Friday, January 28, 2011

Recipe: Southwestern Corn & Beans

Right off I have to warn you about an error in this post - the name of the recipe as listed in the book is incomplete. I got to work today and forgot to write it down. I'll fix it tomorrow, I promise.

As I've said recently, Kyle and I have been using our wonderful new slow cooker on a weekly basis. This is one of our favorite recipes taken from Crock Pot brand's Best-Loved Slow Cooker Recipes. We've made it at least 3 times now, and I know we'll continue to make it. I prefer it as a lunch dish.

Ingredients: 1 tablesp. olive oil; 1 large onion, diced; 1 or 2 jalapeno peppers, diced; 1 glove garlic, minced; 2 15oz. cans light red kidney beans, drained and rinsed; 1 bag frozen corn, thawed; 1 14.5 oz. can diced tomatoes, undrained; 1 green bell pepper, cut into 1" pieces; 2 teasp. medium-hot chili powder; 3/4 teasp. salt; 1/2 teasp. cumin; 1/2 teasp. black pepper; sour cream or plain yogurt (optional); sliced black olives (optional).

Instructions: Heat oil in skillet over medium heat. Add onion, jalapeno pepper and garlic, cook five minutes. Combine onion mixture, beans, corn, tomatoes with juice, bell pepper, chili powder, salt, cumin and black pepper in slow cooker; mix well. Cover. Cook on low 7-8 hours OR on high 2-3 hours. Serve with sour cream and black olives, if desired.

What's positive about this recipe:
1. It's exceptionally easy to make. Several of the items come ready to serve (frozen corn and canned foods), so you'll only have to prep the bell pepper, onion and jalapeno.

2. It's hearty, a great winter dish.

3. Nice for vegetarians. Substantial with protein (kidney beans) and several good veggies, in red, green and yellow.

4. It's visually appealing. All those nice colors!

5. It looks like it contains a lot of ingredients, but you probably already have most of these on hand. Every few weeks I buy a mesh bag full of yellow onions, so I've always got some for the many soups, casseroles and slow cooker recipes that require them. The spices are all common ingredients you would use in Mexican foods or chilis, and what cook doesn't have salt, pepper and olive oil in the pantry? (If you are without these things, don't tell anyone or you'll embarrass yourself.)

What I would change:
1. This recipe serves 6. If you have a smaller family, you can modify it by using only 1 can of kidney beans and half a bag of corn. I wouldn't cut down on the bell pepper though, because it may be the best flavor, and will definitely be your freshest vegetable.

2. You can easily lower the level of spiciness by using only 1 jalapeno or cutting out this ingredient altogether, or raise it by adding a half teaspoon of cayenne pepper to the mix.

3. You can make this recipe super, super simple by just throwing everything into the pot without cooking the onion, etc. in the skillet beforehand. This will work better if you're going the 7-8 hour low temp route, because after that long, anything is going to be soft and cooked thoroughly.

4. I reduce the garlic by half. A whole clove of garlic? That's just way too much for most people. If you use that much, you won't taste anything else, which would be a shame.

Verdict: Excellent, lively dish that's easy to make.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

La Casona

3820 Stewart Rd., Doraville, GA 770/458-6657

Last night Heidi, Ilya and I dined at La Casona, a Columbian restaurant just off of 285 at Buford Hwy. You won't have any trouble finding this restaurant - you can see it from the highway.

We began our meal with 3 orders of empanadas ($1.25 each). We liked these. They are very deeply fried, with soft beef inside and a nice, slightly spicy sauce. We were also served three very small, condiment-sized portions of sweet rice pudding just before receiving our empanadas. The pudding was good (and complimentary), with a hint of coconut. Like I said, it was good, but you only get about two spoonfuls.

Heidi ordered the Milanese, thin-sliced breaded beef with sides of fried green plantains, a pitiful salad and rice. I say the salad is pitiful because it consisted of two slices of unripe tomato (yes, I realize it's the middle of winter and tomatoes aren't in season, but this was really bad), some sad looking lettuce and two slices of avocado (the one redeeming component). I think the kitchen should have just left this off the plate entirely. I found the plantains to be in dire need of salt, but I often feel this way about green plantains, even at The Cuban Diner in Marietta, where I'm always happy with the rest of my meal. The rice at La Casona was actually pretty good - cooked correctly and quite salty.

