Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Skillet Ziti

I am a big fan of America's Test Kitchen, a TV show by the Cook's Illustrated people that appears on PBS on Saturdays here. If you're not familiar with Cook's Illustrated magazine, you should be--it's the "Consumer Reports" of the food world. I've made a number of their recipes over the years and have never been disappointed. They also have great ingredient and tools reviews. It's a great magazine and a great web site. I actually pay a yearly membership to access their web site and find it well worth it.

So I watched a recent show, and they did a one-pan "baked" ziti recipe. I decided to try it. What an awesome recipe. Simple, easy, relatively quick, inexpensive, and with great taste, this recipe had it all. And all in one pan. Basically you saute a bit of garlic in olive oil, add crushed tomatoes and water, and cook the uncooked ziti in it--yes, it soaks up most of the water. Later you finish with some heavy cream, parmesan, and fresh basil (and a bit of salt), then top with mozzarella and bake for a bit.

The end result was truly wonderful. The pasta was cooked just perfectly, the sauce was rich and creamy with a wonderful basil flavor and aroma--not complicated, but beautiful in its simplicity. I will make this recipe again, for sure. Add a salad and some hearty bread and you have a great meal. Simple while elegant, and sure to impress. I'll be making this again!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Beer Gravy over Fried Turkey Dinner Balls

OK, so this post is mainly going to be about beer gravy, and I'll give my recipe in just a bit. I used the beer gravy to compliment my Fried Turkey Dinner Balls. I wrote about them in another post, so you can read that to hear how I did it. The big change this time was to coating/breading--I pulverized some instant potato buds in the food processor and used that as the breading. Still working on perfecting that, but it was pretty gosh darned good. The dinner turned out fantastic.

Now, by special request of my good friend Ewa, I'm going to tell you my beer gravy secret. But first, and admission. This was the second time I made this recipe and I tried to jazz it up with a bit of tarragon. I did not like the tarragon and it seemed to hide the hoppiness of the beer. But that choice is up to you.

Here's how I did it and how you can duplicate this delicious gravy.

First, make and cook a mirepoix. Take about 5 oz. of carrots, roughly chopped, and process in a food processor until quarter-inch or less chunks. Then add about 10 oz. of rough cut onions and 5 oz. of rough cut celery. Pulse in the food processor until finely chopped (do not make a puree!). Heat 1/2 stick (4 oz) of butter in a heavy duty sautee or fry pan (not non-stick, preferably) until is sizzles, then add the mirepoix, sprinkle with about a scant teaspoon of salt, and fry over medium heat for nearly 20 minutes or until very much reduced, very little steam, and until it start to brown. Do not burn it! Stir a lot. When somewhat golden, add another tablespoon of butter and cook until it sizzles (get's the moisture out). Now add 1/4 cup cake flour sprinkled over this mixture, and cook, stirring contstantly over med-low heat until browned a bit (you can use all purpose flour too, i just like the texture you get from cake flour, and the lack of protein in cake flour helps the gravy from getting a skin on it). Do not let it burn. Stir, stir, stirr every minute or so.

Now to the next step. Deglaze the pan with about 2 ounces of dry sherry or dry white wine (or your favorite dry red, if you have some). Stir or whisk constantly. Then add one 12-ounce bottle of O'Doul's non-alcoholic beer, stirring and whisking constantly. Now add about 3/4 cup of chicken broth and 3/4 cup of beef broth (you can use all of one or the other or adjust the proportions), whisking so the mixture is smooth. Add a bay leaf, a few sprigs of fresh thyme (and a sprig of tarragon if you dare, but I thought it too overpowering), several dashes of cayenne red pepper, and a few healthy grinds of black pepper and cook on low until it just comes to a simmer. Then continue to cook on very low heat for about 20 minutes or so until the desired consistency. It will thicken more when it cools. You can always add more broth if it's too thick for you.

