Thursday, January 31, 2008

Conference Dinner

Wednesday 30 January 2008

The conference wound up with a grand bang-up dinner out at Riccarton House (one of the old estates, complete with a couple of acres of "bush" intact.
This was pretty impressive catering for 160 or so people. So two nicely chosen starters: Akaroa salmon with a little sweet fennel and a blue swimmer crab cake with apricots and walnuts (two new fish species, if not genera). The mains were lamb rump with port wine and what they called a "traditional coq au vin." It wasn't, but fine for all that. It, too, seemed to be in a port wine sauce (concentrated and a little sweet0, with Portobello mushrooms and little criminis. Nuts seemed to be a running theme, so the desert was a berry salad with pecans and vanilla cotton candy ("candy floss"): pretty and silly but it detracted from the taste. People kept buying us bottles of wine, so we found a Crawford Farm Pinot Noir. The pinots in these parts tend more to soft fruit. They're simpler than Oregon and lack that California austerity. We like 'em.


Tuesday 29 January

Retro-Shanghai chic, says the guide book and so it was. Red and black lacquer dominate, and the food is sort of retro-chic, too. Nice takes on classic dim sum. So wheat-starch dumplings filled with "glass shrimp" (our New Fish of the Day), with a chili paste dipping sauce; and barbequed beef wontons: large crispy shells (needing knife and fork to attack) packed with a tender pulled beef with a hint of star anise.
We split a fine breast of Peking duck served over Chinese pickled vedge and scallops. A lovely Mount Cass Chardonnay left us ready for a brilliant performance of Euripides' Cyclops. Hail Bacchus!

Cook 'n' with Gas

Monday 28 January
Despite the name (Capt. Cook, get it?), a brilliant restaurant, with one of the more pleasant and sophisticated meals we've had in some time.
The starters were
Rabbit consommé: a rabbit loin, boned out, lined with kale (?) leaves, and filled with a tomato-rich force meat. Two slices of this at the bottom of a beautiful soup bowl with a burgundy and gold leaf pattern, scattered with thin slivers of red pepper, tomatoes, and sun-dried tomatoes (sensing a theme here?). Over this the waiter poured a perfect consommé (which the Dept. of Redundancy Dept. always serves all the time). Concentrated flavors, salty, but not overwhelming. The broth released the pop of tomato in the little rabbit rolls. Bold and delicate at once.
The other was a smoked venison salad, over a butternut (lettuce, not squash) and pickled walnut salad, also jam-packed with flavors that all seemed as if they would compete for attention and all of which worked harmoniously together.
The mains were a Canterbury duck (a famed local product), with green olives. We looked for the olives, expecting them to be tossed about, but instead they were nestled in a little packet of green leaves, along with a nugget of confit duck leg. All over an amazing turmeric spice cauliflower coucous (they had crumbled the outer bits of cauliflower, which look like couscous anyways, and cooked them all together). Plus a dab of pureed kumara (the Maori sweet potato).
The lamb (of course) was three perfect chops, their ribs leaning against a column of mashed potatoes topped with a goaty goat cheese (which they called a galette for some reason), with three other noisettes of lamb in between, glazed with tamarind. Nice thymy mushrooms and a minted pea salad.
A Whitehaven chardonnay (Waipara, the local region) refreshed us all.

Curator's House and Sticky Fingers

27 January 2008

A trip to the Canterbury Museum and stroll in the stunningly beautiful Botanical Gardens ended up at the very pleasant Curator's House. We sat outside looking out to the grand trees and nibbled on tapas: a fine feast of slightly spicy tentacles, then garlic prawns. These were vasty denizens of the vasty deep swimming (as it were) in olive oil flavored with tomato and handfuls of coarsely chopped garlic so nutty in taste and texture that at first we mistook them for pignoli. Finally, smoked salmon, thin, tender, with cucumbers, and a piece of pantomate (the Spanish form of bruschetta) that was used to sop up as much of the prawn oil as possible. All washed down with a glass of Wild South sauvignon blanc. A beautiful and pastoral meal. (We're going back for dinner.)

