again soon.  Rising from our chairs, we gathered our winter wear and began to re-bundle for the ride south.  

As we headed for the door, however, one word stopped us dead in our tracks.

"We completely forgot," our hostess exclaimed, "to offer you some Limoncello!"  

As quickly as we'd wrapped our scarves around our necks, we whipped them back off again with a flourish and flung them atop our coats in a homely pile in the foyer.  (When it comes to this subject, we don't waste any time.)  

Our foursome then shuffled single-file into the kitchen, were cordial glasses were lined up like soldiers across the counter in front of a giant jar of pale yellow liquid studded with curled and dimpled rinds. Our mouths watered with anticipation; we may have even drooled.  Our host, you see, is Italian, and he makes this special brew from scratch.  Vodka, lemons, sugar and water are all there is too it, but somehow his result is much greater than the sum of its parts.   He measured out our crystal-clear servings, and my dear friend, his wife, headed out back for fresh basil to float in each glass. 
This isn't what it looks like.  I swear.

The first sip was liquid gold - the sweet, pure essence of lemons.  My tongue detected not the slightest hint of bitterness, nor alcoholic burn.  This was the Limoncello of dreams.  I marveled at those drunken lemon peels as I took tiny tastes from my cup.  There must have been hundreds of them, nestled one atop the other like scales or feathers, piled several inches high behind the glass.  Each time I raised my drink, staring transfixed at the jar, my nose caught a whiff of clean, licorice-laced basil on a background of velvety citrus.  I could have sniffed and sipped all day.

By the time I snapped out of my stupor, the conversation had jumped about ten steps ahead, moving on to another cocktail altogether.  The Wisconsin Lunchbox hails from Oshkosh where our hosts attended college, and is perhaps the polar opposite of a delicate glass of Limoncello.  I can't quite remember how we arrived on the subject, but soon I was watching as a frosted mug was pulled from the depths of the freezer and filled with three ingredients that I never would have imagined could get along inside a glass.  "It's really very good," I was assured several times. "It kind of tastes like a dreamsicle!"  I stared dubiously at the fizzing concoction, giggling inside at how much fun can be had just standing around in a kitchen with good friends.  

Finally I relented, and took a sip from the mug.  Sweet and tart and a little bit dangerous, this drink gave the impression of packing more of a kick than its flavor would indicate.  I could see this Lunchbox warming up a long Wisconsin winter, or a sunny December in Dallas, for that matter.

We eventually wrapped up a second time around, and I was treated to a little jar of Limoncello of my very own.  Happy Holidays to me!  Don't even ask - I won't share.  And the recipe will have to remain a secret for now.  I did, however, get the formula for the Wisconsin Lunchbox, and I'm sure you'll love it as much as we did.  In fact, a couple of these babies might help me get the Limoncello recipe next time around...

The Wisconsin Lunchbox*
(With special thanks to Jill and Brian)

Place a shot glass inside of a frozen beer mug.  Fill the shot glass with Amaretto Liqueur and pour orange juice into the mug to the level of the top of the glass.  Fill the mug the remainder of the way with your favorite beer (a lighter style, such as pilsner or pale ale, is preferred).  

*Try it in place of a Mimosa, the next time your brunch needs a kick.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Sweet and Sour Gifts

As promised, here's the second installment of our DallasEats Gift Guide for those culinarily-minded friends and family members on your list.  

This time around, it's all about edible goodies!

This gorgeous shop on Oak Lawn Avenue is our idea of Heaven on Earth.  In addition to mouthwatering offerings from various luxury chocolatiers, Chocolate Secrets features cases overflowing with fresh truffles and candies for mixing-and-matching your own custom boxes (to give or to keep).  Great wine, pre-made baskets and gift cards are also available.  Check the website for details, as well as info on classes, tastings, live music and more.  And when you go, tell Pam we said "Hi"!

File these sweet flowers under "Awesome Hostess Gifts" - this unexpected treat trumps any ordinary jar of jam.  Dropped into a festive cocktail, each beautiful Hibiscus bloom comes to life, opening its petals and imparting a rosy glow.  Unique and absolutely classy, these little gems also happen to be all-natural and sustainably grown.

