Monday, October 31, 2011

October Culinary Smackdown: Battle Squash

Apparently it was autumn of 2007 when I became obsessed with squash dishes. I know this because I found a motherlode of squash recipes in a subfolder titled Thanksgiving 2007. For this month's Culinary Smackdown, I had in mind to reprise one that ended up being my favorite of everything I cooked that holiday. But there was another I've never forgotten and always wanted to try: Fresh Butternut Squash Salad.

You may be reading this and shaking your head as I did when I first read the recipe. Eating a hard winter vegetable like butternut squash raw? Huh? My usual inclination is to go with roasting squash or turning it into soup.

Guess what happens when you don't cook the heck out of it? If yours is as fresh as the one I got at Hyde Park farmers market last week, it's fragrant and melon-y and very easy to peel into lovely curls for this salad, with prosciutto, parmesan, and nuts. Add a little olive oil and red wine vinegar, and you're good to go. I topped mine with some microgreens I was lucky enough to have on hand. But really, this is dead simple and truly delicious.

This month's host (and last month's winner) for the Culinary Smackdown, Jen of Our Good Food Life, is up with her host post. If you're playing this month, head on over to her place to share a link back to your entry in her comments section. I'm looking forward to a wealth of great ideas from all!

Thanks to Jen for taking on this month's hosting duties. And to all the participants, and onlookers, for supporting this friendly little monthly cooking/blogging competition. As the resident cheerleader for the Smackdown, I'm thinking it might be a good idea to put it on hiatus during the busy months of November and December, then resume in January. Leave a comment here to let me know what you think.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Cincinnati Chocolate Festival

Ghoul cookie from The BonBonerie

In honor of Halloween, here are a few photos I snapped at last weekend’s Cincinnati Chocolate Festival. I would have taken more, but it was crazy crowded. That’s a good thing, though, when the proceeds go to projects and donations that support women and children thanks to the Isaac M. Wise Temple Sisterhood, who organized the festival for the second year in a row. It was also great exposure for the 40-some vendors who participated – what a wealth of local chocolatier and baking talent!

Most vendors had bite-size treats available for 1 ticket, like these cake pops, from Janel’s Cakes. Since admission came with 10 tickets – and there were so many samples to try – I was glad they were on the small side.

Most vendors had additional items available for purchase, too, like Chocolats LaTour. I didn’t realize until I got mine home that this pumpkin shell is edible too! And those chocolates inside? Shalini LaTour’s seasonal specialties like Spice Berry, Wild Turkey, Stout, Honey Basil Caramel, and Rosemary Mandarin – ooh, la, la!

And some tables – like Artrageous – showcased what they can do in a large format, drawing mobs for smaller tastes of their creations.

I was delighted to find wine and chocolate pairings available from A Bottle or Two (1 ticket per chocolate bit + 1 ticket per wine tasting). I didn’t manage to get a photo of their table, but it was conveniently located just across the aisle from Murray’s Cheese/Kroger, which offered this, one of my favorite bites of the fest. (Acclaimed NYC-based Murray’s Cheeses has partnered with Kroger to make a lot of national and international specialty cheeses available in the Tri-State and elsewhere – I was surprised to learn how many Greater Cincinnati Kroger locations now have Murray’s selections available, and I’m going to have to clue my mom in there’s one in Knoxville too.)
According to the handy card I picked up, this was dark chocolate-dipped Plava Vecchio cheese served with Kissel’s blueberry lavender jam and mascarpone on a thin, crispy 34 degree wafer. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who loved it. This won the “Most Creative Use of Chocolate” Award in the Vendor/Professional Division.

Amateurs were invited to compete in their own division, and as luck would have it, I was standing near that table when their sweets were brought out into the hall after the judges had made their deliberations. Here are Debbie Heldman’s Mushroom Meringues, which took 1st place in the candy category. How impressive is this?