That night was the opening reception for the classics convention that we came to New Zealand to attend (!). The kiwi way, we were told, is drinks first (bubbly and more nice whites), nor were our hosts stingy therewith. An hour later some nice mid-east munchies circulated (phyllo cigars and the like) but not enough to absorb all that wine, so we headed out for a quick bite afterwards at Sticky Fingers: a comfy booth, and a Aquarian pizza—lots of prawns and fishy bits, on a good, crisp (but not too crisp) dough. Just the right size to fill in the gaps. We traded sips of Trinity Hills Chard and Chard Farms Chard (not a stutter).

Our Anniversary

Saturday 26 January 2008
Christchurch is filled with hikers, hippies (old and new), and street artists. They all eat at Dux de Lux. This was lunch, but exceptions must be made on vacation. A rollicking kind of place. Order at the bar, food in the courtyard. Eating outside in the sun in January. We laugh and say "Ha, ha!" We may not be able to attain our goal of having something we've never heard of before everyday, but we did have a lovely fish called, if I'm reading the nice waitress's handwriting correct, tarakihi. Thick, white, meaty (that's the fish). In a lime mayo coated with bread crumbs and baked. Lots of little salads, particularly fine example of the potato variety. Topped off with a very tasty Hereford ale (local brew, with pacific hops).

Our dinner, I'm afraid, was only OK. Palazzo di Marinaio was touted by the same local magazine that had liked Hay's, but the P. di M. turned out to be the sort of old-fashioned Italian joint that might have been in any Midwest American town (Cincinnati, for example).
So a nice enough NZ bubbly, Deutz, to start with. The highlight was the opener: a dozen Pacific oysters, deep shells. A slightly musky taste, more complex than the usual shot-of-brine of their Atlantic cousins.
Then we had a frutti di mare, which turned out to more a sea-food platter with giant prawns and scallops (ho-hum) and our new Fish of the Day, the Gurnard: an imposingly ugly little bastard, triangular in cross-section, prehistoric in appearance, and pleasant in taste. It seems to be the fish of choice for fush 'n' chups.

Lamb, lamb, lamb

Friday 25 January
New Zealand.
4.2 million people.
39.3 million sheep.
You do the math.
We arrived in Christchurch. Our bags did not. After a nice day wandering around, seeing pleasant river banks and buying underwear, we went to Hay's, a restaurant attached to a sheep farm (not physically). This is real locavore stuff, even if we came half-way round the world to be loca-. They serve lamb. Lotsa lamb. Canterbury lamb (DOC). Good lamb.
For openers (or what they call here "entrées") we had the NZ green-lipped mussels in a light tomato broth with chorizo. Good but sort of standard. Very good indeed were the little tortellini stuffed with goat curds (a goat's milk ricotta or the like) in a rich brown creamy sauce accented with toasted pine nuts. This went well with Te Awa (Hawkes Bay) Merlot 2004. We're not fans of merlot, generally speaking, but this had well-structured tannins and fruit, without that fructose bomb that many California merlots tend to detonate.
We had two specials: grilled lamb in a "Roman" sauce: dates (for sweet), anchovies (for salt), and mint (which we normally think fights with lamb, at least in the form of mint jelly [yuck]), all very subtle, then little bursts of olives, and fried mint along with fried sage. They served the slices of lamb with a butter knife (show-offs!).
The other was milk-fed lamb shoulder, braised till it fell apart, with a spice mixture called "ras al honout", a little pocket of roasted eggplant (aubergine to you; no, wait, other way round), on a bed of very creamy mashed garlic potatoes with a little basil and olives.
We had the last of the wine for dessert, though we did see pretty wine glasses of ice cream sailing by.

24 Jan.

There was no 24th of January. See a map. We don't understand it either.

Fly to NZ

23 January
Leave at 5 PM
Nasty "snacks" on Delta, which no longer serves food.
Leave LA 9:30 local time, on Air New Zealand.
Somewhere over the Pacific we were served dinner at 1:30 AM, tummy time. Not bad chicken, not bad beef, for airline food. No really. Nice NZ sauvignon blanc. Then they offered a couple of "rinsers." We slept.