Now for the fun. Strain the gravy through a fine sieve (I double strain, once in a coarse sieve, then in a fine sieve). Alternately, you could put through a cheese cloth but there will be a bit of texture to the gravy then, it's all up to you. I like the smooth creaminess I get when using the fine sieve, but this takes  a bit of work. Press on the mirepoix with a spatula to get all the good "juice" out. You can discard the mirepoix, it's served its purpose (though I can attest to the fact that it still tastes pretty good in this state!). Keep the gravy warm until you use it and taste and salt just before serving. You can also add more pepper or cayenne at this point if needed, but be gentle on the spice, you don't want to overpower the beer aroma.

That's it. This makes a delicious gravy. It will keep in the refrigerator for quite a while. It does not freeze and thaw the best, you'll need to whisk it back into shape if you do this, but it is nice to have a bit on hand for another day.

This beer gravy is a combination of several recipes and techniques I've used. I hereby officially christen it "Leon's Outstanding Beer Gravy." Smacznego! (that's Polish for bon apetit!).

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Angelo's Pizzeria & Family Restaurant

I had a taste for pizza last night and was in one of my favorite places, downtown Sanford, so a friend and I decided to eat here. We'd had a delicious sample of their pasta and salad at Taste of Sanford, so were looking forward to trying it.

The good news is that the pizza was good. It was very good with a nice crispy and tasty crust. I ordered a 14" and should have gone for the 9", but leftovers are good, too. I had sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, and black olives. There were generous portions of all the topping on the pizza. I'd order it again.

On the other hand, my friend ordered the lasagne. Now it was OK, but just OK. The flavor was good but the noodles were mushy, probably a sign that it had been sitting all day. Still it was good and he did clean his plate (OK, so I helped a bit, but he helped me on the pizza). There seemed to be only one waitress there and she was quite busy, but another guy was also helping her out and with their teamwork, we had pretty good service. Yes, I'd eat here again.

One thing I found a bit confusing was the decor. They are an Pizza and Italian place for the most part, but the walls were painted with huge murals with a Greek theme. They were nice, but didn't feel particularly Italian. They do have some gyros and greek salads on the menu, too. And the murals were nice. It just seemed a bit different.

Angelo's apparently does a lunch buffet on the weekdays, I'd like to check that out some time to. 

Or bill for the 14" pizza, lasagne, an extra side salad,tea and a corona came to about $33, not too bad. We had a nice meal here and I'd go back there again.
Angelo's Pizzeria & Family Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Little Fish Huge Pond

Not a restaurant, Little Fish Huge Pond is a pub/bar/tavern. I think. Well, I'm not exactly sure how to describe it. They have a bar. They server beer and wine. The have art up on the walls and chotchkies everywhere. They also have some sofas and chairs. Even a stage where they have live entertainment. I guess the best way to describe it is that it's "a crazy little urban pub!" as their web site proclaims. We had a good time here.

We went to Little Fish Huge Pond last night because there was a Pirates Regatta on Lake Monroe in Sanford, preceded by a gathering of pirates at Little Fish Huge Pond. We had a delightful time. First of all, I was able to score a delicious IPA--I drank the last three bottle they had! The place was fairly busy with well over 20 people there, many of them in pirate attire. I heard a lot of "aaarrgh"s and "avast"s and saw a few hooks, eye patches, and other seemingly appropriate pirate wear.

The main instigator and rabble-rouser in the crowd was Mo, the owner of the place

The main instigator and rabble-rouser in the crowd was Mo, the owner of the place. She is an absolute hoot and a very warm and friendly person--perfect for a pub owner. At the appropriate time, Mo led the group of pirates (now numbering well over 30) out the door and into the street where they proceeded down first street and then up to Lake Monroe. There the pirate ships (some flying the Jolly Roger and  many with approprately dressed pirates) tied up and joined the revelry.

Later in the evening we went back past Little Fish Huge Pond. They had a band and a nice crowd of folks in there. Also on the street we encountered many more pirates, some engaged in a bar crawl. Looked like they were having fun. I know I'll be going back to this place, it was a lot of fun.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


I had lunch at TooJay's yesterday. I have to admit that they generally have consistently pretty good food there, I've eaten there quite a few times (Lake Mary, FL location). 

