Sunday, March 28, 2010

Roasted Tomato Melts

I was thrilled to see big, juicy tomatoes available at the farmers' market this weekend. Greenhouse grown, these were the first tomatoes of the season so I had to pick up a few. I also got some fresh mozzarella from Chapel Hill Creamery as tomatoes and mozzarella are a perfect match. Although I love a simple caprese salad, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and seasoned with salt and pepper, I decided to be a bit more creative with these delicious ingredients. I had some slice whole wheat bread from Whole Foods on hand, so I decided to make caprese melts. To add even more flavor and bring out the best of the tomatoes, I first marinated them in balsamic vinegar and thyme and then roasted them.

They turned out soft and juicy and full of flavor. Thin slices of mozzarella melted on top made for the perfect melts. You can make a couple per person and serve them as a meal or cut them small and serve as an appetizer. I made enough for a full dinner and served it with a side of farmers' market kale. I used the remaining marinade from the tomatoes to saute the kale or try my other simple kale recipe. Not only was this meal absolutely delicious, but it was made almost entirely from local ingredients. It doesn't get much better than food that tastes good, is good for you and does something good for the environment and community.

Roasted tomato melts:
  • 2 large beefsteak tomatoes, or 4 roma tomatoes
  • 8 oz fresh mozzarella
  • 1 tbsp fresh thyme
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 slices whole wheat bread
Preheat oven to 450F.
Slice the tomatoes, cutting out the hard stem area.
Remove the leaves from the thyme stems and chop small.
In a medium bowl, combine olive oil, balsamic, thyme and a few shakes of salt and pepper.
Toss in the tomatoes and let sit for about 10 minutes, tossing occasionally.
Line a large cookie sheet with aluminum foil and coat with nonstick spray.
Arrange the tomatoes in one even layer; roast for 10 minutes.
Remove the tomatoes and turn the oven on to broil.
Toast both sides of the bread for a couple minutes per side.
Slice mozzarella into 1/4 inch rounds.
Layer each slice of bread with 2 or 3 tomatoes and cover with cheese.
Broil for a few minutes until cheese is fully melted.
Serve immediately.

For a printable recipe click here

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Blu Seafood and Bar: Branching out and loving it

I definitely have my favorite Durham restaurants and, like many people, I tend to stick to what I like. I know I'll have a good meal if I go to Watt's or Revolution or Nana's. But sometimes it's nice to try something different and, if I'm lucky, it might even turn into another favorite. I'm not sure yet if Blu Seafood will become a new favorite, but it was definitely a great new experience and I certainly won't mind going back a couple of times to determine it's status on my list of Durham favs. With a daily selection of oysters, a variety of crab dishes and other delectables from the sea, Blu offers more options of seafood dishes than any other local restaurant. But those who don't like seafood, don't despair, Blu also offers an entire menu section dedicated to dishes that are "not fish." But Gavin, my steak-loving fiance, ordered a fish dish and was blown away by how good it was. I think he even compared it to a filet mignon! As someone who generally orders seafood, I was thrilled with the wide variety of options. I'm definitely looking forward to going back and trying some new dishes, although the tuna tartare was so good I might have to order it again. Overall we were both incredibly impressed and very glad we decided to try something new.

Since they pride themselves on their fresh oysters, we started with a dozen of them raw. Unfortunately we ate every last one before I even thought to take a picture but I can assure you they were fresh, meaty and absolutely delicious. Definitely a great way to start the meal. I opted for two starters as my main course as there were too many that looked good to just have one. I chose the mushroom carpaccio for one: thinly sliced, marinated mushrooms flavored with thyme and topped with baby greens, goat cheese, pecans and balsamic dressing. A delicious combination of light ingredients with the deep flavors of earthy mushrooms, creamy goat cheese and concentrated balsamic vinegar.For my second appetizer, I went with the tuna tartare, which just thinking about makes my mouth water. Tender, fresh yellowfin tuna piled high with thin slices of creamy avocado and a pile of perfectly seasoned seaweed salad. With just a small amount of miso, soy glaze around the edge, these contrasting flavors and textures created a perfect harmony of the elusive fifth taste known as umami, which in English translates to pure yumminess. Well, not really, but that's exactly what this tuna tartare achieved.

