Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Another Lunch at Volt

Volt is one of my favorite restaurants in the area. It is a little bit out of the way, but it is a cute part of Frederick, and there really is nowhere else that you can get that a three-course meal with that quality of food for only $25. So, I finally decided that it was time that I introduce my boyfriend, E., to Bryan Voltaggio's cooking. We made a reservation for lunch before the holidays, and took the only opening they had, which was at 2pm on a Thursday. (Side note: I was actually very excited by the fact that Bryan Voltaggio was in the kitchen that day, and came out to the dining room to check how things were going)

We arrived a little bit late for our reservation because of traffic; I tried to call the restaurant to warn them, but Volt now has an answering service and it is no longer possible to speak with a human being. To our surprise, when we came in, we were told that our table wasn’t ready, so we waited in the lounge. After about five minutes, the hostess came and got us.

We were seated and given menus and our choice of sparkling or still house-purified water. As we made our selections, I was a little disappointed by the fact that they neglected to serve us their house-made bread sticks. At first I thought it was because we were a late lunch seating and perhaps they had run out. But then a table close to us had bread sticks on the table and a table of six that was seated long after us also got bread sticks. So we were simply passed over. I am not saying that this was a deliberate, but I will remark again on it later.

While we waited for our first course, we were offered bread, along with Vermont butter with big flakes of sea salt. As usual, there was a selection of three different things to pick from. I got a buttermilk chive biscuit and E. got an olive and rosemary roll. My biscuit was beautifully flaky, but a little bit salty. E.’s roll was on the sweeter side, light, and airy.

For our first course I ordered the shiitake velouté with pinenut sabayon, chili oil, and opal basil. I’ve had this before, and it didn’t blow me away the last time, but I liked the earthiness of the velouté and I thought it worked well with the creamy sabayon. This time, however, the dish was unbearably salty. Even with my biscuit and large sips of water, I couldn’t eat all of it, and so I left over half of it untouched. It was incredibly disappointing. When our server came by, he asked if everything was okay, and I did mention the saltiness; he apologized for the kitchen and offered to bring me another dish, which was very kind, but I felt it was unnecessary since we still had two more courses to go, and I couldn’t really imagine that what they would bring out would be that much more improved.

E.’s first course was the cherry glen farm goat cheese ravioli with butternut squash, maitake mushrooms, and sage air. E. had felt slightly unsure about the goat cheese, since it can be a very strong flavor, but he ended up enjoying the dish. It had a lot of character, but the goat cheese wasn’t overwhelming, and the mushrooms provided an earthiness and a light sweetness to the dish which complemented the ravioli beautifully. The dish was very rich, without being heavy, and felt rather perfect for the season.

For my main course, I had scallops with beluga lentils, chive pudding, and variations of cauliflower. The scallops were amazing. They were perfectly cooked, and the kitchen played off the natural sweetness of the scallops with the chive pudding, cauliflower purée, and roasted cauliflower. I especially enjoyed the texture of the beluga lentils, which had a bit of a bite to them, and the crunchy dehydrated cauliflower. It was hard to find anything wrong with this dish, and I would give it a very solid 9.5 out of 10. It was fun to eatE. called it whimsicaland I loved that there were plays on both texture and taste.

E. ordered rockfish with black forbidden rice, pureed maroon carrot, and soy air for his main course. This dish was perfect. I normally consider rockfish a very meaty, solid fish, and yet somehow the kitchen turned out something that was almost delicate, and absolutely mouthwatering. The fish was moist and the skin was beautifully crisp, providing a nice textural difference. The black forbidden rice was fragrant and the carrot puree packed a surprising flavor punch. The entire dish was solid and filling, and we gave it a 9.5 out of 10.

I was a little sad when we finished both of our main courses, as they were both so wonderful and I didn't want the experience to end. But dessert did not disappoint.

For my dessert, I had the textures of chocolate with dark chocolate ganache, chocolate caramel, and raw organic cocoa. E. was shocked by the size of my dessert, and by the amount of the sugar I was thus consuming, but we both enjoyed it. The combination of the caramel, ganache, ice cream, and cocoa provided different tastes and textures that melded together to create a symphony of flavors. While I have this dessert so many times that it no longer wows me, it is consistently and beautifully executed, and provided a nice finish to a lovely meal. It is always a 9 out of 10.