Yesterday I had the Chicken Caprese sandwich. I nice-sized portion of chicken breast topped with tomato slices, whole basil leaves, mozzarella cheese, and with a bit of balsamic vinegar. It was very good and a huge portion for lunch. The only complaint is that after a while, the basil gets hot and wilted and stringy, but that's to be expected. If i was building the sandwich I think I'd put on the mozzarella and brown it a bit, then top with tomato and finally the basil. But it's a small point and was a good sandwich. My go-withs of coleslaw and a side salad were equally good, though for some reason my requisite two, count them two, cucumber slices included one that was triple thick. No matter, i'm not a cucumber fan. 

So, it was a good lunch at TooJays, and always is. I don't think I've ever had a bad meal there, though never anything truly outstanding either. It's a deli, they have nice deli-type food. Oh, and great desserts--some of those are truly great.
Toojay's Gourmet Deli on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Colorado's Prime Steak

Over a week ago at Taste of Sanford I had the opportunity to sample a bit of the fare from Colorado's Prime Steak in Sanford and I was impressed. So much so that I went there for dinner last night with a friend. I am still impressed.

We arrived to what looked like a fairly full parking lot but upon entering were seated right away. Though it looked very busy from the outside, the dinner hour seemed to be winding down. After just a minute or two a waitress arrived and took our beverage order. About two minutes later Jennifer brought our drinks an apologized that she was tardy as another table had tied her up a bit. But hey, we got our drink order taken and delivered promptly, so there was some good teamwork going on. I like that.

For an appetizer we ordered the Chicken Chimiritos, two egg rolls stuffed wtih blackened chicken, cheddar cheese, black beans, grilled onions, and minced jalapenos. They were covered with chili and cheese and were very good. They were served with a salsa and sour cream on the side. The chimiritos were very good. To only fault I could find was that the salsa was ordinary as if out of the bottle from the store. But that's a minor point. 

My friend ordered the French Onion soup. It was very, very good, not overly salty, just right. Covered with melted and bubbly provolone, it was delicious.

My salad was also very good as salads go. I had their homemade blue cheese dressing and it was very good though I'm sure loaded with calorie. Oh well, I did enjoy it.

I am not a huge red meat eater, but I decided to try their signature dish, their smoked prime rib. I'm glad I did. It was excellent. It came out a perfect medium rare as ordered and was tender, juicy, flavorful, and with a nice hint of smoke. As is normal with prime rib, there were some larger pieces of fat, but in general, it was mostly tender, juicy red meat. Yumm, I really really liked it.

My friend ordered the "Dark Horse Saloon" steak sandwich. It was equally delicious. A ribeye steak on sourdough topped with caramelized onions and melted swiss cheese, it was definitely a fork and knife sandwich. The steak was a perfectly medium cooked sandwich steak, juicy, tasty, and tender. Another hit.

I had the mixed vegetable  medley as my side, it was fine, just what I'd expect. But my friend had the french fries and they were probably the best french fries I've had in a long, long time--maybe ever! They hand make their own fries. If i had to guess, I'd say they were fried in beef fat, too. They were absolutely outstandingly delicious. Highly recommended.

The service was attentive and prompt and we had a thoroughly enjoyable experience here. They have a very nice menu, not limited to steaks, but pasta, seafood, sandwiches....even pork chops. The dessert menu looked great as did the specialty drink menu. But after eating all of the above, there was no room for more. Our total bill came to about $45 plus tip, before we used our "free appetizer" coupon from Taste of Sanford which they honored promptly. Overall, this was a very enjoyable experience and I'll go back again, definintely. I'd probably prefer this place over some of the chains, if i wanted a good steak. I'll be back!

Colorado's Prime Steak on Urbanspoon

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Longhorn Steakhouse

Went for lunch to Longhorn Steakhouse in Lake Mary today with my boss and had a good lunch. One thing I will say about Longhorn is that they seem to be consistently good. I was somewhat surprised by the lack of a lunch "crowd" today--a year or so ago if you'd arrived after noon you'd have parked in the "back 40" and had to wait a bit for a table--but not today. I'm sure it's a sign of the soft economy. Still, we had a good lunch with great service from Jennifer.

