Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Soup au Pistou

Elixir For The Soul

September 19, 2007|By Shelley Rauch, shelleyrauch@gmail.com
My mother-in-law was the one who first clued me into the wonders of soup au pistou. In the unexpected chill of a late French spring evening, she found herself facing a steaming bowl of vegetable soup. Filled with beans, squash and tomatoes, it was all the more fragrant for the small ramekin of pistou served alongside.

Pistou is Provence's answer to Italy's pesto: all the bright colors and flavors of basil, olive oil and seasoning concentrated into one glorious paste.

As I stood facing a counter full of ripening summer vegetables, I recalled her story and reached for my cookbooks. One of her contributions to the Peninsula Fine Arts Center cookbook, The Art of the Palate, was the simply named, "vegetable soup with pistou." Like so many "traditional" recipes, this is as varied as the cook who stirs the pot. Hers hit the highlights with leeks, winter squash, potatoes, green beans, and even broken pasta.

I set out to make her recipe, but found myself tweaking and altering along the way. I began by gently browning the aromatics, then adding the liquid, seasoning, and remaining vegetables. Once all the initial chopping is done, all that's left is to let the mixture gently simmer until the vegetables have become pleasantly soft.

Another addition not found in the original is my ace-in-the-hole: Parmesan rinds. I add these to almost any soup, stew or sauce. The rind slowly releases its essence into the bubbling liquid - a rich, yet subtle flavor that gathers all the disparate components into one satisfying union. This is kitchen sorcery at its best!

I curled up with my own steaming bowl on a muggy, late summer evening. Swirling a dollop of the pistou on top, I sprinkled a touch more Parmesan, then dipped in a crunchy piece of toasted baguette. The melange of flavors instantly worked its own magic, erasing the rough edges of the day with every pungent spoonful.

olive oil
2 leeks, sliced
1 yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium carrots, diced
2 potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 cup dry white wine
8 cups chicken stock
Bouquet garni: parsley sprigs, bay leaf, thyme sprigs, orange peel, whole peppercorns (place in cheesecloth or coffee filter, securing with kitchen string)
2-4 inch Parmesan rind, chunked
2 cans garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
2 zucchini, sliced
2 summer squash, sliced
3 medium tomatoes
10 ounces frozen green beans (do not thaw)
For the pistou:
large pinch of coarse salt
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 large cloves garlic
large handful basil leaves
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3/4 cup olive oil
grated Parmesan
toasted bread, sliced

Heat oil in large kettle over medium high heat. Add the leeks and onion; saute until just beginning to turn translucent, about 3 minutes.
Add garlic and saute another minute longer. Add the carrots and potatoes, cooking until colors have deepened.
Pour in the white wine and raise the heat, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to release any crusty bits.
Add the stock to the mixture until heated through, maintaining a constant simmer. Sprinkle in the salt and add the bouquet garni and Parmesan rind.
Stir in the garbanzo beans, zucchini, summer squash and tomatoes. Continue to simmer vegetables for 15 minutes. Add the green beans and simmer for another 15 minutes, until all the vegetables are tender.

Meanwhile, make the pistou: Put salt, pepper, garlic and basil into food processor and pulse until all are reduced to a liquid paste. Add some cheese and mix until a stiff paste. Dribble in some olive oil, stirring until it becomes liquid again. Continue alternately adding cheese and olive oil until desired consistency.

Remove the bouquet garni and Parmesan rind from the the kettle. Ladle hot soup into bowls. Top with a small dollop of the pistou and sprinkle with Parmesan. Serve with toasted bread and additional pistou alongside.
Inspired by "Art of the Palate"

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Crannies Unite! It's time to relax, ya'all.

I've made cinnamon rolls from scratch, and let me tell you: it is truly an act of love.

Dough is mixed, dough rises, dough is rolled just so, then coated with a buttery, sugary, cinnamon-heavy concoction that oozes when you try to (crookedly) roll it all up into a log.

Then you slice, place in pan, coat with more sticky, sugary glaze, and finally — FINALLY! — if your family hasn't already gnawed off their own arms in hunger, after only 30 minutes more, they are ready to eat.
(Like all good sticky buns, the tops become the crustily delicious bottoms.)

