The Gleeful Gourmand: May 2014

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

"Chef" Movie - On This Foodie's Must List

It isn't too often that a movie based around food comes out in theaters, but when they do, this foodie rejoices. Sure, I love reading about food tremendously, but seeing it in action on the big screen is incredible. Kitchens, professional and unprofessional, have enough drama to fuel a thousand plots: high stakes, stress, sexiness, and gorgeous imagery.

My favorites: "Big Night," "Julie & Julia," "Like Water for Chocolate," and yes, "Ratatouille."
Not-so-favorite: "No Reservations."

But one thing I've heard from chefs and professional cooks is that often movies about the restaurant world get it completely wrong. That's why I found it so fascinating the lengths that director and actor Jon Favreau went to in order to make his new film, "Chef," legit.

Favreau stars as a chef who is fired from his restaurant job and starts up a food truck to reclaim his passion and zeal for cooking while trying to put back the broken pieces of his estranged family. Sounds like a great concept, but Favreau wanted beyond great - he wanted authenticity. He teamed up with chef Roy Choi, who gained praise and prominence as the creator of the gourmet Korean taco truck, Kogi; and was a leader in the food truck movement.

For his part, Choi agreed to help Favreau as long as the movie "got it right," from the kitchens to the very food they were making. So he sent Favreau off to French culinary school, and then had him train in his own kitchens for months before filming started. That's exactly what makes me want to see this movie: Food that truly shines, and a premise that doesn't romanticize or patronize the world of restaurant kitchens and the chefs that work in them.

"Chef" is in limited release in theaters right now, and I can't wait to see it. Take a look at the trailer below:

Friday, May 16, 2014

Ernie's Epic Foods: Five Salsas Reviewed

Summer is right around the corner, and summer is Salsa Season. Or, if you're me, every season is Salsa Season. Is there any dip or condiment on this planet that is as tasty, fun, and versatile? You can literally do a hundred different things with salsa, but my favorite way to use it is to stuff my face with it and tortilla chips. I know, that's not very couth to say (or maybe to do in front of guests), but I feel about salsa they way I feel about barbecue: very passionately.

Maybe it's a nostalgia thing: We had salsa some growing up, but nowhere more than when we were at the beach. Maybe it's the memory of playing hard at the beach all morning, then coming in for a satisfying lunch of sandwiches with tortilla chips and salsa. Maybe it's the memory of the most perfect salsa ever, found at the now long-gone Uncle Julio's Rio Grande Café that was once my favorite restaurant in RVA. Maybe it's just the way it's a perfect snack: Bite for delicious bite, refreshing, waking all your senses, clearing your sinuses…man, I simply love it.

So when I was contacted by Ernie Dettbarn, a Richmond creator of unique salsas, it was a no-brainer. He wanted me to try his five salsa flavors, and since it was lunchtime when I read his e-mail, I wanted to eat them. Win-win. But salsas are subjective. What one person loves about a salsa, another may not like at all. Take heat, for instance. My husband loves super-spicy salsa - he loves all super-spicy food. But I can't tolerate a lot of heat. I go for more of a true medium salsa: flavorful with just enough kick not to send tears coursing down my face.

Behold: Ernie's Salsa. Unique, and flavorful.

Which is why when I received Ernie's Salsas, I decided the best way to get an accurate assessment was to have more opinions than just my own. It just so happened that we were having our neighborhood's annual Egg Hunt and Easter Brunch around the same time. It turned into an all-day affair, so late in the afternoon, I brought out Ernie's Salsas and lined them up for a taste-test with about 10 of my neighbors. 

Now Ernie makes a pretty big claim on his website: "The Best You've Ever Tasted, Or I'll Buy It Back." Ernie has been perfecting his salsas for 25 years, and he uses local ingredients whenever he can. There's no artificial anything in his salsas, which also makes them a real treat. We were pretty excited to dig in. Here's how the different flavors fared with our panel of experts (er, hungry neighbors):

Ernie's Black Bean & Corn Salsa. Yuuuuum!