Someone we know is absolutely obsessed with a certain type of pickle from this Napa Valley purveyor of all things briny and delicious.  Mezzetta's website offers a wide selection of individual products, as well as gift baskets that combine their delicious peppers, olives, pickles and sauces with recipe books, coasters, olive bowls and other goodies - all wrapped up and tied with a bow!  Baskets are tailored to appeal to the olive lover, the mixologist or just about anyone on your list with a little salt tooth.

Comment Card

There's nothing like the holidays to kick a sweet tooth into gear...

So, in keeping with the seasonal theme, what is your favorite holiday cookie?  It could be a homemade heirloom recipe, passed down through the generations, or a local store-bought specialty that you eagerly anticipate each year.  

Gingerbread?  Peppermint bark?  
Tell us all about your December cookie fix!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Spiked and Steamy at The Old Monk

On a gusty, overcast day where cheek-numbing winds can chill you to the bone just crossing the parking lot from your hybrid to the office door, nothin' says Happy Hour like a frosty bottle of beer, coated neck to label in ice-cold, crystalized condensation.  Right?  ...Yeah, we didn't think so either.

That's why we were psyched to see The Old Monk's new menu of seasonally-appropriate Hot Drinks, rolled out just in time for the annual Dipping of the Temperatures.  The Monk's offering steamy standbys like Hot Toddys, Mulled Wine and Irish Coffee, as well as the Knox Chox spiked hot chocolate and some wicked thing called a Nutty Irishman (we'll let you investigate that one for yourself).  Now that's something to look forward to after a long, chilly day of putting up with people who make you wanna hit the sauce.

All Hot Drinks are $7 ($6 during Happy Hour).  Plus, it's nice and cozy in there, kinda like the Prancing Pony.  Ah, how we love the Monk.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Am I Blogging About Burritos Again? Why, Yes I Am!

Planet Burrito
5930 W. Park Blvd, Suite 1100B
Plano, TX 75093

So, when I blogged earlier this year about Chipotle vs. Freebirds, a kind reader suggested that I check out Qdoba and Planet Burrito as well. I'd already been to Qdoba several times. As one of the quick and relatively cheap restaurants located near UTD, where I spent an average two nights a week for three years during grad school, it was a dinner option that I exercised on several occasions. I always found it to be basically "just ok", and certainly nowhere near the greatness range of either Chipotle or Freebirds. Then they opened a Chipotle AND a Freebird's at Campbell and 75, and I never went to Qdoba again.

Now, Planet Burrito, located in both Plano and Southlake, was a totally new concept for me. I chose the one in Plano, naturally, which is located on Park at the Tollway (across the street from that enormous Target, if you're familiar with the area). This independently owned burrito shop definitely grabbed my interest right away when I checked out their website. They offer a MUCH wider variety of potential toppings and combinations than either Chipotle or Freebirds. Everything from grilled pineapple salsa to coconut curry sauce to artichoke hearts (I would NOT recommend all three of those on the same burrito, by the way).

To make this range of choices a little less overwhelming, they also have "signature series burritos" to take the guess-work out of it for you. I have tried the Polynesian (Grilled Orange-Lemon marinated Chicken, with Black Beans, Monterrey Jack Cheese, Jasmine Rice, tomatoes, lettuce, Fresh Lime Juice & Grilled Pineapple Salsa) and the Texan (Picante Beef Brisket Braised in a Red Chili Sauce, with Refried Beans, Cheddar Jack Cheese, Tomato Chipotle Rice, Roasted Garlic, Pico de Gallo & Chipotle BBQ Sauce).

On the Polynesian, I ordered it without the tomatoes and lettuce (I don't ever eat raw tomatoes and I despise lettuce in a burrito), but with those tweaks, I thought it was quite tasty. I especially enjoyed the lime juice and grilled pineapple salsa, which added some citrus-y zing. As for the Texan (which I ordered minus pico - again with the tomatoes), it was pretty much pure heaven from bite one for me. The brisket was tender, the BBQ sauce was tangy, and the refried beans were creamy and delicious. My only quibble was the roasted garlic. It was kind of oddly crunchy, and added a weird texture-issue to the burrito. I ordered it the next time minus the garlic, and it was perfection in a tortilla.

