The holiday season always means an extra-busy schedule, filled with gatherings at work and with friends as well as shopping, stuffing stockings and enjoying the lights both on the River Walk and on many people's homes. It also brings on a lot of good food, both homemade and in restaurants around town.
The following are some random food notes that have nothing to do with each other than they were recent treats that offered a few culinary lessons along the way.
At Portugal's table
I've visited Portugal twice and hope to go back many more times. The cuisine from the country's various regions, largely unknown in America, is a lesson in making the most of every morsel available.
The people in the county are not rich in money, but their food is certainly filled with the riches of the ocean as well as their own farms. Cheeses bursting with flavor, unctuous and tangy olive oils, and hundreds of desserts made with a mixture of egg yolks and sugar are just a few of the culinary treasures to be found.
So, when Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard in Elmendorf announced that Portugal would be the latest dinner in their ongoing passport series, I was more than willing to taste whatever chef Scott Grimmitt came up with for his menu.
Sure enough, the evening began with two of those stunning cheese, which vary from town to town. One was a creamy Azores Flores and an aged raw cow's milk cheese call Sao Jorge, both of which paired well with a sparkling wine from the ever-reliable Casal Garcia.
Then the courses flew by, with a kale and sausage filled Caldo Verde, thickened with potato, a happy marriage of pork and clams, and, perhaps my personal favorite of the evening, grilled sardines with a piri-piri sauce and fresh lemon. Grimmitt shared his recipe for the killer sauce, which he described as a chimichurri with sriracha adding a welcome kick. (So, that's parsley, garlic, olive oil, a touch of vinegar and salt, plus the fiery kick of sriracha used to taste.) Try it on fish, fajitas of any type, roast chicken or just a slice of bread.
A hearty steak with potatoes preceded a custard tart -- those egg yolks and sugar, again -- topped with port-soaked strawberries. While the tart was wonderful, the simple magic of the port-soaked strawberries could make an easy dessert throughout the holiday season. A dollop of whipped cream and you're all set.
The program for the dinner included next year's dinners at Sandy Oaks, so you may want to start preparing now:
- Feb. 1 — Croatia
- April 12 — Sicily
- June 7 — Andalucia
- Aug. 9 — Morocco
- Oct. 11 — Chile
- Dec. 13 — Mexico
For more information on Sandy Oaks, click here
Chocolate many times over
A chocolate temple complete with torches and a pool of passion fruit sauce.
Susana Trilling, one of Mexico's top chefs, made a welcome appearance at Las Canarias for a chocolate-themed dinner. It's the first in a series the restaurant in the Omni La Mansion del Rio, 112 College St., has planned. Chiles and corn will be the themes of the next two meals, planned for early 2013.
The five-course tasting menu, accompanied by a savory starter and truffles laced with hot chiles, made you rethink all you thought you knew about the flavors of chocolate, cocoa and cacao.
Duck breast in an achiote-chocolate sauce was silky with a slight tingle of heat and the supple, dark mystery of the cocoa. Beef sautéed with wild porcinis in a chocolate and Cabernet Sauvignon sauce offered a complex host of flavors, and a roasted pumpkin soup was served with chocolate croutons. Chocolate came in all three dishes, but that common ingredient didn't taste the same from dish to dish.
Perhaps my favorite expression was a mixed green salad with matchsticks of watermelon radish, Honeycrisp apple and almonds tossed with a chocolate-orange-vanilla dressing. Las Canarias chef John Brand said that the original recipe had also called for kohlrabi, but his suppliers and local farmers could find any that day.
Dessert was a dark chocolate temple dedicated to the rain god Cosijo and arrived with a passion fruit sauce that disappeared as quickly as the chocolate.
For many chefs and restaurateurs, these special dinners can just seem like extra work. But not at Las Canarias during this meal. Everyone we spoke with from the staff was in awe of Trilling and the knowledge she had to impart. Some even came in on their day off to help make the banana leaf-wrapped mole tamales filled with olives and plantain.
Roast that radish
Roasted radishes a la John Brand
This coming Sunday is Noche de los Rabanos, the Oaxacan festival of radishes. Every year on Dec. 23, the citizens of that Mexican village get together with radish carvings of the most intricate nature. It's a chance to celebrate together before enjoying the more private family gatherings of Christmas. (A bit of trivia: Trilling was born on Dec. 23, thereby earning the nickname "Rabanita," or "Little Radish.")
I love to use radishes in a lot of dishes, both raw and cooked, from latkes to raw ravioli, in which this slices of lime-soaked daikon radish have goat cheese spread between them.
Brand offered up another variation of what to do with these root vegetables: Take red globe radishes, rub olive oil over them and season with rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper. Roast at 350 degrees for about a half hour or until the radishes are done. Then, serve them as a snack.
Brand said if he ever had a bar, he'd make this the snack food.
After giving them a try, I can see why. They're aren't just good by themselves, they're great with a pilsner on the side.
Let no leftovers go to waste
A pot of ham soup.
In a column of leftover food items, it's good to end with a few thoughts on real leftovers.
I found myself facing some really good leftover ham, minus the ham bone, so it just made sense to make a fresh pot of soup using the vegetables I had in the bottom of the fridge. A turnip, some broccoli stems, carrots, onion and cabbage, with a little garlic, became the base, sautéed for about 10 minutes in olive oil, while some vegetable broth came to a boil on the back burner. Then, about as much ham as vegetables went into the pot for a good warming before the stock was added. A beer was added at the end to provide an added richness of flavor.
There was still plenty of ham left. So more cabbage and onion got chopped up. This time, dill pickles were added with the ham to create a massive amount of salad, mixed with sour cream and mayonnaise, some extra dill weed for good measure, plus salt and pepper.
Both will come in handy on those days when making lunch takes up too much time in the morning.
When I told this to a friend, she wondered why no ham casserole. That's certainly a possibility, but most casseroles have too many potatoes, carb-heavy soups and starches for my diabetic diet, but I could easily see layering ham, potatoes and cheese in a 9-by-13-inch pan, adding milk or cream and seasonings, and baking until its a bubbling thing of beauty. Or maybe adding ham to a baked macaroni and cheese.
What do you like to do with leftover ham when you don't have a ham bone?