Friday, November 28, 2008

Absolut Madison!

Last year Absolut Vodka came out with a Limited Edition called Absolut New Orleans. Only 35,000 cases of the mango and black pepper flavored vodka were made and 100% of the sales were donated to charities associated with Katrina relief. Absolut New Orleans was a big hit, especially with me—I still have a couple of bottles squirreled away that I’m saving for a hurricane. I concocted my own cocktail with the addition of X-Rated Fusion and Cointreau and it was on the drink menu at the Capitol Chophouse for several months, "Dan's New Orleans."

This summer, Absolut came out with its second Limited Edition vodka honoring a city: Absolut Los Angeles. Flavored with acai, acerola cherry, pomegranate and blueberry and inspired by L.A.'s healthy lifestyles and fitness culture. A portion of the sales were donated to Green Way LA.

Now, Absolut wants you to nominate the next city to be honored with a Limited Edition Vodka … not only the city but what it should taste like it. I’m thinking, Absolut Madison! Very fruity, a few nuts, a hint of tofu and definitely served over ice? This is the beginning of my campaign to get them to pick Madison. Please go and vote for Madison and its flavor HERE. Also, become of member of Absolut Madison on Facebook.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Not Home for the Holidays

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Not surprisingly since it’s the only holiday where the main focus is exclusively food. Most of us have our own traditions as to what we eat ... how and where we spend the day. Since many restaurants close for Thanksgiving, here is a list of places in Madison who will be open and serving traditional fare next Thursday.

Capitol Chophouse is serving a Thanksgiving Day Buffet from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The menu is online. For reservations call 255-0165.

Dayton Street Grille (at the Concourse) will serve their Thanksgiving Buffet between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. The menu is online. Reservations can be made by calling 294-3031.

Orpheum Lobby Restaurant will be open Thursday, November 27th for a Thanksgiving Buffet from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Dinner will include all the holiday classics: turkey, ham, stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, cranberries, salads and more. Call 255-6005 ext. 2 for a reservation.

Quivey’s Grove features a Special Holiday Menu, serve in the Stone House with a complimentary appetizer buffet in the Stable Grill. They are open Thanksgiving between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Please call 273-4900 to make your reservations.

Samba Brazilian Grill is featuring a Thanksgiving Feast, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., all you can eat for $25. Call 257-1111 for reservations.

The Edgewater features Twin Buffets on Thanksgiving, Breakfast 8 a.m. until 10 a.m. and Dinner noon until 8 p.m. More information is on their website. For reservations call 661-6582.

Traditional Pumpkin Pie

This is my favorite recipe for pumpkin pie (it’s a whole lot better than the one on the can label). In the past, I have started with fresh pumpkin. If you do, it’s important that you use a pie pumpkin not a jack-o-lantern. It’s a messy process and a lot of work and I’ve found the end result no better than using what comes out of a can. In fact, sometime, the color of fresh pumpkin can be anemic, depending upon the variety You can substitute cream for the evaporated milk but I think the later makes for a better texture (cream can be too dense).

1 partially baked 10-inch pie shell

¾ cup light brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon Steen’s syrup or molasses
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
Pinch of ground cloves
16-ounce can pumpkin
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
12-ounce can evaporated milk
2 tablespoons bourbon (optional)

Whipped cream

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Gradually combine the brown sugar, sugar, flour, molasses and spices. Stir in the pumpkin. Combine the eggs, milk and brandy, rum or bourbon and fold into the pumpkin mixture.
Carefully pour the filling into the prepared pie shell and set in the preheated 375-degree oven.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until the center is just set. Cool on a rack.
Serve the pie at room temperature with whipped cream.

Serves 8.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Gumbo Wars

Several years ago a to-be-left-unnamed food critic for a to be-left-unnamed weekly publication oood and ahhhed over the gumbo at a local restaurant (now long closed). The problem wasn’t that I’d eaten this gumbo and thought it awful (they had burnt the roux) but rather the assertion in his review that “real gumbo contains okra.” Thus began a back and forth posturing in print about who knew what he was talking about. To the delight and entertainment of my friends, this exchange was more than a little snarky and became known as The Gumbo Wars.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the origin of the word gumbo comes from the Bantu (Angolan) word (ki)ngombo, meaning okra but all gumbo does not contain okra. Okra is used as a thickener but so is filé, also called gumbo filé, a spice made from dried and ground sassafras and thyme leaves. Rarely are the two used together in the same recipe, but many varieties contain neither. What all gumbo does have in common is a roux—flour browned in fat. Depending upon the type of gumbo, the roux can vary from the color of peanut butter to dark chocolate. This hearty more –stew-than-soup can and does contain just about anything—seafood, smoked sausage and ham, meat and game. Another common ingredient is what’s referred to as the Creole or Cajun trinity—chopped onions, green pepper and celery. A popular variation is called gumbo z’herbes (green gumbo) and traditionally served on Good Friday. Legend has it that you’ll make as many new friends as the number of different greens you use in your recipe. One thing that never goes in real gumbo is rice: it’s always served ladled over boiled rice

Gumbo is a staple along the Gulf Coast but prevalent throughout the South. Eating gumbo is popular all year long but especially during cold weather and in Louisiana a dish always served on Christmas Eve. African Americans, Native Americans, French and Spanish Creoles have added their influence to this meal in a pot.