I ordered the breaded pork. The menu at La Casona has lots of breaded meats. My pork was better than Heidi's beef, more flavorful and only slightly overcooked. Again, same as above with the side dishes.

I can't find a website, much less an online menu for this restaurant, but I can tell you that the hard copy menu you'll get when you're there is only about 2/3rds translated into English (from Spanish). I remember it lists beef with onion, chicken dishes, and several meat or fish dishes with Creole sauce. I also saw Colombian chicken soup. The average price of the entrees was about $10. Not bad, but then again, the food wasn't all that great.

I say that because there wasn't anything special about it. Nothing had that "wow" factor, nothing was especially fresh or beautifully presented. It was all average, nothing more.

Back on June 27, 2009, I posted a review of another Colombian restaurant called Kiosco, located in the Marietta Square. I have to say that Kiosco serves much better food, hands down. Could it be that an ethnic restaurant in Marietta is superior to one on Buford Hwy? Up until today I didn't think so, but yes, it's true, folks.

Something you should know is that this restaurant has an odd schedule. They seem to open at an early hour (something like 10am), but they close at 8pm every night. You can find an early dinner here, but not a late one. Maybe it's more of a lunch place.

Verdict: A step down from Kiosco in Marietta.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Special Feature: Hop City Craft Beer & Wine

1000 Marietta St. Atlanta, GA

Recently I caught a play at Actor's Express, and happened to notice an interesting ad in their program for a craft beer store - although the ad didn't give an address, website or phone number. Annoyed but intrigued, I later searched online and found out the place was a stone's throw away from the theatre, just off of Howell Mill Rd. on Marietta St. On Wednesday, I set off after work to check it out.

When I entered the store, a bearded man grinned at me and said, "You look like you're thirsty." And boy, was he right. I'm sure he recognized my beer-loving gaze, as my eyes went over the beautiful aisles of beer from all over the world.

There is SO MUCH good craft beer here! The store stocks lots of lots of beers I've tried at Summits Wayside Tavern (which has the best selection of draft beers in GA), such as Weihenstaphaner Weiss (Germany), Dixie Blackened Voodoo Lager (Louisiana, USA), multiple selections from Rogue (Oregon, USA). Of course they have all your regular, mainstream but good favorites like Belhaven, Woodchuck ciders, Chimay, etc.

They also have a ton of brews I haven't tried, had never even encountered. A few I noticed were: Lakefront Wheat Monkey (Wisconsin, USA); Ft. Collins Kidd Black (Colorado, USA); Paradox Spreyside from Scotland, brewed in whisky barrels; Dieu du Ciel's Aphrodite, a stout with cocoa and vanilla from Canada; Orange Blossom Pilsner - "Florida's Honey Beer"; and large bottles of various flavors of Honey Sun Iqhilika, a South African mead. !!! I'd pretty much given up on Japanese beer, finding over the years that Sapporo, Kirin and Asahi and their boring, Bud Light-esque flavor was typical of that country's taste. However, Hop City had at least 3 Japanese offerings that were completely unfamiliar to me. Can't wait to go back and try them.

If you're familiar with the liquor store Green's, think of their selection except Hop City has more craft choices. Like Green's, they also have lots and lots of singles, so you don't have to commit to anything. The singles range from about $2.50 up to . . . who knows. I saw some (like the Paradox) for as much as $10, but I'm sure they get more expensive than that. I could have easily dropped $500 in there, if only my budget allowed for that sort of alcoholic splurge.

The website also says they stock 600 kegs. 600 kegs! I'm not in the habit of throwing large parties anymore, but when I did, I could never find a keg of decent beer. Looks like that won't be a problem for anyone in Atlanta now.