Undoubtedly, it will be worth the wait, as everyone erupts into gasps and murmurs of delight and awe between warm, delicious mouthfuls. And if you, covered in congealing spatters of sugar and dough, have managed to shake yourself out of baking shock, then you too shall taste and know the special joy that is homemade cinnamon rolls.

I'm not Martha Stewart. Baking anything more complicated than drop cookies or pound cakes tends to send me into a quaking mass of self-doubt and paranoia. Also, like most folks, I don't have half a day to spend in the kitchen, especially first thing in the morning.

Does this mean that I should be consigned to a life without sticky goodness? In a word, no!

In three words: Bridgford Parkerhouse Rolls. Yes, it's a frozen convenience product, and I'm so happy it exists! My sister-in-law turned me on to them when I was begrudgingly thinking of making cinnamon rolls for the holidays, dreading the inevitable five-hour baking marathon.

As a mom with two high-energy children, she had a whole slew of tricks up her sleeve, one of which was her sticky buns recipe.

Frozen Bridgford rolls, available in almost any grocery, are a quality product that easily adapt to any number of uses. Her recipe called for pudding mix, which isn't something I normally keep in the pantry, so I simply substituted in the filling from my original recipe.

It was so refreshingly easy. I'd already toasted and chopped my pistachios (which you can find shelled at Trader Joe's), so it was a simple matter of assembly. While the butter melted in the microwave, I coated a pan with a touch of butter, nuts and cranberries, then topped that with the still-frozen rolls.

The melted butter was mixed with cinnamon, sugar and orange zest, and then poured generously over the rolls. The few remaining nuts and cranberries went on top, then covered with a damp towel.

Popped into a cold oven, it slowly thaws overnight.

In the morning, whip off the towel; turn on the oven, and in a blushingly easy 30 minutes time — sweet, cinnamon-tinged sticky buns are at your disposal.

Easy Overnight Cranberry Sticky Buns

  • 1/2 tablespoon butter
  • 1 25-ounce package frozen Bridgford Parkerhouse Rolls
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries (divided)
  • 1/2 cup toasted, chopped shelled pistachios (divided)
  • 1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter, melted
  • 3/3 cup dark brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon salt (if using salted butter, omit)
  • 2 teaspoons minced orange zest

Coat bottom of 9-by-13 pan with butter, then sprinkle with cranberries and pistachios. Save about 1/4 cup of each.

Place package of frozen Bridgford Parkerhouse Rolls on top of nuts and cranberries.
elt 1 stick of butter and combine with 3/4 cup brown sugar, 2 teaspoons cinnamon, 1 teaspoon salt and 2 teaspoons minced orange zest.

Pour over rolls. Strew remaining cranberries and pistachios on top, then cover pan with a damp towel. Place in a cold oven overnight.

Remove towel and turn oven on to 350 degrees. Bake for 30 minutes, until tops are browned and juices are bubbling.
Invert (carefully!) onto serving tray, scooping out any remaining glaze and drizzling over top.
Serve immediately.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Sun-Dried Tomato Dip

Sun-Dried Tomato Dip

This creamy dip featuring sun-dried tomatoes, basil, and garlic tastes great on EVERYTHING!

Preparation Time: 10 minutes

1/4 cu p(s) oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and chopped
8 ounce(s) cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup(s) sour cream
1/4 cup(s) mayonnaise
2 clove(s) garlic, minced
3/4 teaspoon(s) salt
3/4 teaspoon(s) freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup(s) fresh basil
hot pepper sauce to taste

In a food processor, mix the sun-dried tomatoes, cream cheese, sour cream, mayonnaise, garlic, hot pepper sauce, salt, and pepper. Process until well-blended. Add basil, and continue processing until smooth. Chill at least 1 hour in the refrigerator before serving.

Yield: 12 servings

from Paige Healy

(original posting here)

Bittersweet Decadence Cookies

Bittersweet Decadence Cookies

1/4 cup AP flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups walnuts or pecans, broken or chopped into large pieces
6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped into chunks, or store-bought chocolate chunks

Position the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat the oven to 350-degrees. Line two cookie sheets with parchment or wax paper.

