Archive for the ‘Restaurants’Category

Café Martinique at Atlantis dresses up humble conch

Chef de cuisine Lisa Rolle of Café Martinique at Atlantis“I trained by watching other chefs,” says Lisa Rolle, who worked her way up through the kitchens of the Atlantis resort (atlantisbahamas.com). Now she’s the chef de cuisine at Café Martinique, perhaps the resort’s top fine dining establishment.

Understated and elegant, Café Martinique nonetheless has an air of mystery and mystique befitting the fanciful world of Atlantis. A birdcage elevator carries guests to the second-floor dining room. The venue recreates the 1960s restaurant where James Bond met his eye-patch wearing arch-nemesis Emilio Largo in the 1965 film Thunderball.

Today’s Café Martinique is part of the culinary empire of French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Although Vongerichten develops the recipes, Rolle injects local flavors. “The base of a dish is local,” she says. “A lot of the items we use are local.” Herbs and greens are grown by local farmers. Rolle also makes wonderful use of fresh-caught seafood. She might serve a roasted Bahamian lobster tail with fried plantain, oregano, and chili. Or she could prepare local snapper with braised fennel, lemon, and olive oil.

conch on ice at Café Martinique at AtlantisRolle was born and raised in the Bahamas. Her roots definitely show in Café Martinique’s cracked conch appetizer. (That’s raw conch on ice to the right.) The dish of fried conch with a dipping sauce is an island staple that you might munch on in a bar while watching a televised cricket match. Rolle brings it into the fine-dining realm by accompanying the mollusk with avocado and pickled vegetables, all dusted with kaffir lime and chili powders. She serves the plate with a dipping sauce of chili citrus mayonnaise.

Admittedly, conch is a specialty of the tropics and subtropics, though more northerly fishmongers will often stock it. It’s also available via overnight shipment from many fishmongers on both the east and west coasts. In a pinch, substitute sea clams or surf clams, but discard the bellies. Here is my adaptation of Chef Rolle’s Café Martinique recipe for cracked conch.

CRACKED CONCH À LA MARTINIQUE


4 appetizer servings cracked conch plate at Café Martinique at Atlantis

Ingredients

For conch

1-1/2 pounds conch meat
lime juice
salt
hot pepper sauce
rice flour
oil for frying (peanut, canola, palm, or a blend)
salt

For chili citrus mayo

2 egg yolks
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon sriracha
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups grapeseed oil

For pickled vegetables

2 shallots
1 small carrot, peeled
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sugar
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon Thai chile pepper, minced

For kaffir powder

1 kaffir lime leaf

For lime vinaigrette

1/4 cup lime juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3/4 cup grapeseed oil

For plating

frisee or other light salad greens
avocado, peeled and cut in 8 slices
chili powder

Directions

Prepare conch by “cracking” it. Using a hammer-style meat tenderizer or the flat bottom of a cast iron frying pan, pound conch meat until it is matchstick thin. Sprinkle with lime juice, a little salt, and a few dashes of hot pepper sauce. Reserve.

Make chili citrus mayo. In food processor, combine egg yolks, juices, sriracha and salt. Puree. With motor running, drizzle in the oil. Refrigerate until serving.

Pickle the vegetables. Cut the shallots and carrot into matchstick-sized pieces. Add to a saucepan with vinegar and sugar. Bring mixture to a boil and simmer 1 minute. Remove from heat and season with minced Thai chile pepper and salt. Let cool to room temperature.

Make lime vinaigrette. Combine juice, salt, sugar, and mustard in small bowl. Whisk in oil. Pour mixture into a screw-top jar so it can be shaken before being poured on salad. (There will be a lot left over for use on other salads.)

Make kaffir powder by drying the leaf in microwave, then grinding it to dust in a spice grinder or with mortar and pestle.

To cook conch, heat about 1/4 inch cooking oil in heavy, deep frying pan. (An old-fashioned cast iron chicken cooker is ideal.) Dredge pieces of conch in rice flour and fry until crispy and lightly golden. Drain on paper towels and dust with salt.

To assemble, toss salad greens with a little lime vinaigrette. Cover plates with dressed greens. Top with fried conch, avocado, and pickled vegetables. Dust with kaffir and chili powders, and place mayo dipping sauce in a bowl next to each plate.

