A Southern Grace: April 2008

April 29, 2008

excellent expo


The Global Food & Style Expo held two primary interests for me (one job-related, one not so much...):
1. Fancy Foods Show
2. culinary demonstration by the grill-master himself, Bobby Flay

The expo was held in Chicago. I've been to Chicago many times but never actually stepped foot outside the airport, so this was exciting for me. Chicago, home of two Rick Bayless restaurants, as well as Charlie Trotter's. Although those places are a bit out of my league, there's no shortage of appropriate and equally enticing restaurants scattered throughout the city. Oh, the possibilities! But I'll come back to that.

We only came for one day of the expo, and as fate would have it, it was the day of Bobby Flay's demonstration. This was my first time seeing a well-known chef live and in person, and it was great. He's super easy-going and amiable and you can't help but pay attention to his every word.

(I love those mirrors--you can see all the action, even from the back row where I was sitting...)

The dishes he prepared were relatively simple--grilled chicken with parsley-mint sauce and summer panzanella with grilled asparagus. Mr. Flay had no problem with people interrupting him with questions, and one woman even had the nerve to march up to the stage and request a taste of his finished bread salad. (I thought that was a bit rude myself, but to each her own.) I took a little video, so here's Bobby describing his latest book and new show:

The line for autographs was ridiculously long, so I skipped it. I just hovered around his table and took a picture or two. I felt slightly stalkerish and pathetic doing that, so the pictures aren't as great as I might've hoped. Whatever-- as long as my memory is still functioning correctly, who needs pictures?

The Fancy Foods Show was a wealth of tasty treats. There were desserts around every corner, and I'm not exaggerating:

Yes, there were glass panes protecting these goodies...

...but there were also samples.

Had there been no samples, there might've been a melee. Led by me.

The best thing I tasted (non-chocolate, of course) was this salsa:

Sweet and spicy and there are black beans involved. I bought some the minute I got back to NY.

Granted, neither chocolate nor salsa have anything to do with baby food or my purpose at the expo, but I had to take a little time for myself. Come on, I worked too. :)

The disappointing element of my trip was dinner. I had really hoped to eat somewhere trendy and well-known to Chicagoans. Alas, 'twas not meant to be. Our hotel was a 20-minute scary cab ride from downtown, and my fellow traveler didn't feel up to making the trek back for dinner. So, we went to the classy, high-quality restaurant attached to the hotel. (Did your sarcasm detector go off? It should've.) I won't reveal the name of the restaurant, but to give you an idea of its sophistication, here's part of the decor outside the door:


Take a look at some of what I had:

Chile-rubbed beef brochettes with corn relish and roasted red pepper sauce.
The relish and sauce were great. The beef? Chewy and rubbery and vile. Ick, I say. Ick. Fortunately, I had many tasty samples back in my room to make up for the unsatisfying dinner. Example: Cote d'Or dark chocolate, which I so kindly paused in devouring to photograph for any readers who might be elephant lovers or chocoholics:

All in all, it was an enjoyable trip. If nothing else, I brought back a few pounds of chocolate-induced fat and a new-found appreciation for Bobby Flay.

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April 26, 2008

i've found my calling


What is it, you ask? Apparently, I have an innate talent for using baby food in baking. (Actually, now that I think about it, perhaps my innate talent is laziness and this is my way of accommodating for that. Hmm.) Anyway, if you'll recall, I first tried it with carrots and carrot cake, and now I've gone and done it with bananas.

I love banana bread. It's always so moist and flavorful. Unfortunately, I rarely have bananas lying around that I consider to be past their prime. You see, folks, to me, these bananas are practically perfect for eating:

Ergo, I don't usually have any bananas with which to bake. When I saw some banana baby food on the take-home table at work, I had an epiphany and snagged it with some yummy banana bread in mind.

I wanted something different than your everyday, typical banana bread. Muffins were an obvious choice, as I've become obsessed with my mini muffin tin. I've had some chocolate-covered ginger pieces in my cabinet for quite some time (they were a Christmas gift from Big Brother...), and I decided that they might be a nice addition to some of the muffins, or at least make them unique.

Results: Aside from a slightly different texture, these muffins are just as moist and delicious as normal banana bread muffins. The bonus is that I saved at least 5 minutes of peeling and mashing time. I know, I know--kudos to me, right? The chocolate-covered ginger bits are quite the nice surprise--crunchy and zingy. Ginger's no cinnamon, but it ain't half bad.