In a small bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, and salt together thoroughly; set aside.

Place the 8-ounces of chocolate and the butter in a large heatproof bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water and stir frequently just until melted and smooth. Remove the chocolate from the skillet and set it aside. Leave the heat on under the skillet.

In a large heatproff bowl, whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla together thoroughly. Set the bowl in the skillet and stir until the mixture is lukewarm to the touch. Stir the eggs into the warm (not hot) chocolate. Stir in the flour mixture, then the nuts and chocolate chunks.

Scoop slightly rounded tablespoons of 1 1/2-inches apart onto the cookie sheets. Bake until the surface of the cookies looks dry and set but the center is still gooey, 12-14 minutes. If you used parchment (or waxed paper), carefully slide the cookies, still on the parchment, onto racks, or set the pans on the racks. Otherwise, let the cookies firm up on the pans for a minute, then transfer them to the racks with a metal pancake turner. Let cool completely. Store in a tightly sealed container.

Note: These cookies will have the best flavour and texture if they are baked on sheets lined with parchmnet paper, or even waxed paper, which insulates them just enough but still allows the cookies to be a little crusty on the outside and soft within. Cushioned pans and silicone liners make the texture of the cookies too uniform for my taste. Pans with dark surfaces tend to scorch rich chocolate cookie bottoms before the centers are cooked.

Chocolate notes: I used a 70% bittersweet chocolate, rather than standard bittersweet. The change was to use 5 1/2 ounces of chocolate, increase the butter to 3 tablespoons, and the sugar to 3/4 cup.

Also, I completely forgot to add the nuts or chunked chocolate. These were like rich little chocolate brownie cookies.

from Alice Medrich's Bittersweet

(see original post here)

Burnt Orange Ice Cream

Burnt Orange Ice Cream

1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons finely grated orange zest (from 3 large navel oranges)
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup strained fresh orange juice
6 large egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine milk, cream and zest in 2-3 quart heavy saucepan and bring to boil. Remove from heat, cover and let stand for 30 minutes.

Combine 1/2 cup sugar and orange juice in another 2-3 quart heavy saucepan and bring to a boil over moderately high heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Boil, without stirring, swirling pan occasionally, until syrup becomes a deep golden caramel.

Remove pan from heat, carefully add 1/2 cup cream mixture (mixture will bubble and steam), and whisk until smooth. Add remaining cream mixture in a steady stream, whisking. Cook caramel mixture over very low heat, whisking, until caramel has dissolved and mixture is hot. Remove from heat.

Whisk together yolks, remaining 1/4 cup sugar, and salt in a medium bowl. Add hot caramel mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly. Return mixture to saucepan and cook over moderately low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until custard is thick enough to coat back of spoon and registers 170-degrees on thermometer; do not let boil.

Pour custard through a fine-mesh sieve into cleaned metal bowl and stir in vanilla. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate, covered, until cold, at least 3 hours.

Freeze custard in ice cream maker. Transfer to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden.

Notes: custard may be refrigerated for up to 24 hours; ice cream can be made up to 1 week ahead.

from The Gourmet Cookbook

(see original post here)

Italian Cheese Terrine

Italian Cheese Terrine

1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons pesto sauce
9 slices muenster cheese or mozzarella cheese, divided (1-ounce)

Basil-Tomato Sauce
1 (14 1/2 ounce) can whole tomatoes, undrained
3/4 cup chopped onions
1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1 (7 ounce) jar sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, drained and chopped

For sauce: Drain whole tomatoes, reserving 1/4 cup juice.
Cook onion and garlic in olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly, until tender.
Stir in chopped tomato, 1/4 cup reserved juice, bay leaves, sugar and basil; bring to a boil.
Reduce heat, and simmer, stirring often, 3-5 minutes or until thickened; remove from heat.
Remove and discard bay leaves; stir in sun-dried tomatoes.
Cover and chill at least 2 hours.