Gumbo is slow food at its best. Around here, if you want a good bowl of the real thing you’ll have to make it yourself. Even at a restaurant in New Orleans finding good gumbo is not as easy as you might think. For a long time, it was something made and enjoyed at home so why order it when you went out? To be sure it might make the menu of a local diner or a venerable institution like Galatoire’s or Antoine’s. For a time, many of the newer, upscale restaurants looked upon it as too pedestrian. However, restaurateurs like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse have helped make the dish more popular than ever. One of my favorite “new” gumbos is served at Mr. B’s Bistro, run by a branch of the renowned Brennan family. It’s called Gumbo Ya Ya (their recipe is on their web page)—“gumbo ya ya” is a Cajun expression that means everyone talking at once.

Anyone who knows me knows how much I like to cook, but I avoided making gumbo for a long time because it can be a very tedious process browning the roux. The procedure requires constant stirring and vigilance. If you burn the roux it will bitter and inedible and you have to start over. I’m not much for short cuts but a few years ago, reading Gourmet magazine (January, 1997) I came across how to make roux in the microwave. I was skeptical until I tried it—I’m skeptical about anything to do with the microwave—but it’s truly amazing! You really can teach old cooks new tricks.

Mr. B’s Gumbo Ya-Ya

Adapted from the recipe from B’s Bistro in New Orleans, my version serves 8 to 10 (the original recipe makes 24 cups). It also takes advantage of making the roux in the microwave.

1/3 cup vegetable oil (I use grapeseed or peanut oil)
½ cup bread flour
1 red bell peppers, chopped
1 green bell peppers, chopped
1 medium onions, chopped 1 celery stalk, chopped
8 cups rich chicken stock
8 cups water
1 tablespoons Creole seasoning
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon dried thyme
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
1 bay leave (preferably fresh)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 pound andouille sausage, cut into ¼-inch slices
1 whole roasted chicken breast, skinned, boned and coarsely chopped
Tabasco to taste

Boiled rice

Chopped green onions

In a 1-quart microwave-safe measuring cup blend together well the oil and bread flour. Microwave uncovered at high power for 2-minutes. Remove and stir thoroughly. Repeat this procedure twice. This may require some experimentation at first, depending on the power of your microwave. It’s important to thoroughly stir the flour mixture until it’s absolutely smooth each time before returning to the microwave. Continue to microwave at 1 minute intervals, stirring well in between intervals, until you have a dark mahogany brown roux.

Transfer the roux to a stock pot set over low heat. Add the chopped bell peppers and stir constantly for about 30 seconds. Add the chopped onions and celery and stir constantly for another 30 seconds or so until the vegetables have softened. Slowly add the stock and water to the roux and vegetables, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. Add the Creole seasoning, black pepper, red pepper flakes, thyme, garlic, bay leaf, kosher salt and andouille and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat and simmer the gumbo, uncovered, for 45 minutes, skimming off any fat and stirring occasionally. Cool the gumbo to room temperature. The gumbo may be made several hours or the day before, but cover and refrigerate after two hours. Right before serving, make the rice. Add the chicken to the gumbo and reheat. Adjust seasoning with Tabasco or other hot sauce. Serve over rice garnished with green onions and hot sauce on the side.

Friday, November 14, 2008

New Nouveau Next Thursday

Join Le Chardonnay next weekend to celebrate the release of the Nouveau Beaujolais 2008 with a wonderful five course dinner ...


First Course
Homemade petite French baguette with fleur du sel butter

Second Course
Grilled U-10 sea scallop with candied lemon and horseradish velouté
Ricotta cheese and asparagus quiche

Third Course
Steamed then chilled baby carrots, beets and potatoes dressed in lime and olive oil

Fourth Course
Roasted wild boar with braised cabbage and sweet potato chips
Ravioli of lobster and langoustine with a lemongrass and chervil velouté
Roasted duck with honey glazed onions and, minted peas and Madeira sauce
Risotto of cèpes with green onions, truffle oil and parmesan

Fifth Course
Red wine glazed pear with pumpkin custard and caramelized walnuts

Call 608.268.0372 or email your reservation to

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Another Pizza

Isn’t there enough already? Thin crust, deep dish and stuffed. Believe it or not, there’s actually a pizza (to the best of my knowledge) you cannot get in Madison unless you make it yourself. It’s not something new, either, but has a long history in both this country and Italy. Pizza Rustic. Be forewarned. I’ve seen “pizza rustica” listed on many pizzeria menus but it was menuese for the toppings applied to a regular pizza.

