Sherry tasting at Casa Rubia

Casa Rubia Sherry Dinner

Although today is officially the first day of spring, it is raining this morning – again!  Well, I shouldn’t complain since we actually got two days in a row without rain.  In fact, it was warm both days, which was really nice last night when Sweet Shark and I made our way down to Trinity Groves for a night of sherry tasting and tapas at Casa Rubia as part of the four-day food celebration Savor Dallas.  It’s been awhile since we participated in any of the events during this food festival and we were eager especially for this one.  First, we had not been to Trinity Groves, the restaurant “village”  just over the Margaret Hill Hunt Bridge on the south side of the Trinity, since we attended the grand opening of Sharon Van Meter’s entertainment venue 3015 Trinity a few years ago.  We were amazed at the growth of the area; there must be a dozen restaurants, many with covered outdoor seating.  Second, we had wanted to try Casa Rubia, picked as one of the Top 10 Best Restaurants by food critic Leslie Brenner.  Third, we love tapas, especially after our trip to Barcelona last fall. And finally, we wanted to learn more about about sherry.  In 2005, we visited and fell in love with Cadiz and La Coruna in southern Spain, the center of all things sherry.  We were not disappointed.  Casa Rubia has a rustic decor with a large rectangular bar, some communal tables and an open kitchen that is warm and inviting. The first thing we noticed when we walked in was the delicious aroma.  Some awesome cooking was definitely going on here.  We were graciously led to the communal tables to join other attendees.  We sat across from Katherine and Karl, a delightful couple who we quickly discovered were as devoted to food, restaurants, and travel as we are. Our hostess brought the 3-course menu for the evening and poured our first glass of sherry – Manzanilla, Lustau Almacenista.  We thought it was a white wine until we tasted it; then the unmistakable taste of sherry came through.  Our hostess explained that this sherry is from a very small-batch winery near Cadiz that produces only 80 barrels a year. We learned that in Spanish chamomile tea is called manzanilla, thus the slight taste of tea. Then our first course came: Esparragos, described as First of the Season Asparagus, Iberico Lardo, Quail Egg, Crispy Ham-Dill Vinaigrette.  Such a pretty dish and once again, fabulous aroma.  The asparagus had been lightly grilled or roasted ( My two favorite ways to prepare asparagus.) to a a tender crisp texture, the Iberico lardo (Iberico is the ham only raised in Spain and lardo is pork fat) lent a slightly salty, barely smokey taste to the vinaigrette.  I swear the egg was so fresh, the quail must be laying eggs behind the restaurant.

Casa Rubia asparagus

Our next sherry, Palo Cortado de Jerez, Lustau Ammacentista, had an amber color to it.  From the same vineyard as the first sherry, this one had a richer flavor.  Only 50 barrels are produced a year – you won’t find these sherries at Total Wine.  It was paired with Rabo de toro: Oxtail (obviously braised to a silky texture and rich flavor), Creamy Farro, Spring Vegetables (tiny diced carrots and a bit of spinach on top), Smoked Onion Jus.  Again, the aromas and flavors make your mouth water.  The blend of tastes and the sherry worked beautifully together.

 

Casa Rubia farro

Our third sherry selection was sweeter and thicker in texture, just the type of sherry to finish the evening and pair with dessert,  Pedro Ximenez, Bodegas Toro Albala Gran Reserva 1983.  This 25-year-old sherry is meant to be sipped slowly (well, aren’t all sherries meant to be sipped slowly?) and savored.  Presented in glass jars, our dessert was rich and filling with hints of vanilla, ginger and caramel:  Vanilla Bean Flan, Apple-Almond Bread Pudding, Ginger Ice Cream, Sea Salt Caramel. Our hostess ceremoniously spooned the caramel sauce on each dessert.

Casa rubia dessert

After reluctantly finishing the last sips of our sherry and the last spoonfuls of flan and caramel sauce, we bid adios to our table partners and headed outside.  The twinkling lights in the surrounding trees and the warm (what a delight after cold weather) evening air enticed us to walk down what I can only describe as a boardwalk connecting all the restaurants.  Every outdoor eating area was packed and several of the restaurants were full inside as well.  The atmosphere was lively, joyous, and I hate to say this, but didn’t feel like Dallas.  When we first heard about Trinity Groves, we were skeptical: would people really come here to eat?  Well, the answer is a resounding yes.  Which proves that people will drive to get great, creative food in a great atmosphere with outdoor seating.  We will definitely be back to Casa Rubia for a full dinner experience and hopefully try some of the other venues.  Until then, Salud!