Gavin went with one of the specials of the night, which came highly recommended by our waiter. A North Carolina striped bass topped with a crab butter sauce over mashed potatoes and zucchini, achieved such high praise as to be described as the filet mignon of fish. The rich buttery crab sauce brought the dish from a simple grilled fish to an elegant plate of complex flavors. I'm not sure it will change his love for a good steak, but Gavin was certainly pleased with his choice of fish at Blu Seafood. All in all this was a great new experience for both of us.

Blu Seafood and Bar on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Broccolini: Another simple side

Spring finally seems to have arrived and I am, of course, thrilled for many reasons. One of which is the abundance of produce available during the warmer months. I'm looking forward to so many choices at the farmers' market that I don't know what to do with myself. So in the spirit of spring, I'm working on creating simple side dishes with a variety of vegetables, including those used less often. For today's simple side dish, I've used broccolini, a delicious broccoli hybrid with long, thin stems. This lovely vegetable is a great alternative to broccoli and very easy to make. By boiling it first, the broccolini remains crisp but tender and cooks much faster than it would by simply sauteing. The mushrooms add great flavor and texture while the soy sauce brings everything together. This super easy dish will make eating healthy veggies that much better.

Broccolini with mushrooms:
  • 2 bunches of broccolini, washed with ends trimmed
  • 1 8 oz package of button mushrooms, sliced (or any variety you like)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
  • Salt and pepper
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
Stir in broccolini, cooking for about 8-10 minutes, until crisp-tender.
While broccolini is cooking, heat oil in a large saute pan.
Stir in red pepper flakes and cook for about 30 seconds.
Toss in mushrooms and cook until tender, about 6-8 minutes.
Remove broccolini from the boiling water with a slotted spoon and put directly into the saute pan.
Pour in the soy sauce and stir to coat.
Sprinkle with a little black pepper, to taste.
Allow everything to cook together for another couple of minutes.
Serve and enjoy!

For a printable recipe click here

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Watt's Grocery: Southern elegance with local flavor

I've mentioned Watt's Grocery in a number of posts, so I figured it was about time I dedicated an entire post to this amazing restaurant. Chef and owner Amy Tornquist creates delicious Southern inspired dishes with local and seasonal ingredients. The menu changes with the seasons and reflects the best that North Carolina has to offer. In addition to these great dishes, the wine list is full of organic and sustainable choices, all of which are great wines. And if wine's not your thing, bartender Laurabelle has created a number of unique drinks perfect for any tastes. (Check out her new blog!)

During my last visit to Watt's, I was half way through the meal when my fiance reminded me that I wanted to write a review. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to take photos of our first courses. I had a delicious salad with strawberries, goat cheese, walnuts and champagne vinaigrette. He enjoyed a cup of the day's soup, a hearty tomato and fennel concoction that was hearty, rich and full of flavor.
For our entrees we went to total opposite ends of the spectrum. I ordered the vegetarian plate, an always changing mix of seasonal vegetables, beans and grains. This night's offering was lentil cakes with sauteed raddichio and baby bok choy with a tomatillo relish. The lentil cakes were thick and meaty, making it hard to miss any actual meat on the plate. The vegetables were tender and perfectly seasoned, while the tangy tomatillo relish rounded everything out.

My fiance, on the other hand, ordered the steak. As an avid steak-lover, he argues that Watt's makes one of the best steaks around. Simply seasoned with salt and pepper and grilled to perfection (his being rare), this steak easily competes with any from one of the big steakhouses. Served with seasonal vegetables and sweet potato fries, the entire meal was a simple yet perfectly composed plate. Although the steak would have been excellent on its own, it was even better complimented by a glass of Stephen Vincent Crimson Cabernet/Syrah 2007 from Sonoma, CA. This rich, smooth red wine was so delicious I wanted to wrap myself up in it like a blanket. Yes, a weird way to describe wine, but that's exactly how I felt. It was deep enough to be full of flavor without any of the heaviness of too much alcohol.

All in all, this was another wonderful visit to Watt's. The only reason I haven't written about it in detail before is that I generally have such a great time while I'm there I forget entirely to take pictures or write anything down. But I'll add that to the long list of reasons to visit the next time you're in the mood for a delicious, local meal.

