Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Queen's Way Soul Cafe

The double doors to Queens Way Soul Cafe in downtown Hampton were wide open and welcoming on a recent Saturday evening, bright light streaming out into the night. The layout was long and narrow, with a bar to the right; booths stretched neatly to the very rear.

A black-clad host came around the bar with an offer to seat us, but the hour was late (what can I say, we get up early!). I asked if we could have a seat at the bar and get an order to go. Take into consideration, our impression is based on our takeout food experience, a little different from my regular weekly restaurant review, which involves eating in.

We bellied up, and checked out the menu. My eyes were immediately drawn front and center: pig’s feet and chitterlings. Both sounded tantalizingly exotic and authentic to my untested palate. Flipping forward, my resolve began to waver over the promise of catfish... no, shrimp...no, chopped barbeque!

The host/waiter asked if we were ready; Dave promptly ordered the baby back ribs special ($13.95). It came with his choice of two sides, so he selected macaroni & cheese and collard greens.

Having lost my blossoming nerve, I told the waiter that I was torn — catfish or pork chops? Smiling broadly, he assured me that the catfish was quite nice, but his own personal preference ran to the gravy-smothered grilled pork chops ($10.95). Say no more! With my request for yams and rice & gravy, he disappeared back into the kitchen.

The bartender deposited our beers in front of us, Budweiser for the lady, Red Stripe for the gent. The restaurant’s “dad,” on his way out of the kitchen for the night, voiced his preference for the Bud, while the bartender maintained that the Stripe held the true taste of Jamaica.

A couple of regulars sat at the end of the bar, engaging in easy banter with each other, then the bartender. Our waiter returned to the end of the bar, and soon a smoothly divergent discussion upon various meat-smoking methods, saucing techniques, motorcycles and the fine art of comfort food.

Soul food, said the bartender solemnly, isn’t something you eat every day. Well, it’s not something you need to eat every day. But when you do need it, you gotta know where to go get it. Dave and I both smiled — indeed.

Our wait was a thoroughly enjoyable half hour. A couple of waitresses came in for their shifts, full of energy and laughter, with hugs for “Miss Peggy” back in the kitchen. When our waiter came out with our two bags, I asked if it was too late to get a slice of the sweet potato pie ($3.00). No problem, and amidst the air of general good cheer and goodbyes, we slipped back into the night. The scent of the piping hot meals mercilessly, insiduously, crept into and around us, making for a long ride indeed.

Once safely home, I laid everything out, the boxes still quite warm and steamy. Dave’s racks o’ ribs were thick and meaty — I quickly cut one off to appease my watering mouth.

It slid effortlessly off the bone, tasting of smoke and fire. The sauce was minimalist and mild. Next time, we’ll know to ask for it spicy-hot, but most folk would consider it just fine.

Next, I delved into the sides. A hunk of cornbread was sweet, if a bit dry, while the mac ’n’ cheese seemed geared for a far more youthful palate. The collards were well-cooked, but a bit of a wallflower. A generous dousing of cider vinegar perked them right back up, while a dash of hot sauce propelled them right into my mouth.

Continuing along to my own plate, I tried a scoop of the yams. They were mashed, they were a little sweet, and most importantly, they still tasted of themselves! The white rice was steeped with a glorious gravy that was savory and more-ish (meaning: I kept going back for more). With a hopeful smile, I cut into one of the two pork chops on my plate.

I don’t usually gravitate towards the pork chop, as it is so often turns up bland, chewy and dull. Apparently, the secret lies in first grilling, then smothering the chops in that wonderfully addictive gravy; both merge into something greater than could ever be achieved on their own. There was love in those chops, for certain.

Our bellies were rapidly filling, but I couldn’t wait until the next day to taste the sweet potato pie. Chewing slowly, I could hear the waiter’s voice echoing meaningfuly in my head, “You should really get two slices of pie... two slices... two slices… .”

The crust proved a fine and sturdy base to the amazing sweet potato filling. Forget weeping, I was awash in giddy, cinnamon-tinged laughter. The pie stood not even the slightest chance of making it through the night.