I had the Rocky Top Chicken-- a nice and tender chicken breast that had some BBQ sauce on it and was topped with some bacon, cheese, and diced tomatoes. It was very good. The chicken was very tender, though it seemed like the breast was a bit butchered in a fragmented sense--but still very good. To go-with I had a side salad which was pretty good and jalapeno coleslaw, also very good. 

It was a good lunch for a fair price with attentive service. I'll eat here again!
Longhorn Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tomato Pie

I've made well over a half dozen tomatoe pies in the past year, all in an attempt to duplicate the wonderful piece I first had at Two Blondes and a Shrimp well over a year ago. My last two attempts have succeeded, wildly!

Tomato pie is layers of fresh ripe tomatoes layered with cheddar cheese. The recipe I found and adapted from Cuisine magazine had been a true winner.

I start with about 2 or so pounds of ripe red beefsteak tomatoes--at the peak of ripeness and flavor. I core them and cut them into 1/4 to 3/8 inch slices, slightly salt them, and put on several layers of paper towels and let drain for 1/2 to one hour. Lots of paper towels, that is--the trick is to get the moisture out. While they are draining, i thinly slice 4 scallions and set aside. Then in a bowl I mix about a cup or so (about 4 oz) of shredded seriously sharp cheddar, about 2 oz of shredded monterey jack cheese, a quarter to 1/3 cup of mayo, and 4-5 teaspoons of cornstarch. It makes a kind of pasty concotion. Best to leave at room temperature, too. 

Once the tomatoes are drained, you have to take more paper towels and press on them and really dry them out. The drier the better. You will go through a lot of paper towels, but it's worth it.

Now get the crust ready. I cheat and use a prerolled refrigerated crust. Line a 9 inch pie plate with one. Get some good quality deli aged cheddar cheese, have it sliced fairly thin, lay it out in a grid pattern and trace the pie plate on it, then line the pie crust with the cheese. This will help insulate the crust from the moist tomatoes. The crust should be well chilled, too. 

Now to create the dish. Layer 1/3 of the tomatoes in the pie crust over your cheddar cheese "shield," dot with 1/2 of the cheese/mayo mixture, and spread 1/2 of the scallions. Press it down good and tight. Now another 1/3 of the tomatoes and the other halves of the mayo/cheese mixture and scallions. Finally, top with the last 1/3 of the tomatoes. Cover with a top crust and seal and flute the edges, then cut four oval shaped vents in the top to let excess moisture out.

Meanwhile, get your oven hot and use a pizza stone or a heavy metal sheet pan. It should be hot, 450 degrees. When hot, place the pie on the hot pizza stone (this will help cook the crust on the bottom so it cooks first and does not get all wet from the moist tomatoes. Cook for 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 325 and bake another 40 minutes until the crust is golden (just like in the picture).

Now comes the hardest part. Wait. And wait. And wait some more. This pie must cool to room temperature and not a degree more. If you do not let it cool completely, it will be moist and watery. Patience is a virtue and will pay off here. Once it is completely cooled (you did wait at least the full 3 hours, right?), slice with a sharp knife and serve. You will have the most amazing tomato pie you've ever tasted. You will want to savor each and every amazing bite, then do it all over again. Yes, it is that good!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Frank & Bill's Brickhouse Grill

My friend and I decided to drive up to Deland for lunch Sunday afternoon and hit one of the restaurants on my urbanspoon.com wishlist--and I'm glad we did.

We went to Frank & Bill's Brickhouse Grill, right in the heart of historic downtown Deland. Deland has a very picturesque and historic downtown, somewhat similar to Sanford's. It's quite quaint. Frank & Bill's is housed in a historic building, kind of dark inside, but warm, and they also have a patio with outside seating. Upon arrival, we were quickly and warmly greeted by Corey. We spotted a table right by the window requested it. It had not been wiped down yet from the previous guests, but Corey quickly did that and we were seated right by the street.

