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Monday, May 30, 2011

Cooking With Carl – New Easy DIY Column on The Flirty Guide

Stacie Tamaki and I do not completely agree on every single bite. I love mushrooms and she avoids them at all costs. She loves to bake and I prefer to leave that up to the professionals. However, what I have learned in all my culinary travels is that a true food lover or foodie goes beyond just personal tastes and trends. What we do agree upon is we both love food. That's why I call her my fellow foodie friend and she has asked me to share some of my favorite recipes on her website, The Flirty Guide. 

Another thing we agree about is that food should be fun and making it should be easy enough for the average cook. That's why we've teamed up to offer step-by-step tutorials in my brand new culinary column called "Cooking with Carl".

Here's a few highlights from the first recipes we have featured so far.

Healthy Breakfast Bars

Summer Pasta Salad

Stacie and I hope you will try and enjoy some of these favorite recipes of mine. For more of them plus stories about our food excursions come over to my blog at Carl Loves Food.

Fun Appetite!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

May Food Excursion: Best of the East Bay – Volume 1

Cheddar Cheese Grits with Tomatoes, Chiles and Onions

When my fellow foodie friend, Stacie Tamaki, and I started discussing an East Bay Day I thought it might be a stretch. But after just a few hours on what amounted to just a couple of streets I realized we had truly hit a goldmine on the Oakland/Berkeley border not far from the U.C. campus.

So we set off to arrive early enough for some of the morning specialties upon which Aunt Mary's Cafe is making a name for itself. This food is breakfast centric and was featured on The Food Network show, Diners, Drive-Ins Dives. It was their signature dish called Southern Bubble and Squeak that had me from hello. The menu lists four dishes under the heading of Designer Eggs and they are not kidding. Bubble and Squeak features two perfectly poached (or anyway you want them cooked) eggs perched on top of mashed potato pancakes and smothered in pot likker gravy which is made from the drippings of the spicy collard greens. If that isn't enough flavor overload already, it is served with a giant fresh scratch made biscuit. This photo really speaks for itself.

The more I ate, the better it looked (and tasted!) as this closer in shot reveals below.

Southern Bubble and Squeak with Poached Eggs, Spicy Collard Greens and Biscuit
We also tried the cheesy grits with roma tomatoes you saw in my first photo above. We thought this dish was going to be a small side but we were completely wrong. It could have stood alone as a main entree for any breakfast, brunch or lunch. Oddly enough we just had some of the biscuit left over to go dipping into the cheese-a-licious grits. Just tasting a bite of this breakfast is not an option. It took a lot of will power not to finish every delicious bite to save room for all of the food ahead.

Casual and comfortable is the word in this college town and Aunt Mary's Cafe is no exception. Milk bottles and Mason jars are on every table for hydration. They are open only for breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Sunday and offer brunch specials on the weekends.

One of many spots here that have a kind of cool college vibe.

A MUST try for breakfast, lunch or brunch.

Our next stop was right up the street at Bake Sale Betty. This place is so popular that it defies common sense advertising, marketing and promotion practices like having a sign on the building. But when you have a line down the block of people waiting to grab your lunch special who needs a sign? Do you get the feeling that outside-the-box might be the method of operation here? Just for starters they have a line of festive colored ironing boards for dining outside. Very Berkeley but also very cool. And then there's the food. Many of these folks are lined up for one incredible chicken sandwich. Inside I took a few photos of the assembly line cranking them out to meet the huge lunch rush.

It all begins with this crispy slaw of cabbage, jalapenos, red onion and parsley.
An assembly line makes for quick order filling of these popular sandwiches.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken and the slaw fill a fresh soft roll...That's all.

We opted for the vegetarian version of the sandwich. They took a generous portion of tofu and fried it in the same buttermilk batter as the chicken. It was superb and the closest thing to an actual fried chicken breast I have ever eaten. It had no mayo, mustard or secret sauce of any type but the flavors exploded.

This bite was my favorite of the entire East Bay Food Day.

Oh yeah, and what about the bake sale? Obviously, everything was made from scratch like this chocolate chip cookie we felt obligated to taste. After all, it is first and foremost a bakery even though they are cranking out some really tasty lunch food too.

Next on our agenda was called Gather. Gather sits on the ground floor of a rather tall modern building
so your first impression looking up is rather grand. It's not the type of setting where you'd expect to find an organic natural foods restaurant.

However, inside the vibe and food is just as earthy as you would expect with warm colors and an inviting open kitchen. The pizza oven is central to the action and cranks out their very popular pies.

We had heard that the Kale "Caesar" Salad was one of their specialties. It had roasted carrots, crispy capers, breadcrumbs, a faux "parmesan" cheese made with almonds and nori. It was both vegan and gluten free but full of flavor.

Kale "Caesar" Salad

We also shared an open faced sandwich which topped a slice of toasted bread with a spicy chick pea spread, sauteed Hen of the Woods mushrooms and melted cheese. It was spicy, rich and satisfying. We simply could not finish it all but Stacie always comes prepared with to-go containers and I packed an ice chest in the car.