 

Rainy-day soup brightens my day

Last Monday it poured down rain all day.  After finishing a private cooking class that I teach every month for a women’s organization, I started thinking about dinner for Sweet Shark and me.  With no leftovers from the class to heat up, I needed to start from scratch.  But I really wasn’t in the mood to venture outside.  So I began the search – what’s in the fridge, freezer and pantry that I could use to make a delicious, warming meal?  This is actually one of my favorite ways to cook, use what you have and be creative.  A great reason to have certain staples always on hand.  As I did my “foraging” in the kitchen, it came to me.  Soup! Of course.

Here’s what I had in the pantry: a can of white beans and a can of diced tomatoes, and one russet potato

Here’s what I had in the freezer: a half pound of ground beef and a half pound of ground turkey (that was left from the cooking class)

Here’s what I had in the fridge:  one large carrot, half a large onion and about 2 cups of stock, a head of red leaf lettuce, feta cheese, and half an apple (salad!  yea!)

And, of course, I had plenty of garlic, vinegar, oil, salt and pepper, a shallot, and Dijon mustard (Maille, my favorite brand) for a vinaigrette.  By the time Sweet Shark got home, I had a rich, comforting soup ready for dinner.  Add a salad and crusty bread, turn the fireplace on, and we ate like a king and queen.

Here is how I made this easy, but tasty soup.  It served us one dinner and four servings of lunch.

soup with carrots and onions

Dice to yield 1 cup onion, 1 large carrot and 2 garlic cloves

soup potatoes

Small dice one russet potato, or whatever potato you have on hand. Remember, this preparation is about what you already have.

soup beans

Drain and rinse the beans. This is a step you always want to do; it gets rid of the gummy liquid and added salt.

soup pot

One of my favorite pots – my Le Creuset enamel pot in Fennel.

soup meat

Combine the ground beef and ground turkey in the soup pot.

soup browning meat

As the meats cook, break up the pieces up with the back of a spoon. Stir and cook until all the pink is gone.

soup combining

Add the diced onion, carrot and garlic and cook until soft, but not brown. If you like, you can sweat the vegetables first in a little oil, and then add the meats.

soup adding potatoes

Add the potatoes and stir. Cook about five minutes.

soup liquids

Add the diced tomatoes and about 2 cups of stock. I had beef stock on hand, but chicken or vegetable will do just fine.  Cook about 30 minutes or longer – until you’re ready to eat.

soup finished

Taste and season with salt and pepper. Add any other seasoning you like, such as red pepper flakes, Tabasco, herbes de Provence, any fresh herbs, or some grated cheese. I added grated Parmesan.

The great thing about this soup is its ease, quickness, and its versatility.  Use all ground beef or all ground turkey, add a different type of bean (cannellini or black), add some corn kernels – the possibilities are endless.  Like most soups, this one got better each time we heated it up.  After dry, but partly sunny days, it’s raining again today.  I sure wish I still had some of the soup left.  Enjoy!!

A table to eat on

When Sweet Shark and I downsized a few years ago, we sold our huge glass-top, stone pedestal dining room table.  Since then we’ve used our breakfast room table in our dining room.  Now, this was a very nice table, which was custom-made with a pewter base and stained wood top.  But it didn’t fit our new dining room with our 19th century French vaisselier, our antique marble-topped commode, and our champagne-colored crystal chandelier.  I wanted a French looking table, one that looked like I found it in a French brocantes or country cottage.  I knew I couldn’t afford the real thing, but I also knew I could get just the look I wanted if I was patient.  In the past two years, I’ve become addicted to painting old, vintage furniture, frames, baskets – in fact, anything I can get my hands on with Annie Sloan Chalk Paint.  Well, my patience paid off with a little help from my friend Susie.  I (actually, Susie) found the perfect table – well, almost perfect.  See what I started with, what I did, and the finished dining table and chairs on paint projects.

