Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Second Visit To Light Bistro

For our second evening out in Cleveland, I decided to take my friend Chris to another favorite of mine, Light Bistro. I have written once before about Light Bistro and thought that after the upscale-ness of Lola Bistro, Light would be that nice blend of excellent food, more laid back service, and certainly a more approachable price point. I have had a handful of meals at Light and have always walked away a happy diner.

We were fortunate to get a parking spot on the street just down from the restaurant and walked in through the front door promptly at 6:30 PM. We were warmly greeted and shown to our table by the large front window, fortuitous for me since my camera phone doesn't have a flash on it (nor did I want to use the flash even if it had it). We were handed menus (which appear in my previous post on Light) and soon thereafter, a small bag of fresh hot bread and butter arrived at our table:

Inside was a mixture of regular French style bread and a Parmesan cheese crusted bread. Here was a shot of my bread slathered liberally with some of the nicely softened butter:

The bread was wonderfully fresh and warm and the butter almost instantly melted into the tight crumb. The crust had a nice chew to it and the bread had a slight tang to it, indicative that a starter had been used.

One of the aspects of dining at Light that I really appreciate is the division of the menu into smaller tapas style plates as well as larger entrées. Depending on who you are dining with and the table's preferences, you could make up your entire meal on small plates alone or a mixture of small and large plates. Tonight Chris and I decided to share two of the tapas plates and then we each got our own entrée.

First up was a platter of bacon-wrapped dates:

These porky nuggets had been stuffed with almonds and Valderon cheese. Valderon cheese is actually a blue-veined cheese and thus, had quite a strong flavor. While these were delicious, the problem was that between the bacon and the blue cheese, the sweetness and flavor of the dates were almost entirely lost. The almonds lent nearly no flavor and in fact, if it weren't for the occasional crunch of the nut, I might have thought that they were left out entirely.

Our second tapas was from the more modern section of the menu, the creamy polenta with braised oxtail:

The polenta was definitely creamy and the braised oxtails were completely tender. Topped with a little bit of Ricotta Salata (salted Ricotta), to me this was a nice blending of flavors. Texturally it probably could've used some contrast as everything was a tad on the soft side. Chris felt that the polenta added nothing to the dish and could've easily been left off. I disagree in that the polenta added just a touch of sweetness to balance the savoriness of both the beef and the cheese.

For my main course, I decided to stray from the entrée section and ordered the Kobe beef burger with pommes frites instead:

I normally don't go all agog when I see a Kobe beef burger on a menu (which seems to be all the trend nowadays), but when I saw that it was topped with a mushroom duxelle, truffled creme fraiche, arugula, and Fontina cheese, that just sounded too good to pass up. I ordered my burger medium; here was a shot of the interior of my bisected burger:

This was a bit closer to medium rare than medium, but I was happy to eat it anyway. The bun had been nicely grilled and stood up well to the onslaught of juice that came from this patty. The burger was seasoned properly and tasted "beefy." I could taste the Fontina and the earthiness from the truffled creme fraiche, but the arugula didn't do a whole lot for me. As for the mushroom duxelle, I wasn't exactly sure where it existed on the burger. Looking at my photograph, it appears that it may be between the arugula and the slice of cheese, but I certainly didn't get any mushroom flavor when I took a bite. Which was sad because I love the flavor of duxelle. At $16 for this burger, I don't think what I received was worth the price. Next time, if I'm in the mood for a burger, I'll stick with the "regular" beef burger at only $12.

The pommes frites that came with the burger were quite good though. The potato sticks were crispy on the outside and just a little bit creamy on the inside. I think my preference would be for a thicker cut of potato, but these were just fine and served as a nice foil to the burger. By this point Chris had finished his entrée and had begun stealing fries from my plate. He wasn't sure why I hadn't sent my burger back to be cooked to the correct temperature, but honestly, it didn't bother me that much. In the worst case, they would refire the burger and fries and I'd be sitting there for ten more minutes watching him eat.