Watts Grocery on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Butternut Squash Gnocchi

My apologies for not posting for a few days. I'm in the middle of finals and they've definitely been keeping me busy! I also tend to cook less at home when I'm cooking more in school, so there haven't been any wow meals recently. But I've been meaning to write about my first attempt at making gnocchi since I was very pleased with the results. For those not familiar, gnocchi generally refers to potato dumplings, very popular in Italy, and great with a wide variety of sauces. Their light, pillow-like texture makes them a great alternative to pasta. I was intrigued by a recipe that uses butternut squash instead of potatoes that I found in my Cooking with Canada's Best cookbook. I made these gnocchi to accompany my roasted pork and pears. They were a little too sticky for my liking but very tasty! Next time I will buy cheesecloth to use for the straining. So if you have cheesecloth, definitely use it. If not, a kitchen towel will also work but try to get out as much water as you possibly can. I also used frozen squash, just to make my life easier, but if you'd like to use fresh, feel free.

Butternut squash gnocchi:
  • 1 12 oz package frozen squash
  • 1 1/2 cups flour (I used half whole wheat, half all-purpose; but all AP works well)
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tbsp Parmesan
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper
Microwave the squash on high for about 5 minutes, enough to mash it all with a fork.
Place squash in a strainer lined with cheesecloth or a towel and leave in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Squeeze out any excess water before making the dough.
Mix the drained squash with the flour, a lightly beaten egg, nutmeg, Parmesan and a pinch of salt and pepper. Knead together as you would a dough.
On a well floured surface, roll a small chunk of the dough into a 1-inch wide log.
Cut the log into 1-inch pieces.
Repeat, in steps, with the rest of the dough.
The gnocchi can be placed on a cookie sheet and frozen at this point.
To cook immediately, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
Drop half of the gnocchi into the boiling water and cook until they rise to the surface.
Remove with a slotted spoon and repeat with the other half.
Toss in some melted butter, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and serve immediately.

For a printable recipe click here

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dos Perros: Good Food with Mexican Flair

Most people in the triangle probably do not associate Mexican food with elegant cuisine. We generally go to the Mexican chain restaurants for a giant plate of Tex-Mex style chicken/pork/beef smothered in sauce and cheese for not a lot of money. Or we choose a taqueria that serves great food out of a van on a paper plate. But authentic Mexican cuisine can come with the entire experience of eating at a nice restaurant. And thanks to Dos Perros, we now have a place to go in downtown Durham that combines the truly great Mexican food of a local taqueria with the ambiance of a nice restaurant. With dishes ranging from spiced roast hen to pork carnitas to vegetables in mole sauce, Dos Perros offers options for all tastes, each with authentic Mexican spices and flavors. An equally impressive beverage menu, including a variety of reasonably priced wines and plenty of Margarita flavors, rounds out the dining experience, to put Dos Perros in an entirely different class than your usual Mexican chain. So if you're in the mood for some spice and heat in your culinary life, check out Dos Perros for a plate of truly authentic Mexican food with a side of refined atmosphere.

For my first course this evening, I went with a salad on the list of rotating specials. Tonight's offering was a delicious mix of jicama, white beans, and spinach, all tossed in a spicy mango vinaigrette. The balance of sweet and spicy in the vinaigrette was delicious and a perfect compliment to the crisp and refreshing jicama and the tender white beans. Although a very large portion for a starter, I couldn't help but eat the whole thing despite wanting to save room for my entree. It was that good.

I chose the grilled spiced-rubbed grouper for my entree. Served with a side of seasonal vegetables and rice, this was a great mix of Mexican spices without any of the heaviness present in so many Mexican dishes. The fish was a delicate balance of tender white meat and bold spices. The best part of the plate, however, was the seasonal vegetables. The mix of sauteed zucchini with onions and tomatoes was perfectly seasoned, cooked to a tender softness and full of flavor. Add the seasoned rice and the dish was definitely an overall success.

To compliment this delicious meal, I enjoyed the Paul D. Gruner Vetliner, a delicious Austrian white wine that's light floral flavor complimented the spices in the food perfectly. The description of "way too tasty to be this affordable" is spot on as this wine is only $5 per glass and yet is one of the better whites I've had recently. Gruner Vetliner is an under-appreciated white wine grape, which is great with a wide variety of foods. So with a delicious wine, spiced and flavorful food and a pleasant atmosphere, Dos Perros provided an excellent dining experience overall and gave new meaning to the often stereotyped Mexican cuisine.