A book and a bookplate

It has been so cold the past week that I have hunkered down and continuing to read and study La Varenne Pratique, the fabulous textbook of Anne Willan’s cooking school in France years ago. It is such a wealth of information, much of which I studied in culinary school, but it never hurts to read again about sauces (White sauce class is tomorrow night), how to truss a chicken, or blanch a bean. I did have the most exciting thing happen recently.  After reading that Anne has a new book coming out in March, I commented on her website about how much I loved her books and that I had done a book review of One Souffle at a Time for a book club last fall and that I also reviewed the book  here on July 15.  Her assistant contacted me and asked if I would like signed bookplates from Anne. Well, yes! A few days later, three book plates arrived with a sweet note from Anne.  That made my day!

La Varenne

 

Last week I also finished The Perfectionist:  Life and Death in Haute Cuisine.  Everyone wants to be the best at what they do. Some people can carry the pursuit of perfection to the extreme, and no where is this effort more apparent than in the restaurant business of France.  For decades, French chefs have pursued the Holy Grail of achieving three Michelin stars – the pinnacle of culinary success. This true story of Bernard Loiseau’s life and career, his world renown rise to culinary perfection and his sad spiral to suicide, is told by his friend and journalist Rudolph Chelminski. Read the rest of the story here.

Red Velvet Cake for Sweet Shark

 

Red Velvet Cake is Sweet Shark’s favorite and I try to make him one every year for Valentine’s Day.  (I did miss last year as we were packing to leave on a cruise.)  Over the years, I’ve used different recipes, but most for Red Velvet Cake are very similar; all have dark cocoa in the batter as well as some acid added, either vinegar or buttermilk or both.  And, of course, red food coloring.  Otherwise, the procedure follows a standard cake baking technique; that’s why Red Velvet Cake is a great cake for novice bakers as well as experts.  Usually, the frosting is a cream cheese one.  Making this cake is special because I use my mom’s heart-shaped cake pan. So follow along as I show you how I made this one.  The cake recipe is from epicurous.com and the frosting recipe is from Ina Garten.  Find the recipe on the Recipe Page.

Red Velvet Cake 1

I use a pencil to trace a heart on parchment paper. When you cut it out, cut inside your pencil line to fit the pan. Then cut 2-inch strips to go around the pan.

Red Velvet Cake 5

I use butter wrappers to grease the bottom and sides. Lay your parchment paper inside and then spray with cooking spray on top of the parchment paper. This makes removing the cake easy.

Red Velvet Cake 3

My mise place for the cake. Only thing missing is the buttermilk which was still the fridge. Notice that I have my baking soda and baking powder in air-tight containers – so much easier to measure out than out of the boxes.

Red Velvet Cake 2

The cake flour needs to be sifted BEFORE measuring. I like to use a fine mesh sieve. Since I don’t use cake flour often, I keep it in the refrigerator.

red Velvet Cake 4

After adding the cocoa,baking soda, baking powder, and salt, you will need to sift all the dry ingredients together with the flour.

Red Velvet Cake 6

The first step in most cakes is to cream the room temperature butter and sugar until thoroughly blended and smooth.

Red Velvet Cake 10

Next step is to add your eggs – in this case two – one at a time. This is when the batter gets a creamy consistency.

Red Velvet Cake 8

Whisk the wet ingredients – the buttermilk, vinegar, vanilla extract, and red food coloring to combine. I like to use a measuring cup which makes it easy to add to the mixing bowl.

Red Velvet Cake 12

Dry and wet ingredients are added alternately, dry, wet, dry, wet, dry.

Red Velvet Cake 13

Once all the dry and wet ingredients are added and blended, the batter comes together.

Red Velvet 15

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. The original recipe calls for two 9″ round pans baking for 27 minutes. Since I put all the batter in one pan, I increased the baking time to 40 minutes.

 

After the cake cools in the pan, take out of the pan, remove the parchment paper.  Using a serrated knife, I cut the cake in half horizontally.

After the cake cools in the pan, take out of the pan, remove the parchment paper. Using a serrated knife, I cut the cake in half horizontally.

Red Velvet Cake stand

On your cake stand or platter, place three strips of parchment paper. This will make icing the cake much easier.

Red Velvet Cake slicing

A large cake mover makes placing the two cake layers on the cake plate.

Red Velvet Cake 11

After icing the cake, I added red sprinkles to give the cake a little sparkle. Sweet Shark couldn’t wait to have a slice.