For terrine: Beat cream cheese and butter at medium speed with mixer until creamy.
Add parmesan and pesto; beat until smooth.
Set mixture aside.
Line a 3-cup bowl or mold with plastic wrap, allowing edges to overhang 6-7 inches.
Diagonally cut 5 slices Muenster cheese in half; arrange cheese triangles in bowl, slightly overlapping to line bowl.
Spread half of cream cheese mixture over cheese; top with half of basil-tomato sauce.
Cut 2 slices Muenster cheese in half crosswise; arrange cheese rectangles over tomato mixture.
Repeat with remaining cream cheese mixture, basil-tomato sauce and 2 slices Muenster cheese Fold plastic wrap over layers, sealing securely; place a heavy object on top to compact layers.
Chill at least 8 hours or up to 3 days.

To serve: Invert terrine onto a serving platter, peel off plastic wrap.

recipe from Susan Stein

Notes: Be sure to drain the sun-dried tomatoes well... you can see in the photo where I didn't, and the terrine is slightly red. Also, it looks quite lovely to place fresh herbs and edible flowers into the bottom, before everything goes in. In this photo, I used pansies, basil and chives.

(see original posting here)

Friday, December 07, 2007

Of Thanks and Thankfullness-

I am late, of course, but I'm still going to talk about November.

Or, more specifically, the wonderful feast that was Thanksgiving.

Dave & I went up to Richmond, joined the whole family for a spectacularly joyous meal. Folks, kids, extended family, cats and even a dog bustled and rustled and laughed around.

Business got down around noon. As people arrived at my sister-in-law's (Paige's) house, the turkey had been cooking for sometime: all the guests brought a little something.

I took an Italian cheese terrine. My friend Sue served this appetizer at a holiday a couple of years ago... the pretty colours and festive flavours seemed a perfect fit.
The terrine is pretty simple to make, but extraordinarily beautiful... and quite rich and tasty, to boot. I pressed a pansy and some basil into the bottom, but any sort of herbage or flowers would be just as pretty.

Once cut, it reveals its layers of pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and glorious cheeses.

This wasn't the only sun-dried tomato conglomeration on the block. Paige had also stepped up with a sun-dried tomato dip that was bursting with addictively delicious flavours.

Of course, there was indeed wine in plenty.

We started with champagne, then some more champagne, then moved on to Dave's Fife.

It was, natch, Fife'n good. :)

Along with great food & wine, there were plenty of great folk... mostly human, but there were also feline and canine representatives roaming about.
Who can resist such sweetness? There was much petting and patting going 'round.

Soon, the bird was cooked to golden perfection, oozing glistening, turkey-juice soaked stuffing.
It was time to eat.

We sat down... family far-flung and close, elbow to elbow. It was 70+degrees outside.

We laughed, ate well, drank well, and had a smashing great feast.

One would think that this would be enough.

But, hey- it's the holidays, right?

There was triple chocolate cheesecake. Folk moaned, swooned, then resolutely (and joyously) dug in. Seriously, how can you resist an endorsement like this?
I thought not. We were in such a state that I completely forgot to photograph my own dessert contributions... a thick, luxurious burned orange ice cream, buttressed by equally rich, bittersweet chocolate cookies. It was gorgeous, and together, incendiary.

The night ended colder than it began, and with such bursting full bellies, we quickly nodded out. It was a fabulous holiday.


Italian-Cheese Terrine
Sun-Dried Tomato Dip
Triple-Chocolate Cheesecake (forthcoming)
Burnt Orange Ice Cream
Bittersweet Decadence Cookies

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Comforting comfort food... in Portsmouth!

Everyone needs it, and every culture has it: comfort food.

Jason Alley and Chris Chandler paid homage to that basic necessity in Richmond at Comfort: traditional Southern cookery with a side of panache. Now Portsmouth is home to a second Comfort — same name, same game.

The painted sign out front isn't lit, and my husband and I almost drove right past it. We parked and headed into the warmly-hued and extremely spacious dining area.

A bar, peopled with relaxing after-fivers, ran along the wall to the left. Free-standing tables, in varying clusters, filled the front, while high-backed wooden booths dominated the rear.

Our waiter tucked us into a booth, leaving us to look over one of the simplest menus I've seen in some time.

Appetizers, entrees and sides are listed in unembellished terms: tomato salad ($4), grilled pork chop ($17, two sides; $19, three sides) and fried okra (a “side” included with some entrees) are astonishingly back to basics.