I've also done the make-your-own burrito, in which I ordered my burrito in the same manner I would at Chipotle - Cilantro-lime rice, chicken, grilled onions and peppers, salsa, sour cream, jack cheese and guacamole on the side. Unfortunately, it did not even hold a candle to Chipotle. The chicken was a bit on the dry side and lacked flavor, and the guacamole was just not up-to-par. Overall, I think the quality of the ingredients/preparation is just not as high as it is at Chipotle.

One thing Planet Burrito does have in common with Chipotle (which will make C&S very happy) is a dedication to "seeking out Organic and Fair Trade Food and Beverage Products" whenever possible. In fact, on their website, there is an entire section dedicated to their beliefs when it comes to "Planet Responsibility", which also includes recycling and using non-toxic cleaning chemicals. Very cool.

This place is definitely worth checking out if you live or work in the Plano or Southlake areas. They are a nice change of pace from the usual Tex-Mex burrito, and I am still looking forward to trying the Indonesian (Grilled Citrus Marinated Chicken, Black Beans, Monterrey Jack, Jasmine Rice, Romaine, Mango Mint Salsa & Coconut Curry Sauce served in a Tomato-Basil Tortilla) and the Indian (Grilled Citrus Marinated Chicken or Paneer, with Cilantro Lime Rice, Romaine Lettuce, Tikka Masala, and Cucumber Paital). Yum!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Op/Ed: DallasEats' Word of the Year

As we begin our final sprint in this marathon of a year, through the wonderful but hectic holiday season to our New Year's finish line, we've begun to wonder about choosing a single word that might sum up 2008 from a food-lover's point of view.  Grand openings and surprise closings, blog-o-mania and the arrival of the gastropub - it was an eventful year for us foodies, and many options come to our opinionated minds.

Locavore, perhaps, as a tribute to the dedication and commitment of those who have made the effort to eat locally. Their numbers have certainly seen a dramatic increase in '08. Or, how about artisinal, a word that's had a great run here in Dallas, popping up throughout the city's food chain everywhere from gourmet shops to chocolatiers to restaurants of all shapes and sizes. We can now buy a slice of artisanal cheddar at the indie cheese shop around the corner, as well as a loaf of artisanal bread at the big-box grocery up the street, along with the latest Dean Koontz and a pack of Skittles. Don't us wrong - we love artisanal, but in 2008, it was everywhere.

(It's a word search - get it?  We have no idea what's hidden in here...)

Or, if we were to simply wander the aisles of our local market, examining juices, jams, prepared foods and, yes, even shampoos and scented candles for evidence of this year's top trend, we'd invariably settle on pomegranate, the new it fruit. The jewel-toned, high-maintenance, pinata-like pom has even started making headway into the liquor store, of all places - what could be next? Pomegranate chewing gum? ("Powerful antioxidants for powerfully fresh breath!") We don't know about making this our Word of the Year, but can we at least all agree to move on to another fad fruit in '09? We nominate the humble but delicious banana.

In his column in the New York Times Magazine, the brilliant William Safire named frugalista his choice for Word of the Year. Its definition, "a person who lives a frugal lifestyle but stays fashionable and healthy by swapping clothes, buying secondhand, growing own produce, etc.", makes mention of food, but we don't know of anyone personally who has a Victory Garden out back.

We like the concept behind frugalista, though, the idea that one can be budget-conscious and fabulous at the same time. FP and I - in our humble opinion - would both fit into that category (although by her own admission, FP does shop a wee bit too much at Whole Foods to completely qualify). Indeed, the economy is on everyone's mind, and we're all doing everything we can to get more out of less this year. But, how better to quantify the food-centric frugalist?

We're thinking of someone, much like ourselves, who regularly shops two or three stores in order to get the most for her money. Someone who hunts for bargains, but also knows a true value, saving coin where she can, and splurging on the items she believes are worth every hard-earned penny. Furthermore, this individual would have a go-to list of local restaurants where he could find delicious, well-executed dishes to fit a tight budget, so that he'd never have to resort to driving-through when in search of an economical meal. But he'd have a little stashed away, a special savings account earmarked for his occasional trips to our city's food meccas, because staying in touch with tastemakers and top culinary talent would be high on his priority list as well. Finally, this individual would also know how to take advantage of bar menus, specials and promotions when dining out, in order to get a taste of the good life for a fraction of the price.