Overall I think that I enjoyed my experience at Light Bistro tonight more than Chris did. The food was better than average, but not outstanding. I didn't bother to ask if Chef Matt Mattlage was running the pass tonight, but honestly it shouldn't matter. I still think that Light Bistro is a great place to eat, even if they had a somewhat off night tonight. Considering that an off night at Light Bistro is comparable to a great night at some other restaurants at which I've eaten, I'm not too concerned. I would suggest that if you happen to be in the Ohio City area just west of downtown Cleveland that you give this eatery a try; I think you'll be happy with the entire experience.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Lola Bistro For The Win

When I found out that my very good college friend Chris would be coming into town for the weekend of the Cleveland Indian's home opener, I began to think about places to eat that might be of interest to him. I asked him if he had any requests and the only one he made was that we should eat at least a meal at one of Michael Symon's restaurants. Clearly the lure of the Iron Chef America's celebrity had reached all over the country, including Scranton, Pennsylvania where Chris currently resides. On a previous visit to town, Chris had the opportunity to eat with us at Lolita, but sadly, he wasn't feeling well that evening and decided to hang out at his hotel.

This time around, however, there were more Michael Symon choices than the last time he visited. Wanting to give him a sort of well-rounded viewpoint of the Iron Chef's cooking, I decided to set up a dinner at his flagship restaurant Lola Bistro and a casual lunch at his newest venture, B Spot. Since I knew that I wouldn't be covering any new culinary ground on the B Spot side of things (having written about them three times already), I determined that Lola would be the focus of this review.

Lola was located on the East 4th area of downtown Cleveland between Prospect and Euclid Avenue. Most of the road was inaccessible to car traffic, but luckily there was a valet service just as one turns onto East 4th from Prospect. Sadly, as there was a major sporting event today, parking was a pretty stiff $15. Less sadly, $15 wasn't the most expensive rate I had seen and given the amount of traffic downtown, I simply sucked it up and paid the fee. Lola was located at 2058 East 4th Street, Cleveland, OH 44115 and can be reached at 216-621-5652.

The sign for Lola was visible as soon as I rounded the corner from the valet parking service:

Once inside, I remembered how dimly lit the interior of the restaurant made picture taking an almost improbability without the use of some type of flash. Fortunately one of the other party members tonight, Edsel, had brought along his digital camera and even though it had a flash, he and I used a combination method of using the light emitted from the "Flashlight" application on my Android phone to light the food and his camera to actually take the pictures. Edsel posted his pictures on his Flickr page and has graciously allowed me to use his photographs in this post. Check out all of the originals (and more) that he posted about tonight's dinner and post-dinner drinks at the Velvet Tango Room.

Once seated, we began with a round of pre-dinner drinks. I had a Stolichnaya martini up with blue cheese stuffed olives:

As has become the trend nowadays to bring everyone's drink pre-mixed in individual cocktail shakers, our server returned to the table and proceeded to pour all three of our drinks on the spot. My first sip was exactly as expected: smooth, cold, and just a bit of a bite from the vodka. The blue cheese olives added a lovely briny and sharp bite that contrasted well to the nearly flavorless vodka. It was both refreshing and a wonderful way to stimulate my appetite for what was to come.

Unfortunately, because of the very dim light, I didn't even bother to try taking any pictures of the menu; they simply wouldn't have come out well. That being said, most of the menu that we enjoyed tonight at Lola is also available on-line. I started out with an appetizer of crispy veal sweetbreads served with bacon, scallions and a wonderful veal demi-glace reduction:

For those that don't know, sweetbreads are not a sweet dessert bread, but are instead the thymus gland of a young animal, in this case a calf. If not prepared correctly, they can have a very spongy texture to them that is most unappealing. In tonight's preparation, however, they were perfectly cooked. The meat itself was firm and a last minute sear has given the exterior a wonderful taste and texture. Of course, Symon doesn't stop there and pairs one of his favorite ingredients, bacon, to great effect with the sweetbreads. The scallions added a nice bit of sharpness and the underlying sauce was heady and rich. The portion size was perfect for one person for an appetizer.

My dining companion Edsel got a more recent addition to the menu, the fried bone marrow with toasted bread and various accoutrement:

I've included his dish as well because we traded bites of our appetizers for the other's. The accoutrement were pickled shallots, parsley, lemon wedges, sea salt, salsa verde and still warmed caramelized onions. The bone marrow had been lightly dusted in flour before being quickly fried. To eat, you placed on of the marrow strips (on the right side of the board above) on a toast point and topped with whichever condiment struck your fancy. I choose some of the pickled shallot and course sea salt and was rewarded with a mouthful of crispy, fatty, smoky, salt, and just a touch of brightness from the pickled shallots. While clearly this isn't something your cardiologist would recommend you eating on even a sparse basis, I can see why people are drawn towards the fatty unctuousness of bone marrow; it's quite addictive.