For his dessert, E. ordered the goat cheese cake with d’anjou pear, spiced vanilla ice cream, and citrus tuille. The cheese cake was light and the scent and flavor of the goat cheese wasn’t at all overwhelming. The tangy-ness was well balanced with sweetness. If it hadn't been called a goat cheese cheesecake, you wouldn't have known it at all. The pear was cooked so that it retained a slight bite to it (instead of being soft and mushy) and the ice cream was beautifully flecked with vanilla seeds. This dessert was lovely, sophisticated, and E. much enjoyed it. A solid 9 out of 10.

After our table was cleared, the check came with two little paper packages, one for each person. Each package had two big chocolate chip cookies. They were soft baked, but with crispy edges, and fragrant with butter. The takeaway gift was, as always, a nice touch, which we enjoyed later as a post-lunch, pre-dinner snack.

As for the service? Service at Volt has always been consistent and good. No matter what day of the week or how crowded the restaurant is, our servers have always been polite, friendly, and knowledgeable. They are good at refilling glasses and paying attention to the little needs of diners, and they can always answer any questions about the dishes on the menu.

Our service this time was polite, but also a little spotty. While our glasses were refilled at a good rate, I was disappointed by the fact that they neglected to bring us the bread sticks (mentioned above) and that we were never offered bread after our first tasting. These may seem like small things, but the servers at Volt are never this negligent. I was surprised that bread was only offered at the beginning of the meal, and that though we both finished our servings, we were not offered bread again with the main course. This is an anomaly, not just for Volt, but for any restaurant. Bread should be served with the main course, if you’re serving bread. And in all my visits to Volt, the servers had never failed before to offer bread during the main course (in the past, we’d had multiple offerings for bread during the course of our meal).

I couldn't help but wonder if it was the age factor. I know I look young for my age; I have a very young face. E. looks just as young as I do. When we go out, I sometimes joke with my friends that we look like two sixteen year olds. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that most young people will tell you that service given to the young differs drastically compared to service given to those who are older.

I am always wary when I go out to eat, because I know I look many years younger than I actually am, and my perceived age, I've noticed, sometimes affects my quality of service. This aggravates me beyond words. I am older than I look, and I have dined at restaurants from CityZen to Inn at Little Washington to Le Grand Vefour. I know what service I should be getting and what quality of food I should be served, and when I am paying the same price as other customers, I expect to be treated just as they are treated. I hate getting poorer service simply because people think they can get away with it. Volt, I cannot say that your service was slightly sub-par because of the youth factor, but I will be on my guard in the future. Remember, service makes up half the experience of dining out, and I dine out because I want to have good experiences.

228 North Market Street
Frederick, MD 21701
Tel: 301-696-8658

Overall rating for the price: 8.5 out of 10

Friday, December 24, 2010

Rosemary Pine Nut Cookies

I'm sorry to do this, but I think I ought to give you all one last potential holiday recipe, and because these past few days have been crazy, I shall post this recipe without pictures. This will just be a one time thing though. (Well... I can't make any promises)

These Rosemary Pine Nut Cookies are delicious, with a mild nutty flavor, and they carry a beautiful background tone of rosemary. I have yet to make these for someone and have them be received with anything other than pleasure and enthusiasm.

If you're dying to know what these things look like, I can tell you that they are beautiful sand colored cookies and absolutely worth making. These cookies are great for gift-giving, or just as a quick dessert to wrap up a good meal. They also work great with a cheese plate.

Happy Holidays!

Rosemary & Pine Nut Shortbread Cookies
adapted from Martha Stewart

½ cup pine nuts
1 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup packed dark brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp salt
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Pulse the pine nuts and rosemary in a food processor until finely chopped and combined.

Add the butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, vanilla, and salt. Pulse until smooth. [Note: It may be necessary to pull out the blade and scraped down the sides so that everything is evenly incorporated.]

Add the flour. Pulse until dough comes together and is fairly smooth.

Turn out dough onto saran wrap, and form a log with a diameter of approximately 2 inches (give or take). Refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes, or up to 2 days.

Unwrapped the dough and slice the cookies into ¼ inch rounds. [Optional: dust with coarse/demerara sugar]

Transfer to an aluminum or parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake until just golden, 13 to 15 minutes.

Let cool, then store in an airtight container for up to 5 days (if they last that long) at room temperature.