There were also a huge number of gift baskets being raffled off. Realizing I was going to reach sugar overload before using up all my tickets (I bought more than came with my admission), I decided to drop some of them in the boxes for the baskets – after all, it was for a good cause.

And then there were the demos. Again, just 1 ticket, although there were only 30 seats available for each – but if you got one of those choice seats, you also got to taste the chef’s dishes! The area was cordoned off with a short white “fence,” so onlookers could view, even though they couldn’t taste. While watching part of the demo by Steve Hellmich, Chocolatier of Graeter's, outside that fence, I realized I was already in line for the next one, by Megan Ketover, Pastry Chef at Orchid’s and recent contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef: Just Desserts. Having had the chance to meet her and taste her food a couple of months ago, I was looking forward to this, and so were many more fans.

Megan showed how to make her pumpkin whoopee pies with brown sugar buttercream and chocolate cardamom sauce in a way that made it all look easy. The finished product, prepped ahead for those of us lucky enough to be within seating and eating distance, was far more elaborate.

The pipette you see sticking out of Megan's whoopie pie contained her chocolate cardamon sauce – just squeeze the bulb to inject some of the rich sauce into the center of the dessert. Each confection also featured an edible chocolate garnish bearing the insignia of the Netherland Plaza, the hotel where she is pastry chef at Orchids. If you're interested in the recipe, Megan graciously agreed to let me share it and I'll be posting it on All Top Chef.

Megan wasn’t the only well-known Cincinnati pastry chef to demo. She was in the company of two Cincinnati veterans, Pam Sturkey and Summer Genetti.

Unfortunately, I missed most of Pam’s demo, after exiting the seating area to make way for more “ticket-paying” customers. But I did secure a seat for Summer Genetti’s demo, and it was a stunner.

Here is the dessert Summer demonstrated, titled, simply, "Fish Eggs."
Straddling the line between sweet and savory, Summer's offering was white chocolate and pink peppercorn custard baked in eggshells, with ginger whipped cream, green apple and radish salad, ahi tuna, wasabi caviar and orange zest – as delicious as it was unexpected!

Summer recently moved from The Palace to one of my favorite restaurants, Honey, in Northside. It's been far too long since I ate there, but Summer's inventive desserts are extra incentive for a return trip.

It was a fun afternoon, even if I did ingest way more sugar than I normally would. As soon as I got home, the phone rang with more sweet news. I actually won a raffle basket (and I never win things like this)! So I jumped back in the car and returned to the Cintas Center to pick up my prize. I've got six pints of Madisono's gelato and sorbet in my future, and I'm grinning from ear to ear.

Enjoy your Halloween festivities, and stop back Monday for my entry in this month's Culinary Smackdown, Battle: Winter Squash, hosted by last month's winner, the lovely Jen of Our Good Food Life. It sounds like we're going to have a pretty good turnout for this month's contest, and I can't wait to see what everyone comes up with! For updates on each month's theme, host, and deadline, you can always click this image on my sidebar.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Coming Soon (?) - Greek to Me on Court Street, Turophilia + Japp's, Fountain Square/Food Truck Update, and Truffles via Le Bon Vivant

Owner George Betas tells me he is hoping to open his third It's Greek to Me - Prassino location on Court Street later this week on Court Street (depending on how inspections go). Once the shop is up and running, he plans to be open Mon.-Fri.10-6 and Sat.11-3, and this link should take you straight to the anticipated menu (the player on website's home page is, er, problematic). I'm looking forward to trying this Middle Eastern restaurant with an emphasis on fresh preparations and organic ingredients. It's in the same block as Tom + Chee.

Turophilia, purveyor of inventive, cheesy quesadillas, usually from its tiny retro Airstream trailer at Eighth and Vine, reports on facebook it will be teaming up with Japp's (of Molly Wellman fame), to bring 'dillas and drinks during happy hour Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at Nada (Sixth and Walnut) starting tomorrow. ETA: Sorry I misunderstood. Fallon Horstmeyer's original message said, "What could be better than Turophilia and Japp's? Nada" - as in nothing could better. The locations is actually Japp's.