Having finished our appetizers, the entrées appeared next. I had chosen the lamb chops for my next course:

Topped with a Meyer lemon and chopped garlic "gremolata," these beautifully seared lamb chops rested above a combination of cannelini beans, rapini and florina peppers. My server suggested that I order the lamb medium rare, and while I normally order my beef cuts this way, medium rare lamb to me has too much of a "chewy" quality to it, so I ordered it medium instead. As I cut into my first chop, I was happy to see that the meat was cooked exactly to my specification. The one aspect of Michael Symon's cooking that never fails to surprise me was how he could combine such bold flavors on one plate and yet still retain softer, more subtle flavors that complement and enhance the more primal ones. Clearly this was a lamb dish; however, the aromatic lemon and garlic on top really brought the "lamb-i-ness" to the forefront of my mouth. The cannelini beans were completely cooked, yet still retained just a bit of toothiness so as to provide a nice textural contrast. The rapini and florina peppers added a bit of sharpness that contrasted well with the umami flavor from the lamb. If there was one item to criticize, it was that this dish was on the edge of being oversalted. To my taste it wasn't oversalted, but fairly aggressively seasoned.

By the time the dessert menus arrived at the table, I was feeling fairly full, but decided that if I was in for a penny, I might as well be in for a pound. While the current dessert menu listed on-line was reflected on our menus tonight, Edsel decided to take a photograph of the striking front of the dessert menu:

Inside the front cover lay six different desserts and a multi-cheese tasting plate that appealed to my friend Chris. Having never had pastry chef Cory Barrett's mind-blowing "6 A.M. Special," I decided that this was the dessert for me tonight. According to our server, the current version being offered was slightly revised from the original. Originally using brioche as the basis for the French toast portion of the dessert, Cory had decided to use pound cake that had been coated in panko bread crumbs before being fried.

After a few minutes, our desserts arrived:

My dessert was comprised of two triangular pieces of pound cake that had been coated in panko before being fried, topped with maple-bacon ice cream, served over caramelized apples and a maple syrup sauce drizzled around the plate. First, let me start off by just saying, "Wow!" This was an amazingly complex and delicious dessert. While I think $9 might be a bit steep for what you receive, the complex combination of salty and sweet were definitely worth the price tag. The pound cake definitely benefited from the panko coating and gave each cake a nice crispy exterior. Honestly, the flavor was almost like a fried piece of cornmeal mush. The maple-bacon ice cream was actually subtle and when I finally managed to get a bit of each of the elements on one fork, the layers of flavors and textures was quite nice.

Edsel decided to order the sour cream and apple panna cotta with green apple sorbet, caramelized pie dough, raisin, fennel, and celery:

He encouraged me to try a bite of his dessert and I have to admit, I think I may have liked it even more than my "6 A.M. Special." This dessert was all about subtlety. The sour cream in the panna cotta was perfectly balanced with the tartness from the apple. Combined with the crunchy pie dough and slices of apple and fennel, this was a delicious and refreshing dessert. While my dessert was good, had I already sampled it in a prior visit, I certainly would've gotten the panna cotta instead.

Our desserts (and cheese plate) out of the way, we requested our check and our server not only brought the item requested, but also a plate of mignardises, in this case, small cookies that to me tasted like snickerdoodles that had raisins and nuts in them:

These were a wonderful way to end the meal and at least one of us came up with the pithy Monty Python line, "Just a wafer thin mint, sir."

Lola was definitely not cheap. My portion of the check for one martini, an appetizer, entrée, and dessert with tip and tax came close to $77. Clearly Lola is not the kind of place where I know that I can go on even a fairly regular basis. However, for a once in a while treat (and in this case I was celebrating my friend Chris being in town and me getting a new job), I definitely think it is worth a trip.

Lola on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Extra Helpings: Whose Cuisine Will Reign Supreme?

[Ed. note: I apologize for the gratuitous use of "link love" in the first part of this post. Having been given such a unique and cool opportunity, I wanted to make sure I promoted the event, chefs, and their restaurants as thoroughly as I could.]

As a James Bond fan, I should already know to never say never (again).

This year marks the second annual Top Chef fundraiser event at St. John Medical Center to help raise money for community outreach and wellness ministry programs. Initiated last year and won by Brandt Evans, Chef at Blue Canyon Kitchen in Twinsburg, this year they had four new well-established and major Cleveland chefs in the mix and Chef Evans had returned in the capacity of event judge. So, let's do the math: four major Cleveland chefs competing, great food, Ted Allen hosting/judging, and all for charity. Hmmm, what could possibly be wrong with this picture? The problem was the cost. At $150 per ticket, this was just something that was out of my price range right now.

