About Me

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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Restaurant Review: Vittoria

The first thing you notice when you walk into Vittoria, James Lewis’s new restaurant at Pepper Place in Birmingham, Alabama, is a floor-to-ceiling, glassed-encased room in the center of the kitchen with various meats hanging from hooks. At first, you might think you’ve walked into a butcher shop from the 1940s and that would not be entirely untrue. Chef Lewis has doing something unique. He has taken the farm-to-table movement and put it into practice. Vittoria Macelleria, named after Lewis’s grandmother, is part butcher shop and part restaurant. You can order some salami to go or you can sit down, grab a glass of wine and build your own charcuterie plate.

So yes, this is what I would call a “meat-centric” restaurant and, yes, that makes my review somewhat biased because I freely admit that I am “meat-centric.”  But what Lewis has done is so much more than that. The beef, pork, lamb, and poultry on his menu is local and grass fed. There is also plenty of excellent local vegetables to complete the meals. 

One should first start by having one of the numerous creative cocktails offered, categorized by the predominant flavor profile: herbal, sweet, spicy, etc. (One of the great trends in restaurants in recent years is to provide unique, “signature” cocktails that change on a daily basis.)

Next, you should create your own personalized charcuterie plate. One thing I really like about this restaurant is the menu’s scalability.  Like a tapas restaurant, you can pick exactly how much or how little you want and what kind you want.

I had smoked duck rillette, soppresatta, Iberico ham, green tomato mostardo, and cornichons. I highly recommend the smoked duck rillette, Iberico ham, and tomato mostardo. For the cheeses, I had garroxta and Oma. Speaking of cheese, you must try the local ricotta with Snows Bend favas, lemon olive oil, and lavash. Big hit! And this was just to start the evening!

The main course consisted of duck saucisson in brioche with pickled ramps, frisée, and grain mustard vinaigrette. The duck saucisson was delicious and the brioche perfectly prepared. The pairing of the duck saucisson and frisée with the mustard vinaigrette worked very well. 

While the wine list is not extensive, it is thoughtful, with a strong emphasis on Spanish wine, which works well with the menu.  

The service is friendly and knowledgable and while there were some hick-ups in service, I chalk these up to the typical growing pains that any new restaurant goes through.

Vittoria's design pairs well with the menu. The walls are covered in off-white subway tile and there is just the right mixture of metal and wood to give the place the feel of a well-worn kitchen knife or butcher's block. Behind the bar is a large antiqued mirror where the day's libations are written.

This restaurant creates its own niche that any serious foodie in Birmingham should embrace. In fact, I would put it in one of my top 10 recent dining experiences in Birmingham. (These recent experiences include Highlands, Bottega, Hot and Hot, Chez Fon Fon, and also Lewis’s Bettola.)

More information and reviews can be found on Urbanspoon.com:
Vittoria on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 27, 2013

Book Review: "Consider the Fork" by Bee Wilson

The next time you turn on The Food Network or peruse the latest issue of Bon Appétit, you may want to consider that cooking has not always been pleasurable or even a safe experience. As Bee Wilson points out in her new book, Consider the Fork, the “[t]wo basic mechanisms of cooking—slicing and heating—are fraught with danger. For most of human history, cooking has been a largely grim business… .” 

Wilson, a Cambridge-educated historian and food writer, gives us an engaging, witty, and well researched examination of this "grime business" throughout the ages. 

The various chapters in Wilson’s book focus on a different aspect of cooking or eating. For example, one chapter is simply titled “Knife,” while another is called “Pots and Pans,” and another one is called “Fire.” What all these chapters have in common is how human ingenuity (or lack thereof ) has used technology throughout the ages in the taming of fire and ice, so as to get decent tasting food into our mouths. We sometimes forget what a technological leap it must have been when someone invented the first oven or baked the first loaf of bread. As Wilson states, “[t]he history of food is the history of technology.”

Wilson makes some pointed observations in her book. In her chapter on pots and pans, for example, Wilson notes that the introduction of pottery expanded the range of food that could be eaten, namely small grains, such as wheat, maize, or rice. Without the ability to cook these grains slowly in a pot filled with liquid, they would have been impossible to eat. Consequently, grain remains the mainstay of the human diet to this day.