Tônu Chtetha

Tuesday 23 January
(our last night at home)

That's how they spelled it in the book, Mediterranean Seafood. It's Algerian. You take two nice piece fish. Embed it in a marinade of:
• 1 onion
• 1 TBSP paprika
• 1/2 tsp hot pepper (we used pimenton della Vera)
• 1 TBSP cumin
all grinded up with
• juice of one lemon.
While it's marinating, made a nice tomato sauce. Ours was
• a clove of garlic fried in
• olive oil
• the last of the paper-bag-ripened winter tomatoes, grinded up with a can of tomatoes,
• and more cumin.
Here's the cool part:
Put in the bottom of a baking dish
• 2 sprigs of bay leaves
• put the tuna with the marinade on top, on top of the bay leaves (do I make myself obscure?)
• pour the tomato sauce over and around.
Cover and bake at 375º for 40 minutes.
The bay flavor permeates the tuna very subtly. The onion paste on top flavors the fish from the top. The nice tomato sauce keeps everything lovely and moist.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Steak 'n' Potatoes

Monday January 21
We're still making room in the freezer in preparation for a month-long trip to New Zealand!
So we had a nice T-bone. Since it was a bit thin, we pan-fried it. It came out perfectly but unfortunately there may have been too much Worcestershire sauce on the surface for the deglazing sauce tasted a tad burnt. So we abandoned it, and topped our creamy garlic mashed potatoes with plain old butter. Not bad for all that.

We'll try blogging from Down Under. No worries.

Chicken Basquaise

Sunday January 20

Lots of peppers to use up. So basically, we just patted the chicken breasts with salt and pimenton de la Vera, browned them in oil, then added a couple of chopped cloves of garlic and three types of oniony things: shallot, some regular onions, and two hardy leeks from the garden. Three red bell peppers went into the pan, and the whole thing cooked under cover with a shot of wine for about 40 minutes. Then we put the whole thing under a curviform titanium roof, revitalize our harbor, and opened up for the tourist seaon.

Chicken Stew with Biscuits

Saturday January 19
Dinner with Liz and her lovely niece Thales (yes, named for the Greek philosopher, but pronounced in the German fashion, so more like "Tullus").
Liz and Thales had come up with a lovely green salad with avocado and red onion (so welcome on a cold, cold night). Then a sort of deconstructed chicken pot pie, rich and cream, with wholewheat biscuits on top, made sophisticated with herbes de Provence; and ending with yummy Indian Pudding with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the middle, which went very well with Cockburn tawny port.
Multicultural conversation to go with an all-American dinner.

Butt, reprise

Friday January 18
On Friday, we ran into Alastair, one of the new Tytus Fellows (who work at our fantabulous library), and invited him over for an impromptu dinner.
We started with Turkish fartcake on Holtbread, and the lingering remains of Helene's salted pecans.

We served left-over butt—we warned Alastair—with more vedge (carrots and nice Kennebec potatoes) on top to soak up the oil. Even better this time, even better still with Alastair's Black Chook wine (he's from OZ, you see). We ended with what we serve every first-time visitor to Cincinnati: Graeter's coconut chip, and Barbara got the monolith.

Pasta with Pepperoni Sauce

Thursday January 17
A classic, i.e. we're still cleaning out the fridge.

Barbara's Butt

Wednesday January 16
A cold day and a serious need to use up stuff and free up room in the upstairs freezer led to another round (get it?!) of Barbara's Big Ol' Butt. Red onions this time. We buried the bad Wisconsin russets in the depths, hoping to tenderize them - but when the rich fat of sacrifice came to the top it just sat there, so dish was almost too unctuous. Next time any potatoes go on top to be little sponges.

Pesto Lasagne, I mean Stuffed Ziti, I mean Penne

Tuesday January 15

We still had half a tub of ricotta and making sheet lasagna noodles seemed too repetitious (read: we were feeling lazy). The effect we were aiming at was baked ziti, but without the pain of stuffing them. Instead of lasagna, we jut boiled up a mess o' penne, mixed them in the ricotta and about a cup or even more of pesto. Covered it with 'Merkin mozzarella (kind of dry, but in fact, that worked out well). It came out beautifully: a rich cheesy mess somewhere between baked ziti, basil lasagna, koogle, and heaven.

