Monday, September 27, 2010

Miller Union

We're back from our fun, busy, fun, busy, fun weekend in Atlanta. There's so much to tell you about, I'm going to tackle it chronologically. Sounds boring, I know. I'll try and make it fun (not busy).

Before I begin, you should know:

1. I love the South.
2. This was my husband's first visit.
3. He now loves it, too.

When my husband picked me up from the airport on Friday afternoon (he had arrived in Atlanta the day before, for business meetings), I was ready to chew off my arm. This was due in part to a long, foodless flight, and was only intensified by reading Atlanta Magazine's "Best New Restaurants" issue while I waited for my husband to make his way through Spaghetti Junction, the thought of which made me all the more hungry. (Mmmmm...spaghetti.) We proceeded directly to Miller Union on the recommendation of some Twitter folks. (Thanks, Tweeps!)

Miller Union has been heavily (and positively) reviewed in the press, and was just awarded Restaurant of the Year by Atlanta Magazine. It's also just our sort of place: the locally-sourced menu is in tune with the seasons, and as Atlanta magazine so aptly puts it, it's "a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n'roll, with a generous dash of hip hop."

We weren't able to get a reservation (bloody Restaurant of the Year frenzy), so we had appetizers at the bar while we waited for an elusive table to open up. The bartender was delightful, and didn't judge us too much for the nerdy photography and hand modeling.

Although we didn't have cocktails, we liked the Miller Thyme moniker.

Doesn't my husband make his beer look positively tempting? He's an excellent hand model.

We munched on the bartender's recommendations: the Feta Snack (a dip made with local Feta and buttermilk, served with local veggies) and Country Pork Terrine.

The Feta Snack was light and fresh and hit the spot on the warm afternoon. The Country Pork Terrine, made with the Benton's Country Ham, was nice, but I was more impressed with the pickled okra and house made mustard. I slathered the okra with mustard and it was goooood.

By the time we finished our appetizers a patio table had opened up, so we moved outside.

As is our usual practice, we ordered two mains to share: the Grilled Heritage Pork Tenderloin with Okra, Corn, Beans and Tomatoes, and the Grilled Mountain Trout with Bacon, Local Potatoes and Vidalia Vinaigrette.

The pork tenderloin was flavorful, juicy and slightly sweet. The accompanying vegetables, however, were lackluster, and the corn was tough. The opposite was true for the trout dish: the fish was anemic and bland, but I couldn't get enough of the potatoes and bacon in their tangy vinaigrette. I love me some salty and sour.

And sweet.

For dessert, we shared the Peach Shortcake and the Fudge Brownie with Caramel Ice Cream.

As much as I hate to tell you this, the desserts were lame. The shortcake biscuit, though light and fluffy, was over salted, and the peaches, though beautiful to look at, were hard and unripe. The brownie was not fudgy at all, but rather dry and flavorless. The house made caramel ice cream was nice, though. As was the service and atmosphere. One of Miller Union's owners, Neal McCarthy, stopped by our table for a chat as we were finishing dessert. In a word, he's spiffy, what with his British accent and perfectly-tailored suit and impeccable but decidedly unpretentious manners.
All in all, it was a lovely evening and I would visit Miller Union again. Up next: grassroots drag racing, a giant chicken and a pretzel the size of my head.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sourdough Soft Pretzels

As I alluded to in my previous post about sourdough English muffins, when I was growing up I was tight with my maternal grandparents. Actually, I was (am) tight with all of my mom's relatives. An only child, mom hails from a small but close-knit clan (yes, clan) whose origins have been traced all the way to fourteenth-century Scotland by my genealogy-loving family. But I digress.

The point I'm laboring at has to do with the regular treks we'd make every summer from our farm in the mountains to my grandparents' home in the Berkeley Hills. We'd spend a month or so with them, familying it up around the Bay Area, watching television and eating "regular" food slipped to us kids by my grandmother. Although I was in awe of television (we didn't have one at home) and besotted with the Hershey's bars my grandfather bought for me at the ninth hole snack bar when I accompanied him to his regular Saturday golf games, my favorite treats were sourdough soft pretzels from the carts which dotted San Francisco's financial district.