17

02 2017

Living the Atlantis fantasy on Paradise Island, Bahamas

Pegasus fountain at Atlantis on Paradise Island, Bahamas
It takes a certain audacity to create a resort themed to the lost city of Atlantis. Royal Towers was the first hotel built on the 171-acre property of Atlantis (atlantisbahamas.com) on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. It still embodies that fanciful vision of lost glory. Much has been written about Atlantis since it opened more than 20 years ago, but you do have to see it to believe it. It’s so over-the-top that it is almost impossible not to be caught up in the tale of the drowned city first related by Plato.

Grand Lobby at AtlantisThe sunny Bahamian weather certainly doesn’t hurt, but it was the artwork that drew me in. As soon as I stepped out of a taxi, I was greeted by a gigantic fountain with leaping bronze figures of Pegasus (above). I walked past the winged horses to giant green doors flanked by larger-than-life relief sculptures of stylized seahorses and whales. But I was still unprepared for the soaring Great Hall (the Atlantis version of a hotel lobby). Eight enormous murals tell the fictional story of Atlantis from its creation until it sank into the sea. The scale of the aptly named space is enough to make a visitor feel either insignificant or fortunate to be the momentary ruler of all that towers above.

Underwater "dig" at AtlantisAs they say on late-night television—wait, there’s more! In the Dig on the lower level, I wandered through an imaginary version of the walkways and tunnels of the sunken city, all the while surrounded by tanks of fish that might float through the watery grave. Among the lionfish, piranhas, moray eels, clownfish, and seahorses were grouper and spiny lobster—species that might make their way to the dinner plate.

In a place that thinks so big, it’s not surprising that Atlantis boasts 21 restaurants that range from ultra-casual to ultra-swanky dining. And that’s not counting the 19 bars and lounges. It’s an almost overwhelming number of choices. Many world cuisines are represented, but given my short visit, I decided to focus on local foods and flavors.

open kitchen at Bimini Road restaurant at Atlantis

Colorful, casual Bimini Road is perhaps the best place to start. The bright murals on the walls almost distracted me from the open kitchen (above) and the displays of local fish and shellfish on ice, including snapper, lobster tail, and the Bahamian “national food,” conch. This spiral-shaped whelk is common to the Bahamas and the Caribbean. The meat is firm and chewy like calamari, though Bahamians consider it more flavorful. It’s also very versatile. Bimini Road serves several variations of conch favored by islanders. Conch salad, similar to ceviche, features minced raw conch with peppers, onion, and citrus juices. Cracked conch is deep-fried and served with a dipping sauce. Bimini Road also serves conch fritters, and for good measure, conch nachos.

But I settled on another island classic, conch chowder. The chowder was thick with pepper and tomato and was served with a wedge of johnny cake, the island’s signature baking-powder bread that was perfect for sopping up the last of the broth.

Johnny cake is ubiquitous and it’s always good. It made a delightfully simple accompaniment to chowder, especially at Atlantis, which is otherwise a temple of the unrestrained imagination. The johnny cake recipe below is courtesy of Nassau Paradise Island Promotion Board.

JOHNNY CAKE


Serves 9-12Conch chowder and johnny cake at Bimini Road at Atlantis

Ingredients

3 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into small cubes
2/3 cup milk

Directions

Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Cut in butter using a pastry cutter or your hands, working the mixture until it resembles coarse meal. Add milk and combine until you have a soft dough consistency.

Knead on a floured surface until smooth. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes, then transfer into a greased 9×9-inch pan.

Bake at 350°F for 20-25 minutes, until the edges of the cake begin to turn a light golden brown. Let cool on a wire rack before serving.

14

02 2017

Tenderness and restraint are key to pizza love

Executive chef Rosario Del Nero at Medford branch of Bertucci's
We had always assumed that good pizza required a certain amount of drama. Showboat pizzaiolos sometimes toss the dough into the air, spinning it to stretch to size. In Naples, guys slap the dough around back and forth on the counter as if they were Jack Nicholson working over Faye Dunaway in Chinatown (“she’s my daughter, she’s my sister…”).

That’s no way to treat a lady.