Wilson also does a lot to bring some of our romantic notions of cooking back to their more prosaic origins. Take the mortal and pestle. Most well-appointed kitchens have one. In fact, Julia Child mentions that hers was the first real piece of kitchen equipment she purchased while in France. It seems so romantic to use one from time to time to pound garlic into a paste for aioli. Not so for the poor cooks who had to make the highly processed foods favored by the well-to-do in preindustrial Europe. Though it is undoubtedly true that, in an era when everyone had bad teeth, eating meals the consistency of baby food certainly made life a tad bit easier. However, eating such foods was also a status symbol. Only the wealthy could employ the labor needed to engage in the incredibly time consuming task of pounding away almonds for hours in a mortar and pestle. 

As the examples above illustrate, it is Wilson’s ability to place the “how” we cook into its proper historical and social context to give us the “why” of cooking that makes her book so fascinating. Case in point. Why are those little disposable wooden chopsticks so ubiquitous? It is because in Japanese culture, using another person’s chopsticks is considered in the Shinto religion to be spiritually disgusting. As a result, the Japanese have developed the phenomenon of waribashi—disposable chopsticks. Wilson reveals that this is not a recent practice but has been used in Japanese restaurants since the 18th Century. Japan now uses and disposes of about 23 billion pairs a year! So popular have these disposable chopsticks become throughout Asia that, as demand has exceeded supply, an American company in Georgia, now exports these chopsticks to Asia with “Made in the USA” stamped on them!

Anyone who has an interest in food, cooking, and history will enjoy this pleasurable and well written book. And while Wilson takes us from 8,000 B.C.E. to the  early 21st Century and back with relative, enjoyable ease, one theme always emerges (aptly represented by the humble wooden spoon): what drives technology is the desire to use it, whether old or new. We keep going back to the wooden spoon or the microwave not only out of a basic need to eat, but out of a basic impulse to make that meal in the first place. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Baking Powder and Baking Soda: Better Baking Through Chemistry

I’m not sure where I heard this or who said it, but cooking is art and baking is chemistry. There is a lot of truth to this statement. There is a wide margin of error in measurements for cooking—depending on what you are cooking of course.  Baking on the other hand is precise. The recipe must be studied and followed as if it were the Talmud. Perhaps this is why my mother was a much better cook than baker because she hated to follow recipes.

Two of the most common ingredients in baking, and ones which most of us give little thought about, are baking soda and baking powder. And while they have similar names, they are used in different circumstances.

Baking Powder

Baking powder and baking soda are leavening agents, making breads and other baked goods “rise.” They work in the same way yeast does by producing carbon dioxide. Baking powder and baking soda produce carbon dioxide when water is mixed with an alkali and an acid.

Baking powder is mixture of an alkali (base)—sodium bicarbonate (i.e., baking soda)—and an acid (calcium acid phosphate, sodium aluminum sulfate or cream of tartar).

There are two types of baking powder: single-acting or double-acting. With single-acting baking powder, you need to work fast because it makes carbon dioxide as soon as the recipe is mixed. With double-acting baking powder, sit down have a cocktail because it produces those little bubbles as the recipe is heated in the oven. For obvious reasons, most baking powder is double acting.

You can make your own baking powder. Just take a ½ teaspoon of cream of tartar and ¼ teaspoon of baking soda if keeping longer, add ¼ teaspoon of corn starch to absorb moisture.

Baking Soda

Baking soda is pure sodium bicarbonate. While baking powder has its acidic element built in, baking soda works when it is combined with moisture and an acidic ingredient  in the mixture (e.g., yogurt, chocolate, lemon, buttermilk, or honey). This is why you will find baking soda in recipes that call for acidic ingredients, like lemon, chocolate, or green apples.Because this reaction begins immediately, you need to bake recipes which call for baking soda immediately. 

Finally, you should keep in mind that you can substitute baking powder in place of baking soda, though it will require that you use more of it and it could affect the taste. But it doesn’t work the other way around—you cannot use baking soda when a recipe calls for baking powder. Baking soda by itself lacks the acidity to make a cake rise.

So, there you have it! Mystery explained. Now go back a cake and don't forget to follow that recipe to the T!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Pan Roasting: The Kitchen's Unsung Hero

Pan Roasted Chicken with Roasted Brussels Sprouts & Glazed Carrots
The primary difference between the home cook and the professional chef is technique, whether that is the ability to dice an onion in seconds flat or whip up a hollandaise sauce that doesn’t collapse. It is not just those techniques that elevate the ordinary to extraordinary, but those that save time. After all, when one has to make meals for several hundred restaurant guests in an evening, the ability to get stuff prepped quickly and efficiently is critical.