Roger and Peggy Winston and family have crafted a fine, welcoming enivronment that practices what it preaches — old-fashioned comfort food served with sincerity, humor and panache. Good for the spirit, good for the soul and the sweet potato pie alone will undoubtedly cure that which ails you. But next time, rest assured, it’s the chitterlings for me!

Queens Way Soul Cafe
9 E. Queens Way, Hampton
Phone: 224-7669
Specialties: soul food
Price range: appetizers: $3.50-$7.25; sandwiches: $6.95; dinners: $8.95-$12.95; desserts: $3
Hours: 7 p.m.- 12 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday & Wednesday, 11a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday & Saturday, 1 p.m.-8 p.m. Sunday
Alcohol: beer, wine, full bar
Smoking: permitted at the bar
Vegetarian: are you kidding me?
Wheelchair accessible: yes, but could be a tight squeeze in this old building
Payment: cash, credit cards , checks
Noise level: conversational, noisy later at night
Atmosphere: casual, family-friendly
Additional Information: kid’s menu, carry-out, banquet room available, weekly specials, live music/DJ on weekends, Monday Night football
Star rating: Food 3 1/2, atmosphere 2, service (for Shelley's takeout order) 3
(out of five stars)

Mushroom Bisque

Warm the soul and the belly-

Mushroom soup is an excellent choice for an autumn meal

October 11, 2006

Autumn. I love it when the wind begins to hold an edge of chill, while the trees release the first fluttering leaves of the season. I find myself yearning for foods that warm and comfort the soul as much as they do the belly.

Long-cooked roasts are pure pleasure, stews are heartily embraced, and the scent of the smoker is never sweeter than when inhaled on a sweater-tightening clear morning. Inexorably each year, I find myself cruising the market stalls for something a touch more basic. Mushrooms - big, small and still speckled with clumps of dirt, thank you very much.

Mushrooms turn up in my kitchen regularly throughout the year, most typically on pizzas or tucked into fat omelets. But this is the time to kick it down a gear. A leisurely sauté is rife with possibilities: a sauce for grilled meats, a pleasantly earthy addition to lasagna or casseroles, and sometimes, nothing hits the spot like a warm mushroom salad.

While each of these has its rightful place, I look forward to my first batch of mushroom soup with unbridled enthusiasm.

Portobellos are chopped and cooked down in butter, along with a few other essential soup components. After close to an hour of simmering and building flavor, its chop-chop fun
time in the blender. You could stop right there, if you wanted, for a very satisfying soup. Trust in the force, and keep going. After the soup has been pureed, add cream, being certain to thoroughly warm through. Ladle into bowls, garnish with your choice of chives, blue cheese crumbles or crispy chunks of pancetta - or all three! Your efforts will be richly rewarded with a decadent mouthful of creamy, mushroomy love.

Step aside, Campbell's, umami never had it so good!

Portobellos are sold whole, by the cap, or in their "immature" form: you'll see those labeled as baby bellas or crimini/cremini mushrooms. They'll all work in the recipe below.
Select mushrooms that are firm, plump and unblemished. To clean, you can wipe them, but who has that kind of time? I just rinse well and pat dry.

Portobello Mushroom Bisque

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 leeks, white and light green parts only, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 large yellow onion (about 12 ounces), chopped
3 large portobella mushrooms (about 1 pound), cleaned and chopped
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 California bay leaf
6 cups homemade chicken stock or canned low-sodium broth
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon sugar (trust me, you want this in there!)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup heavy cream
minced chives, crumbles of blue cheese or crisped chunks of pancetta or bacon

In a heavy-bottomed 6-quart pan, melt the butter. Add leeks and onions, and sauté over medium heat until slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Lower the heat, cover the pan and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the mushrooms, stir to combine, cover and cook 10 minutes longer. Raise the heat to medium, stir in the flour and cook for 3 minutes, stirring, until slightly thickened. Add the thyme, bay leaf, stock, salt, sugar and pepper. Simmer, partially covered, for about 10 minutes.
Cool the soup slightly, then discard the bay leaf. Puree the soup with an immersion blender, or in batches in a regular blender. Return the pureed soup to the pan and add the cream. Gently cook until warmed through; be careful to not let the soup boil.
Taste and adjust the seasonings. Ladle into warm bowls, garnish as desired and serve at once.
Girl, a whole cup of cream ... are you serious? OK, perhaps you are more keen on eating this soup as an everyday meal. In that case, you can either just omit the cream, keeping in mind the soup will be thinner. To keep a thick, creamy texture, try substituting a potato for the cream. Dice it up and sauté with the leeks and onion. Proceed with the recipe, simply omitting the cream at the end.

