Tuesday, April 27, 2010


I was in the mood for an easy dinner, and grilled cheese seemed like the perfect solution. I rarely run low on cheese in the Eggplant Kitchen, and had some Kenny's Farmhouse cheddar, chive jack, and tomme that would deliver the oozy goodness I was after.
But the only bread in the house was half a loaf of focaccia. Sturdy and dusted with rosemary and thyme, it would certainly be flavorful, but it was only an inch and a half thick. Slicing it from top to bottom would yield miniscule pieces with barely enough surface area to be worth the trouble. On the other hand, if I sliced across the round loaf, I wouldn't be able to get a crispy sandwich exterior from the top and bottom of the loaf.
Then I remembered the unique grilled cheese donut offered by Tom + Chee, a pop-up eatery that operated out of a tent last winter adjacent to the ice skating rink on Fountain Square. The name refers to their primary menu items, a variety of tomato soups and grilled cheese sandwiches, which they served along with hot chocolate - perfect outdoor winter fare. (Happily they'll be back on the Square June 1 with an expanded menu.)

Although I sampled a number of their soups and sandwiches in December, I couldn't quite bring myself to go for their signature sandwich, a grilled cheese made with a glazed donut. However, I remembered that they grilled the donut inside out - cut side, not glazed side on the griddle - and, taking a similar tack, my focaccia conundrum was solved. I fried a couple of slices of bacon and layered them with cheese between slices of crust-inward bread.

Once I get a good crust on the bread, I usually place a lid partially over the skillet to encourage the cheese to melt. But this sandwich was taller than the sides of my skillet. So I improvised, with another pot over the skillet, ajar so the cheese would melt but I wouldn't steam all the crispness out of the sandwich.

Worked like a charm. With a side of asparagus spritzed with Meyer lemon juice (which also helped balance the fatty goodness of the sandwich), it was the perfect plate of comfort food for a chilly spring evening.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


There's nothing like a road trip, good friends, a cat (or 9), and a breath of fresh air to help me feel ready to tackle a Monday.
Sometimes ramblin' down a different path than the one you'd planned refreshes you with the unexpected.
Even on a rainy day.

You might even find yourself across the state line and in a miniature faerie world.

Wishing you a Monday full of color.
And whatever small miracles it takes to get you through your day.
Heck, while we're sprinkling cheerful dust 'round here, why not just plant yourself a $%&## chocolate tree?
Road trips: Highly recommended. Returning home with twisted ankle: Not so much. Nonetheless, don't let your week go down the crapper without a fight.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Sure seems like Bravo posted its own spoiler for this episode. They've got a photo of the winning dish that's supposed to link to a video of Kevin Gillespie recreating it. The link is down, but the photo is up. Saw it there before the show too. Title is "Pub-lic Doman." OK, kind of a lame pun re: the pub food challenge this epi. Presumably the "Doman" part of the title was meant to be "Domain"? Sheesh.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


When my grandfather was still living, our whole family was invited for brunch at the home of Hungarian immigrants who were colleagues of my father. Natalie is a spectacular cook, and an even more gracious hostess. The egg dish she prepared for us so delighted my grandfather that he asked for the recipe. Turns out it was just something she whipped together, and the flavor that so enthralled my grandfather was garlic from the salami she'd incorporated. Now, my grandfather was not supposed to eat garlic for some sort of health reasons, and at our house we always made sure to serve garlic-free dishes or make a separate portion for him sans garlic. Being a garlic lover myself, I can't imagine what a thrilling taste it was to Grandpa after so many years of doing without. When Natalie wrote out the recipe, she gave it a Hungarian title - which seemed exotic to all us Midwesterners - which translated as "Eggs-You-Know-What." I don't think anyone ever told Grandpa what he'd eaten. Why spoil such a transcendent eating experience?

In that same spirit of whipping up dishes - especially with what's on hand - I threw together a pasta dish the other night. Pasta is one of the most adaptable of foods. It can go with pretty much anything you want to put with it, and it's an easy pantry staple. So I surveyed my fridge and cupboards, came up with a few ideas, and reminded myself of some favorite recipes from one of my Marcella Hazan cookbooks. OK, so I didn't have the "perfect" pasta in Italian thinking to go with any of them. The only pasta I had in the house was fusilli. To be more exact, fusilli "bucati corti," according to the package. (not that I know what that means, or have the energy to look it up right now). I did have some plain old American bacon - another staple around here, although it's decidedly different from pancetta or guanciale, which Hazan writes about with such passion. I also had a partial can of stewed tomatoes, some mushrooms that needed to be used, garlic, shallots, a teensy bit of thyme that I had purchased fresh but was well on its way to being dried, a few stray kalamata olives, and a silly jar of "tipsy" vermouth-marinated onions that either I must have purchased on a whim or someone gave me once upon a time. (I'm the recipient of many the odd food gift. Which is not a bad thing.)