Turophilia's Black Keyes quesadilla

WVXU reported on Tuesday's City Council committee meeting about expanding the mobile food vendor program in the wake of 3CDC's decision to oust food tents from Fountain Square. This was a committee meeting, and a recommendation to Council was tabled for the time being. According to WVXU, "City administrators will be preparing a report on the Fountain Square vending spots. . . . It could be discussed next week. But the full City Council won't meet again after Wednesday until November 16th." I keep hoping the City and/or 3CDC finds a way to embrace these entrepreneurs who are putting out some outstanding food and contributing to the vibrancy of the downtown core.

Le Bon Vivant had a limited time opportunity to get in on some fresh truffles from Italy and France today. My wallet may be breathing a sigh of relief, but I am not. Stop in this lovely Walnut Hills shop to sign up for their contact list or friend them on facebook to keep up with the surprises they have in store. I am still dreaming of these apple and pear tarts made by owner Catherine Meguire for last week's wine and cheese soirée.
Le Bon Vivant's Third Friday wine and cheese tastings spotlight a different region of France each month (Burgundy in November). If last week's event is any indication, the crowd will be convivial, wine guy extraordinaire TJ will bring unique wines to sample, and there may be more food in store, like this Choucroute-Garnie at our evening in Alsace.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Voltaggio Brothers and More from the KY Incredible Food Show

Thanks for bearing with my circuitous series of Lexington trip reports. The impetus for my weekend getaway, as you may recall, was the Kentucky Proud Incredible Food Show. It led me to dinner at Jonathan’s at Gratz Park and brunch at Jean Farris Winery and Bistro, but the food show itself was such a full day of inspiration that I’m doubling back to share more. I wrote about a few of the 100+ vendors and their products here, but there were so many activities and demos going on concurrently I sometimes had trouble choosing.

This is just the schedule for the “Culinary Seminars,” in the smaller break-out room.

The Kids Craft Café offered youngsters the opportunity to create their own artwork with painted toast, eggshell mosaics, pumpkin painting, and other activities. “Exhibit Space H” featured cooking demos by Chef Tom Mackinnon of BlueFire Grill at the Lexington Regency Hyatt.

Barnes + Noble turned a section of the show into a cookbook store, with food titles by lots of Kentucky authors and this huge display of advance copies of Volt ink., set for wide release tomorrow, by headliners Michael and Bryan Voltaggio of Top Chef fame, performing at 11:00 and 3:00 in adjacent Rupp Arena.

B+N held book signings by local authors throughout the day, as well as one by the Volt Bros. Yes, I walked away with an autographed copy.

And then there was the jam-packed schedule for the demonstration stage sponsored by Sullivan University’s Lexington culinary program, where I spent a good chunk of my day getting my food geek on.

I decided to skip the potential mayhem of the Voltaggios’ morning show in favor of the Heritage Meats Master Class. “I’m glad you’re here instead of watching those foodie chefs,” said the Sullivan University chef-instructor leading the demo, nodding toward Rupp Arena. “You can see them anytime on TV, but what we’re going to show you here you can see only once a year.” Not quite accurate, but it drew an appreciate chuckle from the crowd.

As three students broke down a Katahdin lamb raised in Lincoln County, KY, before us, I learned that Katahdin, also called hair sheep, is a heritage breed developed in Maine in the 1950s. Rather than being covered in wool, which requires shearing, these sheep develop a heavy coat of hair during the winter, then shed it in spring. Absent the lanolin in wool, which can impart a gamey taste, this breed produces a fine-grained, well-marbled meat that is mild in flavor.

The instructor discussed the different cuts of meat, their best uses, and how to make sausage and stock to utilize every part of the animal. Thanks to the large-screen monitors, we also got to see knife techniques demonstrated, like Frenching the bones of a lamb loin.