Rosario Del Nero shapes pizza dough “No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” says Bertucci’s executive chef Rosario Del Nero, “Dough is a living thing. You must treat it gently.” He slips a bench knife under a half pound round of pizza dough and carefully transfers it from the covered proofing box to a bowl of flour. Turning the dough over to coat the surface, he moves it gently to a marble counter. He begins to prod the dough with his fingers, stretching the round into a flatter piece. “I’m transferring the heat of my body to the dough,” he explains.

“Once the dough is fermented and rested [see previous post], you can’t reshape it,” Del Nero explains. “It’s full of air. You don’t want to disturb the structure.”

With the heat of his hands, he pushes from the center out to the edges, turning the dough all the time. In seconds it stretches a little, then a little more. “It’s best when you use your body heat,” Del Nero says. “You can use a rolling pin, but the texture will be a little different.”

He scatters some semolina meal on a long-handled wooden paddle and lays the pliant dough on top. (Bertucci’s has three sizes of peels and three weights of dough to make the three sizes of pizza on the menu.) Then it’s time for the fun part: topping the pizza.

Getting dressed for the show


Bertucci’s has dozens of toppings, all neatly arrayed on the counter of the open kitchen. But Del Nero says, “When it comes to toppings, less is more. You don’t want to overwhelm your pizza.”

Rosario Del Nero slices pizzaHis personal favorite combines chunky tomato sauce, a sprinkle of pecorino Romano cheese (in part for its saltiness), freshly roasted thin slices of eggplant, and some small balls of fresh mozzarella crushed between finger and thumb. When it comes out of the beehive brick oven (about three minutes), he sprinkles it with a chiffonade of fresh basil and brushes the bare edge of the crust with olive oil. “The oil releases its aroma when it touches the warm bread,” he says. Bertucci’s uses an olive oil that volatilizes at 140°F—about the temperature of pizza crust as it comes from the oven.

Under Del Nero’s direction, we made a similarly restrained pizza with tomato sauce, artichoke hearts, crushed cloves of roasted garlic, and the same small balls of mozzarella. He guided us to wiggle the soft pizza off the paddle onto the oven floor, then to use a metal peel to retrieve it from the 600°F oven. The oven is so massive, he says, that it takes two days to get up to heat. At home, the best (though still not adequate) substitute is to use a pizza stone and make sure it is preheated a long time.

In the glass


Del Nero endorsed our artichoke and garlic pizza, bestowing the Bertucci’s black olive seal of approval. As we sat down to eat, he said that he prefers wine with pizza. “Beer is too yeasty,” he believes.

We tasted a few of the wines he was about to introduce with some new menu items. Both were from the Francis Ford Coppola Winery. The “Votre Santé” pinot noir is named for Coppola’s grandmother, who grew up in French Tunisia and always offered the classic toast when she raised a glass. The Diamond Collection “Claret” is a Bordeaux-style blend dominated by cabernet sauvignon and lightened by petite verdot. The fruitier pinot noir was spot-on with the eggplant, while the more austere claret cut through the unctuousness of the roasted garlic.

Given that both Coppola wines are widely available and reasonably priced, we may try the same combinations at home. They won’t be the same, of course, without the brick oven—or the passionate good company.

10

02 2017

Perfecting pizza, one ball of dough at a time

Melissa Surber delivers chicken marengo pizza at Bertucci's in Medford
Rosario Del Nero bites into a slice of pizza and savors it for a moment. “It’s not Neapolitan, it’s not Roman,” he says. “It’s rustic, provincial Italian pizza. It’s not as wet as Neapolitan, which is what most people have, or as thick as Roman.”

He is not even considering the toppings. Del Nero focuses on the dough that cooks up into the crust. It must be just so. “Flour, water, yeast—it’s simple,” he says. “But the secret ingredient is time. You cannot rush the yeast.”

He pulls out a piece of paper and a pencil and draws a graph. “X is quality,” he explains. “Y is time.” He draws a curve that peaks at about 40 hours. “Anywhere between 36 and 48 hours of slow rising in the cooler, the dough makes perfect pizza.”

Rosario del Nero enjoys a slice of Bertucci's pizzaA native of the Valtellina valley in Lombardy, Del Nero was the original chef of Bertucci’s when the chain began expanding beyond the original pizzeria with bocce court in Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts. After more than a decade away from the group, he returned to Bertucci’s last August as executive chef and culinary vice president. Ever since, he has been infusing the 85-restaurant group with his passion and his discipline to make a superb and consistent product. He invited us to the Medford, Massachusetts, location for a lesson in his philosophy and practice of pizza.