Salmon Steaks with Parsnips and Ginger

Monday January 14

This was inspired by a recipe for ginger-roasted parsnips in next month's Food & Wine (ah, the paradoxes of time travel). Essentially, we just put a Tbsp. of olive oil in our covered pyrex pan; added 8 small parsnips cut into batons and about a Tbsp. of minced fresh ginger, plus salt and pepper to taste; and tossed it about a bit so they were coated. Then we plopped two small salmon steaks in the center of the pan, inserting the temperature probe into one of them; covered the pan; and put it in a 325-degree oven.

We removed the salmon to the warm toaster oven when its temperature reached 125 degrees. The parsnips took more time than the 40 minutes the recipe said, even though we'd cut them up smaller than recommended. They were good, but next time I'd turn the temperature up higher and roast them open, for a shorter period of time. That caramelizes them, whereas roasting them in a pan just steams them.

Green Pea Soup

Sunday January 13

This was designed to use up the last frozen nubbins of the Christmas ham. We made the soup on Saturday, along with other long-term tasks like laundry and bread-baking. Thus it was ready to reheat and serve right away on a cold Sunday night with "Masterpiece Theatre" (now wimpily renamed "Masterpiece") in the offing.

1 cup green split peas
a hambone if you've got one, or as many ham bits as you have, diced
(separate chewy or gristly bits from nice tender bits)
1 small onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
a half stick celery, diced
1 bay leaf
a few sprigs fresh parsley, chopped
leaves from a few sprigs thyme
black pepper

Give the peas a start by soaking them in water (to cover plus an inch) for an hour or two. Then boil them with the hambone if it's there, or with the gristlier bits of diced ham if it's not, for an hour or so. Keep adding water as necessary; peas are thirsty little devils, and will burn if the water boils off.

When the peas are edible, remove the hambone if any, cutting any clinging ham off it and throwing that back in. Add the diced vegetables and herbs and the rest of the diced ham and boil for an hour more; we like our pea soup thick (Barbara was deeply affected by the Erbsensuppe at Holst am Zoo, a sports-bar in Berlin). At the end, add salt and grind in black pepper to taste. This will give two people a hearty bowl each plus an extra half for seconds.

We served the soup with slices of Holt's fresh-baked Pane Pugliese, made as always on the model given by Carol Field's The Italian Baker. Smeared with butter or just dipped in the soup, it was fantastic.

Winter-Herb-Garden "Malfatti"

Saturday January 12

Actually, freehand ravioli; malfatti ("ill-made") are fillings without pasta dough. These could be called brutti ma buoni ("ugly but good"), except those are cookies.

We made a batch of pasta dough with a TBSP pf basil oil, and did the usual: let it rest, cut it in four, rolled each out to a narrow strip (no. 5 on the machine). But we really didn't want the waste of little ravioli. We wanted lotsa filling, so we went free-style.
The herbaceous filling was 1 cup and a half (or so) of whole-milk ricotta, 3/4 cup of grated pecorino romano, 1 egg yolk, and ca. 2 Tbsp. each of fresh parsley and fresh oregano, chopped fine.

We then cut the pasta sheets into ca. 3-inch squares (or as close as you can get) and put the filling in middle; folded over into triangles (more or less) and sealed edges with water.
After sliding them into boiling water, we let them boil ca. 10 mins. or until an edge was al dente.

In the meantime, we simmered a can of crushed tomatoes (we started with diced, but it was a bad idea, since this was from the Tough Tomato Co., a store brand we'll never buy again) with a handful of chopped fresh sage. The ideal was the Modena sauce we use for pork.

We carefully removed the wildly orginal ravioli from water using two slotted spoons; arranged on heated plates, and topped with sauce.

Them boys is tasty.

Trout (Tilapia) with (Blood) Oranges

Friday January 11

We last had this almost a year ago, and it's always a nice thing to do if you can get blood oranges, which add great color to the dish.