Our final destination was Alice Waters' world famous Chez Panisse for dessert in their upstairs cafe.
This stop was our very first monthly food tour destination that required a reservation. Although completely understated everything about this place is right from the very first impression you get at the entrance. Their reputation that precedes them is completely deserved.

We ordered our own desserts and I chose the Walnut-ricotta cake with orange honey coulis and vanilla cream. Stacie honed right in on the Crimson rhubarb tart with ginger ice cream. To see her choice and hear all about her version of our day in the East Bay click here.

Walnut-Ricotta Cake with Orange Honey Coulis and Vanilla Cream

Our server was named Colleen who was super friendly and engaging. Forget the fact that we just ordered dessert. She was giving us the kind of experience you would expect at a restaurant of this caliber. She took lots of time to explain the desserts and made all kinds of suggestions. When we did not opt for her favorite, the Stracciatella Ice Cream with chocolate streaks, caramel sauce and candied pecans she even brought us a complimentary sample to taste. That's Chez Panisse for you. When she found out that we were bloggers, she invited us for a kitchen tour. I have been in my fair share of commercial kitchens but I have never seen one like Chez Pannise and their cafe. I got an instant sense of calmness, competence and confidence from the chefs at work. Both the decor and demeanor fit the reputation of this culinary icon.

Chez Panisse chefs prep for this evening's dinner.

Colleen gave us a tour of the entire Chez Panisse facility which was originally a residence. This next photo is of the employee's break room which is not really a room but a beautiful outdoor patio. Even their break area is in keeping with the very cool vibe there. Exceptional is really the best way to describe the whole Chez Panisse experience.

Employee Break Area

Feeling more than satisfied we headed home but felt compelled to visit one more East Bay famous food spot called The Berkeley Bowl.

Famous For Food...A Local Legend of a Grocery Store

It might not be the largest grocery store in the world but it is certainly the best stocked especially when it comes to produce. I have never seen selection like this anywhere. My first two photos are of just the apples alone.

One side of the apple section.

Turning 180 degrees for the other side of the apple section.
Stacie was amazed at the selection of eggplant. She counted the twelve different varieties. I couldn't even name them all but managed to capture them in this one photo.

A different eggplant for each of The Twelve Days of Christmas

In produce heaven it was impossible to pick my favorite section but these exotic Asian and Hispanic fruits were right up there near the top. Having all of these unique ingredients in one place is really a rarity. It's like putting every ethnic grocery store under one roof.

This food excursion far exceeded my expectations. In just a short distance we not only enjoyed exceptional food but we also passed by dozens of likely places for next time. I expected to cover the East Bay in a day but we only covered the tip of the iceberg. There will be a next time because this area is loaded with unique food destinations of all kinds and I am already eager for our return engagement. Stay tuned for Volume 2.

More Food Adventures:

January - The Eats of San Francisco:
February - A Tasty Tour of Santa Cruz
March - The Cowgirl Creamery
April - Confessions of a Sushi Virgin
May - Best of the East Bay
June - Palo Alto Eateries
July - Cheap Eats & Secret Menus

Monday, May 23, 2011

Dono dal Cielo Debuts Four New Wines at The Chef's Table

Last week I had great timing while in Sacramento for a two day golf tournament. My in-laws had planned a winemaker's dinner at one of my favorite area eateries The Chef's Table in Rocklin. What was the occasion? The release of four new wines from Dono dal Cielo.

The Chef's Table is the brainchild of Chef David Hill and a perfect place for a winemaker's dinner. They call themselves a "Market Fresh Bistro and Wine Bar" and they are always serving up tasty small plates that make for perfect sharing and pairing. I have never eaten there without sampling a half dozen menu items and multiple pours. They often run out of items because everything is made from scratch and based on ingredient availability. However, disappointment is never a factor because the crew at The Chef's Table are adept at preparing and innovating. They can think on their feet and cook accordingly so whatever they serve reflects it. Sometimes The Chef's Table almost makes me feel like I am dining at a culinary academy because of Chef Hill's flexibility and spontaneity. It seems like we are forever making substitution requests to test wine pairings and our suggestions are not only taken in stride but our expectations exceeded. To see Chef David Hill's impressive culinary background which includes teaching at Cordon Bleu College in Sacramento click here.

As an example of this spontaneous deliciousness The Chef's Table is known for we were greeted with a crostini appetizer with goat cheese smear that wasn't even included on our special winemaker menu. Chef David's little surprise starter paired beautifully with our first wine of the evening, the new 2010 Sauvignon Blanc.

I could have easily made a meal out of these tasty little toasties but I restrained knowing very well that a host of more great offerings awaited me from this tiny boutique bistro.

Crostini Close Up

Our first official course came in the form of a Thai Green Papaya Salad with Grilled Red Curry Salmon. Both the portion and big flavor of this dish was so satisfying that I almost hesitate calling it a small plate. The papaya had a nice crunchy texture and the red curry perfectly complimented the salmon without taking over. It was a natural segue from the crostinis as they continued to pour the Sauv Blanc.

Thai Green Salad topped with Grilled Red Curry Salmon

The next course was a beautiful seafood bisque made with Shrimp and Scallops. Wine #2 was their second vintage of Chardonnay 2008.