Yields about 3 dozen cookies

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Dim Sum Garden

On the way home to Maryland from New Jersey, my parents and I decided to stop for lunch in Philadelphia. My dad had heard about a place in Chinatown that was highly praised for its Shanghai "soup dumplings," and so the decision was made to lunch there.

The restaurant, Dim Sum Garden, is just a small place, very easy to miss. It didn't seem like anything impressive from the outside, and its menu is fairly limited, but we decided on four things that we wanted to order.

Our orders were quickly taken and we barely had a chance to enjoy the hot tea before our food arrived on the table. The service was quick and friendly, and the waitress occasionally came by to ask us, "Is good?" to which we wholeheartedly replied yes.

We started with their famous "Shanghai Crabmeat & Pork Juicy Bun" ($5.75 for 8 pieces). The English name of the dish is a mediocre translation from the Chinese name, but it gets the point across. Some people call these "soup dumplings" because once you bite into the dumpling, not only is there the standard meat filling, but there is also a delicious, warm broth that fills your mouth. It was great and fun to eat, and we all agreed that this restaurant lived up to its reputation.

The scallion pancakes ($2.50 for 6 pieces) that we ordered also exceeded our expectations. The "pancakes" were thin and very crispy, flavorful and perfectly seasoned. The texture of the pancakes were especially pleasing because scallion pancakes can sometimes be on the soft and pliable side, but these were perfect.

We also ordered a roast duck dish ($6.95). This was actually the only disappointment. It didn't have the strong "five spice" flavor that typifies roast duck, and it leaned heavily on the salty side. We actually didn't finish this dish, although it was small, because it was too salt to keep eating. We did, however, bring it home, and after heating it in our toaster oven, we found the leftovers to be just fine when eaten with rice.

These shrimp dumpling ($5.75 for 6 pieces) were another hit. They were flavorful, perfectly cooked, and beautifully made.

Everything was hot, fresh, and well made. We were especially pleased with the scallion pancakes and impressed by the Shanghai "juicy buns" or soup dumplings. On our way home, we were already talking about our next visit. Not only was the food great, but it was also incredibly affordable. While the restaurant's specific location might not be the best, it is Philadelphia's Chinatown, and conveniently close to many tourist hot spots. So, if you ever happen to find yourself in the area, I will say that Dim Sum Garden is the place to go for a good, affordable Shanghai-style dim sum meal.

Dim Sum Garden
59 North 11th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107-3004
Tel: (215) 627-0218

Overall rating for the price: 8.5 out of 10

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Wintery Cranberry Relish with Crushed Pecans

It's really been feeling like winter here the past few days. The wind howls at night, we've seen some flurries, anytime I look out my window, I see hats and scarves and thick coats with hoods.

Winter time always seem to signify busy time, doesn't it? If it's not holiday shopping, then it's having guests over or family visits. Work gets stressful and the days feel shorter (the days are shorter). So I won't linger. I will give you a recipe, but with no real story.

This is actually my sister's recipe. It is one that she found, I believe, in a newspaper somewhere (most likely the Washington Post) and then, as she proudly told me, edited a bit. Which is quite a feat for her. She's a recipe follower. She doesn't improvise with food. But this time she did, and so now I give you, with some of my own edits as well, a raw cranberry relish recipe that is at least ten times better than it sounds. It's also fantastically healthy and easy to make. Give it a go. Really. You'd be surprised how delicious it is, especially when served with a pecan pie or some ice cream or alongside some rosemary chicken. It goes great as a replacement for cranberry sauce or jelly in holiday meals.

Raw Cranberry Relish with Crushed Pecans
1 bag fresh cranberries
2 whole clementines, organic, skin included, washed and cut into chunks
3/4 cup shelled pecans
1/3 cup mild honey, such as clover
1/4 tsp cinnamon
dash of ground cloves

Place all ingredients into the bowl of a food processor and pulse. Blend to get a uniform, finely chopped mixture. If you want a crunchier texture, blend less. Chill until ready to serve.

Be sure to make at least 4-5 hours in advance. The longer the mixture is allowed to sit and marinate (in the fridge), the better it tastes, since the raw cranberries mellow out.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cranberry Pecan Tart

I like pecan pie as much as the next guy, but I've always thought that it was a teensy bit one-dimensional. I mean, you have that gooey, delicious buttery brown sugar filling... and nuts. That's it. And there's nothing to balance the sweetness. Sure, you can throw in some dark chocolate chips or some brandy or rum, but sometimes I just want a little bit of something extra.