The store is halved almost dead center, with the beer on the left and the wine on the right. The wine is divided up along the wall by region, with more selections on racks in the center. The bearded man turned out to be Chris, Hop City's "wine guy", and after he watched me browsing around for a minute he came over and asked if we had ever discussed wine before. When I told him no, he asked how I took my coffee. Apparently the amount of cream and sugar (or lack of it) that you prefer indicates what types of wines you'll want to drink. He gave me a few suggestions, and didn't go straight for the most expensive bottles. I ended up with a bottle of Los Loros Corte Tinto, a red blend from Argentina that Chris claimed is quite popular, for $7.99. Can't wait to try it out.

Verdict: A fantastic find for craft beer lovers. This may be the best beer store in Atlanta.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Real Chow Baby

1016 Howell Mill Rd. Ste. A, Atlanta, GA

On Friday night Heidi and I had dinner at The Real Chow Baby. I have been to this restaurant about a dozen times, but this was my first dinner within the past year.

If you haven't been to a build your own stir-fry restaurant (and there are several in Atlanta), you really need to get out there and try it. When you're seated, your server will give you a little wooden stick with a place for you to write your name on the end. You'll stand in a line (hopefully short), take a black bowl, and fill it first with your choice of rice and/or noodles, then add whatever vegetables you like from the buffet, then choose any combination of their great sauces. Finally, you'll take a small red bowl and fill it with your choice of meat. You slide your bowls to the end, insert your name stick, and leave it for the cooks to stir fry. Usually you'll wait no longer than 10 minutes for the finished meal to arrive at your table.

There are several good things about this: # 1 - You can control exactly what you get. Your meal won't include any ingredients you don't like, and if you're on a diet you can skip the rice/noodles altogether and go for straight veggies and a low-calorie sauce. Vegetarians can forgo the meat, etc.

# 2 - The sauces are great. The plum sauce is nice, as well as the coconut curry. The Asian peanut pesto is delicious, but has too much garlic for my taste. My favorite is the Thai Cilantro, but I also like the ginger lime basil, red Thai curry and light soy sauce. Chow Baby recommends 2-3 ladles of sauce per order. You can mix and match. Fun!

# 3 - Lots of veggies and meat choices. For the veggies, you'll find everything from cauliflower to snow peas to leeks, with fresh cilantro, basil and mint, and spices like Chinese Five-Spice powder or rosemary. For the meat, you can choose beef, chicken, at least 2 types of fish, and shrimp for an additional charge.

# 4 - Feeling a little overwhelmed by all the possible choices? Chow Baby has some ideas for you, printed on handy little cards at the beginning of the line, and posted above the veggie buffet. You can play it safe with one of their proven combos if you so desire.

# 5 - Not in the mood for stir-fry? You can make your meal a soup, a wrap, or a salad. Each has it's own special colored stick for you to insert in your bowls, so the cooks know what you want.

Oh, and possibly the best thing - you pay one flat price of $7.99 for lunch or $11.99 for dinner, and you can take as many trips to the stir fry bar as you can handle. This is great, because not only will you definitely get enough food, you'll also be more willing to try various combinations of veggies, sauces, etc. If you really screw up the first time around, you can always go back for round two.

Service is consistently good, as are the specialty drinks from the bar. The melon mojito (affordably priced at $6.99) is tops with me. You can get beer, wine, sake (cold or hot) as well.

Chow Baby has also opened up a new location on Ponce de Leon. Hopefully this will be more successful than their last branch, located in the Galleria shopping center in Smyrna. Kyle and I went there once and that was enough for us - it was too big, with super high, warehouse-like ceilings that amplified noise. Not a good combination with the thousand kids suburban parents brought to the restaurant.

Verdict: It may be gimmicky, but I really enjoy this place. Fresh, good food.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Recipe: Egg Casserole

One of my followers recently suggested that I include an occasional recipe review on Southern Foodie. Good suggestion! When I post these, I'll be sure to make them at least twice beforehand, and they'll come from a variety of sources: cookbooks (old and new, some local), magazines, and shared favorites from friends. Here is the first. Happy cooking!

Egg Casserole - courtesy of Rebecca Abramovich
12 eggs, 1/2 cup flour, 1 teasp. baking powder, 1 teasp. salt, 10 oz. cottage cheese, 1 stick melted butter, 1 lb. grated sharp cheddar, 1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper, 1 grated onion, 1/2 lb. sliced mushrooms, 1 tomato - thinly sliced, parsley flakes.

