Thursday, May 28, 2009

Restaurants - Ceiba

My husband and I went on a very, very short trip to Washington DC this past weekend, and managed to pack in a few good restaurants while on our last romantic hurrah before baby #2 comes along. (My apologies to my Aunt, whom we did not get to see, as we were out nearly as soon as we were in the city. And thanks to my mom who kept our 3-year-old out of trouble, and showed her a great time, while we were away.)

The best of our sampling of restaurants, by far, was Ceiba, a Latin American restaurant, with a little Caribbean mixed in. It ain't cheap, but remember, we were going for romance and wow, not just filling our stomachs. Perhaps the only minus was the somewhat over-zealous wait staff, but that didn't manage to spoil a nearly perfect eating experience.

We lucked out a bit with seating. We were in a bright room that looked out onto the street. The inner rooms of the restaurant were not as inviting. The decor was nothing special, but I'm not one to be wowed by decor anyway. It was certainly modern and clean, and that works for me. Perhaps a little ethnic something-or-other wouldn't hurt.

Being our first romantic night out in some time, we did splurge a bit on food. We started with the Sampling of Ceviches, which included their Peruvian Clasico, Yucatan Shrimp, Yellowfin Tuna, and Wild Striped Bass ceviches (they were arranged in this order, each one being progressively hotter than the last). Yum! They were all so original! I think of ceviche as relatively simple and undressed, save some citrus juice and maybe a hint of heat. These were quite complicated, each in its own very distinct way, and yet they didn't confuse the palate. The flavors all worked well together, and even though each ceviche was different, moving from one to the next was not at all problematic.

We also had the Shredded Duck and Three Cheese Poblano Chili Relleno, another appetizer. The duck was so flavorful, and not a meat I would ever imagine having in a chili relleno. More often than not, I've had them stuffed primarily with cheese, which I find texturally very unappealing. I've had them done well with shredded pork, and this was similar to that sort of application. I think the real success of this dish is that the components of it could each be experienced separately and in combination, since everything stood out: the duck, the cheeses, the salsa, the relish.

For our main courses, my husband had the Slow Braised Pork Shank "Feijoada" and I had the Grilled Sugar Cane Skewered Jumbo Shrimp. Both were flawless. We cleaned our plates (which is par for the course for me, but my husband is usually a leftover-leaver). The pork was incredibly tender and flavorful. The shrimp tasted just as they should be, like shrimp. I often get annoyed at the way shellfish is prepared in restaurants; it's so often mixed into something, drenched in a sauce, or hidden in some other way. Why do people pay so much money for something that will only be buried in something else? I like my shellfish fairly naked, and that's just how this was. It had a subtle, sweet glaze and a slight char from the grill, but the taste was truly that of shrimp. It wasn't even slightly overcooked, as so much restaurant shrimp is. In an embarrassing moment, my eagerness to eat as much of the shrimp as I could got the better of me, and I accidentally flung a shrimp halfway across the room while attempting to de-skewer it. Our waiter quickly swiped it up, and next thing I knew, I was being served a replacement! Apparently, they were as eager to indulge me as I was to be indulged.

Alas, when the time for dessert arrived, we couldn't fit another bite into our glutinous selves, though there was plenty to entice! This, and the many other entrees and appetizers that we did not get to sample are reason enough for me to want to go back. I do hope this restaurant sticks around for quite some time, so I might have the opportunity to do just that.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Red Cabbage & Brussels Sprout Slaw

I was very hesitant, at first, when I saw this recipe at 101 cookbooks. The idea of eating raw brussels sprouts somehow didn't appeal to me, and eating raw brussels sprouts isn't necessarily the healthiest option either. So, I really wasn't interested.

Then, in planning my daughter's bird-themed birthday party, I thought, "Hey, I need some kind of slaw that looks like a nest and has caraway seeds, but I don't want to make a run-of-the-mill cole slaw." So, I thought I'd give raw brussels sprouts a whirl. The rest of this salad doesn't resemble the one from 101 cookbooks at all, but I nonetheless stole the idea, so I'll give credit where it's due.