When Amelia Sawyer, blogger from Chef's Widow and wife of one of tonight's competing chefs, offered two tickets to a randomly selected comment on her blog, I quickly entered by tweeting about the event and then pasting the contents of my tweet into a comment in the hopes I might win. From my Twitter account:

"Win 2 Tickets to the Top Chef benefit at St. John’s this Friday night! ($300 value yo) Please RT
3:32 PM Jun 23rd via web"

I didn't have much hope because Amelia's blog is well read and before you knew it, there were 45 other comments stating more or less the same thing in a valiant attempt to be the one randomly chosen comment. So, when I checked in on June 25th to see who won the tickets, I was completely unsurprised to discover that someone else, "YOD," had been selected. What I didn't realize was that YOD only had until noon on June 25th to contact Amelia and claim the tickets.

In an ironic twist, I was instant messaging a fellow friend on that very topic earlier in the morning:

"Well, I can tell you where I won't be at tonight ... that Top Chef event. At $150 per seat, it's just a little bit too rich for my blood right now."

Little did I know what was about to land in my lap. At about 12:30 pm, I heard the email notification go off: Ding Dong. I checked my Gmail account and there was a message from "Chef's Widow." Now I know that Chef's Widow is Amelia, but it didn't even dawn on me until I read the title of the email (Winner, winner, chicken dinner!) and opened it up to find that YOD had not only defaulted on the tickets by not claiming them, but a second random comment selection had been made and I was the replacement winner! I quickly emailed Amelia back and said as emphatically as I could without coming across all creepy stalkerish, "YES, PLEASE!"

Fortunately, the only plans I had made for the evening were to meet up with my foodie friend, Edsel, for a post work cocktail at the Velvet Tango Room. Having literally just confirmed that I would be meeting up with him for drinks later in the day, I quickly shot him another message telling him of my good fortune and asking if he would like to be the recipient of the other ticket. His schedule post-VTR was also clear and he quickly accepted my offer. We met up for a single drink, collected our cameras and phones, and headed off to Westlake to kick off the evening's festivities.

Before getting into the crazy details of the competition and the food, I wanted to take a minute and give the competing chefs a little bit of press. First up was Jonathan Bennett, Executive Chef of Moxie Restaurant and Red, the Steakhouse in Beachwood:

I've written about my experience at Moxie before when I attended one of their family style dinners. I have to say, it was probably some of the juiciest, tastiest fried chicken I think I have ever had. While I haven't had anything off their regular menu, I am really looking forward to returning for another meal soon.

Next up was Chef Ellis Cooley, Executive Chef of AMP 150 in the Marriott Hotel near the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport:

I have blogged twice now about my experiences at AMP 150 and even though Chef Cooley is a recent addition to the Cleveland culinary scene, I am really excited about his philosophy on local food and even more excited about his world-fusion approach to cuisine. In fact, in an odd twist of fate, I had already made dinner reservations for next week to showcase his talents to a friend of mine who will be coming into town.

Third on tonight's roster was Chef Regan Reik, Executive Chef of Pier W located off of Lake Avenue in Lakewood:

Of the four competing chefs tonight, Chef Reik's restaurant was the only one I have yet to visit. However, I have heard many positive comments on his food from my fellow Cleveland foodies and I was looking forward to seeing what he brought to the table.

The final contender tonight was Chef Jonathan Sawyer, Owner and Chef of the Greenhouse Tavern on E. 4th Street in downtown Cleveland:

I am a huge fan of Chef Sawyer's food (and I'm not just saying that because I won tickets to this event from his wife, Amelia) and have written about some of my several visits here on the blog. I have had a number of fantastic meals at his restaurant and continue to recommend it to people who are looking for something tasty and unique. His Ohio beef burger is one of my top burgers in all of northeast Ohio, easily tieing the many burger creations of Michael Symon's B Spot restaurant.

Alright, enough setup. Let's get down to business!