For lunch my friend and I both had the Chicken and Dumplings soup. It was very good. At first it reminded me a bit of the creaminess of out-of-the-can Campbell's Cream of Chicken soup, but as it cooled a bit and I could taste it better, i notices the subtle flavors that made this way better than the canned stuff. The occasional bite of carrot and the aroma of parsley made this quite savory. There was not much chicken at all in it, but lots of little dumplings. They were OK, though had just a bit of a flour taste.  Still a pretty good soup overall.

My friend had an open face roast beef sandwich. It was pretty darned good and a large portion for a lunch. The pork and beans he had were pretty non-eventful, but his mashed potatoes had a slight vinegar taste and was somewhat off-putting.

I started my meal with a salad that was quite good, but for my entree I had the lunch size portion of Chicken Monica. It was absolutely delicious! Two tender pieces of chicken breast stuffed with a bit of ham, with cheese on top and covered with a marsala type sauce with caramelized onions, mushroons, tomatoes, and spinach. That all had more grated paremsan on top. It was excellent. It was served with a bit of linguini which was great for the extra sauce, and two smaller pieces of garlic toast. Even though this was a lunch size, it was more than enough food and a great price, about $7.

We had a great meal at Bill & Frank's Brickhouse Grill and sure would go back there again. Yumm!
Bill & Frank's Brickhouse Grill on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Fried Green Tomatoes

It's summer (well, near the end of it), and the latest issue of Cuisine magazine had a story on Fried Green Tomatoes. I love Fried Green Tomatoes when they're done right, so I decided to make them the centerpiece of dinner last night. But since it's summer and fresh produce is plentiful, I decided to make it a veggie-lovers dinner as well.

First I made a tomato salad. I made my own viniagrette: one part red wine vinegar, three parts EVOO, some rasperry jam that i put throug a sieve, a bit of parmesan, and salt and pepper, Yumm. I took some small Campari Tomatoes and quartered them, halved some grape tomatoes, took a yellow tomato and cut that up, added some finely sliced red onion and a bit of basil julienne, and voila, a tomato salad. Once it sat for a good hour or two it was wonderful.

Then there was a potato salad. Some baby Reds cut into quarter after cooking. I made a dressing of mayo and sour cream, red onion, celery, dill, and salt and pepper, with a bit of red wine vinegar. Throw in a diced had boiled egg and again, voila, a great potato salad.
But the feature and star of the meal was the BL&fgT's--Bacon, Lettuce, and (fried green) Tomato sandwiches. And some extra Fried Green Tomatoes on the side.
To start I made a remoulade--mayo and sour cream, chipotle for heat, diced capers, red onions, and pickle relish. Let it sit a bit and wow, was it good.

For the fried green tomatoes I sliced them a quarter to 3/8 inch thick, dipped in a buttermilk/egg white mixture, then in some very finely ground cormeal with a bit of cayenne and salt. Let them sit for a good hour in the refrigerator, then fried in oil. Outstanding!

The sandwiches were great. We had two apiece, each with a different bread. The first was a whole wheat, whole grain baguette I sliced and toasted. The second was with an onion-egg bun that i sliced and toasted. The sandwiches were simply built: a bit of the remoulade, some "living" lettuce (got it at the farmers market with the roots still attached and still alive), two sliced of thick center-cut bacon, and the fried green tomato. They were outstanding, if I do say so myself (and I do!).
We had quite a spread, as you can tell from this photo. Bon Apetit!  

Friday, September 4, 2009

Taste of Sanford

Last night the Sanford Chamber of Commerce held their first Taste of Sanford event. From the good turnout to the mounds of great food to the music and seating, it was a hit. I was nervous about it because of the rain we've been having, but it was inside in a nice location right by Fort Mellon Park. There were about 10-15 major restaurants there and a number of smaller places as well. As you might guess, there was a wide variety of food, much of it very good, some of it only mediocre or average.

First, the hit appetizer of the evening, in my mind, was the bacon wrapped fig from Gourmet 2 Go. What an idea. Bite-size, sweet and savory, it was wonderful. I did wonder what it would be like dipped in chocolate, but still, it was excellent and a novel idea. Entree of the evening? Well, there were several places that really shined, all for different reasons:

  • Angelo's Pizzeria had a great chicken and penne and mushroom dish served with a bit of salad. Nice combination (the hot/cold and the crisp/creamy) and the chicken and penne dish was very, very good. A+ to them (picture below).

