Monday, June 30, 2008

Fancy Food Show

For the last few weeks, every time I felt a little low all I had to do was think of three little words, and a tingle of excitement would shiver through my body. I would start to smile uncontrollably, and a bright glow of anticipation would be apparent for all to see. Fancy food show. Fancy food show. God, I love the Fancy Food Show. Imagine discovering hundreds upon hundreds of the most interesting, delicious gourmet foods out there – and when I say “discovering” I mean eating. Basically, it’s like dying and going to food heaven, if heaven were located in the thoroughly depressing Javits Center (sorry if link isn’t working… the site isn’t really worth visiting anyways.).

The Fancy Food Show is a trade show for food professionals sponsored by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. It takes place in New York every summer and San Francisco each winter. Food importers and manufacturers from around the world exhibit their products for chefs, grocery store owners, caterers and other food professionals to try – and hopefully buy.

Dave and I went for several hours this afternoon, and, for the record, neither of us ate lunch beforehand…and neither of us are eating dinner tonight.

Dave had never attended the Fancy Food Show before, and I warned him right away to pace himself. He got the message after walking down the first of dozens of aisles and sampling several types of cheeses and charcuterie, plus various olive oils and chocolates. In the three and a half hours we spent tasting, he cites these three products as his favorites:

- Fabrique Delices truffle mousse paté – “A perfect combination of the richness that you love in patés, but not too much. It was paté to the nth degree, but not over the cliff.”
- Numerous Peppadew products, especially the peppadew sausages and cheese-stuffed peppadew. – “Just tasty, a good combo of sweetness and spiciness. With the added cheese, the spiciness was reduced so I could appreciate the sweetness more.” For those of you who haven’t tried peppadew before, it’s a spicy-sweet South African fruit that comes in a jar.
- Mortadella…there was a good bit of mortadella around, in slices and chunks. Dave seemed to like it all.

His biggest frustration? Too much cheese and chocolate. And, it’s true – there is an enormous amount of cheese and chocolate being produced by the gourmet food world. Unlike Dave, however, I’m not one to complain.

In upcoming posts, I will highlight my three favorites and some of the more interesting products we tried.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Grizzly House, Part II

So how was the "exotic meat" at The Grizzly House in Banff? (See my last entry for the backstory.)

I have one word to describe python: chewy. The venison was dark, pleasantly gamey, a little livery perhaps. Jessica really liked it. The buffalo tasted like beef (and in the context of this meal that was a good thing). The shark reminded me of tuna. The wild boar lacked a pronounced flavor. The alligator was bland and, you knew this phrase had to be in here somewhere, tasted like chicken. My favorite was the frog’s leg even though, raw, it looks amazingly like a miniature human leg. The meat was tender and charred, and it fell off the bone.

Not only does the Grizzly House boast an ultra-unique menu, it features a gimmick that – with the right crowd and copious amounts of alcohol – could be hilarious. Each table has a telephone and a list of phone numbers for each of the restaurant’s other tables (and the restrooms). Jessica tried calling several numbers but no one picked up…bummer.

Finally, the nice older couple next to us answered, and Jessica and the husband chatted for a few minutes. Turns out they were visiting from Chicago. They didn’t go as exotic as us in the meat department.

As we finished our meal our waiter Billy gave us the Grizzly House backstory. Barbara and Peter Steiner opened it as a nightclub in 1967, but that turned out to be too much of a hassle, so they transformed it into a restaurant. The Steiners are a colorful couple… naturists (nudists) and there was some intimation of swinging as well…. The Grizzly House website does say it’s for “Lovers and Hedonists”. Or at least hedonistic lovers of exotic meat. Sadly, I can’t count myself among that group. With apologies to Anthony Bourdain I think one bite of python is enough in this life. I'll stick with the frog legs -- that's exotic enough for me.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Grizzly House, Part I

Python. Alligator. Ostrich. Shark. Buffalo. It may sound like a trip to the zoo, but actually it was just dinner at the Grizzly House Restaurant in the mountain town of Banff, Canada. Not only did we eat these exotic meats – along with venison, wild boar, and a frog’s leg – we cooked them ourselves.