The brown and tattered recipe we based it on came from the New York Times Living section sometime between 1990 and 1993 (we know because the reverse side cites Mayor David Dinkins' office for the fact that there are 178 ethnic groups in Queens). Ironically, it doesn't use either tilapia or blood oranges. Oh, and we don't dip it in flour, either. Otherwise, exactly as handed down by the ancestors. Nonetheless excellent. So we thought we'd post it in its original form:

2 trout, about 1/2 lb. each, butterflied (bones, heads, tails removed)
2 Tbsps. milk
1/4 cup flour
1 Tbsp. oil
12 orange sections with membranes removed
1 Tbsp. chopped shallots
leaves from 2 sprigs fresh lemon thyme
1/2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 1/2 Tbsp. lemon vodka
1 Tbsp. butter
chopped parsley or more thyme leaves for garnish

Place trout in large pan and pour in milk (thank you, Henry David Thoreau); flip about so all parts are covered. In a separate dish, season flour with salt and pepper to taste; dredge milky trout in flour, and shake to remove excess.

Heat oil in large nonstick pan over high heat. Put trout in flat side down, and brown for about 3 minutes. Turn and cook for another two minutes or until fully cooked. Remove and keep warm.

Add orange sections, shallots, and lemon thyme and warm briefly without browning. Stir in lemon juice, vodka, and butter, blending well.

Serve trout napped with sauce and garnished with parsley or thyme leaves.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Turk on the Lower East Side (a little-known Rossini opera)

Thursday January 10

As you may remember, this past summer we made a batch of Kuru Bakla Ezmesi, or as Holt so euphoniously called them, Turkish fart-cakes. A full batch was way too much for us to finish, so we mashed the leftovers into a tupper, like a sort of fava hummus, and froze it to see how it would keep.

Also experimentally, Holt had bought a jar of salted cod roe to see if we could make a favorite appetizer, tarama (Greek taramosalata), and it was still in the fridge. And while rootling in the freezer for the fava hummus, we found a whole container of our favorite whitefish salad, which we'd frozen for a rainy day. As there is no day rainier than the one on which the refrigerator is empty of fresh vegetables, we decided that all the forces were aligning to make us have a dinner of long-preserved appetizers.

The whitefish salad was no problem; it only needed to be defrosted overnight in the refrigerator. Olives were on hand, and pitas could be acquired from the local Mediterranean store. We stirred up the fava hummus, which was a bit watery and bland, with some olive oil, salt, and diced red onion, and it got a lot tastier.

There are a lot of recipes for tarama out there. Most of them are like THIS, which comes from an enjoyable Turkish food site (check out its recipes for "chicken balls" and "Albanian liver" - and its fava recipe, in mezes under "horse bean puree").

Tarama is basically salty dry stuff (the roe itself) calmed down with bland stuff (bread, or even boiled potatoes), livened with acid (lemon juice) and whipped into something like mayonnaise with olive oil. But there is no need to soak the bread, squish it, sieve it, or any of those things. Just grind up 4 slices of dry bread (we used white bread left over from Christmas) in the food processor; grind in 1/2 of the tarama from the jar (abaout 5 oz.) and one lemonsworth of lemon juice, which helps moisten the bread; and while the processor is going, dribble in about 3/4 of a cup of oil through the feed tube, as if you were making mayonnaise. When it's the consistency you like, it's done. What's more, it's damn good.

To serve, we heated our pitas, filled six small bowls with the three dips, and dipped and tasted as we liked, each out of our individual bowls; so no ugly fights over the last scrapings of whitefish.

Pork Tenderloins alla Modena with Garden Salad

Wednesday January 9

We're still a bit confused after getting back from Chicago, so we forgot to defrost anything for dinner. It is for just such occasions that we freeze some dinner-size portions of thick or thin sliced pork tenderloin: they only take a few minutes to defrost, especially if you've put saran wrap between the slices, so you can pull them apart.

The Modenese way of preparing pork is one of our favorites. Though we had one large winter tomato, they don't make very good sauce, so we used a waxed-cardboard container of crushed tomatoes instead - very Italian. We sliced up the tomato for a salad, which Holt composed on a bed of our own garden greens; we can hardly believe they're still surviving out there.