A later highlight on the Sullivan University Stage would be a live-taping of a TV program called “Secrets of the Bluegrass Chefs.” While the crew was setting up for that, three Sullivan graduates did a Q+A session spotlighting their different paths in the culinary profession.
Natalie Blake (left), who appeared on “Hell’s Kitchen,” is presently sous-chef at the Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, and dreams of eventually having a food truck she can take throughout the state of Kentucky. Allison Davis (center) is the owner of Wild Thyme in Lexington, which does catering and offers cooking classes. The fellow on the right, whose first name is Ryan (alas, I didn’t catch hear his last name well enough to be able to figure out how to spell it), is the director of a school food program. He said the tack he takes is to look at the typical food choices made by kids, throw them out, then figure out how to replicate them more healthfully, like offering panko-breaded chicken tenderloin in place of chicken fingers. He also talked about getting kids involved in the edible garden on the school grounds, which has gotten his students to be more willing to try different foods and is helping them learn to think more seasonally about food. And he touted the advantages of having a culinary position that follows an academic schedule, compared to the hours worked by most restaurant chefs.

Next up was the actual taping of “Secrets of the Bluegrass Chefs.” Host Tim Laird travels throughout the state spotlighting fine-dining as well as casual restaurants. The first segment showed Sullivan chef-instructor John Foster preparing gnocchi (from local Lexington Pasta Company, who’d done a demo earlier showing how to make gnocchi from scratch) with a fresh tomato sauce.

The second featured Chef Jeremy Ashby of Lexington’s Azur Restaurant and Patio preparing braised short rib wrapped in caul fat around goat cheese from nearby Capriole Farm, with maitake mushrooms (found by one of his foragers, he said), mashed potatoes with porcini powder, and corn pudding garnished with pea shoots and “onion glass.”
I was intrigued by Chef Ashby's commitment to local ingredients and his inventive preparations. He joked that “Azur” stands for come “as you are,” saying that while his restaurant offers dishes that may be upscale, it’s a casual environment. Azur is definitely on my list to visit next time I’m in Lexington.

“Secrets of the Bluegrass Chefs” airs on two Lexington channels and, I’m guessing, stations elsewhere in Kentucky too. Videos of prior shows can be found on the Kentucky Proud website here, and here are Part 1 and Part 2 of a 2009 episode that will give you a favor of the show, Azur, and Ashby’s culinary style. What can I say? I was intrigued enough to go google this stuff.

As if all of this wasn’t tantalizing enough, I still had the Voltaggios’ afternoon demo to look forward to. Check out my post on All Top Chef for that report.

All in all, I found the Incredible Food Show to be an impressively well organized event that was fun, informative, and well worth the admission price. It’s great to meet the people who produce your food, and the vendors were very outgoing. The Sullivan University staff and students shouldered a huge role in the day’s events and did the school proud. The organizers also did a great job of enlisting sponsors and making this a very professionally produced event. I came away inspired, and with a long list of Kentucky food producers to keep an eye out for – on restaurant menus, on the web, or to visit in person when I travel through the state. Regardless of who the headliners are next year, I plan to be back.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Lexington Trip, Part 3: Jean Farris Winery and Bistro

Before heading back to Cincinnati after the Kentucky Proud Incredible Food Show, I had time for one more meal. So, without a reservation, I headed for Jean Farris Winery and Bistro. I've seen the winery's name on a brown interstate sign designating "local attraction" many times as I drove to and from Tennessee but never realized it also features a restaurant until I started investigating the day before this trip. It's only three or eight miles off I-75 (depending on which exit you take), about 20 minutes from downtown Lexington. But you're out in the rolling hills of Kentucky horse country.

A short drive through the rows of vines that front Richmond Road . . .

. . . takes you to this structure, which houses an intimate bistro and the enormous side porch you can see on the left.

Although it was a tad chilly when I arrived at 11:30 that Sunday, I asked to be seated on the porch, where I got a lovely view of the surroundings. The high-ceilinged porch is equipped with outdoor heaters and zip-up plastic windows for cooler weather.