So with these ingredients, and a little white wine, I put together a dish that was inspired partly by pasta Amatriciana (the prominent features of which are a bacon-like pork product and crushed red pepper) and partly by pasta Puttanesca (another kicky dish, with olives, capers, and anchovies, although I didn't have the latter on hand). Turned out to be a good marriage of the two, a peppy, and peppery, bowl of comfort food that didn't take five hours in the kitchen. It might have been too spicy for Grandpa. But I'm sure he would have liked that garlic.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Last weekend's lobster-cooking adventure with Cindie and Odie for the Culinary Smackdown was big fun. Seeing everyone's entries was even better - and a whole lot less work. What a great array of dishes!

Three in particular got my culinary cortex going. The whole concept of a savory macaron from Doggy at Chez What. Troll's lemon relish, which he tells me he makes with lemon, celery, fennel, cardamom, and red pepper (what else could I pair that with besides lobster?). And the shellfish Sabayon that La Diva served with her magnificent lobster souffle.

I was salivating for lobster all over again after seeing the Smackdown entries. Couldn't afford another lobster, but I did have those lobster shells in my freezer. I was well into making lobster stock, and intent on making lobster risotto, when the phone rang (as it inevitably does when I try to make risotto). Which is why the lovely photo at the top of this post is not a food picture. However, I'll be back with a risotto post soon (possibly tomorrow night before Bourdain's new food porn episode) if the phone doesn't ring again.

Meanwhile, Cindie was inspired from another corner of the blogosphere and decided to try out MS's chocolate blackout cake. Cindie fiddled with it (she's allergic to cocoa powder), making her a bolder baker than I am. I mess around with recipes in the cooking arena all the time, but baking is a whole 'nother kettle of, er, lobster. The result was a cake that fell apart on her. When I asked her to let me know how it tasted, she said the upside to something this "deconstructed" is that you can stick your fingers into it before serving and no one will notice. Verdict: Pretty tasty.
Proving, I suppose, that silver linings can be found anywhere, and chocolate makes everything better.

With thanks to everyone who stopped by to check out my lobster post, and gratitude to all the Smackdown entrants for your inspiration, I wish you a Happy Monday!

Thursday, April 15, 2010


When I read that April's Culinary Smackdown (hosted by last month's winners, Heff and Donna, of Heff's Bar and Grill) would feature lobsters, I couldn't resist throwing my hat into the ring. For three reasons. 1) I love to eat lobster. 2) I've cooked whole lobster only once before and thought this would be a fine excuse to splurge and try again. 3) During the course of some 25 years of exchanging lobster gifts with my sister, I've accumulated a crazy collection of lobster paraphernalia (like the lobster welcome mat above). Seriously, how many people do you know who own a lobster pinata? (I've had this guy since the early '90s. When people ask when I'm going to break him open, I say never!)
Since I'm green in the lobster cooking arena (and frankly, a bit squeamish about handling live lobsters), I emailed my friend Cindie: "May need partner in culinary crime." Cindie was in. And, as it turned out, so was her husband, Odie. We settled on a mutually convenient Friday night for our undertaking, and when I learned they had passed up another invite for the same evening, I knew there was no turning back.

For a good week, Cindie and I googled, researched, consulted, emailed, talked, and gawked over numerous recipes and our overall menu (with Odie in the mix, we would need to satisfy diverse palates). Plus platter options, color schemes, and possible flowers to grace the table (ok, since we were cooking at her house, that would be the bar, not the table, but you get the idea). Cindie was really getting into this blogger's accomplice thing.

When it came down to it, we both had a hankering for plain old boiled lobster with butter, but that seemed a little too simple for the Smackdown (my apologies to anyone who opted to go that route). Eventually, we decided to do lobster three ways. No, not a Cincinnati three-way. Or the kind of three-way Heff might be thinking of (lol). We settled on: 1) An old-school Lobster Thermidor using Julia Child's recipe. 2) A lobster ceviche (Cindie thought it would look pretty on the platter). And 3) A straight-up boiled lobster with butter.

Time to get ingredients in place. I ordered three lobsters from my favorite local fishmonger, Kevin Smith at Lobsta Bakes of Maine.

(No, that's not Kevin.) Kevin is, however, originally from a fishing family in Maine. Each Thursday he has lobster flown in, and many other fine fish to offer as well.