There are certain cooking techniques that chefs use time and time again to maximizes favor in a minimum amount of time. One of these, which every professional chef learns in culinary school, and one which is rarely, if ever mentioned in cook books, is pan roasting. Pan roasting combines the searing heat of the pan, with the convective moist heat of the oven. The technique is also quite easy and yields a wonderful meal in a short period of time. 

So, let’s get started with this simple step-by-step process.

Start with a heavy skillet or sauté pan that retains heat well and can go into the oven (Al-Clad or cast iron).

Next, get a piece of quality meat or poultry, well-salted and peppered at room temperature. Don't forget to pat it dry with paper towels because poultry and meat will not brown well otherwise. (I like to use chicken legs and thighs with the skin or a t-bone. If you are using pork, then get bone-in chops. In fact, anything with skin and bone works well with pan roasting.)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

Now, take about one or two tablespoons of olive oil and one tablespoon of butter and place in the pan at medium-high heat. Once the butter has melted and just before the oil-butter begins to smoke, place the poultry or meat in the pan until good and browned—skin-down for the poultry. (You can get a real good brown sear if you lightly dust beef or pork in flour.) 

Next, place the pan in the oven and baste periodically. This is especially important if you are pan roasting poultry. Depending on what you are cooking and how you prefer the temperature of red meant (e.g., rare or medium), this process can take anywhere from twenty to thirty minutes, so you’ll just have to watch.

Now here comes the fun part, and the part that will really wow your dinner guests: the pan sauce!

When you take the pan out of the oven (please use a towel or pot-holder because that handle will be hot) remove the poultry or meat and set aside on a plate. Place some aromatic herbs (thyme, rosemary, or sage) and a couple of crushed garlic cloves into the pan. I like to use thyme or rosemary for chicken and sage for pork. Now deglaze the pan using about a half to two-thirds of a cup of wine, vermouth, or verjus and scrap up the brown bits (the fond). 

Once the whole thing has been reduced to about ⅔ its original volume, add about two or three tablespoons of unsalted butter and stir until thickened. Spoon on top of the poultry or meat immediately.

Voila! A quick yummy meal that is guaranteed to impress your guests….or your date!

By the way: don't forget to turn off the oven! I always forget!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Veggies Veggies Everywhere!

Now that spring has finally sprung, many of us are heading out to our favorite local farmers markets. (Mine is Pepper Place Saturday Market here in Birmingham. http://www.pepperplacemarket.com). 

Perhaps the only downside to such a surfeit of fresh vegetables is the tendency to grab  more veggies than we can eat before they wilt or, even worse, rot. This morning, however, I came across an article in The Wall Street Journal that offers a solution to this dilemma:

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

California Dreaming (Guest Post by Laura Flippin of Wheels Up!)

Most of the time I think and write about travel, but this week my thoughts have turned as well to food and cooking.  A few years ago, I spent a week in Southern California at an Ashram-style retreat that focused on getting off the grid, recharging your mental batteries, and re-setting your physical health through a de-toxification cleanse.  The idea was not to give up forever anything that doesn’t grow on a tree or a vine, but rather to re-focus your appreciation of healthy eating, breathing and living in balance.  Along with some morning yoga and meditation, of course.

This week I’m starting to revisit that experience, doing a  21-day cleanse program that involves real food – no liquid diets here! – and gradually eliminating from your meals items such as animal proteins, dairy, grains, and other things that, in excess, can stress our digestive and other systems.   The hardest part isn’t giving those up, or cutting out in advance of the program all refined sugar, caffeine and alcohol.  (Okay, the caffeine withdrawal is tough – no way to make that sound easy).  The difficult part is refocusing how you approach food preparation, cooking and eating. 

But when you make it your goal, and you are determined to do it for better health and well-being, suddenly making your own fresh gazpacho or vegetable nori rolls has the same allure as a red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting.    I’ll always like a good hamburger, and won’t pass up a terrific brioche, but there is something meaningful about making all your meals yourself, down to boiling rolled oats instead of reaching for the Quaker instant package.