The wrong way


Del Nero certainly turned around our perceptions of pizza crust. Given that we use a home gas oven that works hard to reach 550°F, we thought we had experimented sufficiently to make a pretty good home crust. It used 210 grams of mixed white and whole wheat flour, a teaspoon of sugar, a quarter teaspoon of instant dry yeast, and 150 grams of ice water. We would whirl it up in a food processor and let it sit at least 10 minutes before adding three-quarters teaspoon of sea salt and a tablespoon of olive oil. We’d whirl it up again, then let it rise in an oiled quart container all day, pressing it down when it threatened to spill out.

Listening to Del Nero, we quickly learned that we were doing a few things right and a couple of critical things wrong. Using very little yeast was a plus, but oiling the dough was a no-no.

“You have plants at home? Trying oiling their leaves and see how fast they die,” he said. “Dough is the same way. It has to breathe.”

The right way


Rosario Del Nero inspects pizza dough at Bertucci's Our biggest mistake was rushing the dough. “It has to rise very slowly so it forms tiny air bubbles. The flavor won’t be as good if the dough is rushed,” he said. “You don’t want to punch it down. That’s fine for bread, but you want pizza to be soft and pliable. Punching it makes it tough.”

We felt as if we’d been beating our kids. At home the next Friday, we made dough and let it rise in the vegetable crisper drawer of our refrigerator until after lunch on Sunday. We left it covered on the counter—because “the dough hates air,” as Del Nero told us. It warmed to room temperature in time for us to shape it into pizza for dinner.

The resulting pizza was a revelation. The same recipe was easier to shape and cooked up with a crisp but not crunchy texture. It also tasted much better.

So we went back the next week for more instruction.

06

02 2017

Whitby’s Magpie Cafe famed for fish and chips

Diners wait to enter the Magpie Café in Whitby, United Kingdom
Back in November we wrote about John Long’s Fish & Chips, the eatery that’s almost an institution in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It’s been around since 1914 and does a bang-up job with the United Kingdom’s signature fast food.

Much as we relished the Belfast version, nothing beats eating fish and chips by the sea. One of the best places we’ve discovered is the Magpie Cafe (14 Pier Road, +44 1947.602.058, www.magpiecafe.co.uk) in the seaside town of Whitby. It’s in North Yorkshire about 250 miles from London.

Ruins of a medieval abbey loom above the village of Whitby in North Yorkshire, home of Magpie CafeWhitby’s long, sandy beach makes it a favorite destination for British vacationers. The ruins of a medieval abbey and an ancient graveyard perch high on a bluff and add atmosphere to the tidy town. A busy fishing fleet lends a lively sense of purpose—and guarantees plenty of fresh catch for lovers of fish and chips.

Duncan Robson’s family has operated the Magpie Cafe for more than 50 years and he feels a great responsibility to uphold the standards of what he calls “a quintessentially British dish.” Drawing a comparison that visitors from the United States are sure to appreciate, Robson calls fish and chips “the English equivalent of a hamburger—quick and easy.”

Fast food, however, need not be slapdash. The Magpie always uses fresh fish, much of it from the local fleet. Once diners have settled in the 1750 building with windows looking out on the harbor, they are offered a choice of cod or haddock for their fish and chips. Cod is considered the “meatier” of the two fish and is served with skin and bones removed. The stronger-tasting haddock is served without the bones, but with the skin intact to boost the flavor. The fish is dipped in Magpie’s secret-recipe batter. Both the fish and the thickly cut potatoes are deep-fried in beef tallow. Its high smoke point produces a crisper, more flavorful fry than vegetable oil.

Fish and chips is the most popular dish at the Magpie Café in Whitby, United Kingdom The Magpie offers “small” and “regular” portions, which is Yorkshire-speak for big and bigger. The small portion is more than enough for most diners, particularly when served with a side of mushy peas. Virtually unknown outside the British Isles, these “marrowfat peas” are a large-seeded version of the green garden pea that is allowed to fully mature before being dried. Mushy peas are made by soaking the peas overnight, then cooking them with seasoning until their texture more or less resembles oatmeal. They are admittedly something of an acquired taste, but nonetheless an indispensable accompaniment to a traditional fish and chips meal.

