Thursday, April 28, 2011

Spring Bonus

As far as I know, this is the first year that Richmond Restaurant Week is happening in both the spring and the fall.  If you live in Richmond, you still have until May 1st to try or revisit one of the participating restaurants.  $25.11 for three courses is quite a bargain, especially considering that $2.11 of it benefits FeedMore.  

Davy and I went to Acacia mid-town last night, and it was a fantastic experience.  We'd only eaten there once before, and it easily met my expectations despite the frantic pace and heavy traffic of restaurant week.  The service was impeccable, my cocktail (a rhubarb sour) was creative and memorable, and the food was exquisite.

Everything on the menu appealed to me, but I'd spent enough pondering before we went, so I was prepared with my decision.  I ordered the "fried ramp and pinenut risotto balls, fresh shrimp salad, garlic butter sauce"; "sauteed local rockfish, creamy rice beans, roasted mushrooms and romanesco, mushroom rosemary nage" and "chocolate cremeaux, passionfruit sorbet, cocoa streusel."

I'll be honest and tell you that I don't know what all of those ingredients are (nage, anyone?), but every single flavor and texture melded perfectly.  My only criticism is that the risotto balls were a little on the bland side and I didn't detect much of a ramp taste, but they had a delicious crunch from the pine nuts and the shrimp salad was tender and creamy.  The rockfish combined several of my favorite foods: the fish itself, white beans, and roasted mushrooms.  If I could go back, I'd get it again.  The same goes for my dessert.  I don't usually care much for fruit with my chocolate, but the passionfruit sorbet was tangy and subtly sweet.  It cut through the richness of the chocolate and served as a vehicle to pick up all three components in one bite.

Davy ordered the "red wine braised duck leg, housemade pasta, soft-cooked quail egg"; "braised beef boneless shortrib roulade, spicy potato pancake, warm market vegetable salad, fresh herbs" and "hazelnut shortcake, berries, creme fraiche ice cream."  I would have eaten any of his dishes, too.  The bites I tried of the duck, shortrib, and dessert had the same phenomenal textural and flavor balance as my meal.    

Even if you aren't able to get to Acacia this week, keep it in mind for a special occasion.  Or maybe for the next Restaurant Week, which is a short six months, or less, away.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Easter Dinner

One of my favorite pastimes is hosting friends and family, especially when the event centers around food.  This year Davy and I had a nice group over for Easter, and we roasted six pounds of pork for the occasion. 

Hosting dinner parties is a great opportunity to test out new recipes and techniques.  I've had this spinach and cannellini bean dip recipe saved for quite some time, and finally got a chance to try it.  If you're sick of hummus or just want a mild, healthy dip, it's definitely worth making.  It would also be good as a sandwich spread, and it's useful if you need to use up fresh (or not so fresh) greens.  My version ended up containing some leftover arugula that wasn't going to last much longer in my produce drawer. 

As I've mentioned before, inviting guests over for dinner also gives me an excellent reason to shop at River City Cellars and The Belmont Butchery.  They're both locally-owned and employ friendly, knowledgeable people to answer questions or help you decide on the most fitting product for your situation.  We chose two cheeses from River City Cellars, along with the spicy plum chutney that's a signature part of the cheese and meat plates at Secco.  

I'd called ahead to reserve two center cut pork loins from the butcher, one of which they butterflied for me.  We slathered about 1/3 of the jar of chutney on the cut pork loin, and then rolled and tied it with string provided by the butcher.

I brined the other loin, which was left whole.  My dad recently had luck with a Tyler Florence recipe, and I loosely followed the instructions for my brine.  I halved the amount of salt called for, which is suggested in many of the comments, and used rosemary sprigs instead of juniper berries and thyme.  I didn't have mustard seeds, so I substituted fennel seeds when I toasted the coriander seeds and peppercorns.  The pork was only in the brine for about two hours, but the flavors really shined through in the finished product.

Instead of grilling, we used our grill pan to sear both of the pork loins, and then roasted them at 375 degrees.


After an hour, I checked the pork using a meat thermometer and decided to put them back in for another 10 minutes.  I think at that point I should have taken them out to rest, but they were still fairly juicy when we served them.  I made an impromptu yogurt sauce to go with the pork: plain yogurt, whole grain mustard, wasabi powder, lemon juice, olive oil, and a little salt.

 Davy slices beautifully, even without an electric knife!

As soon as I spotted this cake on How Sweet It Is, I knew I'd have to bake it. Instead of using a boxed mix, I made a chocolate cake that Shannon tried in October.  Unfortunately the website with the recipe doesn't seem to be functioning right now, but it's a delicious chocolate cake enhanced by a cup of coffee.  I'm not a coffee drinker, but the inclusion in baked goods and other sweets results in a deeper chocolate taste.

After mixing and baking the cake, I cut the two layers in half.  I made it the day before, and following tips from The Picky Palate (where Jessica got the recipe), I stacked the layers with wax paper and put them in the freezer.  Freezing cake before frosting it helps reduce crumbs in the frosting, and also makes it easier to transfer the layers.