Then our server returned, not only to tell us the evening specials, but of the preparation of almost every single menu item.

It was at first amusing, then confusing, to listen to the litany of 15-plus items described in detail. By the time he'd returned with the wine, we needed him to repeat several of our choices.

The 2004 Fosco Dolcetto Diano D'Alba ($35) was a familiar wine to us, chosen for its laid-back, easy drinking attitude.

It won't blow your mind, but it will go nicely with a variety of foods, including Comfort's house-made bread.

Hint: the corn bread is singularly spectacular, with a perfectly pebbled texture, and a toasty, nutty flavor.

After seeing so many spinach salads ($6) carried out from the kitchen, Dave and I decided to split one.

It was served divided into two portions, a nice touch that we appreciated. The spinach was dressed in a light vinaigrette featuring fat, lovely chunks of delicious bacon. Thinly sliced red onions, cold flavorless tomatoes and a hard-boiled egg rounded out the plate.

Dave took the theme and ran with it, ordering the meatloaf entrée ($16, two sides). The presentation is classic meat-'n'-threes (although he only got two sides), no fancy plating required.

Two fat slices of succulent meatloaf were a perfectly textured monument to mama's finest, complete with highly-flavored mushroom gravy. Steamed string beans made for a fine green, while the mac and cheese was a dense, creamy delight.

I had the grilled mahi mahi ($18, two sides), finished in a chile-orange glaze. The filet had a lovely light texture, and the slightly sweet, slightly spicy sauce did everything right to enhance the mild white meat.

I had a side of tender braised greens, rich with chunks of bacon. The grits were all right, but as I'd just sampled The World's Best Grits, Ever (see my review of Center Street Grill at dailypress.com/addareview) just a few nights before, my objectivity may have been slightly compromised.

It was quite a meal, and we ordered dessert to go. The dining room was quite busy at this point, and the banana pudding ($6) arrived before the receipt. It looked like a tart gone wild, with a crunchy crème brulee top, and an interior so creamy and opulent we dug in, laughing like little children with their first ice cream cone.

Sated and happy, we sped off into the night. The only thing missing was that Southern farewell: y'all come back now, y'hear?

725 High Street, Portsmouth
Phone: 393-3322
Specialties: Southern style comfort food
Price range: appetizers: $3-$8; entrees: $10-$20
Hours: lunch served 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner served 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Alcohol: beer, wine, full bar
Smoking: no
Vegetarian: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Payment: cash, credit cards
Noise level: somewhat noisy
Atmosphere: tattered casual elegance
Additional Information: daily specials, catering, large parties welcome
Star rating: food 4, atmosphere 3 1/2, service 3 1/2
(out of five stars)

1 star- terrible
2 stars - mostly unpleasing
3 stars - pleasant & satisfactory
4 stars - very, very nice
5 stars - ultimate epicurean meal

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Balls without Meat?!?

“You can’t call them meatballs—there isn’t any meat in them!” Dave was firm, but I was firmer, and shook my head.

“What should I call them- eggplant balls?" I raised a skeptical eyebrow. "That’s just not appetizing-- no way, dude.

There you have it, folks. These eggplant “meat” balls, if you will, haven’t a smidgeon of flesh contained within. Rejoice vegetarians! And carnivores, be prepared to step outside your comfort zone: both parties could agreeably break bread over these.

I first came upon this recipe shortly after meeting my husband. He’s unabashedly fond of just about anything involving pasta, meat and cheese. While I certainly don’t mind such dishes from time to time, the thought of yet another heavy dish of spaghetti and meatballs sent me scrambling for alternatives.

The source has long since been lost, but my little clipping has become tattered and stained over the years. The ingredient list is familiar, as are the scents coming from the pan. Eggplant is sautéed with garlic and onion, then processed smooth with herbs, egg and breadcrumbs.

As your eggplant may vary in size and moisture content, the egg/breadcrumb ratio may have to be adjusted up or down. In the end, the mixture should still be fairly sticky, and you may need to wet your hands to properly form the balls.