It’s a good idea to leave a little room for dessert as the Magpie offers about 20 choices. One of the most popular is another British classic: sticky toffee pudding served with crème anglaise or a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Robson kindly shared the recipe that has been on the Magpie menu for more than 30 years.

STICKY TOFFEE PUDDING


Duncan Robson’s father Ian tells with mock horror of a restaurateur whose idea of sticky toffee pudding was to slice up a Jamaican ginger cake and cover the slices with sauce. Says Robson, “There’s no substitute for the genuine article.”

9 servings

Ingredients


For the sponge cake (or “pudding”)
1 1/2 cups pitted and chopped dates
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/4 cups boiling water
5 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup superfine sugar
2 eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

For the toffee sauce
1 1/2 cups (firmly packed) dark brown sugar
10 tablespoons butter (1 stick + 2 tablespoons)
1 cup heavy cream

Directions


For the sponge cake, place dates and baking soda in a bowl and cover with boiling water.

Set oven to 375ºF.

In a separate bowl, mix together the butter and superfine sugar. Then beat in the eggs one at a time and add the vanilla extract. Beat in the flour and baking powder. Stir in the date mixture. (This will produce a very runny batter.)

Pour batter into a greased 8-inch-square ovenproof dish and bake at 375ºF for 40 minutes, or until the sponge cake springs back when pressed.

While the sponge cake is baking, make the toffee sauce. Place brown sugar, butter, and heavy cream in a heavy saucepan. Stirring well, bring to a boil for three minutes.

When the sponge cake is cooked, prick with a skewer several times, then pour the toffee sauce over the sponge cake. Serve immediately with crème anglaise, whipped cream, or ice cream. Serve any extra sauce on the side.

27

01 2017

Radicchio di Treviso: sweet winter crunch

Lucio Torresan of Tenuta al Parco golds a sheaf of field-grown radichhio
We’ve written about the beautiful Venetian city of Treviso as a center for Prosecco DOC and the birthplace of tiramisù, but it’s also home to one of our favorite winter vegetables. Radicchio Rosso di Treviso IGP is the blanched winter chicory indigenous to the region.

Treviso radicchio generally comes in elongated, slightly pointy, tightly packed heads. But as Lucio Torresan of Park Farm (actually, Azienda Agricola Tenuta al Parco) shows above, field-grown radicchio looks little like the market product. Those big red and green weeds he’s holding “are so bitter that even the goats won’t eat them.”

Workers at the Tenuta al Parco farm trim Treviso radicchioWhen Torresan and his workers get done with the field-grown plants, though, they will be tender and sweet, with just a slight residual bitterness.

Magic in the dark

“You must force it in cold water in the dark,” he explains. “It becomes a completely different vegetable.” His barn includes a room-sized refrigerator stacked high with field-harvested radicchio. From October into the winter, his workers pull up the plants by the roots, removing the top half of the leaves with machetes. With part of the root still attached, the plants hold in cold storage for a month before they are replanted in water for forcing.

Completely stripped of their outer leaves, heads of Treviso radicchio soak in cold water before being packed and shipped.Torresan sets the field-harvested plants into indoor shallow tanks fed with a constant flow of spring water. Under the low light, tender inner leaves begin to grow at the heart of the plant in about 10 days. After another 15-18 days, they are ready to harvest. Workers strip the outer leaves, leaving the tender hearts. The market vegetable has burgundy-red leaves with white ribs. Once the tanks are clear, the process repeats with more plants from the cooler. This system produces delicate radicchio di Treviso until early May.

The farm store at Tenuta al Parco is open daily at Via San Martino 24/B, Morgano (+39 042 273 9028).

Both tasty and lovely

Venetians go wild over Treviso radicchio, preferring it to its softball-shaped cousin, radicchio di Chioggia. (The latter is the bitter variety grown in the U.S.) Restaurateurs serve it in risottos, chopped into a raw salsa for steak tartare, and roasted and drizzled with vinegar. Portions are usually small, since the intense flavor can be sharp. My favorite treatment was duck ravioli with radicchio-chestnut sauce. It’s a seasonal specialty at Graspo de Ua, a tiny hotel restaurant in Venice. The restaurant has excelled at traditional Venetian fare since 1860. It’s on Calle dei Bombaseri not far from the Rialto bridge (+39 041 520 0150, ristorantealgraspodeua.it/en). The following recipe is adapted from their version, as shown below.