Well, this year, I found it.

This beauty, this Cranberry Pecan Pie, is perfect for entertaining and perfect for a night in. Not only is it really easy to make--just throw everything into the food processor!--but it also has just the right balance of sweetness, nuttiness, and slight tartness, with all the warmth of a proper holiday dessert.

My family liked this recipe so much that after I made it for our Thanksgiving dinner, it was gone the next day (remember, this was just for my little family of four), and I was asked to makethree more tarts the next day. Three. This is definitely a winner.

This tart has all the deliciousness of a traditional pecan pie--yes that buttery, gooey, filling--with the added bonus of some fruity, sweet, tart deliciousness from the cranberries. If you want to go with nuts on top, you can (you can see that I did for one of my pies, above, and neglected to add them for the pie below), or you can just decorate with some pretty red berries.

Either way, if you have a holiday party coming up, or some guests on their way over, or are just going to spend the night in and want a delicious but easy dessert to fix for yourself, this is the way to go. This tart is also delicious the next day, so it's great to make ahead of time (my family actually debated whether or not it was better the next day).

And since the holidays aren't the time to worry about your waistline, I just want to add that this is heavenly when served with lightly sweetened, fresh whipped cream. Just take some heavy whipping cream, some sugar and maybe a pinch of salt. Extra points if you use vanilla sugar or some good vanilla extract.

Cranberry Pecan Tart
adapted from Smitten Kitchen

1 cup pecans
½ cup cranberries
2/3 cup sugar
1 ½ tbsp all-purpose flour
zest from 2-3 clementines or 1 orange
½ tsp ground cinnamon
dash of ground ginger (optional, for a kick)
dash of ground cloves
½ tsp salt
1 ½ tbsp rum
1 large egg
1 large egg white
9 tbsp (1 stick + 1 tbsp ) softened butter
handful whole, fresh cranberries
handful whole pecans
1 pre-baked tart shell

Finely grind pecans, cranberries, and sugar in food processor. Pulse in flour, zest, cinnamon, ginger, salt, and rum till smooth. Add egg and egg white and blend. Blend in softened butter. Transfer filling to medium container, cover, and chill at least 3 hours. (This can be done up to 2 days in advance.)
Preheat oven to 350°F. Spread pecan filling evenly in baked tart crust. Arrange cranberries and pecans decoratively on top. Bake tart on middle rack until golden, about 45 minutes. Cool.

Important note: Only bake your tart shell until just done. Do not wait until it is golden. For example, packaged pie crusts say to bake for 10 minutes at 400°F. I baked mine for only 8-9 minutes. This will prevent your crust from over-browning later and you having to cover it with tin foil.

*Additional note: I used salted butter. I find that it provides a rounder flavor. I tend to think that people who talk about using unsalted butter to "control the salt content" are a little silly.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Pesto Potato, Asparagus, and Green Bean Salad

I know I'm late on the band wagon, but I didn't get into pesto until this year. Beautiful, flavorful, bright green pesto. Now, I can't get enough of it. I eat it all the time. I'm surprised my teeth aren't turning green from all the basil.

Now before you say anything about seasonality, because pesto is generally, I know, considered a spring dish, I want to say this: seasonality smeasonality. When I crave something and it's available, I'll take it, even if it is out of season. If you look hard enough and are willing to pay good money for it, you can generally find good produce year-round, even if it is out of season. The only exceptions to this, I've found, are tomatoes and corn. Sometimes it feels impossible to find a good tomato in the fall and winter. But that's for another post. (Still got a tomato craving though? Here's an idea to try if you've got some not-in-their-prime tomatoes that you want to use) And yes, before you try to argue, berries can be found out of season. In fact, for the past week, I've been eating blueberries and blackberries with my yogurt and granola. Delicious!

Anyhow, my apologies for the tangent. The point is, pesto is wonderful and versatile (use it on pasta, potatoes, chicken, green beans, asparagus, grilled zucchini, fresh mozzarella cheese), and you shouldn't put it aside just because winter doesn't feel like the appropriate time for to make this recipe. The bright green color is perfect for the holidays, and if you want a potato dish that doesn't feel heavy with butter and cream, this is a great way to go.