These cook in the oven for just over thirty minutes, more than ample time to simmer your sauce and begin prepping the pasta. When the eggplant balls have turned golden brown, I like to pull them out and let them simmer in the sauce for 5- 10 minutes.
Once the pasta is plated up with tomato sauce and cheese, it’s not easy to tell that these meatballs are entirely meat-free.

Eggplant "Meat" Balls

1 large eggplant
olive oil
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 small red onion, minced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 cup red wine
1-2 beaten eggs
1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/8 cup freshly chopped, mixed Italian herbs (I use oregano, thyme and parsley)
salt and pepper, to taste
1-2 cups breadcrumbs

Slice eggplant and sprinkle with salt. Let sit 10 minutes to draw out water. Rinse, pat dry and coarsely chop.
In a pan over medium high heat, add a splash of olive oil. Once warmed, add the eggplant, minced garlic, minced onion and red pepper flakes. As the mixture continues to cook and soften, add the wine, and cook until eggplant is completely soft.
Meanwhile, mix together the egg, cheese, herbs and salt and pepper in a bowl, and set aside.
Remove the eggplant mixture from the stovetop, and allow to cool slightly. Place in food processor with metal blade and process until smooth. Add in the egg mixture, and process again. Finally, add in the breadcrumbs until desired texture is achieved-- you may need to add an additional egg if too stiff, or breadcrumbs if too moist.
Form the mixture into about 2-inch balls, and place one inch apart on oiled baking tray.
Bake at 400 degrees until golden brown, flipping once, about 30-40 minutes.
Note: Simmer for just a few minutes in tomato sauce, and serve in place of meatballs with pasta. These are also great by themselves.
4 servings

Front 'n' Center

Williamsburg has New Town, and now it has the Center Street Grill. A name like that evokes a friendly, casual spot, enjoyed by locals and out-of-towners alike.

Fresh raw bar? Got it. Fusion food that's still familiar and appealing? Got that, too. Throw in a side of good service, and I'm wishing that Center Street was just a bit closer to home — although the food is average.

Like much of the surrounding construction, there are plenty of windows that lend an open, airy feel. Yellow walls, wooden accents and sensibly spaced tables add to the overall aesthetic.

The menu is pub-lite: standards carefully and freshly prepared, often with a slight twist. Orange-basil butter shrimp are grilled and served with goat cheese foccacia and micro greens, while the filet mignon is slathered with black truffle-fois gras butter. Worry not, picky eaters: there are chicken tenders too, albeit hand cut, breaded in panko and served with a garlic herb aioli.

The waitress greeted my husband and me with a small, complimentary nibble: fresh, mild salsa cradled in crispy wonton skins. These vanished by the time she returned with a bottle of Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay ($40), a quintessential California chard that is not-too creamy and fairly well-balanced.

Dave's interest was instantly piqued by the Philly Roll ($7.25). Really, mine was too: golden egg rolls stuffed with thin shavings of rib-eye, meltingly soft onions and gooey American cheese. If I had a tacky cheeseboard of desire, these would be the crispy, meaty pinnacle. Excellent on their own, they were even better dunked into the accompanying white cheese-scallion sauce.

A girl needs her greens, so I had the house salad with sesame dressing ($4). It was the usual line up of fresh field greens, cucumber, red onion and (blessedly) nonrefrigerated cherry tomatoes. The sesame dressing, served on the side in a small pitcher, had an intense roasted flavor tinged with a smoothing bit of sweetness.

Dave's rotisserie chicken ($13.50) was a bit of a mixed-up plate. The half chicken, seasoned with Italian herbs, had great flavor, but was disconcertingly dry. The nutty wild rice suffered a similar fate, while the squishy broccoli simply produced an “ick.”

We both had the opposite reaction to my dish of shrimp and grits ($18). The over-cooked shrimp were forgettable and quickly pushed to the side, but the grits! Indeed, this is what every batch of hulled corn hopes to be made into someday.

Cheese and applewood bacon blended into one of the creamiest, most satisfying bowls I've ever had the pleasure to taste: garlicky, smooth and utterly filling. Dave, an equal opportunity hater of grits and polenta alike, not only finished my bowl, but ordered a side order to take home!