Given that brussels sprouts really are better, and better for you, eaten cooked, I think you could just as easily substitute green cabbage or napa cabbage, and no one would object. Those little buggers are also a real pain to slice, and they're seriously more expensive than other types of cabbage. So, why go out of your way to eat raw brussels sprouts? I can't think of a reason. Make it whatever way works, I say.

Red Cabbage & Brussels Sprout Slaw (aka Birdie Slaw)
1/2 lb. brussels sprouts, shredded (very thinly sliced with a knife)
1 small red cabbage, shredded
2 carrots, shredded
1/2 oz. chives, cut into 2 inch pieces
1/4 cup caraway seeds
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsps stoneground mustard
salt & pepper, to taste

Toss brussels sprouts, red cabbage, carrots, chives and caraway seeds in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together olive oil, cider vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. Pour dressing over slaw, and toss well. Serve cold or room temperature. Will keep in the fridge for a few days, but best served one day after preparation.

Serves 10 as a side dish.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

My Big Red Quinoa Lentil Salad

Early spring can actually be a tough time to cook, at least in the Northeast. Most of the winter vegetables are no longer around, and are past their storing life. Asaparagus is everywhere, but what do you serve it with? So, I came up with this salad that makes use of winter's last remnant (beets) and spring's shooting star (asparagus).

For some kids, the bright red color of this salad, care of the beets, is especially alluring. For others, it's "gross me out!" If you're serving one of the latter, go with a golden beet instead of red.

My Big Red Quinoa Lentil Salad
1 red beet, washed and trimmed of ends
1/2 cup green lentils
1 cup water
1 cup quinoa
2 cups homemade or low-sodium veggie stock
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed of woody ends and cut into 1.5" pieces
1 navel orange, supremed (see note below)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
salt & pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400°F. Wrap the beet in two layers of foil and place on a baking sheet. Bake for 45 minutes. Allow to cool, and then peel the beet's skin, and slice the beet into thin strips.

In a small saucepan, bring lentils and water to a boil. Reduce heat and cover, simmering for 30 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed. In another small saucepan, bring quinoa and veggie stock to a boil. Reduce heat and cover, simmering for 15-20 minutes, or until liquid is completely absorbed. Once lentils are done, add the asparagus to the pan, stirring the pieces in and then replacing the cover for up to 5 minutes, allowing the asparagus to steam slightly.

In a large bowl, combine the quinoa, lentils, asparagus, beets, and orange sections, and toss. In a separate bowl, prepare the dressing by whisking together the olive oil, vinegar, parsley, garlic, shallot, salt and pepper. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss. Serve cold or room temperature.

Serves 4 as a main course, 8 as a side dish.

Note: To supreme an orange, cut the top and bottom off the orange, and then cut the rind and pith away from the sides, cutting from top to bottom. Remove individual orange sections by cutting between the orange membranes, so all you have at the end are segments of orange flesh.

Monday, May 4, 2009

White Bean Hummus

This is a slight variation on my regular hummus recipe, which uses the traditional chick peas. I wanted something a little different for my daughter's party, so this is the result:

White Bean Hummus
4 cloves garlic
1 (15 oz.) can cannellini beans, drained (reserve juice)
1/4 c. cannellini bean juice from can
1/4 c. fresh lemon juice
salt, to taste
3 Tbsps. tahini
1 Tbsp. chili powder
1 Tbsp. dried rosemary, crushed using a mortar & pestle
2 Tbsps. olive oil

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend. Serve as a dip for crudite, pita wedges or crackers, or as a condiment in a sandwich or wrap.