It may be the thought of hiking in the Santa Monica mountains, or catching a few beautiful sunny days on the shores in Malibu, but I’m thinking of great California cuisine now when I cook – plenty of avocados, tomatoes, basil, lemons, limes, olives, artichokes, peppers and just a hint of ocean salt air.  With that in mind, here is one of my new favorites from the “Ultimate Reset” program.  It’s simple, so simple you’ll think you should have thought of it yourself, and yet so good and full of California taste:

Cucumber and Tomato Salad

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium cucumber, partially peeled, sliced about 1/8-1/4             inch thickness (you can also dice if you prefer)
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1 tablespoon chopped red onion
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil leave
Himalyan salt to taste

Whisk together the red wine and balsamic vinegars, lemon juice and oil in a small bowl.   Set aside.  Combine the cucumber, tomatoes, onion, parsley, basil, salt (if desired) in a large bowl; mix well.  Drizzle the dressing over the cucumber mixture and toss gently to blend.  Tastes even better after a few hours marinating in a cold icebox. 

I won’t be giving up all those more decadent, butter-laden foods forever – the goal of the Ultimate Reset is to cleanse your system and then gradually ease back in those things in moderation.  Then you apply the clean eating principles, and the idea of really cooking fresh, healthy food when you can rather than relying on all the additives that come in pre-made meals and many restaurant offerings.  All this can then be contemplated while wearing your spiritually inspiring ohm bracelet, and holding a fork.    

More information on the “Ultimate Reset” cleanse program can be found at www.ultimatereset.com

More information about Laura Flippin can be found at www.dlapiper.com/laura_flippin or www.linkedin.com/in/lauraflippin

—Laura Flippin and her blog about travel, “Wheels Up!” can be found at www.lauraflippin.com

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Cocktails Inspired by The Great Gatsby

Have you seen the trailer for Baz Lurhman’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby? It looks intriguing, if not a bit over the top, though this is Baz Lurhman after all! Of course I will go see it because it is a film version of my favorite novel and, in my opinion, the greatest American novel.
What, you didn’t read the book! Geez! OK, I’ll do my best to keep it simple.  Well at least you have seen the movie, so I’ll...wait, you want to know what all this has to do with a blog about food? One word: cocktails.
You see, The Great Gatsby takes place in the golden age of the cocktail, it being the height of Prohibition. And the cocktail, or more generally, drinking, plays a large role in the book. What, you are asking for proof!?—no pun intended! OK, I’ll show you, Mr. Missouri.
You get only three chapters in when you read about the first great party of the book—the one where Nick and us readers meet Gatsby for the first time. And throughout the book, we are introduced to champagne, gin, bourbon, and even absinthe. 
And don’t forget that one of the most dramatic scenes in the book occurs at the Plaza hotel where Daisy, Tom, Gatsby, Nick, and company have retired for some libations on a hot afternoon. 
Oh that’s right you didn’t read the book....
Well, anyway, this is the scene where Daisy delivers one of her best lines:
“Open the whiskey, Tom,” she ordered. “And I’ll make you a mint julep. Then you won’t seem so stupid to yourself….Look at the mint!”
OK, OK, here’s the part that relates to this blog. I’m going to give you four classic cocktail recipes inspired by The Great Gatsby—four that you don’t see much anymore, but that should, without a doubt, be restored to their proper place at the bar. 

This is the (un)official cocktail of New Orleans and dates back to the late 19th Century. It even has a role, albeit very minor, in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die, when Felix Leiter orders two of them and asks James Bond: "Where is your sense of adventure, James, this is New Orleans?! Relax!"  (Yeah, thanks for recognizing my second movie reference!)
½ oz. rye whiskey (Rittenhouse or Bulleit are my two favs)
2 bar spoons of simple sugar (if you can’t make this, then you and Carrie Nation should hang out)
2 dashes of bitters (Peychaud’s or Angostura)
2 bar spoons of absinthe, to rinse the glass
a thin lemon zest, to garnish
Stir all the ingredients, except the absinthe, in a mixing glass filled with ice. Rinse a chilled double old fashioned with the absinthe. Strain the contents of the mixing glass into the double old fashioned and garnish with the lemon.