Pesto Potato Salad with Green Beans
adapted from Smitten Kitchen

2-3 pounds small Yukon gold or red-skinned potatoes
½ pound green beans
1 pound asparagus
2 garlic cloves
4 large bunches of basil (washed and dried, about 4 ounces?)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tsp + 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
grated Parmesan cheese to taste
1/4 to 1/2 tsp kosher salt (depending on your taste)
ground black pepper

Cook potatoes in large pot of boiling salted water until fork tender. Drain, cool, and quarter. Put into a large enough bowl for serving.

Cook the green beans until fully cooked, but still snappy (do not just blanch them, this is the only cooking they'll get). Cut the green beans in half and add to the potatoes.

Cook the asparagus like the beans, then cut in half. If serving to guests, I use only the pretty pointy end. Add to the green beans and potatoes.

To make the pesto, crush and peel the garlic. Put into the bowl of a food processor along with the washed and dried basil leaves (discard the stems). Add in 2 tsp pine nuts. Pulse to combine. Drizzle in the olive oil with the food processor running. Add just enough to get it to an appropriately "sauce-y" consistency. Season with kosher salt and pepper.

Pour the pesto over the potatoes and beans and mix. Add in the remaining pine nuts. Add Parmesan cheese to taste.

Serve at room temperature for best flavor. This can be made one day in advance.

Serves 6, as a side.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Buttermilk Biscuits with Rosemary and Thyme

I love how the name of this recipe just rolls off the tongue: buttermilk biscuits.

I probably sound like a broken record now, always calling my recipes versatile and easy to make, but this one definitely is.

Why do I keep stressing this idea of simplicity? Because I recognize that the reason why a lot of people don't develop a love of cooking is because of this idea that cooking is a long and complicated process that involves special kitchenware or tools. This isn't true though.

I bake all the time, and yet I don't keep yeast in my kitchen, ever, and I don't own biscuit cutters. I try to only buy things that I use often. My kitchen has one kind of flour: all purpose flour. I have a food processor and a mixer and that's about as fancy as I get with my kitchen gadgets. I love to cook, but I never see any reason to go out and buy special ingredients or tools/gadgets. So I try to keep things simple. For my sake and yours.

These biscuits are great free form biscuits. meaning they require no rolling out of the dough, and you don't need to run out and purchase biscuits cutters. The recipe is also very novice-friendly and forgiving.

It's great to make if you have friends over, and especially good for children. One key thing that I think helps make this recipe fairly difficult to mess up is this: freezing the butter. I know that sounds weird, but really if you take your butter and cut it into fairly small chunks you can handle the dough for a long period of time without worrying about any negative consequences (e.g. cakey or tough biscuits). Freezing butter when making biscuits and pie doughs is important because it keeps the butter cold and the cold pieces of butter distributed throughout your biscuit dough are what helps to make your biscuit flaky during baking.

This biscuit recipe is also a great recipe for anyone who wants biscuits but doesn't want to have to plan a special trip to the grocery store just to make some biscuits.

You don't even need to have buttermilk on hand! (I've actually never bought buttermilk) Just get some milk and some lemon juice (or lime juice) following the ratio below, combine, and allow to sit at room temperature and you've got beautiful buttermilk. And yes, don't worry, there are suppose to be those curds forming.

As for flavoring of the biscuits, you can really mix things up. I used rosemary and thyme, but you could make oregano biscuits, tarragon biscuits, cheese biscuits (although you'll want to decrease the salt in the recipe then), ham biscuits, onion and sage biscuits, whatever floats your boat.

So, without further ado, a biscuit recipe from me to you.

Buttermilk Biscuits with Rosemary and Thyme
adapted from Dot’s Diner

275g all purpose flour (scant 3 cups)
2 tsp sugar
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
¾ cup (1½ sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into small chunks
½ tsp thyme
1 tsp rosemary
1 cup buttermilk (scant cup milk + juice from ½ lemon)
2 tbsp melted butter (optional)

Mix flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in large bowl. Finely chop rosemary and thyme and mix to combine.

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Using fingertips, rub the chilled butter into dry ingredients until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add buttermilk and stir until evenly moistened.

Form biscuits using approximately 1/4 cup dough for each. Biscuits don’t spread too much in the oven, so 1-2 inches of space between biscuits should be fine.

Optional: decorate with a small bunch of rosemary. Brush with butter.

Bake until biscuits are golden, about 15 minutes. Serve warm.

Makes 12-13 biscuits.

Note: If freezing your butter, you only need to toss it in the freezer about 15-20 minutes ahead of time.