We lingered lazily over coffee ($2) and dessert ($7). The coffee tasted stale and burnt, but the crème brulee had that lovingly burned crisp crust. We tapped in and sampled the custard, a creamy rich mixture of white chocolate and Kahlua.

In a word? Satisfactory, as Nero Wolfe would say.

Center Street Grill
5101 Center Street, New Town, Williamsburg
Phone: 220-4600; Fax: 220-8566
Web site: www.centerstreetgrill.com
Specialties: continental, seafood raw bar
Price range: appetizers, $7-$10; salads, $4-$9.50; sandwiches, $8.50-$10; entrees, $13.50-$26
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 10 a.m.- 10 p.m. Sunday; bar open later every night
Alcohol: beer, wine, full bar
Smoking: cigarette smoking permitted in the lounge or on the patio
Vegetarian: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Payment: cash, all credit cards except Discover
Noise level: conversational
Atmosphere: upscale casual
Additional Information: daily specials, wine diners, private rooms available, seating for large parties, outdoor patio
Star rating: food 3 1/2, atmosphere 3 1/2, service 3 1/2
(out of five stars)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sweet on Rosemary

Cool winds strummed gently through the woody rosemary stems, waving them away from hand snips. The bush, slightly out of control, barely acquiesced in my attempt to tame it.

When I finally headed back inside, it was with a generous armful of fragrant sprigs. Some would be put to use with roasted potatoes, while others would join roasting chickens. Inevitably, there would be some leftover. While they could be frozen, something deep inside was twitching and itching: what would happen should the worlds of baking and herbology unite?

There had been several more-or-less successful experiments with brownies. The herb made such an interesting counterpoint to the rich sweetness, I was certain it would be at home in other baked goods. Luckily, Martha and her ever-growing omni-pire had just printed a sweet potato biscuit recipe in Everyday Food.

With sweet potatoes and rosemary at the ready, I soon had a piping hot batch of woodsy-scented orange beauties at my disposal. The texture was buttery and soft, tasting just as delicious as they smelled. They were fantastic with a smear of maple butter, and the few that remained stayed moist well into the next day.

With Thanksgiving appetizer duty just around the corner, it was time to whip up something seasonal, and with a decidedly Southern flair. Another batch was promptly baked up, sized just right for the hors d’oeuvre tray. Cut in half and stuffed with prosciutto, they were wrapped in tin foil, then tucked into a warm oven.

As guests began to file in, I set them out in a covered basket. The little pile of orange biscuits, flecked with rosemary and filled with dry-cured ham, quickly whittled away to nothing, as everyone mingled and relaxed. A little sweet, a little salty, a little savory: such are the warm and welcome pleasures best shared with family and friends.

Rosemary- Sweet Potato Biscuits

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons light-brown sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary (may begin with 1 teaspoon, and adjust)
6 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter
3/4 cup chilled sweet potato puree
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 egg yolk + 1 tablespoon heavy cream, mixed
Individual rosemary leaves

To make sweet potato puree:
Bake/boil/microwave potatoes until soft. Peel, mash and cool.

To make the dough:
In a large bowl, whisk together 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, 2 tablespoons light brown sugar, 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda and 2 teaspoons minced rosemary. With a pastry blender or two knives, cut in 6 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter (cut into pieces) until mixture resembles coarse meal, with some pea-size lumps of butter remaining. In a small bowl, whisk together 3/4 cup chilled sweet potato purée and 1/3 cup buttermilk; stir quickly into flour mixture until combined (do not overmix).

To shape the biscuits:
Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface, and knead very gently until dough comes together but is still slightly lumpy, five or six times. (If dough is too sticky, work in up to 1/4 cup additional flour.) Shape into a disk, and pat to an even 1-inch thickness. With a floured 2-inch biscuit cutter, cut out biscuits as close together as possible. Gather together scraps, and repeat to cut out more biscuits (do not reuse scraps more than once).

Baking the biscuits:
Preheat oven to 425°, with rack on lower shelf. Butter or spray an 8-inch cake pan. Arrange biscuits snugly in pan. Brush tops with yolk-cream mixture, and press on a rosemary leaf. Bake until golden, rotating once, 20 to 24 minutes.