RADICCHIO AND CHESTNUT SAUCE ON RAVIOLI


The traditional Venetian dish uses ravioli stuffed with duck and spinach. Ground pork ravioli or mushroom ravioli can substitute.

Serves 4

Radicchio and chestnut sauce on ravioli as served at Ristorante al Graspo de Ua in Venice, Italy.Ingredients

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 large shallot, minced
4 heads radicchio di Treviso, chopped
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 7-ounce can of Italian chestnuts, drained and coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 lb. fresh ravioli
2 ounces Gran Padano cheese, coarsely shredded
1 small bunch Italian parsley, minced

Directions

Bring large pot of lightly salted water to a boil for pasta.

In 10- to 12-inch frying pan, melt butter over medium heat. Add shallot and cook 2 minutes until soft. Then add radicchio to pan and cook, stirring frequently, until it wilts (7-10 minutes). Add vinegar, sugar, chestnuts, and sea salt and continue to cook until radicchio is almost melting.

Meanwhile, cook ravioli al dente. Drain and keep warm.

Divide ravioli evenly onto four preheated 10-inch plates and top with sauce. Sprinkle with shredded cheese and minced parsley.

17

01 2017

New Orleans starts morning on the sweet side

Café du Monde in New Orleans
Beignets are the official state donut of Louisiana and perhaps the most famous of foods in New Orleans. (A later post will discuss gumbo, the other signature New Orleans dish.)

Beignets at Café du Monde in New OrleansBut back to beignets. The squares of yeasted pastry dough are vat-fried and then treated to a thick dusting of confectioners’ sugar. They are said to have originated in France and made their way to New Orleans with the Acadians who fled the Canadian maritime provinces when Britain took over in the mid-18th century. I’m not sure that the French would appreciate having their light-as-air pastries dubbed as donuts.

You can try beignets any time of day or night at Café du Monde (800 Decatur Street, 504-525-4544, www.cafedumonde.com). This city institution, established in 1862, is open 24/7 and sits right near the French Market. As you stroll the streets of the French Quarter, you’ll be able to tell who has enjoyed some beignets by the tell-tale dusting of sugar on their clothes.

An African inspired breakfast treat


The Old Coffee Pot in New Orleans

Finding the city’s other fried breakfast dish takes more effort. Callas, a deep-fried ball of rice mixed with sugar and egg, was most likely introduced to New Orleans by enslaved Africans. In fact, slave women often sold them on the streets of the French Quarter on their one day off each week. These days, callas are not as ubiquitous.

The Old Coffee Pot Restaurant (714 St. Peter Street, 504-524-3500, www.theoldcoffeepot.com) is the only place I found in the French Quarter with callas on the breakfast menu. The restaurant opened in 1894 and is a charming place to start the day. It features an open kitchen, long wooden bar, murals of old scenes of the French Quarter, and a wrought iron chandelier with cascading roses.

Callas at the Old Coffee Pot in New OrleansAfter correcting my pronunciation (the accent is on the second syllable, as in “call-OSS”), my waitress Shirley told me that very few people know about callas these days. She remembers them as a treat that children would eat before they made their First Communion. For a filling breakfast, the Old Coffee Pot serves two callas with powdered sugar and optional syrup along with a big helping of grits. Diners need only decide whether they want the cook to mix chopped pecans with the rice. Shirley assured me that both options are equally good. So I went all in. I opted for the extra crunch of the pecans—and added a healthy pour of syrup. It was a satisfying breakfast with a bit of city history on the side.

25

12 2016

Chef Slade Rushing puts zing back in Brennan’s

Brennan's dining room
If you favor a light breakfast, you will have to adjust your thinking in New Orleans. Every meal, it seems, is an excuse for excess. French Quarter stalwart Brennan’s (417 Royal Street, 504-525-9711, www.brennansneworleans.com) epitomizes the local penchant of beginning the day with a celebratory breakfast. The meal might start with a glass of sparkling wine mixed with pear and cinnamon purée and proceed through a couple of courses—and then dessert. After all, Brennan’s is credited with introducing Bananas Foster.