After securing our wrist bands, Edsel and I entered the massive tent that had been set up on the campus of St. John Medical Center for tonight's event. While we had arrived at precisely 6:31 PM, there were already quite a few people in the tent area. In addition to the four chef stations at the four corners of the tent, there were also two bars, a dais where the judges would sit, and a centrally located appetizer station. Which, ironically enough, already had quite a long line. After taking a few cursory photographs, Edsel and I decided to get in line to check out the appetizers. As we got close to the station, Ted Allen made his inaugural appearance for tonight's event and welcomed everyone:

Of the three judges, I will have to admit that Ted's banter was among the most balanced. I don't believe he was scripted, but I'm sure having done a number of these events every year gave him a certain amount of practice at what the crowds do and don't want to hear. The other two judges were more off the cuff and as such, seemed less "polished." Although I will be the first to admit that Chef Evans more than once laid a humorous zinger on the audience which brought fits of laughter.

It took us a good twenty minutes to finally reach the appetizer table:

Sadly, by the time we reached this table, many of the bowls of food were empty or close to being empty. Fortunately, that didn't stop me from putting together a decent plate of food:

The food at the appetizer buffet was being presented in part by the Blackbird Baking Company and Seballos Pastries. Besides the delicious bread (and it was indeed good), you had fresh figs, real Parmesan cheese, a sun-dried tomato tapenade, a crab salad and a cucumber topped with an herbed cream cheese (almost like boursin cheese), a slice of smoked salmon and topped off with a dill sprig. Everything was tasty, although I kind of wished the crab "martini" had incorporated a little bit of a horseradish kick to it. It was kind of like a Bloody Mary crossed with a crab salad and would've definitely benefited from a little zing to the flavor.

The way tonight's evening worked was that from 7 - 8 PM, the four competing chefs would be serving their appetizers and from 8:15 - 9 PM, the entrées would be available for pickup. To give you some idea of what it takes to serve this many people, I took a shot of the staging area at Chef Cooley's portion of the tent:

There were two of these tables literally lined with plate after plate, row after row of his dishes, ready for the finishing touches of micro-salad, sauce, and beet paper. Each chef had a cadre of kitchen staff to help with the plating, then transfer to the front table, and finally handing out finished plates to the guests.

The first appetizer I tried was Chef Cooley's:

This was a terrine of roasted beets and Lake Erie Creamery goat cheese with a beet gastrique and beet paper. I commented to Edsel upon first looking at it that it looked like a raw Wagyu beef steak as the layers of roasted beets and goat cheese had created an almost marbling effect. Dressed with micro-greens from KJ Greens, this was an incredibly delicious appetizer. With hints of citrus, the flavors were amazingly balanced and subtle. Had I not known I was eating beets, I never would've known. The goat cheese also had an incredibly mild flavor and while it added a definite richness to the flavor, this was a perfect summer dish. Wow, the bar had already been set high.

Next up was Chef Bennett's appetizer:

Here you had a spiced poached shrimp perched atop a coarse gazpacho with whipped cilantro foam. Sadly, by the time I got to this dish, the foam had subsided, but the presence of micro-cilantro garnishing the top added the nice zippy flavor that the foam would've provided. With the addition of lime juice and Fresno chili, this dish had a nice spicy bite to it without being too potent. The shrimp was large and sweet, but the gazpacho was much less soup and much more dressed vegetables. I suppose Chef Bennett was playing a little fast and loose with what is traditionally considered gazpacho.

The third appetizer was from Chef Reik:

Here was a forest mushroom terrine with sorrel ice cream, sorrel coulis and aged balsamic dressing. Made using both morel and portobello mushrooms, this duxelle-like mixture had been wrapped in blanched leeks before being pressed into the terrine. The sorrel ice cream was the presence of tonight's only real "molecular gastronomy" component as they had formed these tiny little balls with the help of liquid nitrogen. It should be noted that this dish was about as close as it came to being the only vegetarian dish, were it not for the veal stock in which the duxelle had been cooked. The only problem that I had was that the leek wrapper was a bit hard to cut through, even with my (plastic) knife, so it kind of fell apart as I tried to portion it into bite-sized pieces. I do have to give the chef credit for the sorrel ice cream, however. It was quite piquant, but delicious.

The final appetizer of the evening was Chef Sawyer's:

Here was the foie gras steamed clams with butter, red onion brulee, late harvest viognier vinegar and grilled bread. I've actually had this dish at his restaurant and can tell you, it was delicious then and it was certainly delicious tonight. The thought of steaming and holding so many clams was an amazing feat all by itself. The clams were tender, the broth was rich without being fatty and the grilled bread added a wonderful crunch and bitterness that balanced out the other flavors so well. I just wish I had gotten more bread to soak up the wonderful sauce.