So what is it? It a sort of deep dish, stuffed pizza to the extreme. A 3-inch or higher short pastry (no yeast) shell is filled with a combination of sausage, cured meats, cheese, eggs and sometimes spinach, then topped and sealed with more pastry. It’s the Italian cousin to the French pate en croute or English standing meat pie. It’s served at room temperature, cut into wedges.

Native to the Abruzzo region of Italy (just of east of Rome on the Adriatic), pizza rustica is especially popular at Easter. My first encounter came on Mulberry Street in New York’s Little Italy in the 1960s. I ordered it up sight unseen, thinking it was … pizza. Did I ever get a surprise but delicious one none the less. The most elaborate version I’ve ever seen was at a bakery in Bergamo, Italy—it had to be at least a foot high and beautifully layered with sliced meats and cheese.

Enough chatter. It’s off to the store to buy the ingredients.

Pizza Rustica

3 tablespoons olive oil
8 ounces hot Italian sausage, casings removed
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 (12-ounce) bunches fresh spinach, stemmed, coarsely chopped (about 12 cups
1 tablespoons finely minced shallots
6 ounces brown mushrooms, cleaned, stems trimmed and sliced
4 large egg yolks, beaten to blend
1 (15-ounce) container whole milk ricotta
12 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan
1 large red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, seed and chopped
4 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, coarsely chopped

Pastry Dough (recipe follows)
1 large egg, beaten to blend

Position the rack on the bottom of the oven, and preheat the oven to 375 degrees

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a heavy large frying pan over medium heat. Add the sausages and sauté until golden brown, breaking the sausage into pieces, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of oil in the same frying pan over medium heat. Add the spinach and cook until the spinach wilts and the juices evaporate, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Remove from the pan and cool to room temperature. Squeeze the spinach to drain as much liquid as possible.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of oil in the same frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the minced scallions and stir for a minute or so. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring, until brown. Set aside and cool to room temperature.

Into a large bowl, add egg yolks and beat lightly. Stir in the ricotta, mozzarella, and 1/3 cup of Parmesan cheese. Add the sausage, the spinach, mushrooms, roasted red pepper and prosciutto to the mixture and stir to combine.

Roll out larger piece of dough on a lightly floured work surface to a 17-inch round. Transfer the dough to a 9-inch spring form pan. Trim the dough overhang to 1 inch. Spoon the ricotta mixture into the dough-lined pan. Roll out the remaining piece of dough into a 12-inch round. Place the dough over the filling. Pinch the edges of the dough together to seal, and then crimp the dough edges decoratively. Brush the beaten 1 large egg over the entire pastry top. Sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons Parmesan over the top. Bake on the bottom shelf until the crust is golden brown, about 1 hour.

Let stand 15 minutes. Release the pan sides and transfer the pizza to a platter. Cut into wedges and serve at room temperature.

Serves 8.

Pastry Dough:
3½ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup (1½ sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
¼ cup solid vegetable shortening, cut into pieces
1 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs, beaten to blend
2 to 4 tablespoons ice water

Blend the flour, the butter, the shortening and salt in a food processor until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Blend in the eggs. With the machine running, add the water 1 tablespoon at a time until the dough forms. Gather the dough into a ball. Divide the dough into 2 pieces, with 1 piece twice as large as the second piece. Flatten the dough pieces into disks. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until the dough is firm enough to roll out, about 30 minutes.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Chicken Pie

This is an annual and delicious tradition at Madison's Glenwood Moravian Community Church. As a fundraiser for the church, members of the congregation make and sell chicken pies, not to be confused with chicken pot pies. The difference? These are all-meat chicken encased in a flaky homemade crust with gravy for topping on the side. If you'd like to try one, please call 238-8709 by Friday, November 14 to reserve your pie. Pies can be picked up at the church (725 Gilmore Street) on Wednesday, November 19 between 1 and 6 p.m. The pies are frozen, baking instructions are included and the cost is $12 per pie.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The O Word

No. I’m not going to voice my preference in the presidential race. As much as I am tempted to do so, this is a blog about food and I’m talking about oysters. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, few are indifferent about them. It’s that time of year that they become my personal obsession. There is an old maxim that you should only eat oysters during the “R” months—September through April. Probably the prohibition relates to the spawning season and the increased risk of bacteria during the summer months that poisons bivalves. Regardless, for me fall and winter is still the season to enjoy oysters.