In 1946, family patriarch Owen Brennan opened the restaurant that launched a dining dynasty. Brennan’s has been housed in an instantly recognizable bright pink building since the 1950s. It had fallen on hard times before Ralph Brennan and partner Terry White purchased it in 2013. “I played here as a child and worked here in high school and college,” Brennan recalled when he stopped at my table in the Chanteclair Room to chat. “I was afraid it was going to leave the family.”

The restaurant closed for an 18-month renovation. The new owners refurbished the bar and relocated the kitchen to create a dining room with windows on Royal Street. They painted the walls of the Chanteclair Room with murals depicting 1895 Mardi Gras scenes of the Proteus parade.

A gastronomic leader once again

Chef Slade Rushing of Brennan's Of even more interest to diners, Brennan’s hired Slade Rushing (right) as executive chef. (Ralph Brennan’s son Patrick is sous chef.)

“I’ve always wanted to take over an institution in the French Quarter,” said Mississippi-born Rushing. “Here in the South, food is a way of life, a reason to celebrate.” Rushing has tweaked a few classic dishes and introduced some new ones that are probably destined to become classics themselves.

For the traditional New Orleans dish of Eggs Sardou, Rushing replaced English muffins with breaded and fried artichoke bottoms as the base for poached eggs. His sauce features tomato, chervil, and champagne vinegar.

Edd Yolk Carpaccio at Brennan'sRushing’s additions to the menu include Egg Yolk Carpaccio, his restaurant-elegant version of a Spanish bar food classic (left). It features grilled shrimp dabbed with an andouille vinaigrette and swimming in a brilliant yellow puddle of egg yolk. (The warm plate half cooks the yolk.) On top is a vertical tangle of crisp shoestring sweet potato fries. He also put a Southern spin on North Atlantic lobster by serving shelled barbecued lobster tail and claw with spiced butter, lemon confit, and thyme.

He is most excited about Rabbit Rushing, a dish that speaks of his Southern roots. “That’s my background on a plate,” Rushing says of the fried Mississippi rabbit served with creamed collards, eggs over easy, and pickled pork jus. “My dad would wake me up at 3 a.m. I’d get my shotgun and we’d shoot a rabbit in the collard patch. The meat was so fresh it was jumping in the pan.”

The dish has proven immensely popular. “It’s elevated soul food,” says Rushing of the dish he is holding in the photo above. “Taste memories are the most important thing that chefs can bring to the kitchen.”

23

12 2016

Commander’s Palace lives up to the legend

Dining room at Commander's Palace in New Orleans
Enjoying a leisurely four-course Reveillon dinner (see previous post) is probably the best way to revel in the holiday spirit in New Orleans. But a fine meal is by no means limited to dinner—or to the historic French Quarter.

St. Charles streetcar in New OrleansFor office parties and ladies who lunch, many restaurants also offer midday holiday menus. Among them is Commander’s Palace (1403 Washington Ave., 504-899-8221, commanderspalace.com). This dining institution is housed in a bright blue building in the Garden District, where American interlopers shunned by French Creole society built their own grand mansions in the 19th century. The St. Charles streetcar carries passengers from the edge of the French Quarter to the Garden District in trolleys decked with garlands.

Emile Commander opened Commander’s Palace in the 1880s. It was already a landmark when the Brennan family acquired it in 1969. In truth, it’s nearly impossible not to eat in a Brennan restaurant in New Orleans. The extended family has bred great restaurateurs the way the Bourbon family bred kings and queens. I’ll admit, though, that trying to decipher the family tree and follow the twists and turns of family disagreements could give anyone dyspepsia.

“This is a holiday lunch at Commander’s Palace,” the maitre d’ told me as he led me through a maze of dining rooms. “We can’t guarantee what’s going to happen.”

Dining at a grande dame


servers at Commander's Palace in New Orleans

Actually, they can guarantee a fine meal, which should start with a glass of Commander’s Palace Cuvée Brut Blanc de Noir. It’s made for the restaurant by Iron Horse Vineyard, a sparkling wine specialist in Sonoma’s Green Valley. The Christmas Celebration lunch starts with turtle soup, followed by Sugarcane Lacquered South Texas Quail. I opted instead for the soup of the day. I figured that roasted pumpkin soup with whiskey and toasted pumpkin seeds seemed like a pot I could try to recreate back home in New England.