See the unsheathed ginger? What a thing of beauty.

Speaking of ginger, one of our dogs back home in Virginia is named Ginger.

Isn't she a cutie?

Bonus! This is my submission to Not Quite Nigella's Banana Bread Bake off.

Baby-fied Banana Bread Muffins
(adapted from Joy of Baking)
(makes 24 baby baby-fied banana bread muffins + 6 regular-sized muffins)

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 1/2 cups banana baby food
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 cup chocolate-covered ginger pieces

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and place the oven rack in the middle of the oven. Line muffin tins with paper cups.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugars, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and white chocolate. Set aside.

In a medium-sized bowl, combine the pureed bananas, eggs, melted butter, and vanilla. With a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, lightly fold the wet ingredients (banana mixture) into the dry ingredients until just combined and batter is thick and chunky. (The important thing is not to over mix the batter. You do not want it smooth. Over mixing the batter will yield tough, rubbery muffins, which is bad.) Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tins. Bake about 20 - 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Place on a wire rack to cool for five minutes and then remove muffins from pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.

(Look at that hunk o' brown sugar. Guess I didn't mix so well...)

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April 25, 2008

big brother's triple c


My big brother has recently decided to begin a grueling home-cook-in-training regimen. By that, I mean he makes what he wants when he wants it. One of his latest accomplishments is something I've dubbed "Big Brother's Triple C."

The first c stands for cornbread. I should mention that up until recently, my grandma made and served cornbread for lunch every single day. If there were ever any leftovers, my grandpa's dinner would involve pouring a big glass of milk and crumbling in that last hunk of bread. It's a surprisingly tasty combination, if you can get past the whole lumpy-milk thing. Anyway, I'm super-impressed by Big Bro's ability to make a decent cornbread. He is a true southerner.

The second c stands for cabbage. He simply boils it until it gives up and wilts. There's something about stringy, smelly cabbage that turns me (and my digestive system) off, but to each his own.

The third and final c stands for cilantro. What a fabulous addition. You've probably heard of eating cabbage on cornbread (or maybe not), but I'll bet you've never seen cilantro on top. I suppose an affection for cilantro is in our blood, because I can't get enough and Big Bro certainly doesn't skimp on it.

Good job, brother. You've made me proud.

Unhinge jaw, insert massive forkful. I'm not sure, but I think he's enjoying it.

Disclaimer: I've been sitting on these pictures for months now, waiting for BB to provide a commentary. He didn't come through this time, but I still hope he'll be a guest author someday.

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April 24, 2008

time to kill?


(That's such a vicious phrase. Shame on the goober who coined it.)

This is a fun little time-waster that I found on Slow Like Honey.

Here's what you do:

1. Go to www.flickr.com.
2. Type your answer to each question in the “search” box.
3. Using only the first page, pick an image.
4. Copy and paste the html into your blog.


1. What is your first name?

2. What is your favorite food?

3. What high school did you go to?

4. What is your favorite color?

5. Who is your celebrity crush?

6. Favorite drink?

7. Dream vacation?

8. Favorite dessert?

9. What do you want to be when you grow up?

10. What do you love most in life?

11. One word to describe you?

Try it yourself!

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April 22, 2008

shape up or sheep out


I decided to make some cut-out cookies for two reasons. First and foremost, I needed to redeem myself after the somewhat disastrous lemon tartlets. Secondly, I just got my new cookie cutters in the mail and was really itching to try them out.

Serendipitously (yes, I said it)(and yes, it’s a real word), I began scanning my reader only to find that one of my new favorite blogs had just posted a recipe for shortbread cookies.

[Completely random tangent: The word “serendipity” always makes me think of the movie Serendipity, which makes me think of John Cusack. I love John Cusack. He’s so quick-witted and sarcastic and articulate and enjoyable. Okay, digression complete.]

The fabulous gal behind Heaven is Chocolate, Cheese, and Carbs is also doing the desserts for an upcoming event, so we’ve been comparing notes and tossing around ideas. Her cookies looked great and I decided to attempt them myself.

The only real change I made was to add a little cinnamon to the dough; I just couldn’t help myself. For shapes, I used cute little hearts and...

...sheep. Yes, sheep. You see, folks, the bride and groom are inherently and undeniably connected to sheep. They met at a sheep convention, he raises sheep on his farm, and the bride-to-be has been a sheep-lover her entire life. If I ever have a question about sheep, she’s my go-to woman.