We then moved into the new 2010 Ta Rosé for a Grilled Spring Onion Panzanilla Salad with Roasted Beets and Strawberry Vinaigrette. This bread salad was hearty and could stand alone in a larger size as an entree itself. Grilling the spring onions and roasting the beets added serious earthy goodness tossed with the sweet berry dressing.

Grilled Spring Onion Panzanilla Salad with Roasted Beets

The signature wine of Dono da Cielo is their Zinfandel. Here Braum on the left and Joe keep both the 2007 and the brand new 2008 Zins flowing as we headed into the main course of the dinner.

There was nothing small about the plate or flavors of the main course, Pork Loin Saltimbocca. It was full entree size and served with a Roasted Potato Salad, Pesto Oil and Tomato Fondue. As you can see the colorful presentation was as impressive as it was actually delicious.

Pork Lion Saltimbocca Entree

To cap things off we finished the evening with Chocolate Espresso Cake, Blackberry coulis and Candied Pecans paired with Late Harvest Zinfandel Port.

Chocolate Cake, Coulis and Candied Pecan Conclusion!

The vibe at The Chef's Table is both bustling and intimate at the same time. There is seldom enough space for the crowds who line up every night to be there but that creates a buzz and spontaneous chatter among the tables. Meeting and greeting the other patrons is almost unavoidable. The food and wine sharing/pairing along with the staff's expert suggestions just brings the whole experience together. This wide room shot really shows the open kitchen and bar seating which is a focal point.

Open Kitchen with bar seating is the hub of the action at The Chef's Table

Fred (left) with Chef Hill and Sweet Lou (right)

My favorite seat in house is right at the bar where I can watch the cooks do their thing in a very open kitchen. Reservations for dinner are highly suggested but they are now also open for lunch Tuesday through Friday. 916-771-5656 or online.

My parting shot is of Dono dal Cielo's Director of Sales, Hunter McGillivray (left) and Chef David Hill hamming it up for me at the end of a very successful winemaker's dinner to debut four new wines. This evening paired some really good food and wine. It also paired two small boutique purveyors of food and wine who excel at their crafts by keeping it handcrafted. You have to look hard to find The Chef's Table tucked away in a strip mall in Rocklin.  Dono dal Cielo Vineyards is definitely off the beaten path on a Newcastle country road you won't find near any freeway exit. However, if both these brands continue to deliver as they have been, they will no longer be two of the best kept culinary and viticulture secrets in the greater Capital City area.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Carl Cooks: Pappardelle With Crab, Buttered Artichokes & Mint

I am forever experimenting and trying new recipes. However, along the way some of them become keepers that I know result in proven no–risk dishes. For this simple pasta dish I once again defer to one of my favorite recipe sources from the Tyler Florence, cookbook, "Tyler's Ultimate." Some of my favorite comfort food recipes come from this collection and I have previoulsy posted about Tyler's version of French Onion Soup and Macaroni & Cheese.

8 ounces of dried Pappardelle pasta (fat noodles)
1 large jar (32 ounces) whole Artichoke hearts in water (not marinated)
1/2 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 container lump crab meat (or 1 pound fresh crab)
Dried red pepper flakes (pinch)
Fresh Mint Leaves (about 1/2 bunch)
1 Lemon (Zest and Juice)
Unsalted Butter (1/2 cube)
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese (3/4 cup)

A word about the PASTA.
Pappardelle (pronounced: pop-par-del-lay) is a flat very ribbon pasta which is about three times wider than fettucini. Although fresh is nice I find that the dry version readily available at Trader Joe's works just as well for this dish. Tyler's recipe calls for one pound but the 8 ounce package sold at TJ's makes for a great main course for 4 to 6 with leftovers.

A word about the CRAB.
Another serious shortcut for this dish is using the pasteurized crab in a plastic container sold in the refrigerated section of Costco. It is the easiest way to get one quick pound of delicious lump crab meat for $14.99.

This option is a great shortcut alternative to extracting all the meat from a crab.

Start a large pot of water boiling for the pasta.
Finely mince one half of the mint leaves and reserve the rest for garnish.
Melt the butter and oil together in a large pan.
Add the artichoke hearts, red pepper flakes and crab meat.
Add the lemon juice, zest, minced mint and sauté until all flavors combine.

Melting butter and extra virgin olive oil together for huge flavor.

In go the chokes and a good pinch of red pepper flakes for kick.

Zesting the lemon right into the pool!

Add salt to the boiling water and cook pasta per package instructions.
Drain pasta and spread it onto a serving platter.
Top with the crab and artichoke mixture.
Garnish with the whole mint leaves, more lemon zest and grated cheese.
Toss together with the pasta as you serve.

You can make this dish more complicated by using fresh artichokes, whole crabs and even making your own pasta but I prefer to keep it simple. As easy as this recipe is to make the flavor layers run deep. The buttery artichokes, sweet crab meat, fresh mint and slight heat from the crushed red peppers just snap even when re-heated as a leftover. All of moisture from the artichokes buttery glaze keeps the fat noodles from sticking together. My parting shot is just one last close up shot of all the goodness.