On my way to Cindie's on our appointed Friday, I picked up my/her/our lobsters, some scallops, and three mini-baguettes fresh from the Lobsta Bakes oven, along with three cans of Moxie, which, as I wrote about earlier in the week, is the official soft drink of Maine.

While I had (unsurprisingly) failed to fulfill my make-ahead agenda (roasting asparagus and making its sauce), when I arrived at Cindie's at 4:30, she had completed her appointed prep work - making a blueberry pie. I don't know whether blueberry pie has achieved designation as the "official" dessert of Maine, but it is certainly associated with Maine in popular culinary culture.

First, we started the long, slow process of boiling water and white wine in a big old pot. 

We added onion, carrots, celery, and parsley. Plus bay leaves, peppercorns, tarragon, and thyme tied in cheesecloth (a bouquet garni).

While we waited for the pot to boil, we got that asparagus roasted.

And I made that sauce: Sauce Maltaise, or blood orange hollandaise sauce, which I discovered recently. Sounds fancy-schmancy, but this recipe, prepared in a food processor or blender, is a simple and close to foolproof version that doesn't entail a double-boiler. Basically it's just egg yolks, butter, lemon juice, and blood orange zest and juice (you can substitute regular orange for blood orange). Notorious for fiddling with recipes, The Intuitive Eggplant couldn't resist adding some chopped shallots and a bit of tarragon. Cindie thought I added too much lemon juice (and maybe I did, since squeezing citrus into a tablespoon is a pain in the butt and I tend to be a bit lax with measurements). Still, I thought it tasted great with both the asparagus and our (eventually) boiled lobster.

I also did my prep work for the ceviche. The lovely photo from Saveur magazine that inspired Cindie to suggest ceviche was of a recipe full of Asian ingredients I didn't have on hand or time to seek out. So I agreed to go the ceviche route and then just made it pretty much the way I always do - with lime, garlic, shallots, cilantro, serrano, a little thyme, chipotle, and tomato (I forgot the ground, toasted cumin seed this time).

I especially like the way raw scallops, thinly sliced, take to the lime juice and seasonings in "my" ceviche, and was glad I'd bought some to include. Frankly, I thought they were tastier than the (eventually cooked) lobster we added to the mix.

Here's how the finished ceviche looked (after Cindie broke the matching glass, our first debacle of the night). As it turned out, we didn't have room on the lobster platter for ceviche anyway, and after what happened with the platter, I was glad I'd gone ahead and photographed this presentation.

We also went ahead and sauteed mushrooms in butter with lemon juice, per Julia, for the Thermidor sauce.

So much for the easy stuff. The pot was boiling, Cindie's husband was home, and it was time to get serious.

We opened up the box to check out our crustaceans.

Odie was happy to remove the lobsters from their claw confines.

Photos, of course, needed to be taken.

Cindie grabbed her camera and got in on the photogging action too.

Some ritual taunting of Oscar, the overly curious Labradoodle, was also in order.

Then Odie plunged the first lobsters into the pot.

We debated back and forth about how long to cook our one-and-a-half-pounders. Cindie thought most modern recipes recommend 10-12 minutes. Julia says 20 minutes for 2-pound lobsters. I was inclined to go with an oft-repeated rule of thumb that says they're done when the antennae pull out easily. Well, we cooked them past the 12-minute mark, and maybe even past the 15-minute mark, until Odie finally yanked out a doggone antenna and we pronounced them done.
Not only done, but probably a bit overdone, we thought when we finally ate them. However, we would have a chance to improve our timing with the third, straight-up lobster, still to come, as we wanted to eat it hot.

Here are our first two, sitting for a minute in the sink, until we transferred them to a cooler. For the Thermidor, they would need to be cool enough to handle and split lengthwise. For the ceviche, they would need to be cold.

While the lobsta cooled, Cindie and I introduced Odie to blogs, by showing him mine and Heff's. We had tried to explain what a blog is, but it didn't really click until he saw one for himself. Now Odie thinks blogs are cool, mentioned repeatedly that he "likes those comments," and went on to tell his buddies all about blogs, his new discovery.

Time to get serious again. The recipe says to add the mushroom cooking juices to the kettle (aka big old pot). But since we had more boiling liquid in our big old pot than Julia called for, AND wanted to reserve some of it for cooking the third lobster, AND we were halving the recipe, AND I didn't think we had a high enough ratio of wine to water in the boiling liquid, I started doing as I usually do, adjusting as I go. We didn't have much in the way of mushroom cooking juices, so we poured some of the boiling liquid into the skillet the mushrooms were sauteed in, added some more wine, then let it reduce.