Having finished our appetizers before time had run out, I decided to venture up to the bar to grab some drinks for Edsel and I. Here was a shot of the complimentary drink menu tonight:

Another sign revealed who was staffing the two bar areas:

I had heard of Loco Leprechaun before, but have yet to have a chance to actually visit the establishment. Irish and Mexican sounds like an, umm, interesting mix of cuisines.

At the end of the appetizer hour, each chef presented the judges with an expertly plated version of their dish and the judges bantered back and forth about each dish's merits. Once the four dishes were presented and tasted, service quickly shifted over to serving the entrées.

Here was Chef Cooley's entrée:

This was a sirloin beef roulade containing braised short ribs and corned beef and was served with a lobster carrot puree and arugula salad with Parmigiano cheese. Having cooked the carrots down in lobster stock, the sauce had a pronounced seafood flavor, almost as if the chef had added fish sauce. To continue with the Asian theme, there was also a generous dose of ginger flavor as well. Studded with small bits of cooked lobster, I have to be honest when I say that I wasn't crazy about the sauce by itself. However, when paired with the roulade, this was an incredibly balanced and delicious bite of food. The roulade, which to my eyes resembled a braciole, was tender and flavorful. Chef Cooley joked around with the judges that he was thinking of adding this to his menu and calling it an Irish Sirloin.

The second entree of the evening was Chef Bennett's:

This was 18-hour Ohio pulled pork, JB's grits, and spicy peach slaw. The pork shoulder, which had been first cooked sous vide, had been infused with a slightly peppery spice rub. While there was sadly no bark on which to nibble, the presence of pork cracklings garnishing the top of the plate was a welcome touch. The grits, which had been cut with the presence of fresh corn, weren't quite as creamy as what Edsel has had in the past at Moxie, but they were plenty sweet and savory all at the same time. The peach slaw had also been dressed with Thai basil, which added a wonderful herbaceous bite to the dish. When I finally managed to snag a bit of the pork, grits, peach slaw, and cracklings all on my fork at the same time, I took a bite and was rewarded with probably the most well-balanced dish of the entire evening. Sweet, spicy, salty, crunchy and creamy were all represented.

The third entrée of the evening was from Chef Reik:

This was Copper River salmon wrapped in housemade pancetta topped with warm Ohio strawberry jam and served with a mustard green pierogi. While I heard many exclaim that the salmon was cooked perfectly, it was closer to medium well and I normally prefer mine more medium rare. That being said, obviously the chef was in no position to cook each piece of fish to order. The fish was wonderfully rich and the layer of pancetta added a bright saltiness to each dish. The surprising item on this plate to me was the strawberry jam. While it didn't add a prominent strawberry flavor, the sweetness added a nice foil to the saltiness from the pancetta. The mustard green pierogi, incorrectly identified by Ted Allen as a wonton during the subsequent judging portion, was tender and the filling had a nice earthy texture and flavor.

The final entrée of the evening was presented by Chef Sawyer:

Here you have an Ohio lamb crepinette with heirloom vegetable ratatouille. Essentially cooked bone in, the lamb was shredded and wrapped up in the skin and then roasted. While neither Edsel nor I got any of the skin, apparently those who tasted it said that it was crispy and delicious, much like the bark would be from pulled pork. And in fact, to continue the comparison to pulled pork, the lamb was so tender and pulled apart so easily, that I can totally understand making the textural comparison of the lamb to pulled pork as well. The vegetable ratatouille was briny and tart, most likely due to the Moroccan spice blend chermoula as well as additional lemon and caper flavors.

By this point, I can definitely tell you gentle reader, I was STUFFED. With pre-event appetizers, four competition appetizers and four competition entrées, I was ready for a nice nap. However, the event organizers had one more trick up their sleeves. They had brought in Tremont's A Cookie And A Cupcake to supply sweet treats for post-dinner consumption. Here was a shot of the plate that Edsel brought back to the table:

Here you have three sets of mini-cupcakes: strawberry, raspberry with candied lavender, and espresso. Each was tasty and the perfect way to top off this incredible meal.

So, after all that, who won? In addition to the official winner, there was also a People's Choice winner. In each program guide was a ballot that you could tear out and place in one of four designated ballot boxes. The winner of the People's Choice award, as well as a check for $1000, was Chef Jonathon Bennett from Moxie. And after much deliberation and discussion by the official judges, tonight's overall award, along with a check for $2500 and bragging rights, was presented to Chef Regan Reik from Pier W. While I personally wanted to see Chef Cooley walk away with the top prize, I can't fault Chef Reik's imaginative use of ingredients and creation of well-balanced dishes. Congratulations to both chefs!