Black Bean & Corn: This was one of the favorites of the group. Everyone loved its mild, yet robust flavor, and especially its texture (chunky), which made it pretty hearty. There was barely anything left in the bowl at the end of the taste test. Out of all of them, this is the one that inspired me to cook with it - I could definitely see it as the perfect addition to a healthy breakfast burrito.

Gourmet Red: Unfortunately, this was the salsa that did not fare so well. Only one person enjoyed it, and the consensus was that it was far too bland, and underwhelming. Due to its smooth consistency, it reminded me of eating tomato soup on a chip. (*Note* Ernie sent me another bottle of Gourmet Red, and this one was chunkier, but the flavor was still too mild and a bit bland for my taste. However, we did mix it in some sour cream to put over grilled fajitas, and that was amazing!)

Hawaiian Pineapple Heat: This was my personal favorite of all the flavors. Most of us loved how the subtle sweetness hit before a perfect kick of heat came in right at the end. Only one among us said it didn't have enough heat, but that was my husband, Mr. "It's got to be as flaming hot as the sun." 

Chesapeake Bay Shrimp: This was a huge crowd pleaser. We all kept coming back to it over and over because of how different it was, and how interesting. Most of us love shrimp and Old Bay, and the flavor was excellent. Many of us agreed we'd love to buy this as a unique gift for someone, or to have on hand for something like a low-country boil. It got me thinking of the beach, sitting out on the deck watching the waves, glass of bourbon on one side, this salsa on the other side. It might just be the perfect summer salsa.

Perfect Peach: We were pretty evenly split on this one. Half liked it, half thought that it was just okay. It wasn't cloyingly sweet, which I liked, but unlike the Hawaiian Pineapple, it really lacked a punch of heat and flavor. But like most peach salsas, the consensus really hinged on whether someone was a "sweet salsa" fan or not. In my experience, "fruit" salsas can be polarizing, and this peach salsa definitely was for our group. I personally thought it was okay, but I really preferred the Hawaiian for that "sweet heat" flavor.

Just look at all that Black Bean & Corn goodness.

Last Notes: Almost everyone agreed that if they saw Ernie's Salsas on a store shelf (Martin's, Giant, Kroger, Ellwood Thompson, and Whole Foods are a few stores you can find them in!), or at an expo, they would buy it again. So check them out for yourself! You can buy them here as well. If you live in RVA, there's no better way to support local small business then stuffing your face with their salsas and chips. 


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Chicken Étouffée from the "Treme" Cookbook

It was such a pleasure hearing Lolis Eric Elie speak at JLR's Book & Author Event last week. All of the authors who spoke were wonderful, and it was fantastic hearing them all speak so eloquently about their books, and other subject matters (especially Jen Lancaster, who had me in stitches telling her story about going from a dot-com CEO to being broke, and how she found her way out). But it was especially interesting listening to Elie speak about New Orleans, and about food. Reading his words is one thing - you can get a sense of his passion, but hearing him talk was truly inspiring.

I got to meet him briefly afterwards, and he signed my copy of "Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans." I think we talked a little about food blogging, but I honestly can't remember. I tend to get a little light-headed and palm-sweaty when talking to people who are famous. I was also cognizant of the lady in line behind me who said snidely of the woman in front of me having her book signed, "Oh great, she's telling him her life story!"

Regardless, I was thrilled that I could attend the event, and even more thrilled that Elie's speech inspired more people to buy his wonderful book. In that vein, I have one more take on a recipe I was very eager to try out in the book: Chicken Étouffée (eh-two-fay). I have always loved étouffée - especially my husband's shrimp étouffée. It's the kind of dish that is comforting, but also has several levels of flavor and depth so that when you get to the last bite, you're profoundly sorry that you've finished.