Meanwhile, Cindie began the roux in a second skillet (ok, so we used skillets instead of saucepans per the recipe, but I think we still ended up with just as many dirty dishes as called for in the original). Anyway, Cindie pointed out an ambiguity from Julia. The recipe says that once the butter and flour have been cooked together without browning, "off heat" you're supposed to beat in the lobster cooking liquid, then boil, stirring for one minute. However, you can't boil "off heat." So we returned the skillet to the burner for the requisite boiling, and moved on to the next step: splitting the lobsters.

Cindie and I realized we suck at splitting lobsters, even with our "good" kitchen knives, so after mangling one, we turned the job over to Odie and his knife. Thank goodness we had an experienced hunter and fisherman to help us out.

He did a far more successful job of cutting his cleanly in half.

Next, Cindie and I set upon the task of removing the lobster meat. To be honest, I'm not sure we actually managed to figure out which were the "sand sacks in the heads and the intestinal tubes," which you're supposed to discard, vs. the lobster coral and green matter, which you're supposed to rub through a fine sieve into a mixing bowl. But we at least set the heads aside (to been turned into lobster stock, along with the remaining shells, at a later date), so I think we're safe there. There wasn't a whole lot of "green matter" but we dutifully tried to rub it through a sieve, where most of it stuck, and combined what little we could salvage with dried mustard, egg yolks, cream, and pepper.

At this point, you're supposed to beat the previously reduced sauce into the mixing bowl stuff "by driblets." But we started to get derailed and instead did it the other way around, beating the mixing bowl stuff into the sauce. I'm sure our derailing was due to the complexity of the instructions, not the beers we'd consumed as we got hungrier and hungrier. Here's our sauce (which by that point had become quite thick) "filmed with cream," which the recipe says you're supposed to do twice, although we only did it once. I haven't a clue what the purpose of "cream filming" is, and I'd say this is more of a douse than a film, but, oh, well.
 Now, I've never felt intimidated about making recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking (not that I've made a substantial number of them). I generally like the way it methodically breaks a recipe down into sensible steps. But making this recipe for the first time, even with two reasonably experienced home cooks joining forces, the "whiles" and the "thens" seemed off. At the same time Cindie was working on the sauce, I was trying to remove the lobster meat from the shells and cut it into something resembling 3/8-inch pieces, which then needed to be returned to a saute pan (ok, we reused another skillet).

You're supposed to saute the cut-up lobster with "foaming" butter until it achieved a "rosy" color, THEN add cognac to it, and THEN reduce it by half. But alas, recipe dyslexia overcame me again, and I added the cognac before real "rosiness" was achieved (the red bits in the photo above were just as red before and after this step).

At one point, our sauce actually looked like this:

But during the time it took to accomplish other steps, the sauce broke.

Nonetheless, we persevered, combining the cognac'd lobster with the long-since sauteed mushrooms and something resembling the prescribed 2/3 of the broken sauce, stuffing the result into Odie's lovely split shells, and topping them with parmesan. Here they are before we put them in the oven and topped them with the remaining sauce.

We also boiled the third lobsta straight up. Here's its much more properly cooked tail:

Five hours after we started, we were finally ready to eat.

Fortunately I snapped the photo above before what happened next. Cindie thought it would make for an attractive photo if we set the asparagus/Thermidor platter on a blue placemat. Reaching for that placemat, she tipped the platter and everything landed on the floor. She managed to pick up most of it before I could grab my camera.

Odie said he wished he had a camera to catch the look on my face when she dumped it. But Cindie coolly pronounced it "Deconstructed Lobster Thermidor" - our inadvertent fourth lobsta dish of the night.

After the cursing and laughter subsided, we gave up on worrying what things looked like and just set in to eatin'.

Yep, the Sauce Maltaise never got transferred to a more attractive dish than that Cool Whip container, and we didn't really care.

Lessons learned:

1. Cook with friends who will humor you, especially when it comes to delayed dining for ambitious projects. Bonus points if they have a dishwasher. This evening was so much more fun than if I'd earnestly tackled this dish by my lonesome!

2. A hunter, and a hunter's knife, are your friends. If, after the knives are put away, you can persuade a hunter . . .
. . . to don the lobster apron and lobster claw oven mitts your sister gave you for your 40th birthday, so much the better.

3. If you experience anxiety trying to make a lobster (or other) dish from a Julia Child recipe, just remember this:

4. Even a challenging meal is always better if it ends in dessert, especially if it's one you didn't have to make yourself.

With thanks to the Culinary Smackdown crowd for letting me join in for my first time at this rodeo, and much appreciation to "Team Eggplant." Looking forward to everyone else's lobsta posts. And remember, Odie "likes the comments."