Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Secret is Out: Toasted Pasta

I learned a great new trick from an Italian friend of mine: toasting fresh pasta. It's a great little secret, and apologies to Glenn, but I'm gonna share it.

The premise is simple: take fresh pasta (he used big sheets of lasagna; I opted for linguine), pop it in a hot oven (425 degrees) and bake it until it's toasty brown. Then boil it.

Holy smokes - the result is subtle and yet profound: the pasta takes on a deep, nutty flavor and requires almost zilch to dress it up. I tossed my toasted-then-boiled linguine with a mixture of equal parts lemon juice and olive oil, fresh thyme from my garden, lemon zest, and shreds of asiago cheese. Topped it all with some grilled patty pan squash from the farmer's market, and boy - what a meal.

So if you're looking for a twist on the same old same old, this will do the trick. It's a fantastic light summer meal. Toasted pasta - who knew?

Recent Eats: A Little Culinary Jaunt

Funny thing... just as I'm vowing to have a monastic dietary life (and for the most part, I am), I seem to be eating out more. The eating out thing pretty much clashes with my intent to get my five-a-day veg fix, eat only lean proteins and whole grains, cut out refined sugars and simple starches... along with my always and forever rule of no fried foods. Not that you can't eat well while eating out, but damn... when you sidle up to the hottest new Southern restaurant and fried green tomatoes are on the menu, well hell. You go with it - life is too freaking short. Right? (Please say I'm right!)

Anyhows - I'd be remiss if I didn't share with you a couple of recent restaurant excursions to places both new and new to me. This quick culinary jaunt will take you from Napa to Marin to downtown Oakland... I get around. If you're making the rounds, you should visit these places too.

First up: Norman Rose Tavern here in Napa. A new-ish joint opened by the same folks that operate my favorite pizza place in town, Azzuro Pizzeria. It took a random Saturday a few weeks back with not much on the docket to finally get me and my DH to this hopping new local spot. We should have gone sooner - but then again, I knew that. It's got a great vibe - totally casual - and a fantastic menu, highlighting lots of local items (Fatted Calf hot dogs!). And I was thrilled - finally a place in town that serves a decent salad (it's amazing the lack of salad choices in the few casual eateries that exist here in Napa). The Norman Rose chop salad is now officially my go-to eating out dish: crisp lettuce and green cabbage, roasted peppers, grilled chicken... healthy, gorgeous, perfectly sized and rightfully priced. Not too bad for my healthy eating pledge, right? Wrong. I had to go and ruin it by sharing a heaping plate of truffle and Parmesan fries. Oh yes I did. But at least I can check that off my list and pass them over the next time. Been there, done that.

Another place I'm going to mention is the new Brick & Bottle in Corte Madera. Stopped in for lunch, and had a really, really good turkey burger (topped with roasted red peppers and avocado - just like I'd make at home); the downside: a really greasy bun. My friends had a club sandwich and chicken salad respectively, both of which looked awesome. If I go back, I'm definitely having the salad - chopped radicchio, watercress, grilled chicken... yum. I mention this place not because it was stellar, rather, because it's new, and I'm eager to hear feedback from anyone out there that's been. Let me know if you're experience was the same as mine: great food, but the prices seemed a bit steep, and our service was lacking. The staff was friendly enough - but our server was a little absent and slow. I also wonder if the location will be to its detriment as well - it's in a strip mall, down the road a bit from the hub of the dining action in Corte Madera. I wonder if folks will seek this place out. So... my verdict is still out. How about you?

And finally, the piece de resistance: Picán in downtown Oakland. Now, "fine dining" and "downtown Oakland" don't necessarily go hand in hand. But that is changing. If there is to be a renaissance in downtown Oakland, Picán is doing its part to lead the way.

Much has been written about this place that serves Southern comfort food with a California twist. Our group went after hearing the rave reviews about the fried chicken (we had to compare with our Ad Hoc fried chicken smackdown results). Alas, after reading the menu, I couldn't pass up the shrimp and grits... had to leave the fried chicken ordering up to Randall (he came through, of course!).

Everyone at the restaurant was really eager to please, which is fortunate. We arrived for an early reservation and were shown to probably the WORST table in the entire place - while the dining room sat mostly empty. Huh?? Of course we requested a change, and to their credit, seated us where we asked to be seated, no attitude given. Our server - who turned out to be someone who had been our waitress at another restaurant in Contra Costa County over a year ago (hey Jill!) - was amazing. It was freakishly weird that I recognized her, but she's great at her job and can spar with Randall like nobody's business. I don't forget folks who can hold their own against Ran! So once we got the perfect table, our night was off to a great start.

I loved everything that we ordered. Everything. For starters: hush puppies, fried green tomatoes, a peach/tomato panzanella salad. Cornbread slathered with butter. Awesome cocktails (it's a bourbon house - all the cocktails are made with southern whiskeys and my Kentucky margarita was amazing. I had two.). The collard greens- to die for; my shrimp and grits - just what I wanted. The fried chicken - the whole reason we were there - also very good. They serve it with a truffled honey on the side (or drizzled tableside if you prefer). Not my ball of wax, but I can see the appeal. I loved that they deboned the breast - great touch. It was delicious, of course. The raves are correct. However, I must admit, Ad Hoc's fried chicken is still tops in my book. The gouda mac and cheese that was served with the chicken (in the cutest little cast iron pot skillet you ever did see) - was amazing, and dare I even say it - almost too rich. For me to say a cheese dish is too rich is outrageous, but this mac and cheese was over the top. It took four of us to try and finish it, and we couldn't do it. It might be the first time in my life I left cheese at the table.