I was hesitant to make all of the frosting, since four blocks of cream cheese seems like a LOT, but I went for it and ended up using it all.  I may have needed more sugar, which would have bulked it up a little more, because it ultimately tasted a little less sweet than I would have liked.  I'm not complaining - this cake is unbelievably rich and hits all of the right notes for chocolate/peanut butter lovers.  I also wouldn't make the frosting green next time, because it makes everyone think of mint, but the cake still looked pretty, and the color didn't stop me, or anyone else, from eating too much of it.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Some Healthier-than-Normal Dinners

As I mentioned in my last post, I am often inspired by the blogs I read on a daily basis.  I didn't even realize how much they influenced the most recent dinners I've made, although I think Davy and I are better off because of them.  

I've recently dedicated some of my free time to reading through How Sweet It Is, which is creative, informative, and funny. Jessica, the author, often roasts heads of garlic and incorporates it into her recipes.  I decided to mimic her technique (pour a little olive oil on the top of the garlic head, allow it to sit for 10 minutes, then wrap in foil and bake at 350 for forty-five minutes) for a pasta dish I made last week.  

I was roasting a bunch of asparagus at 400 degrees, so I stuck the garlic in the oven and took it out after 15-20 minutes.  My oven tends to be hotter, so I try to check anything I put in there before the recommended time frame.  My garlic wasn't quite as golden as Jessica's, but it still tasted sweet and mellow.

The rest of the dish came together in my 12-inch non-stick pan.  I browned a few pieces of leftover prosciutto from the picnic sandwiches, then tossed the roasted asparagus, cooked whole wheat penne, a little pasta water, half of the head of garlic, and some fresh mozzarella* together in the warm pan.  Normally I only eat regular pasta, but someone had given me a few samples of this penne, and I really enjoyed the nutty taste and chewy texture of it with the crispy, salty prosciutto and smooth mozzarella.

*I learned recently that most pre-shredded mozzarella is coated in cornstarch to help prevent the pieces from sticking together.  It doesn't melt as well, and the fact that it has to be messed with makes me not want to buy it.

The Yellow Umbrella, my local fish shop, sends out a newsletter every Friday detailing their selection, including prices and recipes.  I was hoping they'd still have escolar when I went in last week, but they'd already run out.  The friendly guy behind the counter recommended sea bass instead.  

It was a beautiful night, so we took his advice and grilled the nice-looking fish, along with some marinated zucchini and roasted garlic flavored rice.  Neither of us could remember trying sea bass before, and it's different from a lot of the other fish we normally eat.  It's much firmer, and richer, with a texture that reminded me of crab meat.

This week I made pizza, but ran out of regular flour before finishing the dough.  I added 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour (one-third of the total amount) before realizing I had to get more all-purpose from the story anyway if I wanted to be able to knead it.  Luckily we both liked the way the crust turned out.  I don't think I'll make it partially whole wheat all the time, but it's nice to know we can make our pizza a little bit healthier without sacrificing the familiar taste, or eating any extra cornstarch. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Follow that Blog

I love my cookbooks, but lately many of the dinners and baked goods I make at home are inspired by or derived from recipes I find on blogs.  Below is a sampling of some recent successes.  I should have been better about taking pictures, but sometimes I just forget, so there aren't many to share.

Ginger Muffins from Orangette: These muffins are slightly sweet but with a spicy bite from the ginger root.  Next time I'm going to follow Molly's advice and add more than the recipe calls for.  There's a gentle citrusy undertone from the lemon zest that makes these taste very fresh and light.

BBQ Chicken Tenders from How Sweet It Is: I recently discovered Jessica's hilarious blog, and she has a ton of great ideas.  She makes several variations of chicken fingers, and I used this recipe one night last week.  It's a simple method that can be modified in many different ways, and I'm definitely going to fall back on it when I need a quick dinner.

Cookies and Cream Brownies from How Sweet It Is: Originally I found this blog because of the Cookie Dough Dip (which I still haven't made), but I felt the need to try these cookie bar brownies immediately when I saw the post.  I made the original as well as a batch with thin mints instead of oreos, and leftover chocolate whiskey ganache instead of the peanut butter mixture.  Both were divine, and very popular at a party.

Pressed Sandwiches from Crepes of Wrath: I never would have thought to do this myself, but making one big sandwich and then cutting it into pieces to serve to a group is a brilliant idea.  I was really excited to make these because it gave me an excuse to go to the butcher for prosciutto and mortadella.  Bonus: I was able to use up the remaining homemade pesto I froze last summer.

Irish Car Bomb Cake inspired by the Chocolate Whiskey and Beer Cupcakes from Smitten Kitchen: I've been trying to find a way to make this recipe again since I made the lucky cupcakes last year.  It wasn't a pretty cake, but it was so good that no one really noticed.  The Bailey's buttercream frosting is to die for.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Layer Cake

This is a picture of my very favorite store bought cake.  It's made by the Ukrop's bakery, and has five layers of light white cake and their rich, signature chocolate frosting.  Last week it was on sale for $2 off the normal price, and I couldn't resist.  Actually, if I decide I want it, it doesn't really matter what the price is. The "bar cake," as Ukrop's calls it, is best served on its original platter with a single fork.