Chicken with Artichokes

Tuesday January 8

Though we said that this was one of our standbys, we actually haven't had it since September 2006. That's way too long for something so good and easy.

This time we patted the breasts (see puttanesca, below) with rosemary and thyme, and threw in some sliced Yukon gold potatoes. They sucked up a dangerous amount of the liquid, but luckily Holt smelled them toasting in time. Still, for the occasion he invented a Fifth Law of the Kitchen:
"It's not burned, it's caramelized."

Bucatini Puttanesca

Monday January 7

Chicago to Cincinnati is a five-hour drive, and when you've been in the car that long, you don't want to shop, defrost, or stand on your pins preparing dinner. That put us just in the mood for a pasta puttanesca, which seems to be what we generally want after a day on the highway. The whores are probably tired from a long ride too.

La Petite Folie, with a lunchtime excursus on the Grand Lux Cafe in Chicago

Sunday 6 January

We had to check out before noon, which meant we had some time before Barbara had to chair a session at 1:30. Prompted by a helpful concierge, we decided to walk up Magnificent Avenue ("the Michigan Mile") and have lunch at the Grand Lux (sic) Cafe (sic).

As we were nicely dressed (if we do say so ourselves), they seated us on pouffy chairs in the windows of the round room, to gaze at the ceiling murals of Klimtian women (the Grand Lux is decorated as if Vegas did the Wiener Werkstätt). What with all the glitz, we didn't know what to expect of the food, as the concierge had only assured us that it was good and there were plenty of choices. And indeed, the menu went on for pages, with even breakfast things still available, not to mention the affable waiter swishing by with a dozen additional specials.

As we'd had our meat the night before, we went for fish. Barbara chose a seafood salad, which turned out to be an enormous platter of dressed greens with bands of color - white crabmeat and fish salad, yellow corn, orange and red roasted peppers, green beans and avocado - swathed lavishly on top. Holt got two appetizer-sized specials, both of 'ahi tuna: a crispy (fried!) sushi roll, and wonderful slices of seared rare fish, served with cucumber salad, benrinered carrot, and all the other Japanese-style accompaniments. Unexpectedly good, and we've already written the hotel to praise our knowledgeable concierge.

But the topic is dinner, and for that, we went from the grand to the petite; specifically, to La Petite Folie, with our friends John and Peggy. They live in Hyde Park, and this choice restaurant nestles in a strip mall only a few blocks from their house. The owners, also local residents and Chicago alumni, started the place after one of them happened to be first in her grand diplome class at the Cordon Bleu.

The interior acts as an antidote to glitz: two quiet lace-curtained rooms, low lights, pastel walls, white tablecloths, and fine glassware, like good restaurants in France. Prompted by John, whose motto is "no wimpy wines," we immediately got a bottle of Domaine Brusset 2005 Gigondas (Tradition de Grand Montmirail), as well as a glass of 100% pinot noir burgundy he wanted to try. The Gigondas won, hands down.

We started with a typically Alsatian slice of onion quiche, with red cabbage on the side; and a smoked pheasant salad with pear and walnuts among its greenery under a black-currant-walnut vinaigrette. And who knew that sliced smoked pheasant would look and taste so much like ordinary ham?

We then proceeded to the mains. Barbara chose saddle of rabbit, slices filled to bursting with truffled hazelnut mousse; it had a double mustard sauce, and was served with French (but of course) beans, potato purée, mushrooms, and walnuts. Holt couldn't resist the roasted boar chop with truffled port sauce on a bed of acorn squash flan scented with winter spices - i.e., just like a pumpkin pie. Though a mite resistant, it was flavorful meat, and came with braised leeks and apple strewn with jewel-bright pomegranate seeds.

Though tempted by the thought of chocolate bombe, we resisted dessert and walked back to Peggy and John's, where she served her homemade winter fruit compote and ice cream, and he got out a bottle of Rosemount Estate Balmoral Syrah - the unwimpiest of red wines, or what our Aussie friends would call a very decent drop. We licked up everything, and we thank Peggy and John (and La Petite Folie) for a marvelous evening.