Once a week or so, I'd accompany my mom on an errand to the City, during which we'd stop by my grandfather's office on Kearny Street. In exchange for quietly banging on typewriters and scribbling on my grandfather's stationery while the adults talked, I was treated to a pretzel from a cart on Market Street to eat on the BART ride back to Berkeley.

There's really nothing better than a piping hot sourdough pretzel -- salty and crusty on the outside, soft and tangy on the inside. (That's what she said? Sorry. It's reflexive.) I'm fairly certain there's a gene for loving salt and bread, and that I have it. I've searched high and low for pretzels like those from my childhood, but nothing has ever come close. I've tried to order them from reputed bakeries in Philadelphia (unfortunately one can only buy them frozen and in bulk), and I fall for the monstrosities at the pretzel carts in New York City every time. I know from sight alone that they're awful, but I secretly hope that by sheer will, I can conjure them to be like those from my childhood.

It turns out I can conjure the pretzels from my childhood, in my very own kitchen. Or pretty darn close, anyway. Who says time travel isn't possible, or that baking isn't magical...?

Sourdough Soft Pretzels
Makes about 16 full-size or 32 miniature pretzels

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon + 2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup hot (but not boiling) water
1 1/2 cups sourdough starter
2 teaspoons kosher salt
3 cups all purpose flour
2 1/2 cups bread flour
1/4 cup baking soda
1 egg
Sea or kosher salt, for sprinkling

1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, dissolve the butter and 1 tablespoon sugar in the hot water. Add the sourdough starter and stir to combine. Add 3 cups all purpose flour and mix on low speed until the flour is incorporated. Stop the mixer and swap out the paddle attachment for the dough hook.

2. Add 2 1/2 cups bread flour and mix on low speed until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and becomes elastic, about 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the dough to a large oil-coated bowl. Lightly coat the top and sides of the dough with oil, cover the bowl and set in a warm place two hours or until the dough has doubled in size.

3. Punch down dough to remove bubbles and transfer to a lightly floured board. Knead a couple of times, then divide into 16 pieces (or 32 if miniature pretzels). [I cut the dough in half, made 16 miniature pretzels and froze the remaining dough.]

4. Roll one piece of dough at a time into a strip about 12 inches long. [Like Deb, I found that rolling the dough on an unfloured board was easier.] Twist into pretzel shape, transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet and cover with a kitchen towel. Repeat with remaining dough.

I fear we will soon resemble these plump little guys, what with the
more-eating-than-exercising thing we've got going on here at Flour Child.

5. Fill a large, shallow pan with about 2 inches of water. [I used a saute pan.] Bring to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons sugar and baking soda and carefully stir until dissolved. Reduce to a simmer and transfer 3 or 4 pretzels at a time to the water. Poach for a minute on each side and transfer with a slotted spatula to a cooling rack set over a towel or baking sheet.

6. Heat oven to 450 degrees F. In a small bowl, whisk egg with 1 tablespoon water. Brush pretzels with egg glaze and sprinkle with salt.

7. Transfer pretzels back to the original parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for about 15 minutes or until evenly browned. [My oven has hot spots, so I rotated the sheet halfway through baking.]

The pretzels are best eaten warm on the day they're made, but according to Deb they can be stored, uncovered, for two days. I bagged and froze mine so that I could enjoy them one at a time, reheated in the microwave or oven.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sourdough English Muffins

If you're anything like me, you might have done the pretzel exercise in Bar Method class the other night and subsequently searched the Internet for the perfect sourdough pretzel recipe. You might have stumbled across Smitten Kitchen's English muffins post along the way, and found the idea of making a sourdough variation irresistible. Because you might have once been a bit obsessed with Thomas's sourdough English muffins, the rare and coveted breakfast treat your grandparents served by the plateful when you visited them during school breaks. Your grandparents might have slathered them in butter for fear you were going hungry and needed the extra calories, because your parents chose to raise you on a macrobiotic diet.