For these reasons, I really, really wanted to incorporate sheep into one of the desserts that I’m making. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think cupcakes made with ground lamb sounds like a winning dessert. So, when I saw sheep-shaped cookie cutters on Amazon, I ordered them immediately.

To ice the ovine, I made a simple glaze out of milk and powdered sugar. [Funny story—I bought a bottle of white icing when I was in Kansas, but it got unceremoniously trashed when I went through security at the airport. ICING, for crying out loud. I still get riled up just thinking about it.] I used a black decorating gel for the eyes. Next time, I think I’ll glaze the entire sheep and then add the eye.

Good grief, I’m ridiculously excited about these!!

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April 20, 2008

don't try this at home...


...or anywhere, for that matter.

I was only about two minutes into making what I had hoped to be a luscious lemon dessert when I realized that things were definitely not going to work out as planned.

Nevertheless, I persisted...

...and should've stopped while I was ahead.

Wait. I was never ahead.

The problem arose from my decision to use my brand-spankin'-new tartlet tins rather than make the tried and true lemon bars. Let it be known that I'm a tartlet novice, but they always look so elegant and pretty and delicious that I had to give them a shot. Boy, I've got a lot to learn.

I was honestly extremely surprised when I was able to get the tarts out of the tins. Surprised and ecstatic. There was a silver lining in all this--even though they're a bit of an eyesore, they actually tasted good. The best part, and bear in mind that this is coming from someone who doesn't particularly care for lemony things, was clearly the crust. My kitchen smelled like butter all day.

It's a great recipe, and next time I'll just stick with bars. File this one under "bad ideas."

Potentially Luscious Lemon Tarts
(from alpineberry--go visit)
(makes 24 hideous tartlets or fills an 8-inch square pan)

1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold and cut into pieces

2 eggs
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1/8 tsp salt
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1/4 cup lemon juice

Here's what I did, but I would advise against it:

Preheat oven to 350F. Generously butter the tiny tartlet tins.

To make crust:
Combine flour, powdered sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Add butter and pulse until the mixture is pebbly. Or, if you're a tightwad like me, go ahead and break out ye olde pastry cutter and go to town.

Press evenly into the bottom and up the sides of your prepared tins. Bake until lightly golden, about 18-20 minutes. Set aside.

To make filling:
In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar, flour, and salt. Whisk in lemon zest and juice until well combined. Fill the tart crusts almost to the top--that filling's not going anywhere. Bake until filling is just set, about 15 to 18 minutes. Cool completely before digging out of the evil tins. Dust with powdered sugar to mask some of the ugliness.

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April 19, 2008

afghan cultural festival


Say the words "free food" and I'm there.

Say the words "free Middle Eastern food" and I'll come running with bells on.

Schenectady had an Afghan Cultural Festival today, featuring arts and crafts and other such displays. It also featured food--free food--and I'd been looking forward to it all week. It was catered by the Taj Mahal Restaurant, which I had known nothing about but now adore.

Here's my first plate (yes, I had seconds, and yes, I let everyone else go through the line before I attacked again), chock-full of goodness:

They served up samosas stuffed with peas and spices and lots of things I couldn't identify but ate anyway:

Delicious. It absolutely melted in my mouth and was pretty zesty too, which I find very important.

My favorite kebab, the chicken kebab, was also dished out:

Check out the massive skewer hole:

That was one heck of a skewer!

I got some Afghan salad, with diced tomatoes, onion, green peppers, cucumbers, and mint (a key component):

Very refreshing.

I tried the shor nakhod, which was composed of chickpeas, onions, potatoes, and I believe I detected a bit of cilantro:

I do love me some chickpeas. And cilantro.

For dessert, there were two choices. I, of course, got one of each. First was goosh feel:

I guess it's an Afghan palmier, and it was tasty. However, the highlight of the entire meal was...

...the baklava.

My favorite.

The Taj Mahal Restaurant makes a mean baklava. It's not the absolute best I've ever had, but it ranks pretty high up there.

They also offered pallow (rice with almonds, raisins, and pistachios), sabzi (wilted spinach), and lamb curry, but I opted to pass on those.

Middle Eastern food rules.

Free Middle Eastern food is cause for celebration (especially when there's baklava involved). :)

(Hey, I already admitted to my parsimony. Don't hate.)

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