Archive | October, 2010

Road Trip: Bite After Luscious Bite at Denver Restaurants

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I’ve been visiting Denver since I was a little kid and I always remember fondly the friendly people, the gorgeous weather and the beautiful mountains.  However, until this year,  I did not equate Denver with great food.

Little did I know that my not quite annual trip to Denver to see dear friends would yield some of the most interesting food I’ve had all year. Their food scene is happening and sustainable, local food is front and center.  As confirmation of the changes in Denver’s restaurants, the New York Times ran an article about farmer/gardener chefs in Denver the weekend I was there.

We kicked off our culinary adventures shortly after I disembarked from the plane.  Lindy and I grabbed lunch at one of her local favorites, Fuel Cafe, a casual cafe a short drive from downtown that features seasonal dishes often from its own garden.

We ordered the oven baked “fried” chicken special served with their version of potato and bean salad and the pressed Cubano sandwich.   Both were delicious, based on traditional dishes but with a few twists that made them unique.  The chicken was amazingly crispy and I couldn’t believe it came from the oven.  The potato salad was more like a chilled version of green beans and new potatoes with a lovely, tangy dressing.  The pork on the Cubano was fall apart tender and they handmade pickles and mustard were fantastic – giving the sandwich a very unique kick.

Fried Chicken and New Potato Salad at Fuel Cafe Cuban Sandwich at Fuel Cafe

This trip was definitely off to a good start.  Lindy suggested that we forgo dessert at Fuel Cafe and head over to D Bar Desserts, home of celebrity Chef Keegan Gerhard.   While I’m not big on desserts, I was interested in what all the fuss was about so I acquiesced.   I loved sitting at the counter watching the cooks prep for their evening rush while we poured over the menu with frequent peaks at the cold case to see if there was something we preferred there.

We settled on the original and most famous Cake and Shake, an absolutely enormous slice of chocolate cake paired with a vanilla or chocolate shake or malt.  Um, yum!  I get it.  The fuss is well deserved.  The cake was moist and rich and the shake was lick your lips delicious.

Cake & Shake at D Bar Desserts

For dinner, we headed to Steuben’s, serving traditional diner fare with a modern twist using locally sourced ingredients.  The restaurant is fun and hip and, with a thoughtful selection of craft cocktails and beers, was absolutely packed on a Friday night.

We happened to catch the last night of Denver’s version of Eat Local Week and I celebrated by ordering the Colorado lamb french dip.  French dip sandwiches always remind me of having lunch with my grandfather at Swensen’s in Amarillo.  I thought it was so fun that I got to dip my sandwich in the jus. Steuben’s french dip was a great rendition with the tender lamb giving it a lovely richness.  Add in a couple of their delicious deviled eggs and I was in comfort food heaven.

Deviled Eggs at Steuben'sColorado Lamb French Dip at Steuben's

One of my favorite things about Steuben’s was the kid’s menu which offered a number of healthy choices that were then presented on a divider plate.  My friends’ daughter loved her edamame, green beans and hot dog.

Kid's Meal at Steuben's

During my visit, I achieved a significant personal milestone.  We decided we should celebrate and Jason and Lindy picked one of their local favorites, TAG, for the occasion.  TAG touts itself as “Continental Social Food” with an emphasis on sharing small plates.  The dishes celebrate the best of many food cultures while using some of the finest local meats and produce.

Each dish was flavorful and well executed from the playful presentation of the Taco Sushi (think tuna tartare in a taco shell) to the perfectly cooked hanger steak.  Again, I was impressed with how easily the server integrated a 4 year-olds needs into the evening, bringing her a plate of perfectly-sized Kobe sliders and fries – that she devoured.  They even brought her a special dessert.

Tuna Tartare Tacos Local Hanger SteakKid's Meal at TAG

And on the topic of dessert, I felt like I was back at Milk Bar when they brought me three different house made flavors of ice cream including cereal milk (cereal soaked in milk then they use the milks for the ice cream.)  It sounds so weird and yet it was so good. I was immediately transported back to childhood and drinking the milk out of the cereal bowl when I was finished. (But then again, maybe you had better manners as a child.)

Triple Ice Cream Dessert at TAG

When our server found out I was from out of town, he recommended a few other restaurants for me to try including Euclid Hall, a new gastropub also in the LoDo (Lower Downtown) area.  I decided to explore Euclid Hall at lunch on Monday while my hosts were working and I fell in love.  I love everything about this restaurant – the historic building, the handmade pickles, mustards and charcturie, that they call happy hour Study Hall (please send me to study hall) – the whole shebang.