The character in the book who "makes" this étouffée is a single Dad cop, and his section relates that "Étouffée means 'smother' in French. In a real New Orleans restaurant, you might see either term, but a tourist trap would never have smothered chicken on its menu. It doesn't sound exotic enough. By either name, it's a standard Louisiana cooking technique."

A mess of Mise En Place.

The actual recipe is from noted New Orleans chef Poppy Tooker, and seemed incredibly easy, and uncomplicated, unlike the shrimp étouffée we've made. It starts out much the same with making a roux, and a base of sautéed onions, celery, bell pepper and garlic. But then it deviates into having you use beer for the liquid (it also suggests chicken stock if you don't want to use beer), and 6 boneless skinless chicken breast halves just thrown in the pot and simmered with all the spices until tender. As always, it's served over hot rice.

The first problem I ran into was that I had no fresh thyme - and thyme is essential to any good étouffée. I tried to substitute ground thyme, only using half of what they called for, but I guess I still overestimated how powerful the dried herb would be, because the thyme flavor completely overwhelmed the flavor of the dish. Whoops. The second thing I found disheartening was how, underneath all the thyme, there was a basic lack of flavor. Even with all the beer (it calls for 1 bottle, and says you may have to open a second, I used 2 1/2 because somehow it still managed to cook way down) and herbs, it still came out very lackluster.

Chicken Étouffée

The good news is, I know how to fix it. Nothing is done to the chicken breasts save for simmering them in the sauce, and I believe that's a crucial misstep. It makes it easy, sure, but it also leaves it bland. My suggestion is to salt and pepper the chicken breasts, and then in a separate pan with about a tablespoon of vegetable oil, over medium-high heat, sear them until just golden brown. That will bring in lots of flavor. Better yet, get some chicken thighs with the skin on, and bone-in. That would also do the trick. I would also forgo the beer in favor of chicken stock for rich flavor, or maybe alternate the two. The last thing I would recommend is 1 Tbsp. (or more) of tomato paste. The sauce needs that extra layer of depth and flavor giving it zing, even before you dash on some hot sauce.

As I mentioned, this recipe comes from Chef Poppy Tooker, but I have modified it to my own tastes.

Chicken Étouffée

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/2 cup bacon drippings or olive oil
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
1 bell pepper, seeded and chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
One 12-ounce bottle of beer plus 1 cup chicken stock
2 tsp. minced fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 Tbsp. or more tomato paste
6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
2 Tbsp. hot sauce
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Hot cooked rice for serving

• Salt and pepper chicken breasts on both sides, and cut in half.

• In a skillet, heat 1 Tbsp. of vegetable oil over medium-high heat until it just begins to shimmer. Place 3 chicken breast halves in the pan and sear until golden brown, about 3 minutes on both side, removing when done. Add remaining oil and chicken breasts, repeating the process. Set chicken aside.

• In a deep cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven, heat the bacon fat or olive oil over medium heat. When the fat is hot, add the flour slowly, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring constantly to help it dissolve and incorporate. When all the flour has been added, continue cooking the roux, stirring constantly until it takes on a rich dark brown color - about 7 minutes.

• Add the onion and cook, still stirring constantly until it softens and the onions darken, about 3 minutes. Add the celery, bell pepper, and garlic and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes longer.

• Whisk the bottle of beer into the pan, stirring to incorporate. Stir in the thyme and bay leaf. Bring to a brisk simmer and cook for 10 minutes. At this point, if your liquid is running low, start adding the chicken stock. At the end of the 10 minutes, add the tomato paste, stirring again to incorporate, then add the chicken.

• Reduce the heat to a low simmer, cover tightly, and cook until the chicken is just done, about 20 minutes (this is where you can start making the rice). You may have to add more liquid as the chicken cooks. When the chicken is done, season with hot sauce, and salt and pepper to taste.

• Scoop the rice into individual bowls or plates and spoon the étouffée over it. Serve immediately.