I was in Banff last week with my friend/colleague Jessica for a conference. We had dinner plans with Joe, one of our favorite future (hopefully) clients. We didn’t have a venue planned, but a Canadian friend recommended we sample some exotic meats at the Grizzly House, with the caveat that we opt for the hot stone over the fondue. Like you, most likely, I had no idea what he was talking about but Jessica, Joe, and I decided to give it a whirl. After yet another television conference, where we talk about multi-platforming ad nauseum, these are the things we’ll remember, right?

Right. We walked in to Barry Manilow music, mood lighting, and buffalo heads mounted on the walls. Our waiter Billy was very welcoming and talked a mile a minute explaining all of our different options. In awe of his well-rehearsed spiel, Jessica dubbed him “the Ron Popeil of game meat.” Per their menu, Grizzly House specializes in “Alberta Beef, exotic game meats, and seafood.” Appetizers include soups and salads with an Alpine bent. Steaks are served with salad or soup, vegetables, fried onions, and rice or rosti. But the raison d’etre of the restaurant is its raw meat – cooked at the table either in a hot oil fondue or on a smooth, 600-degree hot stone. Billy pushed the complete fondue (or hot stone) dinners that came with soup or salad, an appetizer, main course, and dessert. We came for the exotic meats, though, and got down to business.

We ordered The Hunter Fondue Dinner (six ounces of buffalo, wild boar, and venison for $50.95) and the Exotic Fondue Dinner (seven ounces of shark, alligator, python, ostrich, frogs legs, buffalo, and venison for $61.95). As we had been advised, we requested the hot stone.

Soon enough Billy returned with a steaming hot stone and plates of raw cubes of meat. He gave us cooking instructions (python 45 seconds, venison one minute for medium well, etc.) and a sampling of four sauces. We got to cooking.

Jessica and Joe were both alarmingly brave. I tried to act nonchalant, but putting a morsel of python into my mouth wasn’t the easiest thing to do. With each chunk of meat my squeamishness only increased. I wanted to be cool and adventurous; hopefully I pulled it off.

So how did it all taste?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Pizza Dis

Dave sent me this article today -- apparently the Finns dislike Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi so much that they named a disgusting pizza after him. Click here for the story.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Franny's Rules

My legions of loyal readers will be relieved to see that I'm back! I was in Banff, Canada for six days visiting family and attending a conference for work. I had a couple of fun (hint: one of them included python) restaurant experiences that I will share in the next few days.

In the meantime, I wanted to give a shout out to Franny's, home of sensational, market-driven, Italian-ish small plates, pasta, and pizza that I think one review called "fire-licked"...mmm. Acclaimed by virtually everyone, Franny's certainly doesn't need my kudos. But, tonight's dinner was just too delicious not to comment on. Usually when we go we order a couple of appetizers and then one pizza, but tonight we ordered two pizzas and nothing else. One was a standard for us: buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes, and sausage. It was thin, crispy, and tasty as always. For the second pizza I chose the clam, chili, and parsley pizza. It was awesome. The whole pie seemed to be slicked in a garlicky, clam-kissed olive oil and studded with fat clams. It was my first pizza with clams, and I suspect I will never have a better one.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Fish: The Perfect Weeknight Meal

Making fish is mostly a weeknight affair in my house. It cooks so quickly that it almost seems like cheating to make it on the weekends when I have more time to cook. I tend to buy fillets – lately tilapia or arctic char, sometimes catfish, all less expensive these days than salmon. My fallback fish prep method could hardly be more bare-bones: Heat a blend of olive oil and canola oil in a frying pan on the stove. Salt and pepper both sides of the fish fillets. When the oil is hot gently lay the fillets in the pan. Saute until they’re golden brown and gently flip the fillets. When they’re cooked all the way through, remove the fish from the pan. Depending on how thick the fillets are cooking time could take from five to ten minutes. Squeeze a little lemon on top and enjoy. Alternatively, remove the fish from the pan, add a little butter and cook it until it turns a nutty brown. Pour the butter over the fish and top with chopped parsley. Max time: 15 minutes. Simple, healthy, and delicious.