 

 

The elegant egg

Humans have been eating eggs for thousands of years, for good reason:  high protein content, low cost, and chickens are small and easy to raise.  In the kitchen, we can hardly cook or bake without them since eggs provide texture, flavor, structure, moisture to everything from cakes to soup to sauces, custards, ice cream, pastries, and breads. But, for my money, nothing tastes as natural as a good old fried egg.  How quick can you say “meal”?  A fried egg cooks in about 5 minutes.  For years, I’ve made my fried eggs the way Julia recommends in How to Master the Art of French Cooking, using butter (with Julia, what else would you fry an egg in?).  Her method was to put a pat of butter in a skillet, heat until it melts and the foaming subsides, add the egg, salt and pepper, and cook.  Always worked for me.  In the January 2015, Bon Appetit, an article about frying an egg in olive oil grabbed my attention. I love olive oil and we use it more than butter.  (Years ago I replaced butter with extra virgin olive oil on my popcorn – I’m a popcorn fanatic! – and I’ve never gone back to butter.)  Since olive oil has less than half the saturated fat grams of butter (2 versus 7), and raises our good cholesterol and lowers our bad (calorieking.com),  all the more reason to try this method.  Fortunately, our friends Mike and Wende have chickens in their backyard and occasionally we are the lucky recipients of their – do you say harvest?  They have eight chickens, but only seven lay eggs; Wende explained that one has not gone through chicken puberty; who knew that chickens have puberty?  Nothing is as good as an unadulterated, straight from the chicken, egg.  They really taste better than store bought and usually the yolks are more orange than yellow.

eggs home grown

Mike and Wende’s eggs. Aren’t they pretty? Notice the different colors of the shells? That doesn’t have any bearing on the taste or freshness of the eggs.

I always crack my eggs into a ramekin first.

egg 1

Isn’t this the prettiest, most perfect thing on the planet?

Now, I like my fried egg a little crisp around the edges and sunny side up which was exactly how this method described the resulting egg.   So, to fry an egg in olive oil, you need a non-stick or cast-iron skillet.  Make sure it’s big enough for you to move the egg(s) around. Heat the skillet over medium-high heat until very hot.  Add about one or two tablespoons of olive oil.  Add your egg and immediately season with salt and pepper.  The oil should bubble a bit around the egg. Cook until the edges of the white start to brown a bit, about two minutes.  Use a spatula to rotate the egg around the skillet.  You can add red chili flakes or cayenne for an added pop of flavor. Remove the egg to a plate and enjoy.  As expected, the egg tasted delicious and so natural.  I like to tear a slice of whole wheat bread into pieces to sop up the yolk.

egg frying

Notice how the yolk stays in the middle of the white? That’s the sign of a good, fresh egg.

egg frying 2

After adding the salt and pepper, the edges are starting to crisp.

Even if you don’t have access to fresh eggs, do try this method.  Your heart and your taste bugs will thank you.

 

Slice and dice your way to culinary perfection

“Having sharp, great knives will enable you to cook very precisely. Knife skills are essential in cooking.” – Eric Ripert

On Monday I taught one of my very favorite classes: Knife Skills 101.  Julia Child said that the only tool you need in the kitchen is a chef’s knife.  I wouldn’t go that far – I couldn’t live without my food processor, Kitchen Aid mixer, or microplane – but I’ll be the first to shout out that a good, sharp chef’s knife is the most essential tool in the kitchen shed.  When I was in culinary school, proper execution of correct knife skills was emphasized in every class.  Proper knife cuts were praised and sloppy knife cuts were severely criticized. Knowing how to properly care for and use knives should be the goal of every cook, no matter how much or how little you cook.  Ironically enough, in Wednesday’s Dallas Morning News Arts & Life section; the featured article is called “Blades of Glory”.

There is nothing secret or mysterious about Knife Skills.  You don’t have to chop or dice fast, just accurately.  You just have to practice.  So, here in a nutshell are ten lessons that I teach in Knife Skills 101.  As a caveat, nothing takes the place of attending a Knife Skills class where an instructor can demonstrate cuts, you can practice and be critiqued, ask questions, and, of course, eat the fruits of your labors.