Dos Perros on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Simple Side of Kale

Kale is one of those vegetables that falls into the "dark leafy greens" category so you know it has to be good for you. It's also one of the few green vegetables readily available during the colder months because it's incredibly hearty. Cold weather is not only unpleasant (in my opinion) but it's not conducive to growing a lot of green produce. Fortunately spring seems to be upon us and hopefully we'll be seeing tons of new items at the farmers' markets in the weeks to come. Anyway, back to kale. So we know it's full of vitamins and antioxidants but the tricky part can be how to cook it. Kale has the potential to be somewhat bitter, which is probably why some people say they don't like it. However, if prepared correctly, it can be absolutely delicious and a great option during the colder months. It can also be found most of the year at many supermarkets. The key to cooking it quickly and removing the bitterness is to boil it in a large pot of water before sauteing it. The sauteing allows you to mix in additional flavors and wilt the leaves a little without overcooking them. I used some leftover red wine vinaigrette which gave a great balance of tangy and sweet to the kale.

Kale in Red Wine Vinegar
  • 1 large bunch kale
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 2 tbsps red wine vinegar
  • Salt and pepper
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and season with salt.
Remove the stems from the kale and discard. Tear the leaves into pieces.
Boil the kale, stirring to make sure all leaves are submerged, for about 5-7 minutes. Leaves should be tender but not mushy.
Heat olive oil in a saute pan.
Saute the kale, stirring in honey and vinegar, for about 5 minutes.
The kale will not wilt down a lot but should be tender and the vinegar should be mostly dissolved.
Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

For a printable recipe click here

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Grilled Portobello Mushroom Salad

Whenever I have guests over, I like to serve a salad before the meal. It's something I can make ahead of time, toss together when ready, and serve whenever seems best. I'll often serve the salad while I'm waiting for something else to cook. This gives my guests something to eat besides the usual cheese or olives and adds another component to the meal as a whole. I find that a few simple, tasty ingredients can mix together and make a great salad. To challenge myself and keep my guests interested, I try to make different salads as often as possible. Although I love my roasted beet salad, it's good to mix things up a bit. I also try to use as many ingredients from the farmers' market as possible. Fortunately, there were a good number of lettuces at the Durham Farmers' Market as well as some delicious, creamy goat cheese from Celebrity Dairy. I chose the peppercorn crusted variety but any flavor would lend a unique taste to the mix. To add a meaty, hearty component to my salad, I decided to go with portobello mushrooms. They're thick, flavorful and even better when grilled. I mixed in some toasted sunflower seeds for crunch and topped it all with a homemade balsamic vinaigrette. The result was a great combination of flavors and textures that made for a perfect start to the whole meal.

Portobello Salad (Serves 6)
  • 4 portobello mushroom caps, wiped clean
  • 1/2 log of goat cheese, about 3-4 oz
  • 1/3 cup sunflower seeds
  • 10-12 cups lettuce mix (I used baby mixed and red leaf)
Balsamic Vinaigrette
  • 3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tbsp dijon mustard
  • 1/2 tbsp honey
  • 6 tbsp olive oil (or so, depending on how tangy you like your dressing)
  • salt and pepper to taste
Remove the stems from the mushrooms and brush both sides lightly with olive oil.
Heat a grill pan or large skillet over medium to medium-high heat.
Place mushrooms on the hot grill, top down.
Grill for about 6-8 minutes, making sure not to burn the tops.
Flip them and grill the other side for another 5 minutes or until the mushrooms are tender.
Remove and season with salt and pepper.
Let cool and slice into 1/2 inch strips.
Toast the sunflowers in a small, dry pan, stirring constantly so the nuts don't burn, about 5 minutes.
For the dressing, combine all of the ingredients in a bowl or small container with a lid, whisking to combine.
This can all be done ahead of time and held until you're ready to eat.
Toss the lettuce, crumbled goat cheese and sunflowers seeds in the dressing.
Plate the salad and lay a few strips of mushroom over each.

For a printable recipe click here

Grilled Portobello Mushroom Salad on FoodistaGrilled Portobello Mushroom Salad