So, what to call this fashionable, frugal foodie? Here are a couple of our top choices:

Budgecurian: Imported French chestnuts at the 99-cent store? A budgecurian find!

Culinomical: Dining at home, then heading out for port and chocolates at the new hot sweet shop? You're so culinomical!

(just for fun) Gourmiser: Gary totally served Franzia at dinner last night, and I know what he's got down in the cellar. What a gourmiser!

Like any of these? Have a suggestion of your own for our Word of the Year? Let us know, and we'll narrow it down soon...

Friday, November 28, 2008

Top Chef: New York, Episode 3

Foo Fighters!
Well, well, well. Three episodes in, and only now are we seeing any conflict on Top Chef. Turns out, Jamie may be kind of a biddy. Is dripping peanut butter on the floor really grounds to bitch-out on a guy you've only known for a few days? I'm thinking no, but then again, I'm not a total jerk. But I digress.

The episode started off a little slow to me. The Quick Fire Challenge was for the Chefs to recreate recipes (chosen randomly) from the Top Chef Cookbook, featuring recipes from past seasons. Hello, product placement. Then halfway through the challenge, a twist - they had to take the ingredients they were using in the original challenge and create a soup for the judges. But not to fear, they had plenty of delicious Swanson's Chicken Broth - hello, product placement part 2 - to help them along.

This challenge didn't make much of an impact on me, other than that the guest judge, Grant Achatz, seemed like an interesting guy. He's one of those "molecular gastronomy" masters, and apparently is pretty dang good at what he does. He was named Best Chef in the United States by the James Beard Foundation. Not too shabby.

Anyhow, although Jamie's soup sounded the yummiest to me (Scented Chick Pea Soup with Cilantro Yogurt), Leah seemed to luck out a little with the win. She was working with white asparagus, so she created a white asparagus soup. Yawn.

So, after the Quick Fire, the big announcement was made. The Elimination Challenge would be to split the Chefs into two teams, both of which would create a Thanksgiving dinner for the FOO FIGHTERS and their road crew. The winners would be given VIP tickets to go watch the Foos in concert that night, and the losers would be left to clean up both teams' messes. And, of course, a chef from the losing team would be sent home. So, because she had won the Quick Fire, Leah got to pick the teams for the challenge. Obviously, she stacked her team with the better-performing chefs, and the other team was left with the more questionable chefs. This seemed like a recipe for disaster from the get-go.

Personally, I was psyched about the challenge. I could not love the Foo Fighters more. I've seen them in concert a couple of times, and I've always thought they were not just great musicians but also hilarious. What a fun fit for Top Chef!

So, after they went shopping, they were taken to the site that they would be cooking at - the arena where the Foos were performing that night. That was when they found out exactly how screwed they were. All they had to cook with were toaster ovens, microwaves, and a single burner. Ouch. Did I mention that they were cooking outside and that it started raining halfway through the challenge? Double ouch.

So, not surprisingly, the team of weaker chefs didn't perform up to par. There were a couple of stand-outs from the group, however, who the judges gave some props to during judging. Ariane apparently redeemed herself this week by making some seriously kick-ass turkey. Eugene was also praised for his smoked/grilled pork loin (he made an ingenious smoker from a chafing dish), and Carla's cobbler was also called out as being pretty tasty.

Unfortunately, the desserts on that team (other than Carla's cobbler) pretty much killed them. Jeff's pumpkin parfaits (which one of the Foos referred to as "barf-aits") were not a favorite. Richard's Banana S'mores were also a bomb. The Foos lead singer, Dave Grohl, commented, "I think the chef spit on mine," because the topping had gotten so goopey from sitting around on the buffet. Ew. Danny was also in the bottom three for his undercooked mashed potatoes. He never seemed to be in much danger, though.

Sadly, Richard, one of my early favorites, was sent home. I pretty much saw it coming as soon as he proposed the Banana S'mores. It was never a good idea, and then the execution problems were the nail in the coffin. As soon as the "spit" comment was uttered, I knew it was over. So long, Richard. We will miss your inappropriate comments about Tom Colicchio.