Roasted Red Pepper Dip

This is one of the several dips and sauces that I prepared for my daughter's birthday party. The recipe basically belongs to Jacques Pepin, but as I could only find his list of ingredients, and not an actual recipe, I made up the proportions myself. It's wonderful! I'm eating the leftovers as we speak.

Roasted Red Pepper Dip
8 oz. neufchatel or cream cheese (I use neufchatel because it's lower in fat)
4-6 roasted red peppers (I use jarred, but you could make your own, if you're so inclined)
1/4 cup raw pumpkin seeds
1/2 ounce chives
2 Tbsps extra virgin olive oil
salt, to taste

Throw everything in a food processor, and blend until relatively smooth (the seeds might still provide some small amount of texture and crunch). Serve with dipping instruments of your choice (crudite, chips, pita wedges, bagel chips, pretzels ...).

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Birdie Birthday Menu

As I've mentioned in a few previous posts, my daughter, who turns 3-years-old today, is having a bird-themed birthday party this Sunday. I'm not sure which of us is more excited. Of course, I'm very excited for her, since she's bound to have a great time, and we get to see some people that we don't see too often (we're expecting about 40 people, adults and kids), including her much-adored cousin. But since I'm the caterer, I'm always a little too intently focused on the food.

The food is inspired by birds. To clarify, especially if my father-in-law is reading, this does not mean that we will be cooking birds! I can't think of a less honorable way to celebrate them. I also declined to serve actual worms and insects, which birds are known to eat. Once again, the idea is inspiration. So, a lot of dishes contain seeds, berries, and/or grains, and one contains fish (though not a fish that birds are likely to hunt). Many dishes don't contain bird foods, but look like something birds would eat (worms), or they look like something associated with birds (nests, eggs). There are no actual birds being served, and I managed to avoid using eggs, as well.

My other consideration whenever I throw a party is guests' dietary issues. There is the obvious peanut allergy, which belongs to my daughter, so none of that will be served. She's also allergic to avocado; otherwise we'd certainly have some guacamole around. We invited people who are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-intolerant, diabetic, and kosher. So, most of the food works for all of these people. As it turns out, the gluten-intolerant people will not be able to make it. Those who do come will not suffer for having eaten gluten-free food. Finally, I always need to make a dish that will please the typical American palate, which is not always so adventurous or interested in my health food spread. Last year, I made turkey chili for that crowd. This year, given that serving turkey would be a big no-no, I went with a big pot of homemade mac n cheese. It's not Kraft, and it tastes homemade, so hopefully no one will find objection with that.

Here is the menu (recipes to follow in subsequent posts):

- Cheese Plate (featuring mostly local, pastured cheeses) served with squares of dark rye with sunflower seeds

- Nest of Sticks & Twigs and crudite served with three dips:
**Roasted Red Pepper
**White Bean Hummus
**Spinach Tofu

- Nests of Crispy Shoestring Veggies (in muffin cups) each with one of three "eggs":
**Falafel (served with Tahina Sauce)
**Fish fritter (served with Cucumber, Dill, Yogurt Sauce)
**Veggie burger (served with bbq sauce)

- Worms & Seeds (with black and white sesame seeds and stir-fried shredded napa cabbage)

- Birdie Slaw

- Mac n Cheese


- Pineapple Right-Side Up Cupcakes with Pineapple and Raspberry Topping

- Chocolate Cupcakes topped with Coconut Pecan Fudge Nests and Dark Chocolate Eggs

- Shredded Coconut Nests each with one of two desserts "eggs":
- CB&J (Cashew Butter & Jam)
- Trail Mix

- Fruit Salad (apples, grapefruit, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, lemon juice)

This menu should please the crowd I'm expecting, but not everyone has to accommodate so many dietary issues. Even so, for a crowd this big, when I'm trying to keep spending and environmental impact to a minimum, I'd still rely heavily on vegetarian and vegan fare. It just makes sense. But the best way to serve healthy, eco-friendly, cheap food at a party is to make it yourself (and try not to serve rack of lamb!).