We ordered a couple of desserts to share between the four of us - and my bites of both the pecan tart and the banana pudding were yumm-o. I could have eaten the brown butter caramel sauce on the pecan tart with a spoon, and the buttermilk ice cream that it was served with could make even me an ice cream convert. Good stuff.

So there you have it. Some new dining choices here in the Bay Area. I'm done with dining out for a while, I think... unless, of course anybody out there has some suggestions. Anyone? :)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

One Sweet Saturday: The Napa Luxury Chocolate Salon

Want to know the ingredients for a pretty darn good day?
Here goes:


Sparkling Wine....

and Friends!

(These aren't my friends, but I failed to take a picture of my friends, so these random folks are the stand-ins. Apologies to the real friends.)

The occasion? A random Saturday, of course! Thanks to the investigative reporting of my friend and ace media consumer, Denise, we discovered that the first-ever Napa Luxury Chocolate Salon would be taking place last weekend, and voila - instant excuse for a get-together. Now, call me strange and an affront to women everywhere, but I am not a chocoholic (gasp!). It's true - I never crave it, I never buy it, sneak it or stockpile it. I will pass it by if there is cheese within a 100-mile radius. But, an expo devoted to all things chocolate? That was just too good of an opportunity to get friends together for an afternoon of fun. I would suck it up.

The event was held at the Yountville Community Center. Great venue, packed ass to teakettle with local Bay Area chocolatiers. I suspect if this becomes an annual event, they'll need a bigger room. But that's beside the point. We paid our $20 admission fee - the golden ticket to sample as much chocolate as one could reasonably consume. Or unreasonably consume, as the case may be.

I had given myself one parameter: sample only the things that were truly unique. I have recently cut out refined sugar in all forms from my diet, so I was making a rare exception on that day.... if it wasn't something completely original or truly extraordinary, I would pass it by. The trouble was, everything there was unique and stunningly extraordinary! It was a room chock full of artisan candy makers from the ever-competitive and cutting-edge Bay Area foodie scene for God's sake - what was I thinking? Chocolate - 1; Resolution - 0.

There were a few themes running throughout: chocolate truffles with fruit (key lime, candied lemon rind, pomegranate, passionfruit, blood orange); chocolate with sea salt (the salt on sweets phenomenon manages to make me even sit up and take notice); chocolate with spicy chili peppers (some too hot for even me to enjoy - caliente!); and of course, chocolate with bacon (it was rampant!).

There were also loads of chocolates that had been infused with tea (which all got me thinking about my fellow blogger and boot camper Teresa over at Wife of a Tea Drinker... listen up girl - these are right up your alley!). I loved the Black Masala Chai chocolate bar from The Tea Room: milk chocolate with Indian black tea, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. The Tea Room's products are all organic, and they have chocolate bar flavors ranging from Raspberry Rooibos to Honeybush Caramel, but the Chai was so exotic, spicy and complex, that it was an instant hit with me.

After loving the Chai chocolate, I was eager to try other tea-infused creations. Jade Chocolates had a beautiful display set up and oodles of variations to sample. I went straight for the Kuro Genmai flavor, since one of my favorite teas in the world is the toasted brown rice tea, Genmai Cha. Sadly, I didn't get so much as a hint of the tea in the chocolate. Oh well.

Best packaging of the day, by far IMHO, was by Brix, a chocolate made to accompany wine. Not only was it beautifully presented, but it was freaking delicious as well. And what's not to love about a big brick of chocolate? To go with WINE! It is billed as "a [chocolate] blend so pure in flavor that it actually enhances those nuances found in great wines, without confusing the palate." If and when I'm ever in the market for chocolate, this will be the one. Guaranteed.

Best tasting presentation of the day goes to Gateau et Ganache for their S'mores, complete with blowtorch to toast the marshmallows. The showmanship of the blowtorch caused quite a commotion and brought a lot of clamoring attention to their booth... alas, the S'mores were merely ok. I wanted them to knock my socks off, and they didn't. Again, oh well. Their truffles, however - stunning and tasty! Like little works of art, each one.

Not to be outdone, the best looking chocolate creations of the day goes to Vice Chocolates. Man-o-man.... just looking at their bars and truffles was treat enough for me. Obviously handcrafted, the ingredients are artfully placed with care, each nut or candied bit perfectly situated on its bed of chocolate. They almost look to pretty to eat... almost. My photo does not do Vice justice, but you can trust me on this one: gorgeous and delicious!

Best goodie of the day: Clarine's Florentines. My one sole weakness in the world of chocolate just happens to be toffee; these florentines topped with delicate sliced almond brittle and a thin coating of bittersweet chocolate stared that weakness right in the face and won. Handily. Damn you Clarine!

Jelly-filled chocolates? Check (best flavor: peanut butter and jelly, of course!).

Chocolate flavored alcohol? Check (complete with bartender shaking up chocolate martinis).

More chocolate than anyone rightfully needs to consume in a day? Check (I actually did pay for it later... got a little bit sick).

At any rate, my girls and I had a great time - sugar overload or not. We followed up the chocolate fest with some wine tasting and a great lunch, and once again, I am grateful and blessed to have such fun people in my life. I'll hang out and eat forbidden treats with you any old time. Any of you game for the next cheese festival? :)