Miller's Pub in Chicago

Saturday January 5

Once again we went out with one of our favorite people, Amy. But she was feeling a bit rocky, and wanted something homestyle and soothing. The answer was Miller's Pub, which our friend Jon had recommended for its "fun, comfort food, and good meats," specifically their "world-famous (in Chicago) B.B.Q. Baby Back Ribs."

We started with a soothing Bloody Mary for Amy, a bottle of Querceto Chianti for ourselves (anticipating the aforementioned meat on the horizon), and a platter of buffalo wings for us all. The chicken was nice and spicy, with hefty bowls of ranch and blue cheese dressing for the raw carrots and celery alongside.

On to the meats. Holt had two nice double-rib lamb chops, broiled just right and nibbleable right down to the bone. Barbara wanted prime rib, which the menu offers as "Miller's Pub Cut" (20 oz.), "Diamond Jim Brady Cut" (14 oz.) or "Lillian Russel Cut" (10 oz.). Prompted by the waiter ("it's still a lot of meat"), she decided to be ladylike and take the mere ten ounces. A good thing, as the thick circle of beef took up a whole plate, edging out the bowl of horseradish cream served along with it. This is the sort of place where everything comes with separate servings of other stuff, so our table was crowded with bread, cole slaw, green salad, mashed potatoes, french fried potatoes, steamed carrots we mainly ignored, and of course the blue cheese dressing that Barbara had hoarded to dab on various things (even the steamed carrots) since it arrived with the buffalo wings. None of it would have made you do handsprings, but everything was a solid, well-made version of its own particular kind.

We left feeling much better. Miller's Pub was just what the doctor ordered.

MK in Chicago

Friday January 4

We had dated up one of our favorite people, Mary V., well in advance, for dinner at another of Holt's finds, MK.

It has a completely different ambience from Vivere - much more trendy and modern, with lots of exposed brick and chrome, especially on the lofty upper story where we were seated. A bit noisy, though I think that's what restaurant owners are after - they think it's "buzz." The menu is neo-cute (featuring "steak" and "another steak"), but the service is swift and friendly, and the emphasis is on local, seasonal food, creatively cooked. Despite the hype, MK achieves its aim.

We startered with roasted Nantucket scallops (not local, but what restaurant is, especially in winter?) on a citrusy foam, or to be precise, "meyer lemon, whipped potato, braised baby leek, crispy garlic, toasted almond, parsley emulsion." But who cares, it was ravishing. We also had grilled baby octopus with baby broccoli, baby leeks, and doubtless other neonates, in a romesco sauce. It didn't make us roll around in ecstasy like the octopus at Fino, but it was excellent nonetheless, especially when accompanied by a Groth sauvignon blanc.

We got some glasses of Syrah, though, when we made the transition to red, red meat. Despite having had it the night before, we went for venison again, this time slices of charcoal-grilled loin with parsnip purée, black trumpet mushrooms, and a whiff of juniper berries (reminding us of Julia, who got the essence of juniper by glugging gin into the pot). The bison ribeye was also grilled and sliced, but this time with "crushed nichols farm new potato" (what happened to "mashed"? And was there only one potato?), "bloomsdale spinach, hen of the woods mushrooms, and cabernet sauce." Both sent us into red-meat heaven.

None of us wanted to leave, so we continued schmoozing over coffee and cognacs. A memorable and entirely enjoyable evening.

Vivere in Chicago

Thursday January 3

Holt is always assiduous in scoping out the restaurant scene when we go to our professional convention, and he did another great job this time. Chicago, of course, is famed for its range of ethnicities/styles of cooking, but we were limited by the fact that most restaurants take their vacations after New Year's, and lots of them were closed (so much for you, Topolobampo!). Also, we didn't feel like having a waiter hold our heads while squirting air from toasted hay into our nostrils (so there, Alinea!).