I sat by the pass so I was able to take pictures of almost everything that came out, and was having a hard time narrowing my choices.  I decided to order a lot and taste a little starting with the Crispy Buffalo-Style Pig Ears.  I’d never had pigs ears breaded and fried in this manner so that the ears were tender and the consistency was more like eating calamari or a french fry.  The Buffalo sauce was a terrific way to spice it up.

Fried Pigs Ears with Buffalo Sauce at Euclid HallHandmade pickles at Euclid Hall

I adore pickles and the pickle sampler did not disappoint.  Each variety was packed with flavor and tasted so different than the next.  The mustards were equally diverse and my favorite was the horseradish mustard which packed a serious punch.

But all of this was just a warm up for the best Boudin Noir I’ve ever had.  The curry and the eggplant gave the sausage a deep, luscious flavor and the sausage practically melted in your mouth.  I paired it with the grilled cabbage stack, a unique preparation of cabbage that is braised then grilled and topped with a currant vinaigrette.  It was a fun and playful twist to a traditional braised cabbage and sausage dish, which sums up Euclid Hall for me – charming and I playful twist on tradition.

Boudin Noir at Euclid HallPickled, Braised and Grilled Cabbage Stack at Euclid Hall

As I think about it, that might be a good way to capture my entire Denver culinary experience.  Every place we visited was friendly and open, turning out fantastic food, but always with a little wink to the playful.  It’s no wonder that we ate ourselves silly during my visit and there were countless places that we missed.  It’s a good thing Lindy & Jason have a treadmill at their house; I need to come back to hit the rest of our list!

View the full photo set on Flickr.

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Unprocessed Food Challenge Week #3: Navigating a Tailgate Party

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No Processed Food ChallengeWeek Three of my Unprocessed Food Challenge issued by Eating Rules was less difficult in many ways.  I feel like I hit my stride and it became easier to make good choices.  It helped that I ate a home quite a bit last week – always easier to eat unprocessed when you’re in your own kitchen.  I didn’t make anything fancy, just simple home cooked meals, but it was nice not to worry about what I was eating or what might be in it.  
The  one big hurdle I faced this week was Saturday when I attended the (dreadful) UT game with some friends.  At half time, we went to the Corral Club and it was clear that my food choices were very limited.  People were carrying around plates piled high with nachos drowning in Velveeta queso and loaded with meat and jalapenos.  I love nachos as much as the next person, but these did not look good at all.  Instead, they were an unappetizing tower of excess – very unappealing.  Stadium food was definitely out.

When it was clear in the third quarter that our football team wasn’t going to show up for the game, we headed to a friend’s tailgate where we were hopeful I could find something to eat.  The aroma of the meat on the grill enticed us as we approached the tailgate, but the first plate I saw was loaded with chips and queso.  Yikes!  Was I out of luck?

Fortunately, our friends had lovely sausages on the grill from a local butcher shop and some homemade menudo that was rich and satisfying.  Lunch was a win even if the game wasn’t.

I’m looking forward to this last week of the challenge.  Question of the week:  Can I skip the Skittles in my niece’s and nephew’s Trick or Treat bag on Sunday?  

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Unprocessed Food Challenge Week #2: The Temptations of Frito Pie

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No Processed Food ChallengeI’ve finished Week Two of the Unprocessed Food Challenge issued by Eating Rules and am becoming acutely aware of the challenges of escaping unprocessed food.  My schedule for this second week included the difficulties of being at a client site each day during lunch and having an event to attend every night.
I handled the mid-day meals easily by taking my lunch to my client.  I was able to control what I was eating and keep it healthy while away from home.   
The events were more challenging.  I did really well until Thursday night when I attended Austin Museum of Art’s La Dolce Vita fundraiser where restaurants and wineries give you samples of their wares.  Most of the restaurants were fine – making their dishes from scratch and no processed food in sight.  
Unfortunately, as we rounded the first corner at the event, there was Ranch 616 with their Venison Frito Pie. I love Frito pie.  It’s one of those dishes my Dad would make for us and it reminds me of summers at his house.  I didn’t even think.  I grabbed a bag.  It was delicious and crunchy and messy and –  I’d blown the challenge for the week.  Doh!  (again!)
I’m going to own up that, since I’d blown it with the Fritos, I let myself have some Frito Pie again yesterday at the Texas Chili Parlor when I met with some friends after the Book Festival.  If I’m going to fall off the unprocessed food wagon, might as well make it the same dish.  Technically, since this was on Sunday, it counts toward week three, but if I’m admitting my Frito transgressions, might as well admit them both at once.
In the grand scheme of things, having one unprocessed thing in a week of whole foods isn’t the end of the world, but I wish I had made the choice, like I did on Sunday, rather than just absent-mindedly grabbing the bag.  
Again, my lesson was about mindfulness.  I got caught up in the event and didn’t think about what I was grabbing.  It’s so easy to do when you are in a crowd, mixing and mingling and taking whatever is in front of you off the tray.   
My word for the rest of week three is focus!  I’m going to slow down when I make my choices to make sure they are good ones.
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The Joys of Slow Food and Rillettes