So... If you're anything like me, you might have spent your Saturday night making a batch of muffins and "sampling" more than your fair share of their tangy, pillowy goodness -- hot off the griddle and drenched in butter. You might have told yourself it was okay; that you were carbing it up for a long run the following day. But you might now be feeling more than a little guilty because this morning you went to Bar Method and tweaked your knee and worry you won't be able to run on it later.

But you might also be thinking it's worth it see the smile on your husband's face when you present him with a homemade egg and cheese muffin sandwich. And the delight with which your dog licks the runny egg left on the plate. Yep, if you're anything like me, you might be thinking, What a perfect Sunday morning. And... Why isn't my husband a hand model?

Sourdough English Muffins
Adapted from Ruth Reichl and Alton Brown via Smitten Kitchen
Makes about a dozen

Note: You will need a few metal baking rings for cooking these muffins. If you don't have or can't find baking rings, an empty tuna can with the top and bottom removed is purported to make an excellent substitute.

1 2/3 cup whole milk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup sourdough starter*
1 egg
1 teaspoon kosher salt
5 cups all purpose flour, divided

1. In a small saucepan, heat the milk and butter over very low heat until the butter is just melted. Remove from heat.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the milk-butter mixture, sourdough starter, egg and salt. Add 2 1/2 cups flour and mix on medium-low speed until dough is smooth, about 5 minutes. [Note: a mixer makes this endeavor easier, but it's by no means necessary; hand mixing with a wooden spoon will work just fine]

3. Stop the mixer and add the remaining 2 1/2 cups flour. Mix for another 3-5 minutes, stopping the mixer and scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed, until the flour is incorporated and a wet, shaggy dough forms. Remove bowl from mixer stand, cover and let rise for 1 hour.

4. Heat a griddle to 300 degrees F, or heat a skillet or griddle pan over a medium flame. Lightly coat the griddle and the insides of your baking rings with cooking spray. Fill each ring halfway with dough. (The dough is quite sticky and thick, making this a potentially frustrating process, so take a deep breath and  tell yourself it's worth it, because it is.) Cover with a cookie sheet and cook for 5-6 minutes. Remove the cookie sheet, flip the muffins in their rings with a spatula and tongs, re-cover and cook for another 5-6 minutes. Remove to a cooling rack and repeat with the remaining dough. Split with a fork and serve, or place in an airtight container and refrigerate for later.

*Sourdough Starter
Note: Allow two full days for the starter to develop before using.

1 cup warm water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
2 cups flour

In a large bowl, dissolve the sugar and yeast in the warm water. Stir in the flour. Cover tightly and store in a warm place for two days. Stir thoroughly before using.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Sweet Potato Brownies

Sweet potatoes and chocolate? Yes, please.

I can't even begin to describe how good these sweet potato brownies are, so I'm going to quote Laird: "These are better than regular brownies."

I agree. Make these. Now.

Sweet Potato Brownies
Adapted from
Makes 12

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
2/3 cup natural (non-alkalized) cocoa powder
1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour (recommended: Arrowhead Mills Organic)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup sweet potato puree (I pureed some sweet potatoes I'd roasted earlier in the week)
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees F and lightly coat an 8 x 8 x 2 inch baking pan with cooking spray.

2. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over very low heat. Remove pan from heat, add the cocoa powder and stir until a paste forms.

3. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and pumpkin pie spice. Add the butter-cocoa mixture, sweet potato puree, sugar, egg and vanilla. Stir until thoroughly combined.

4. Spread the batter into the bottom of the prepared pan and even it with the back of a spoon or an offset spatula. Bake for about 20 minutes, until the top appears barely dry and moist crumbs adhere to a toothpick or knife inserted into the middle. Cool completely before slicing.