Thanks again to Amelia for taking what would've been a rather boring, dreary Friday night and turning it into a fabulous evening out with a good friend enjoying some of the finest cuisine that Cleveland has to offer. Hopefully next year I'll be able to afford the tickets on my own without having to rely on the generosity of others.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Kitchen Challenge: Having The Cahones To Make Tostones

Today's combination visit to the Howe Meadow Farmers Market and Giant Eagle resulted in an interesting array of raw products that I would have to transform into dinner tonight. The seeds of a dinner are usually planted when I visit the farmers market and discover what is available that day. It isn't until the follow-up trip to the supermarket where my mental lens focuses in on exactly what I will be making for dinner actually happens. It can be a little daunting to cook that way, and I can understand why it would make people uncomfortable, but I find it both challenging and rewarding.

Today's market visit left me with a bag full of beets, apples, onions, broccoli, seven-grain bread, and, of course, a sour cherry pie. To this bounty, I added only a few more ingredients from my grandmother's local Giant Eagle. I knew my protein would be either pork or chicken, I just had to figure out my starch for dinner. Because my grandmother cannot each small things, e.g., rice, nuts, seeds, etc., I knew I had to be creative when it came to the starch department. I've done roasted potatoes many times and while she likes them, I felt like I needed to push the envelop a bit.

As I wandered around the produce section, I happened to spy that unripe plantains were being sold next to the bananas (at triple the price of the bananas I happened to note). Having seen plantains be used many times on various television programs to make tostones, I immediately thought that this would make an interesting, and hopefully tasty, side dish and cover my starch requirement. In what came as a not-so-surprising turn of events, after I got to my grandmother's condo and finished unpacking, I noticed that the cashier had rang up the plantains as bananas. Ah well, no way to correct it now.

I knew that the roasted beet and caramelized onion compote I was planning to make to accompany the chicken would take the most amount of time, so I started working on that right away. I essentially roasted the beets the same way I did last time. As soon as I got the beets in the oven, I turned my attention to the two medium onions. I peeled each, sliced them in half (pole to pole) and then cut onion half-moons. After runnings my fingers through them to separate the onion layers, I ended up with a bowl of onions ready for caramelizing:

I preheated my grandmother's stainless steel skillet over medium heat. When it was ready, I added about a tablespoon and a half of butter, let it melt (but not turn brown) and added the onions to the pan:

It should be noted that I did NOT salt the onions right away. Since I wanted the onions to caramelize, the salt would've drawn out the moisture of the onions and they would've steamed instead of sautéed. In my mind, caramelizing onions takes time. Yes, there are shortcuts you can use, but I was resigned to do it the classic way, butter, onions, and heat.

As soon as I had gotten my onions into the pan, I decided to make the gastrique as well, since it needed to reduce quite a bit before it would be ready. To a saucepan, I added:

1/3 cup white wine vinegar
2/3 cup rice wine vinegar
1 cup water
1 cup brown sugar

After stirring it to dissolve the sugar, I put the pan on the hot element to bring it to the boil:

Once it came to the boil, I turned the burner down a bit. It was still hot enough to keep the mixture boiling and reducing, but not at a crazy speed. In the end, the mixture reduced by probably 75%, which is how much liquid needs to evaporate in order to make a syrupy consistency. The vinegar smell can be quite strong, so an open window or turning on the ventilation fan above the stove might be a good idea.

After about twenty minutes or so, the onions looked like this:

As you can see, they've cooked down immensely and have a translucent look to them. They are just starting to color a little bit as well. Another twenty minutes or so and my onions now looked like this:

It was at this point, I added salt, turned the burner off and just let them sit until I was ready for them.

While my onions cooled and my gastrique reduced, I turned my attention to tonight's vegetable selection: roasted broccoli. First I cut the broccoli into bite sized florets and arranged them in a single layer on a foil lined cookie sheet:

I then drizzled the broccoli generously with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. I used my hands to toss the broccoli in the topping so that it was evenly coated and placed them into a pre-heated 400 degree oven. They only took about 30 minutes or so to crisp up and be ready for dinner. You won't believe how much water comes out of the broccoli. I know I didn't the first time I tried this technique.