Decisions, decisions. I sipped a cup of coffee and nibbled this delectable chocolate chip muffin while struggling to settle on my order.

I wasn't going to miss the opportunity to try the charcuterie board, even though it was early in the day. At dinner as well as weekend brunch (11:00 to 3:00 both Saturday and Sunday), the restaurant offers a rotating variety of cheeses and housemade charcuterie you can mix and match (one for $6 or three for $14). Mine were served on this long, narrow weathered board; similar boards of different shapes and sizes were served to other diners.

With plenty of lovely accompaniments, this could have been a meal in itself. From front to back, here are toasted pecans, freshly grilled links of fennel and milk-fed veal sausage (outstanding!), and raisin compote.

Then there was a chunk of a sheep's milk cheese called Appalachian, duck liver paté topped with blackberry gelée, and housemade crackers at the back.

As much as I enjoyed the charcuterie, one of my favorite components was the miniature pickled heirloom tomatoes you can see nestled between the cheese and the paté served in a shot glass. If I come back again for dinner, I will definitely try a glass of Jean Farris wine with another one of these samplers.

There were lots of tempting entrées to choose from on the brunch menu as well.

I finally settled on this omelette filled with housemade ricotta, Kentucky mushrooms, and Newsom's prosciutto, made in Princton, Kentucky, southwest of Louisville.

And at last I got my grits on, with this Weisenberger grits cake – light and creamy on the inside, crisp and crunchy on the outside.

Whether you're brunching or not, enjoy your Sunday. I'm off to the Cincinnati Chocolate Festival, and with any luck I'll double back for one more installment from the Incredible Food Show later in the week.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Lexington Trip, Part 2: Jonathan's at Gratz Park

Goodness, these Scallop Hot Browns seemed to get my readers' tastebuds tingling when I posted a preview to my Lexington trip report. So let’s plunge into my dinner at Jonathan's at Gratz Park, shall we?

I'd originally planned to attend the Kentucky Proud Incredible Food Show just as a day trip. But Friday was one of those gloriously warm fall days that makes you feel downright festive. By the time I got home from work, I'd talked myself into staying overnight after the Saturday food show and checking out a couple of Lexington's restaurants, even if meant scrambling to make arrangements. Without my usual drawn-out googling when visiting an unfamiliar city, I came up with a short list of restaurants that appealed to me, phoned Jonathan's at Gratz Park to see if I could get a reservation on such short notice (yes, they could accommodate my one-top in the bar at 6:30), booked a hotel with similar haste, checked mapquest for directions, threw some clothes in my overnight bag, and tried to get to bed early enough I wouldn't sleep through my alarm clock and could make the hour and a half trip down I-75 in time to arrive at the food show by 9:00 a.m. Although Cindie called at 10:30 p.m. and we didn't get off the phone until 11:30, I made it to Rupp Arena by 9:20 the following morning, which I count as a personal victory.

After a fun day at the show (and, thankfully, pacing myself with all the available food samples), I was relaxed – and hungry – by the time I arrived at Jonathan's, a fine-dining establishment in the Gratz Park Inn, on a narrow side street in a picturesque historic district near the heart of Lexington's downtown. The main dining room was already crowded by 6:30, so the hostess walked me down the Inn's central corridor to my table in the bar, whose two-tops, four-tops, and an eight-top between me and the flat-screen TV were nearly full. I was a bit surprised to see a flat-screen TV in a white-tablecloth restaurant, but then again, not only was this the bar, I was in University of Kentucky country, where Wildcats fans do not want to miss their sports.