Serves 8 as a first course, 4 as a main.
Adapted from "The Thanksgiving Table" by Diane Morgan

What did Daily Press food freelancer Shelley Rauch mean by "umami"?
Let's find out.

Umami (noun or adjective): A taste sensation that is meaty or savory and is produced by several amino acids and nucleotides (as aspartate, inosinate, and glutamate). The elusive "fifth taste," officially discovered by a Tokyo researcher in 1908, umami has only recently come to light in the Western world. Actual receptors on the tongue confirm that we are designed to experience all that is meaty, savory, earthy - and mushroomy.

Florimonte's Deli

Restaurant review: Florimonte's Fine Foods & Deli
Fast food doesn't have to be about french fries


October 18, 2006
I've heard a lot of good things about Florimonte's Fine Foods & Deli in Williamsburg, so I was eager to give the place a try. I'm thinking, OK, how good can a deli be, right?
Well, as promised by the name, this eatery is way more ambitious than your average deli - fine foods indeed.You'll find pizza, a slew of prepared foods, salads, sandwiches, soups, and don't forget dessert. Walk through the connected café and you'll find a bakery with an assortment of tasty treats, breads and coffee. They also have a small grocery featuring wines, sauces and an assortment of other packaged items. The concept is simple - they prepare the food and you buy it for take-away or eat in - it's the decision-making process that's difficult.
Everything looked delicious, so while we perused the display cases and frozen food section, we requested a white pizza with spinach and ricotta cheese ($13.49) to take home.To be fair, we wanted to sample a cross section of offerings.Here's what we ordered (and had plenty of leftovers): one polenta with roasted red peppers ($2.95), one risotto cake ($2.59), one salmon with crab meat ($6.49), one chicken cordon bleu ($5.99), half-pound green bean salad ($7.99 a pound), half pound fresh mozzarella and tomato with pesto ($7.99 a pound), a cannoli ($2.49) and an apple strudel ($3.29).
In an effort to avoid looking like complete pigs in the cafe, we toted our goodies home and proceeded to revel in our smorgasbord dinner. The sizable triangle of polenta (a mush of cornmeal) was smooth and flavorful with the roasted red peppers. This was one of my favorites. The risotto cake (Italian rice) was pan-fried, full of rice and held together well. Both were best heated briefly in the microwave. The woman behind the counter kindly made sure we knew that she included marinara sauce for dipping. The sauce was not too thick with plenty of visible seasoning and onion. The salmon presentation - a filet wrapped in a circle around a healthy serving of crabmeat - was outdone by the flavor. The well-seasoned shredded crab made an excellent complement to the flaky fish. There wasn't much filler and I detected a trace of saltiness, which I love.
For the cordon bleu, the large tender chicken cutlet was filled with ham and cheese and lightly breaded. With a side or two, the offering is enough to share.Equal parts ripe tomato chunks and fresh hunks of mozzarella were tossed with (not swimming in) a delicious pesto. The bean salad, with yellow and green crisp beans mixed with onion, had a slight tang. These two make nice side salads for a main dish.Small samplings of the former left me just enough room to try the awesome looking pizza. An 18-inch dough was drizzled with olive oil and covered with mozzarella, chopped spinach and large dollops of ricotta cheese. No pizza sauce necessary here. The combination of toppings with the thin, chewy crust made for one fine pie.
A bite of the cannoli rendered a rich, creamy ricotta filling in a tubular pastry with a hint of cinnamon. Delicioso! The large slice of strudel filled with tender chunks of apple was mighty tasty with coffee in the morning.
Mark Florimonte and Martin Liechti have done a commendable job of creating an alternative to "fast" food with well-prepared offerings at reasonable prices.