There are basically five edible varieties. Belons originally came from Europe but are now farmed in North America. They are probably the most prized and expensive off all the varieties. Eastern oysters include Blue Points, Wellfleets and Malpaques and can be found all down the Eastern seaboard and in the Gulf of Mexico. There are many species native to the Pacific and they tend to be sweeter—and in my opinion—less complex in flavor than their Atlantic cousins. Kumamoto oysters originally came from Japan but are now commonly found up and down the West coast. They are very small and subtle in flavor. Olympic oysters are indigenous to the Pacific Northwest. Small but very prized, they’re rarely available in other parts of the country.

Oysters are both harvested in the wild and farmed but you will rarely see the difference noted on a menu. The quality of an oyster should never be judged by its size since it can vary enormously from species to species. However, size does matter when you’re purchasing shucked oysters, most commonly used for stews (smaller oysters) and frying (larger oysters). Shucked oysters are commonly labeled—from smallest to largest— “standards”, “selects” and “extra selects”. Whether in the shell or shucked, oysters have a relatively long shelf life—about two weeks refrigerated. They should never be frozen as this will have a disastrous affect on their texture.

I have some definite prejudices about oysters. My favorites are Belons and Wellfleets. I’m generally not a fan of Pacific oysters, Quilcines being my least favorite. I prefer oysters served on the half shell or fried. Raw oysters are most commonly served in this country with cocktail sauce, a combination of ketchup or chili sauce with horseradish. My preference is fresh lemon and a good hot sauce like Tabasco. My favorite, though, is Panola (available at Brennan’s) which doesn’t pack as much heat as Tabasco but has wonderful flavor. In France (and increasingly here as well), raw oysters are served with mignonette, a simple sauce of quality vinegar, shallots, salt and pepper. The traditional accompaniment for fried oysters is cocktail or tartar sauce. My favorite is New Orleans-style Remoulade Sauce.

Certainly the most famous preparation is Oyster Rockefeller, invented at Antoine’s Restaurant in New Orleans in 1899. The inspiration for this dish was necessity. At the time there was a shortage of imported French snails, a popular menu item. Antoine’s proprietor Jules Alciatore reckoned that if escargot could be sauced and baked in their shells, so could the abundant local oysters. Jules named his creation Rockefeller in deference to the dish’s richness. Spinach is commonly listed as one of the essential ingredients of Oysters Rockefeller, however Antoine’s original recipe—a closely guarded secret to this day—contains no spinach.

Best of Madison for Oysters:

Liliana’s Restaurant in Fitchburg has a separate oyster menu, featuring a half-dozen or more varieties of freshly shucked oysters that change with availability.

Capitol Chophouse serves different varieties of raw oysters, shucked to order, as well as Oysters Rockefeller.

The Blue Marlin prepares both oysters on the half shell and Oysters Rockefeller.

Sardine’s oysters on the half shell come with a traditional French mignonette.

Fried Oysters

3 eggs
2 tablespoons cream
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon Creole seasoning
Fish-Fri (corn flour)
1 pint shucked oysters ("selects" or frying size)

Peanut oil for frying

Lemon wedges
Remoulade Sauce

In a small deep bowl beat together the eggs and cream to combine. Set aside. Combine the flour and Creole seasoning in a large plastic bag. Set aside. Put the Fish Fri in a large plastic bag. Set aside.

Drain the oysters. One at a time, shake the oysters in seasoned flour. Then dip in the egg wash, using a slotted spoon to make sure the entire surface of the oyster is covered. Draining off any excess egg, shake in the Fish Fri and transfer to a wax paper-lined baking sheet or platter.

Preheat oven to 200 degrees.
Heat the oil in a deep fryer to 425 degrees (or the maximum temperature).

Add half the oysters to the fryer and immediately reduce the temperature to 375 degrees. Fry the oysters for 3 to 4 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer the fried oysters to a paper towel lined baking sheet and keep warm in the preheated 200-degree oven while frying the rest of the oysters.

Salt the oysters to taste and immediately serve with lemon wedges and Remoulade Sauce.

Serves 4 as an appetizer or 2 as a main course.

Remoulade Sauce

¼ cup fresh lemon juice
¾ cup light olive oil or other vegetable oil
½ cup chopped yellow onion
½ cup chopped green onions
¼ cup chopped celery
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
3 tablespoons Creole mustard
3 tablespoons prepared yellow mustard
3 tablespoons ketchup
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process for 30 seconds. Use immediately or store in a covered container in the refrigerator (will keep for several days).

Makes about 3 cups.