Lesson 1 – this is a chef’s knife.  It is the go-to knife for most tasks in the kitchen.  The distance from the spine to the heel, about 1 1/2 inches allows you to wrap your knuckles around the handle to chop, dice, and slice.  The slightly curved cutting edge allows you to rock the knife for chopping.  Most of the time, you use the middle and front half of the knife for chopping and dicing.  The length of most chef’s knife is 7 1/2 – 9 1/2-inches, but some can be longer.

anatomy of knife

Lesson 2 – this is how to properly hold a knife: the thumb is on one side of the blade and the index finger is curled around the other side.  Your last three fingers are curved around the handle.  This method gives you maximum control, and the knife becomes an extension of your hand. Do not be tempted to put your index finger on top of the spine.  You lose control.

holding a knife

Lesson 3 – one of the most common questions I am asked is what brand of knife to buy.  And, I always answer that I can’t tell you. With so many good brands of knives on the market, you should choose the one that feels the best in your hand.  That’s why I recommend going to a reputable cooking store and hold several different brands.  The size of your hand and the weight of the knife should be a factor in the right knife for you. Do not buy a knife online.  Do not buy knives in sets.  It’s a waste of money and you won’t use half of them.   Don’t buy knives that claim to cut pennies – you’re not cutting pennies, you are cutting food.  Buy the best knife you can afford. A knife is an investment.  If you take proper care of it, a good chef’s knife will outlive you. Just this morning I received a message from Sur la Table that they are having a knife sale this weekend; great prices so check it out at Sur la Table.

Lesson 4 – take care of your knives.  Never, ever put them in the dishwasher.  Never throw them into a drawer.  Never use them to open a can or turn a screw. Wash and dry them as soon as you use them. After cutting proteins, always sanitize to prevent cross-contamination.  Do not scrap them across your cutting board to pick up cut items.

Lesson 5 – keep your knives sharp.  The saying “the sharper your knife, the less you cry” is true.  A sharp knife is a safe knife.  The more you use your knives, the more often they need to be sharpened.  Use a steel to hone the knife  and keep it on edge.  A whetstone can be used on a periodic basis to give a really sharp edge.  Do not have your knives sharpened except by a reputable and trusted source.  Once metal is taken off the edge, it can’t be put back.  Our Dallas Sur la Table charges $5.00 per knife.  Well worth it. Check with your local Sur la Table about its sharpening services.

steel

a steel is used to hone the knife, keeping the edge straight

whetstone

a whetstone is used to sharpen the knife by running both sides of the blade across the surface at a 20° angle

Lesson 6 – knives are dangerous.  When walking, hold the blade facing back and close to your side, never facing forward.  Never put them in a sink of soapy water where they can’t be seen.  If you drop your knife, let it go; don’t try to catch it.

knife safety

Lesson 7 – only use wood or plastic cutting boards.  I use my Boos wood cutting boards for everything but proteins.  I use the flexible cutting boards for all proteins.  Keep the board clean, washing after each use with hot soapy water.  Never put a wooden cutting board in the dishwasher, but plastic is O.K.  placed away from the heating element.  Never cut on your counter top; it will dull the knife edge. Place a damp paper towel under the board to hold it in place.

a wooden cutting board provides a large surface on which to cut

a wooden cutting board provides a large surface on which to cut

flexible plastic cutting boards are good for working with proteins

flexible plastic cutting boards are good for working with proteins

Lesson 8 –  Proper knife cuts are essential to the aesthetics of food presentation, especially in items like salsas, garnishes, soups, stews, and salads.  The size and shape of food affects cooking time.  Learn the proper technique for dicing and slicing onions. Speaking of onions, don’t put them in a food processor to dice; they will get very watery and not pretty.

Lesson 9 – Have your own knife.  Everyone has their own way of cutting.  I’m left-handed and Sweet Shark is right-handed.  I guarantee: after years of using our knives, they have a different edge.  Usually, women like a shorter knife than men.  In short, try not to share.

knife comparison

Sweet Shark’s knife is on top; the blade is 10 1/4 inches. My knife is on the bottom; the blade is 8 inches.

Lesson 10 – When using your chef’s knife, stand directly facing your cutting board.  Relax your shoulders and keep your elbows against your sides.  The work is done from the elbow to the hand.  Keep your knife on the board.  I had an instructor say that if your are making alot of noise with your knife, you’re doing something wrong.

These lessons are just the beginning – even before you start practicing actual technique.  We’ll save that for a later time.  If you can’t make it to a knife skills class locally, check out videos on the web.  I discovered one from The French Chef on PBS circa 1960’s, Julia Child Knife Skills Video; I’m happy to say Julia and I agree on just about everything.  Julia also makes French Onion Soup in the video.  We made one in my Knife Skills class and you can find my recipe for French Onion Soup on the Recipe page.