I ignored the TV and perused the evening's menu, a little different than what I'd seen online, but not a surprise given the changing seasons. I was curious to check out the restaurant's spins on Southern classics by chef Jonathan Lundy (a native Kentuckian who got his start in the restaurant biz in New Orleans working with Emeril Lagasse before attending Johnson + Wales and eventually returning home). Gone from the summer appetizer menu were his Boiled Peanut Hummus, Pickled Watermelon and Shrimp served in a Mason jar with Corn Bread Crackers, and Asparagus Spring Rolls with Bourbon Barrel Aged Kentucky Soy Sauce and Hot Pepper Jelly. But the Pimento Cheese Grit Fries, the Burgoo, and those Sea Scallop Hot Browns were still there. I wouldn't be surprised if they never leave.I was powerless to pass up the Hot Browns. Since scallops are often paired with bacon, this dish made sense to me as soon as I read the description. The Newsom’s country ham as porky counterpoint was exceptional, as was the classic Mornay sauce, and I was glad each round of airy brioche was topped with just a thick slice of perfectly broiled sea scallop rather than entire scallop, or I have cried uncle  after my next course.

I was seated close enough to the next table to be able to admire their salads (Succotash Salad with fresh corn, heirloom tomatoes, soy beans, cornbread croutons, and fresh herb vinaigrette; Fried Green Tomato Salad with Limestone bibb lettuce, buttermilk crème fraiche dressing, and shiitake “bacon”). I, however, opted for this Root Vegetable Waldorf from the evening’s specials, with cubes of squash and sweet potato augmenting traditional celery and apple in a mayonnaise dressing topped with fresh greens and toasted pecans. While I enjoyed the flavors, the salads here are on the large side, and between the size and the sweetness of my Waldorf, I was starting to fill up. My entrée was ready before I finished my salad (this has happened to me several times lately – should I inform my servers I’m a slow eater?). In this instance, I was ready to move on.

It’s not uncommon to find on Kentucky fine-dining menus elevated versions of shrimp and grits (I was holding out on that possibility for my Sunday brunch) or entrées in various bourbon preparations (Jonathan’s offers a Maker’s Mark 46 roasted salmon with maple mustard glaze, potato salad, hard-boiled eggs, and capers). I was also intrigued by the Cola-Braised Short Ribs and the Sweet Tea Brined Pork Loin with grilled lemon, orange blossom honey, mint, sugar snap pea slaw, and goat cheese whipped potatoes. But I was reticent about going with something too sweet.

So I chose the Mushroom Dusted Beef Tenderloin with asparagus, mashed potatoes, and demi-glace, partly because it came with that “crispy shiitake bacon” that had roused my curiosity earlier.

I did like these shiitakes (although I couldn’t quite decide how “bacon-esque” I found them), and the tenderloin was cooked perfectfly to my requested medium rare. It satisfied my beef craving that evening (and no doubt fills that slot on the menu for customers who want to spend their money on beef), but in retrospect I wish I had been more adventuresome. Most entrées are in the $28-$35 range, and the portions are large. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it through mine, so I asked to have half of it boxed up.

My server not only was great at checking on me without rushing me, he was extremely knowledgeable from the culinary side. He knew the evening’s specials as well as the dishes on the fixed menu inside out. His descriptions of ingredients and preparations were spot on, and he was great at answering my questions. I saw him guide the nearby eight-top with equal aplomb about portion size, etc. as they selected their dishes.

When it came to dessert, there was no printed menu for me to peruse, just my server’s descriptions. I had pretty much convinced myself I had no room left for another course, but didn’t want to miss learning what Jonathan’s had to offer. I was almost scott-free until my server recited the last one, blackberry balsamic sorbet – two flavors that piqued my interest, in what surely had to be the lightest-sounding option on the dessert menu. I’m glad I gave in.

While not overtly tasting of balsamic vinegar (whose sweet-ish, deep-aged fermented flavor is a classic combination with fresh berries), each bite was full of beautifully rounded blackberry that hit just the right balance between sweet and tart. My only disappointment was that, once again, the portion was huge and sadly I could not feasibly take my leftovers with me.

Miraculously, I managed to wake up hungry enough the next morning to tackle brunch in the Lexington environs before heading home. I'll be back with another installment of my trip report about that.