This happened, x 1/3 of the pan.
Good thing I had just gone to Bridget's a**-kicking. (Otherwise known as Bar Method.)
 P.S. You didn't really believe I wasn't going to say anything else, did you? I have to tell you, these brownies are impossibly rich and moist (hideous word, but it works here), and there are several variations I want to try:

- Adding orange oil or zest
- Making vegan substitutions for the butter and egg
- Using melted chocolate instead of the cocoa-butter mixture
- Swapping almond meal for wheat flour
- Substituting maple syrup for some of the sugar

And because the brownies are quite thin and cake-like (the flavor is less sweet and intense than traditional brownies), it occurred to me that they would be lovely layered with spiced cream cheese frosting.

Someone please stop me before I eat the entire pan.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pan Roasted Black Sea Bass with Cheeky Zucchini Ribbons alla Marinara

Sometimes I blow my own mind with my culinary brilliance. And sarcasm. And cheekiness. ("Cheeky" is probably my most favorite of my husband's South Africanisms. I also love when he says I "chirp" and "cluck." And that he pronounces "hooves" like "WHO-vz.")

What also blows my mind is its unfailing tendency to daydream about cooking and baking all.the.time. Especially at work. Here's how last night's dinner came about.

Meeting, 9:24 a.m.
I need to make something with the rest of the zucchini in the fridge. Should I make zucchini muffins? Pleh. I don't want anything sugary. [I notice a colleague's grosgrain ribbon necklace and it reminds me of the butternut squash ribbons in Sunday's lasagna.] Hmm. I'll bet the zucchini would be good peeled into ribbons and sauteed with the end-of-summer tomatoes and basil from our CSA box. Like a pasta-less pasta alla marinara.

Conference Call, 11:49 a.m.
I'll flavor the sauce with the remnants of the shallots, onions and garlic that are hanging around. And that Basque olive mix left over from whoknowswhen we last had people over. And a splash of the sauvignon blanc Laird opened last night. I'll let everything simmer and reduce, then add the zucchini ribbons at the end to steam and soften for a few minutes.

Staff Meeting, 2:32 p.m.
So this dish is going to be enough for me for dinner, but not for Laird. He's going to need protein. Steak? Salmon? Hmm. [Boring rundown of protein thought process deleted.]

Whole Foods, 6:44 p.m.
I'm not feeling the steak. The salmon looks icky. The black sea bass looks amazing. I'll season it with salt and pepper and either poach it with the tomato sauce, or pan roast it in olive oil and butter. [Mmm this cheese sample is delicious. I think I'll buy a wedge of it to put in my fridge and forget.]

Yep. I think about food all.the.time.

It helps me get through my days.

And here's a recipe to help you empty your fridge (or CSA box or garden) and summon the last bits of Summer.

Pan Roasted Black Sea Bass with Cheeky Zucchini Ribbons Alla Marinara
Makes two generous portions

Note: I honestly didn't measure anything that went into this dish, but I do know the weights of the zucchini, tomatoes and sea bass, so there's that. Everything else about this recipe is an (experienced) approximation. You should also know that when I cook, I season with salt and pepper throughout. However I don't really address this until the end of my recipes, when I usually instruct you to "season to taste with salt and pepper." So all I can say is, season as you wish.

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 medium shallot, minced
1/4 medium onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 1/2 lbs tomatoes, such as plum, cut into large dice
1/4 cup olives, pitted and roughly chopped
1/2 cup chiffonade (of?) basil
1 1/2 lbs zucchini, sliced into long ribbons with a vegetable peeler
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon butter
2 pieces black sea bass, about 1/2 lb each

1. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large saute pan or skillet. Add the shallot, onion, garlic, tomatoes, olives and basil. Saute over medium heat until mixture softens and begins to form a sauce, about 7-10 minutes. Add the zucchini ribbons, toss to combine, and cook for about 3-5 minutes or until the zucchini begins to soften. (The zucchini releases quite a bit of liquid, so I removed it from the pan to a dish, then simmered and reduced the sauce for about 5 more minutes.

2. Meanwhile, season fish with salt and pepper. In another large pan or skillet, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil with the butter until the butter solids begin to froth. Add the fish and cook for about 5-8 minutes on each side or until cooked through. Shhh, don't disturb the fish except to turn it over after the first side is cooked, otherwise you won't get a nice crust.