Some of New Orleans’ most famous chefs have honed their skills in Commander’s kitchen. Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse both served as executive chef during the 1970s and 1980s. Prudhomme created the Creole Bread Pudding Souffle that remains the restaurant’s signature dessert (available à la carte or with the Christmas Celebration Lunch). For a dramatic end, it’s finished tableside with warm whiskey cream.

ROASTED PUMPKIN WHISKEY SOUP

roasted pumpkin soupThis isn’t the restaurant’s recipe, but it tastes very much the same. Any of the winter squashes can be substituted for pumpkin, though a nice sugar pie pumpkin makes a sweet, rich soup. Butternut squash also works well, and tends to be available all winter. I’ve given the directions here to make your own roasted pumpkin seeds, but snack jar pepitas are a lot less trouble.

Serves 8 as a soup course

Ingredients

3 pound pumpkin or butternut squash
3 tablespoons olive oil
sea salt
1/4 pound butter (1 stick)
2 leeks, washed, trimmed, and sliced into thin rounds
1 onion, roughly chopped
8 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons whiskey
1 cup buttermilk
black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons minced parsley

Directions

Set oven at 375°F.

Trim off the stem and base of the squash or pumpkin. Cut top to bottom into six pieces. Remove seeds and reserve. Paint the flesh with olive oil and place on a roasting pan. Roast in oven 15-20 minutes or until flesh is tender and beginning to brown. Remove from oven and set aside. Turn oven down to 300°F.

To prepare pumpkin seeds, rinse thoroughly to remove all pulp, then place in pan with water to cover. Bring to boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain well and pat dry. Toss with remaining olive oil and spread in single layer on a baking sheet. Salt generously. Roast in about 45 minutes until crisp and brown. Reserve.

In large soup pot, melt half the butter. Add leeks and onion and sprinkle with pinch of salt. Cover pot and sweat leeks and onion over low heat about 20 minutes. Add a little water if needed to keep them from sticking to pan.

Scoop roasted pumpkin flesh away from skin and add to leeks and onion. Pour in the stock, season and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes, then let the soup cool. Add whiskey, buttermilk, and remaining butter and stir to dissolve. Purée in a blender and adjust seasoning with salt and black pepper. Reheat for serving.

Serve sprinkled with a few roasted pumpkin seeds and minced parsley.

Panna cotta Christmas style

Peppermint panna cotta
As I mentioned in the last post, Broussard’s served a dynamite version of panna cotta tweaked for the holiday season. Not only was it an intense pink and redolent of peppermint, it also had a luscious chocolate topping. While my homemade attempt doesn’t indulge in some stray raspberries as a garnish, it does boast that winning combination of peppermint and chocolate.

Many restaurant chefs offer panna cotta as a dessert option because making it doesn’t require a pastry chef’s skill set. In fact, it is about as easy as making Jell-O. Still, it’s rich and satisfying and can be made to look fabulous. This recipe is a simple adaptation of the restaurant classic, but scaled down to dinner-party volume. To make it even easier, the chocolate layer is a commercial ganache in a jar. It’s just the right texture.

PEPPERMINT PANNA COTTA

serves 6

Ingredients

2 cups heavy cream
3/8 cup (75 grams) granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons gelatin
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
6-8 drops red food coloring
Hershey’s Spreads chocolate
whipped cream
crushed Starlight mints or candy canes for garnish

Directions

Pour the cream into a saucepan and sprinkle the gelatin on top of the cream. Let it dissolve on the surface for at least 10 minutes.

Move pan to burner over medium heat. Begin stirring with a small whisk. When cream is warm, add the sugar and the two extracts. Continue stirring until the lumpy gelatin is completely dissolved and cream is smooth. Stir in food coloring and stir to distribute evenly. At no time should the mixture boil.

Remove pan from heat and pour warm cream into six juice glasses or clear tulip cups. Cover each with plastic wrap and refrigerate six hours to overnight to fully set the panna cotta.

Warm the Hershey’s Spreads chocolate in a pan to liquefy. Pour a thin layer atop each glass of panna cotta and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Top each serving with a dollop of whipped cream and garnish with crushed peppermint candy.