Sometimes I want to switch up the flavors, and I recently found a very simple recipe on Cooking Spicy South Asian Roasted Fish calls for halibut fillets; I’ve made it with arctic char and catfish (we preferred the former and I think it would also be good with salmon and tilapia). The recipe calls for lemongrass which I skip… So five ingredients go in a blender or food processor to make a sauce. Pour the sauce over the fish fillets and roast in the oven for about 15 minutes. Easy! Tasty! Tonight I served it with rice and wilted baby bok choy.

The sauce calls for a half-cup of light coconut milk. To add a little more flavor to the rice I use the rest of the can of coconut milk as part of the liquid the rice is cooked in. The rice becomes a little sweet and a touch sticky, a nice complement to the spicy fish.

One note: the recipe calls for “chili sauce”. I’ve been using Vietnamese chili garlic sauce which is very spicy. So, I cut the quantity from 2 TB to a scant 1 TB.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Dressed for Success

When I was a kid and we were eating salad for dinner we always had a selection of bottled salad dressings on the table. Until I turned 12 and started reading teenage fashion magazines that warned me of the perils of creamy dressings I always went for the Ranch. Post-age 12 I think I opted for Italian. My dad liked Thousand Island. I don’t remember what my mom or brother used, but I do remember the same bottle of Russian dressing languishing in the fridge – and being ignored on the table – for what seemed like years.

Today, I make my own salad dressings. In this case, it’s not because I object to the taste of the bottled so much: Ranch dressing is yummy and I love the sesame ginger stuff my mom eats these days. I make my own dressing because a) I’d like to forego the additives and filler found in a lot of bought dressings and b) I like to vary the dressing based on what we’re eating.

Sometimes I’ll make a nice yogurt-based blue cheese dressing, but more often than not it’s a vinaigrette. When we’re really in a hurry that means drizzling lemon juice or vinegar (red wine, white wine, or balsamic), olive oil and salt on a salad and tossing. But when I have four or five minutes, I make an ever so slightly more elaborate vinaigrette. In cooking school I learned the basic ratio for dressings, and it’s a handy thing to memorize. Once you know the proportions the recipe is infinitely customizable based on your tastes, what the vinaigrette will be dressing, and what the rest of your meal consists of.

The basic recipe:

- one part stabilizing/flavor part like Dijon mustard, honey, maple syrup, pomegranate molasses etc.
- two parts acid like vinegar or citrus juice
- six parts oil like olive, canola, walnut etc. or a blend

My chef taught us to think of it as 1, 2, 3 as in one part for the first element, two parts of the second, and then three parts of the second (so six of the first). Feel free to ignore this trick if it makes the recipe more confusing.

Two other rules to remember: always add some salt and always taste the dressing. If you think it needs more oil or acid, add it. You can also add in minced shallots, garlic, or herbs – lots of options.

Last night I made a tarragon vinaigrette. I decided to make a little extra to last a few days since we eat a lot of salads. Using the above ratio, here’s the recipe:

1 TB Dijon mustard
2 TB white wine vinegar
pinch salt
6 TB (1/3 cup) oil – I used a blend of canola and extra virgin olive oil
1/2 TB chopped tarragon

Whisk together the mustard, vinegar, and salt. Add oil in drop by drop then in a thin stream, whisking the all the while to emulsify the mixture. Taste and adjust flavors. Last night I decided mine was too sharp-tasting, so I added another tablespoon of oil. Finally, stir in the chopped herb. In the end, it will be thick and tangy.

This vinaigrette will keep for several days in the fridge and would be delicious on roasted fish, potato or chicken salad, or even as a spread on a turkey sandwich.