3. Pile zucchini ribbons in a pasta bowl or on a plate, arrange fish on top, and spoon marinara over.

4. Season to taste (at whatever point you wish) with salt and pepper. (See? Cheeky!)

P.S. Tony, this fish bone is for you.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Butternut Squash and Mushroom Lasagna

I haven't done much in the way of creative cooking, baking or food blogging since the dreaded five blog posts worth of Chocolate-Malt Cake craziness, nor have I eaten any sweets. (Apparently Chocolate-Malt Cake cures sugar addiction. Yay!) I've been gazing at heaps of gorgeous plums and pluots and apples at the farmers market and dreaming about making a clafoutis or Dutch bébé, but I just haven't been feeling it.

So for the past week, my husband has been eating lots of comfort and pub food -- bangers and mash, homemade chicken pies from the freezer and the like. But yesterday I was able to muster up enough motivation to make a butternut squash and mushroom lasagna. I had intended for it to be vegetarian but as far as my husband is concerned, a dish without meat does not a meal make, so in went some lean Italian turkey sausage. Paired with a simple green salad, it was a perfect Sunday supper.

Butternut Squash and Mushroom Lasagna
Makes 8-12 servings

Note: Most butternut squash lasagna recipes call for pre-cooked and mashed butternut squash, but I think using uncooked strips, cut from the squash with a vegetable peeler, is easier and much less soggy. Plus you can substitute the squash strips for lasagna noodles if you wish to make this dish pasta/gluten-free. Confession: I wasn't sure the squash strips were going to work, but they're brilliant (and I do say so myself).

1 1/2 lbs lean sweet Italian turkey sausage (optional)
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium shallots, minced
1 lb crimini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 lb oyster mushrooms, cleaned and roughly chopped
Coarse kosher or sea salt
Freshly-ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
Juice of 1/3 lemon
2 15-oz containers low-fat ricotta cheese
4 cups shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
1 1/2 cups shredded Parmesan cheese
3 large eggs
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon lemon zest (optional)
1 medium (approximately 1-1/4 lb) butternut squash
1 9-oz package no-boil lasagna sheets

1. Remove sausage (if using) from casings and saute in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, breaking into small chunks and draining liquid as needed. Transfer to a medium bowl and set aside.

2. In the same pan, add olive oil and shallots and saute just until the shallots begin to turn translucent. Add the mushrooms and season with about 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper (the salt helps release the liquid from the mushrooms) and the thyme. Saute until the mushrooms begin to soften. Turn off heat and add the lemon juice, stirring to combine. Set aside.

3. In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, 1 1/2 cups mozzarella, 3/4 cup Parmesan, eggs, parsley and lemon zest (if using). Set aside.

4. Using a vegetable peeler, remove and discard the tough outer skin from the butternut squash, then peel the flesh into long strips. You will need enough strips to line the lasagna pan with two layers of squash (five if substituting squash for the noodles).

5. Heat oven to 350 degrees F and coat a 9 x 13 x 2 inch baking dish with cooking spray. Assemble the lasagna: spread about 1 cup ricotta mixture evenly into the bottom of the prepared dish and place three lasagna noodles horizontally on top. Spread another cup ricotta mixture on top of the noodles, then arrange squash strips on top. Arrange half the sausage and half the mushrooms on top of the squash, then sprinkle with about 1 cup shredded mozzarella. Repeat with 3 more lasagna noodles, another cup ricotta, another layer of squash strips, the remaining sausage and mushrooms, and another 1 cup mozzarella. Top with 3 more lasagna noodles, followed by the remaining ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan. (Lasagna can be covered tightly and frozen at this point.)

6. Cover lasagna with foil and bake on middle oven rack for 25 minutes. Remove foil, rotate pan front-to-back, and bake for another 25 to 35 minutes or until the lasagna is bubbling and brown on top. Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Please forgive my less-than-stellar photos with inconsistent camera angles. That's what you get at 9 p.m. on a Sunday.