  • Giovanni's had two dishes. The pasta primavera was a miss, the pasta overcooked and mushy. But to make up for it, their chicken and mushrooms and penne (think marsala) was excellent--very savory and cooked just perfectly. Give then an A for that!
  • Luigino's had a very nice sampler. The meatball was OK, just a meatball. The crab stuffed ravioli was excellent, as was the slice of prime rib--it was to die for. And they had a dish with chicken in a thick mushroom sauce, it was excellent as well. Give them an A- and put them on my list of places to eat (picture below).

  • Colorado Prime Steak had a great prime rib sandwich with a very nice homemade horseradish sauce. I'd give them a B+ and also put them on my list of places to eat especially since their menu prices seem very reasonable.
Rivership Romance had some very tender pork loin, perfectly cooked and seasoned, served with some black bean and corn salsa. Very good and give them a B+ as well (picture below).

The winner in the "combo plate" category--that is, a nicely prepared plate of things that not only were designed to compliment each other but were also nicely presented goes to Two Blondes and a Shrimp. Their combination of a hearty and spicy sloppy-joe style entree served on a carrot puree paired with a slice of corn bread and offset by a celery slaw with a drizzle of chili oil was brilliant. Looked good and tasted good (picture below).

In the middle of the pack was a disappointment--Stone's Throw Bistro had a shepherd's pie that was good, but just not great. To top it off, their presentation was sorely lacking--their table really had nothing on it to tell me something about their personality. I was disappointed by that. I'd give their food a C+, I expected better from a place that got several high marks from Seminole Magazine recently. [Note: since I first wrote the above, I heard from the chef/owner of Stone's Throw Bistro and he did explain how a series of unfortunate personal crises among the staff kinda popped the bubble on what they had planned. They did the best they could in unfortunate circumstances, he said. I sure will eat here again, their food was good, I'm sorry that their showing at Taste of Sanford was not so good, but stuff happens in life. I still recommend you try them out some time. It's because I've had their good food that I was disappointed. Tell them the Lake Mary Food Critic sent you!]

Hilton Garden in gets a B- for their empanada and their bruschetta--the presentation is what elevated them from a C. Nice presentation of the bruschetta with some orchid blossoms on the tray--looked very appetizing and was pretty good too (picture below).
Another round of high marks for presentation goes to Amura, their boatloads of shrimp sushi were fun to look at and the taste was spot-on, along with the braised ribs. Yumm, I'll give them a B+ as well.

And I can't forget Route 46. I've eaten there before and it's pretty good, nice smoked BBQ flavors. Their offerings were a smoked sausage on a stick, and a bacon wrapped smoked shrimp with BBQ sauce. Both were pretty darned good, I'll give them a B- as well.

In the disappointing category there were several "standouts":
  • Ruth's Chris Steak House did not impress me. Sure their ravioli were pretty good, and the bun on the mini burger (think a big slider) was excellent, but the burger itself was just a burger. They did not really tell me anything about their fine reputation. They get a C and mostly for the great bun on the slider.
  • Carlos n Charlies did not deliver, outside of their margaritas. The chips and guacamole and chips and pico de gallo had great chips, but the accompaniments missed. The pico was OK, not too bad, but the guacamole was just some green goo on a plate that was lifeless and flavorless. They get a D for disappointing. However they did have one guy there that gets an A for effort, friendly, bubbly, a good sell, when we left he was convincing a few of the young women to dance, and doing a good job at it. He sells me on that place being a party place, i get it. Only the food is not that great.
  • Don Pablo's had a soft shell taco that was about like any other soft shell taco you can get or make for yourself. It was OK but not great. Another D for disappointing.
In the dessert category, well, I don't do much desserts, but there were several my friends liked and none they did not so all the desserts get a B. And also thanks to Wayne Densch for the beer, and Cork and Olive for the wine.

The Taste of Sanford was a wonderful time. I'd go again next year, for sure. Thanks!