Yield: 8 larger biscuits.
Adapted from Everyday Food, November 2003
Notes: These biscuits are great on their own, or slathered with maple butter. Alternately, once the biscuits have baked and cooled, split in half and stuff with prosciutto or ham. If you like, add in a dab of sharp mustard before putting halves back together. Wrap in tin foil and bake in a low oven until just warmed through. Serve immediately.

Hearty, filling & German (just like my husband)

I almost missed out on the home-cooked German specialties at Deutsche Ecke, a new restaurant in Denbigh. On weeknights, the Newport News eatery closes at the surprisingly early hour of 7 p.m.

“On a good night, it's me, my daughter and a dishwasher — if I'm lucky,” explained owner/cook Karin Stephenson. That said, I understood why our meals suffered from a somewhat awkward pacing.

The restaurant held only one other table, a group of ladies lingering over coffee and desserts. Yellow tablecloths mimicked the warm color of the walls, while pictures of café scenes (and, oddly, enough, Parisian streets) lined the room. Out of place, too, were the fat scented candles burning at each table. My husband Dave blew ours out, but the intense cinnamon scent lingered for some time.The menu is short and to the point. After looking over the offerings of schnitzels, wursts and German side dishes, we quickly made our selections and stretched back in the very comfy chairs. Our waitress soon returned with two glasses filled with Paulaner Hefe-Weizen ($4.75), the large bottle being just enough for two to comfortably split.

We'd each requested a side German green salad ($2.95) to accompany our meals. It took some time, but when they arrived, I had to check to make sure they'd brought the correct dish.

The Boston lettuce leaves were indeed green, but drenched in a milky-white dressing. Canned beans, both red and green, were strewn on top, along with cucumbers, tomatoes and onions. I carefully speared a room temperature leaf and tasted: the dressing was a little sweet, and a lot sour. It was unlike any other dressing I've come across, and couldn't decide if I liked it or not.

We let our salads sit for a few minutes while our tongues (hopefully) adjusted. A few minutes later, I tried again with the same results. This tangy, different dressing was just a bit much for me, especially when combined with the pickled vegetables.

The waitress brought out my entrée, letting Dave know that his would be out in just a few minutes. I could smell the mushroom gravy on my jagerschnitzel ($13.95) before she even set it down. The large, flattened pork patty had been crumb-coated and fried golden, a beautifully burnished receptacle to hold the intense mushroom gravy. After squeezing a little lemon juice on top, I sliced into the schnitzel: fabulous texture and great flavor made short work of this German classic.

It was another 15 minutes before Dave's plate finally came out, with apologies from the server, and an extra sausage for his troubles. The bratwurst with roll ($7.95) was taut, plump, and far better eaten with knife and fork alone. Two mustards also vied for his attentions, with the spicy German brand coming out ahead — a little dab'll do ya!

Both entrees came with a large portion of potato salad. It was a formidable conglomeration of mashed potatoes flecked with chives, bacon and bits of red skin: creamy, hearty and filling, on all accounts.

Stuffed, but with duty in mind, I ordered a slice of apple cake to go. Warmed a touch the next morning, it was the ultimate breakfast escape. Buttery, rich and filled with layers of cinnamon, it was easily one of the best cakes I've tasted “out” in some time.

The new German corner of Denbigh and Warwick may be slightly out of the way, but don't let that hinder you. The food is authentic, as is the service. Like many German restaurants, the pace is slow and relaxed, while the food is individually prepared: settle back, get comfortable and get ready to be full.

Deutsche Ecke
14349 Warwick Boulevard, Newport News
Phone: 833-0711
Specialties: homemade German cuisine
Price range: entrees, $6.95-$13.95; sandwiches, $6.95-$7.95; sides, $2.95
Hours: 11:30 a.m.- 7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 12 p.m.- 9 p.m. Friday/Saturday; 12 p.m.-4 p.m. Sunday
Alcohol: beer and wine
Smoking: no
Vegetarian: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Payment: cash, credit cards
Noise level: conversational
Atmosphere: informal
Additional Information: catering available
Star rating: food 3, atmosphere 3, service 3
(out of five stars)