Now it was time for the tostones. I took my grandmothers other skillet, of the non-stick variety, and placed it on a medium burner and added enough canola oil (I know, gentle reader, not very traditional) to not only coat the bottom of the pan, but also be about 1/4" deep. Utilizing a technique called pan frying, the oil has to come partway up the food.

Unripe plantains are quite a bit harder than what Americans think of ripe bananas. This was helpful in keeping the flesh of the plantains intact during peeling. Here was a shot of the plantains that I got at the supermarket:

To peel them, I cut off the top and bottom and ran my knife down the peel from top to bottom. Then, using my thumb, I split the peel and used my thumb to essential slip between the peel and the flesh. It was a bit more difficult to do than I had originally thought, but after a bit of effort, I had these:

Knowing that tostones are made by frying the plantains, smashing them down, and frying them again, I cut the them into fairly large chunks:

They were sliced somewhere between 3/4" to 1" thick. Once the oil had come up to temperature, I placed them in a single row in the pan and fried them for about three to four minutes before flipping them onto their opposite side. As you can see in the photo below, you don't want to color them too much during this first fry:

The top side looks a little dried out and has just a hint of brown color. Perfect! After frying the second side for an additional three to four minutes, I removed them from the oil and placed them on a paper towel lined plate to drain:

Since the next step was to smash each plantain down, I set up a smashing station:

The big plate would hold the finished plantains and the small plate with custard cup would be my smashing tools. I took each fried plantain and placed it on the small plate. Exerting surprisingly little force, I smashed each one flat. I tried to make them all an even thickness so that they would fry up evenly during the second fry:

Finally, I returned each of the smashed plantains to the same sauté pan I used during the first fry:

These took even less time than the first fry, maybe two to three minutes per side, just long enough until they had that lovely brown color. Using a slotted spatula, I removed these to a foil lined tray and sprinkled each batch with a little sea salt while they were still hot. Unlike the first fry, I had to do the second in four batches, but the good news was that once they were fried, they held up fairly well. I also had a chance to sample one while I made up the additional batches of tostones. If you've never tried these before, you must give it a try. Crispy and a little salty, they tasted nothing like bananas. They were crispy on the outside, but still a little creamy on the inside. And they tasted ... well, good! I gave one to my grandmother who was extremely wary and even she was surprised at how tasty they were.

The final component of my dish tonight was the protein. I had selected a package of chicken breasts at Giant Eagle and after trimming them, I simply seasoned them with salt and freshly cracked pepper before placing them into a skillet in which I had placed a combination of grapeseed oil and a tablespoon of butter. After the butter browned slightly, I placed the breasts in the sizzling oil:

I seared each side of the chicken for three minutes before placing them into the toaster oven set at 350 degrees Fahrenheit and cooked them an additional 15 minutes, or until the instant read thermometer read an internal temperature of between 155 and 160 degrees.

While my chicken finished cooking through, I returned to the gastrique and caramelized onions that I had been working on the entire time:

When the gastrique had reduced by about half, I added it to the pan which contained the finished caramelized onions. By doing this, I could "deglaze" the pan and pick up all the little brown bits. Once the skillet bottom was clean, I poured everything back into the saucepan and continued to reduce. My roasted beets now clean, I diced them up and added them to the pot as well (probably 5 small-medium sized beets). When the mixture finally reduced and became syrupy, I added a handful of chopped fresh tarragon, salt to taste, and just a small pinch of crushed red pepper (you could also do cayenne, too).

All the elements of the dinner now ready, I prepared two plates, one for me and one for grandma:

I have to say, this was a most delicious meal. The tostones were nice and crispy (I had kept them warm in a turned off oven), the chicken was moist and tender, the broccoli was caramelized and crispy, and the roasted beet and caramelized onion compote utilizing the sweet and sour gastrique really hit this meal out of the ballpark. Grandma couldn't believe how tender and juicy the chicken was and when I told her how I did it, she was surprised at how easy it was to do. While I always purposely give her just a little bit more food than I think she will eat, tonight she surprised me by completely cleaning her plate.

I highly suggest you try both the compote and the tostones. While there were multiple steps involved in getting each ready, the end result was definitely worth it. In addition, you could totally make the compote the day before and just re-warm it for dinner. I think it would be a wonderful addition to many different proteins, chicken, turkey, pork loin, and ham, just to name a few. I continue to be amazed at the wonderful bounty available at the farmers markets and I can't wait until I get to try out my skills again.
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