Instead we went for the Italian village, and Vivere.
It's a nice paneled and stained-glass room, more Vegas-style glitz than clubby or old Italian. Our server was attentive, and the wine steward knowledgeable, despite wearing a tuxedo-like minidress and looking about twelve years old. The specials sounded so good, we had three of them.

We started with fresh lobster ravioli in butter, along with pancetta-wrapped shrimp. Both were carefully prepared and very tasty, though they wouldn't knock your socks off. The wine, an Antinori Campogrande Orvieto, reminded us of previous romantic visits to Orvieto and the Cantinetta Antinori in Florence.

The mains had more razzmatazz. We had excellent pistachio-crusted grouper in lobster broth, and the red pepper and purple cauliflower alongside were standouts. But even more amazing was the venison osso buco, meltingly tender and full of flavor (and marrow), on a black-truffled and luscious risotto cake. This was the best, most original, treatment of venison we had in Chicago, or maybe ever. Of course, that needed a red wine, so we got a glass of Nebbiolo Barolo 2002, and were delighted.

We'd happily go back to Vivere any time.

Black Bean Soup Redux

Wednesday January 2
Did we mention the abundant leftovers of the Christmas ham? We cubed some of it up, put it in a bowl, crumbled in a little leftover cornbread, and poured the leftover black bean soup all over it. Soup is always tastier on the second day, and ham scraps never hurt, especially if you started the soup with a ham bone anyway. The salt helped cut the initial sweetness that was the only thing we didn't like about the dish.

Ham and Potato Gratin

Tuesday January 1

Though we wondered whether we could adapt our favorite Turnip Gratin to use potatoes, we decided to be safe and stick to what we usually do.
This time we sliced Yukon Golds paper-thin with the Benriner, and boiled them until tender before layering them alternately with thin-sliced Christmas ham (there's still a ton of it) and grated cheddar cheese in our buttered one-meal-for-two-people pyrex casserole. Then we poured on the cream and mustard, but unfortunately we got overenthusiastic with the latter - Dijon mustard is always stronger than you think it is.
Still, it's basically a good winter dish, and we'll keep tinkering with it.

Chicken with Red Wine Auvergnaise

Monday December 31

New Year's Eve is a time for indulgence, but Holt wasn't feeling too well - perhaps Christmas was catching up with him. He didn't need to eat in bianco, but chose chicken with mushrooms for dinner as a nice stomach-soother. Tradition (who knows whose) says you shouldn't eat chicken on New Year's Day, or you'll be scratching for money - luckily, it says nothing about New Year's Eve.

The recipe came from our old standby, the Larousse Book of Country Cooking. It's pretty simple, especially if you choose not to marinate (we couldn't wait the 12 hours). You start with two bone-in chicken breasts, which you pat with a couple of spoonfuls of fresh chopped thyme. You brown these in oil in a large skillet, and set them aside. Then you chop up 1-2 small onions or 3-4 large shallots and brown these in the skillet. Next goes in about a pound of chopped fresh mushrooms, which darken and give off liquid. This is when you sprinkle in some chopped parsley and rosemary, nestle the chicken back in among the vegetables, give it a good glug of red wine, and cover and let it simmer until the chicken is done, 20-30 mins. At that point, put the chicken and vegetables on plates in a warm oven, reduce the sauce in the skillet, and add a dollop of heavy cream to bubble and thicken. Pour that back over everything, and enjoy.

We also had to deal with (usually = ignore) various other New Year's traditions. Barbara's family used to watch the ball drop in Times Square on TV, while eating apple and/or pumpkin pie. For a few years her Mom would dress up her grandson Robert as the New Year Baby, with a diaper and a new-year-numbered sash, and take a picture of him. As you can imagine, that lasted until he learned to talk enough to refuse (he's 32 now).

We did have the traditional Scandihoovian herring snacks (and some black caviar on cream cheese on water crackers), but for appetizers before dinner, not at the stroke of twelve.

Midnight calls for champagne instead, and sweets rather than salty things - in fact, for a little gold treasure-chest of wonderful cocoa-dusted truffles that Holt got in his Christmas stocking (thanks, whoever put it there!). We did watch the ball drop, so New Year's Eve was completely traditional.