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“What are you going to do with the spine?”
Jesse, looks up after casually tossing the pig spine in a bucket, cocks his head and says, “It would be good for stock.  Want to bid on it?”  
I’m in a small hall in East Austin at the Slow Food Austin annual fundraiser and I’m watching Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due butcher a hog to auction off the pieces.  Of course, it’s not just any old hog.  This beautiful specimen is from Richardson Farms where Jim and Kay Richardson raise some of the most delicious pork around.
I’ve been outbid on all the prime cuts – the belly, the chops, the ham, the loin.  I managed to squeak by with the high bid on the bottom of the belly and am now also the proud winner of a pork spine.  
As soon as the auction is over, I beeline for Jesse to find out what I should do with this bottom of the belly cut that I’ve never cooked with before.  Jesse recommended using it for rillettes, a pork spread less refined than pate, and shared a surprisingly short recipe.  
Never having made these delicacies before, I mistakenly assumed the preparation would be complicated.  Jesse’s recipe requires a long cooking time for the pork,  but the assembly was simple and manageable even for a novice like me. 

The rillettes make a rich, lovely spread on bread or crackers, particularly when paired with a spicy mustard, chutney or pickled treat like Confituras Apple & Hatch Chutney or Pickled Blueberries.  They were also pretty tasty with pickled green beans made by my friend Marshall from Eat This Lens.
Pork Rillettes with Confituras Pickled Blueberries

The rillettes were the perfect celebration of the spirit of Slow Food.  I bought a gorgeous piece of locally raised meat that I’d never worked with before to make a dish from scratch that I’d never cooked before to share with people I love.  I’d say that embodies “pleasures of the table” pretty well.

If you aren’t familiar with Slow Food Austin, I highly recommend participating in one of their programs. Each month they offer educational Slow Sessions, farm tours, workshops and happy hours all in support of reconnecting us with our food.  You can join Slow Food USA for $25 now through October 22nd and automatically become a member of Slow Food Austin.  Based on my experience from this last year, my membership was worth every penny and then some.  Won’t you join me for this next year?
Pork Rillettes
from Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due
2 lbs pork belly, cubed
fresh thyme
bay leaves
pinch of pate spice (see below)
salt and pepper
olive oil* (I added this, see note in recipe)
Place the belly, fat, thyme and bay in a large pot and cover with cold water. (Note: Tie the thyme together with twine to make it easier to fish out the stems.)  Bring to a boil, skim and lower to a simmer.  Cook until completely tender, about 3-4 hours.

Cooking down the pork belly & fat
Not pretty, but the pork smells terrific while it cooks down.
Strain and discard the water (or save for stock), thyme and bay. 
In a bowl, begin stirring the meat with a wood spoon, breaking up the meat and fat into fine shreds.  Beat with the spoon until the mixture starts to become homogenous.  (Note: My rillettes were too dry – more flaky like tamale meat than a spread.  I don’t know if I drained them too well or if there wasn’t enough fat on my cut, but I adjusted the consistency by adding olive oil about a tablespoon at a time until I got the consistency I wanted.)

Pork Rillettes - first processing
Still the wrong consistency, I started adding olive oil until
the rillettes became smooth.
Season aggressively with salt, pepper and pate spice.  (Note: Jesse says to use a pinch of spice.  His pinch must be much larger than mine because I had to add 5-6 “pinches” and still thought it wasn’t seasoned enough.    I would start with 1/2 tablespoon and adjust from there.  You want to mix it well, then taste. Prepare to use every tasting fork/spoon in the house.)
Pack the rillettes into a terrine mold, loaf pan or ceramic bowl, cover and refrigerate.  
Serve with bread, cornichons, mustard or other pickled items.  If storing for some time, pour rendered lard over the top of the chilled rillettes to seal – this will keep for a couple of weeks under the fat.
Pork Rillettes
Pork Rillettes
Note: Bring the rillettes up to room temperature before serving.  You lose the richness of the spices when the pork is cold. 
Pate Spice

This recipe makes enough for several uses.  
2 tsp ginger
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp ground cloves
2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground white pepper
Combine all spices.
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