Daiquiri (The original, not that crappy frozen Spring Break Concoction)
I just want you to know that this is not that crappy, syrupy frozen concoction you had at that bar during spring break in 1991! Come on, you know which one I’m talking about! In fact, this was served to Ernest Hemingway at the El Floridita restaurant in Havana Cuba. (The non-Hemingway version would dispense with the maraschino liqueur and cherries.)

2 oz. light rum
¾ oz. fresh lime juice
½ oz. fresh grapefruit juice
½ oz. maraschino liqueur
½ oz. simple syrup
Maraschino cherries, for garnish
Combine rum, juices, liqueur, and syrup in ice-filled shaker; shake. Strain over crushed ice into a cocktail glass; garnish with cherries.

French 75
This a great cocktail. It is apparently named after a 75-mm French artillery piece used in World War I. And this drink is designed to hit you like a shell from that gun. The original recipe called for cognac, but the English, who abhor all things French, introduced gin into the mix. The best thing about this vintage cocktail is ordering it. Next time you are in a bar, order one and watch the bartender scramble for his Mr. Boston’s bar guide. I even ordered this in a French restaurant and they didn’t know what it was! You laugh. I’m not kidding! I guess the “French” in the name was redundant. 
1 oz. gin
½ oz. simple syrup
½ oz. fresh squeezed lemon juice
Brut Champagne or a dry sparkling white wine
Lemon twist, to garnish
Combine gin, simple syrup, and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake until well chilled and strain into a glass. Top with Champagne and garnish with a lemon twist to serve.

This one is said to have been invented at Harry’s Bar in Paris (still in operation) and named after an eccentric patron who would arrive at the bar in his chauffeur-driven motorcycle sidecar. This is another fun one you should order in a bar because it keeps our favorite bartender on her toes.
1 lemon 
Superfine sugar 
3 oz. cognac 
1 oz. Cointreau (or triple sec) 
2 lemon slices 

Juice lemon, reserving rinds. Rub rims of two stemmed cocktail glasses with pulp side of lemon rind, then dip moistened rims into a saucer of sugar. 
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, add reserved lemon juice, cognac, and Cointreau; shake well. Strain into sugar-rimmed glasses and garnish each with a slice of lemon

So there you have it. Interested? Alright, then go grab yourself a straw hat, put on a seersucker suit and some white bucks, and kick back and relax.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Most Amazing Brownie Recipe Ever

I wish I could say that this is my recipe, but I can't. This recipe for brownies comes from a friend and fellow attorney here in Birmingham, Laura Robinson. In addition to being a great lawyer, Laura is a great cook too.

Next to the way these beauties taste, the second most amazing thing about these brownies is that Laura developed this recipe herself when she was a teenager! It takes a lot of time and patience and skill to develop a new baking recipe. 

Not only do these brownies taste wonderful, they are incredibly easy to make. I have made these brownies countless times, and neither I nor my guests have ever been disappointed.



3/4 cup of flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup unsalted butter 
2 tablespoons water
1 bag semi sweet chocolate morsels (divided in half— basically, 2 C)
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
1/2 cupped chopped nuts (optional)


Preheat oven to 325 degrees

Melt butter over low heat.  It should melt but not bubble.  Remove from heat and add sugar and water to pot.  Stir until well combined.  Add half chocolate morsels and stir until smooth.  If chocolate won't melt, add a little more heat, but be careful not to scorch the chocolate.  (Alternative is to do all of above in a double boiler).

In a separate bowl, combine dry ingredients.  Add chocolate mixture to dry ingredients and stir.  Add beaten eggs and vanilla.  Stir.  Add rest of chocolate morsels and nuts.  Stir.

Cook in a 8x8 greased metal pan for 35 minutes.  Brownies are done when they do not collapse when top is touched.  You should feel a little resistance without being completely firm.

In some ovens, I have to increase temp to 350 --- takes a little trial and error, but brownies are good even if undercooked, just flat.


The recipe doubles well.  Sometimes, I add nuts as noted above, but generally, I do not. Laura's mom's favorite variation is with a 1/2 teaspoon of pure orange extract added.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

USDA Will Lift Ban on Certain Italian Charcuterie

Is better salami in our future?
Good news for lovers of Italian meats! The New York Times is reporting that the USDA is lifting a decade-old importation ban on certain Italian cured meats. 

Ban to Be Lifted on Certain Italian Charcuterie