Food: 4/5 starsAtmostphere: 4/5 starsService: 4/5 stars

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Chocolate Oblivion Tartlets

Chocolate Oblivion Tartlets

(measurements are in volume/ounces/grams)
  • sweet nut cookie tart crust, made with walnuts, for 8 four-inch tartlets or 7 four and 3/4-inch tartlets, pre-baked and cooled (recipe follows) 14 ounces/402 grams
  • bittersweet chocolate, chopped 2 2/3 cups/ 8 ounces/227 grams
  • unsalted butter, softened 8 tablespoons/4 ounces/113 grams
  • 6 large eggs scant 10 fluid ounces (19 tablespoons)/10.5 ounces/300 grams (weighed without the shells)

Make the Sweet Nut Tart Crust:
  • pecans, scant 2/3 cup/2 ounces/57 grams
  • sugar, preferably superfine, 1/4 cup/1.75 ounces/50 grams
  • unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1-inch cubes, 8 tablespoons/4 ounces/113 grams
  • bleached all-purpose flour, 1 cup/5 ounces/142 grams
  • salt, 1/8 teaspoon
  • 1 large egg yolk, 1 tablespoon + 1/2 teaspoon/0.65 ounce/18.6 grams
  • heavy cream, 2 tablespoons/1 ounce/28 grams

Food processor method:
With metal blade, pulse the nuts and sugar until the nuts are finely ground. Add the butter and pulse about 15 times, or until no loose particles of nut/sugar mixture remain. Add the flour and salt and pulse again about 15 times, or until the butter is no larger than small peas.

In a small bowl, stir together the yolk and cream. Add it to the mixture and pulse just until incorporated, about 8 times.

Dump the mixture into a plastic bag and press it together. Remove the dough from the plastic bag and knead it lightly until it holds together. Flatten it into a 6-inch disc, wrap the dough well, and refrigerate for 30 minutes, or freeze for 10 minutes, until firm enough to pat into the pan or roll.
Set the ungreased flan rings on a baking sheet, at least 1-inch apart.

Roll the dough: if the dough has been refrigerated for more than 30 minuets, it will be too cold to roll without cracking. It will take at least 40 minutes at room temp to become malleable.
Roll the dough between lightly floured sheets of plastic wrap to 1/16-inch thick. With a template and knife, cut 5 1/2-inch circles.

Shape the dough: Drape a circle of dough into each flan ring, easing it in and pressing gently against the sides. Use a small sharp knife held parallel to the rim of the ring to trim the dough even with the top of the ring. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze for a minimum of 15 minutes and a max of 24 hours before baking.

Bake the dough: Preheat the oven to 425-degrees at least 20 minutes before baking. Bake at 425-degrees for 5 minutes. If the centers puff during baking, press them down lightly with your fingertips. Lower the heat to 350-degrees, and continue baking for 1-5 minutes, until the dough turns a pale gold (edges will be a deeper brown), and feels set but still soft to the touch. Set baking sheet on rack to cool.

Preheat the oven at 350-degrees for at least fifteen minutes before baking the tartlets.

Make the chocolate filling:
In a large bowl set over a pan of hot, not simmering, water (bottom of bowl should not touch the water), combine the chocolate and butter and let them stand, stirring occasionally, until smooth and melted. Set aside.

In a large mixer bowl, set over the same pan of water- which should now be simmering- heat the eggs, stirring constantly to prevent curdling, until just warm to the touch. Remove bowl from heat and beat, using whisk beater, until tripled in volume and soft peaks form when beater is raised, about 5 minutes.

Using a large wire whisk or rubber spatula, fold half the eggs into the chocolate mixture until almost incorporated. Fold in the remaining eggs until just blended and no streaks remain. Finish by using a rubber spatula to ensure that the heavier mixture at the bottom is incorporated. Fill the pastry-lined molds, using a heaping 1/4 cup (2 ounces/57 grams) for each flan ring (almost to the top), or 1/3 cup (2.25 ounces/65 grams) for each fluted tart pan (two-thirds full).

Bake the tarts for ten minutes, or until the filling is slightly puffed, the surface has dulled, and the centers wobble when tapped gently on the sides. Remove the baking sheet to a rack and cool for at least thirty minutes.

Remove the flan rings or unmold the fluted tart molds, and serve warm or at room temperature.

from Rose Levy Beranbaum's "The Pie and Pastry Bible"

(See original posting here.)