Instructions: Mix dry ingredients. Add egg & other ingredients. Pour into 9 x 13 pan. Put sliced tomato on top & sprinkle with parsley. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.

What's positive about this recipe:
# 1 - it's delicious! It's sort of like a giant frittata and smells great when it's baking. It's full of good veggies, protein (eggs), and lots of dairy.

# 2 - it's easy. Once you chop up your green pepper and mushrooms and slice the tomato, you simply mix everything together and throw it in the oven.

# 3 - some of the ingredients are flexible. Don't like mushrooms or green bell pepper? Use more onions, maybe some diced tomatoes instead of just one sliced on top, or other colored peppers.

# 4 - it feeds at least 5 people. When Kyle and I have made it, we've eaten it twice for dinner that week and I've taken the remaining portion to work for lunch. It keeps well in the fridge.

What I would change:

I've made this twice now, and I think you can simplify the recipe even more without sacrificing on taste. For example, I wouldn't grate the onion, I would simply chop it. Also, a jar of pre-sliced mushrooms works just as well as fresh. As a matter of fact, they hold up better in the casserole.

Also, I only use about half as much sharp cheddar as the recipe calls for. One 8 oz. bag of shredded cheddar seems like plenty to me. If you use a whole pound, you'll have more cheese than egg, and I like to taste the egg.

Finally, I think it cooks better if you beat the eggs before adding them. Oh, and spray your glass baking dish with cooking spray before you do anything else! Otherwise you'll be soaking that puppy for a week.

Verdict: Great main course breakfast or dinner recipe. Thank you, Rebecca!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sotto Sotto

313 N. Highland Ave., Atlanta, GA 30307

On Friday night Kyle, Sabrina, Ryan and I had dinner at Sotto Sotto. This was our belated Christmas dinner, so we had high expectations.

We began with an antipasta misto plate ($17). This was very good, and offered enough for 4 people to enjoy, but $17? The plate included sauteed mushrooms (plump and juicy), assorted olives (always good), a few cured meats like buffalo salami and prosciutto, and a few cheese (a blue, a goat, something similar to pecorino).

Next we each ordered a first course portion of pasta. The first course portion is offered at a lower price than the main course portion, but only the main course price is listed. I selected the tortelli di mele ($16 as a main course/$10 as a 1st). This is Granny Smith apples with sausage filled ravioli, brown butter and sage sauce. Delicious. The Granny Smiths were sauteed until toned down to only minor tartness, which contrasted perfectly with the rich brown butter and sage sauce. The ravioli was soft and the sausage filling was a treat. Sabrina ordered the risotto mantecato (same price as above pasta), a perfectly cooked risotto with caramelized onions, grated Parmesan and a 12 year aged balsamic vinegar. This is a dish that really shows off the glory of good quality, aged vinegar. Very nice. Tasty without being overpowering. And who doesn't love risotto when it's done right?

Both Sabrina and Kyle ordered the poleto al limone ($19) as a main course. This is wood-roasted lemon chicken with roasted potatoes and garlic spinach. I was expecting a breast, but they received several different small pieces, including some dark meat and wings. Kyle was a little thrown off by the lemon. Sabrina enjoyed it.

I loved my main course, the tono agli agrumi for $29. Tuna, cooked either medium or medium rare (I opted for the latter), with lovely white beans, mixed salad and chive oil. I liked the (somehow) very ripe, grape tomatoes, the bright and flavorful chive oil, and the good quality tuna. You should definitely order this when you patronize the restaurant.

Kyle probably had the best dessert, white chocolate bread pudding with brandied cherries and almond slivers (all desserts are $7). It's pictured above, and it tasted exactly as it looks. Yummy.

I ordered the zuppa chocco, or chocolate soup. This was on a recommendation from my coworker Valerie, who says it is hands down her favorite dessert in Atlanta. It really is chocolate soup. Tastes just like Hershey's chocolate syrup, only slightly thinner. It's topped with croutons made of biscotti, I think. Good, but not the best chocolate dessert I've ever had. Maybe it's the lack of work it takes to eat it - no chewing makes for a fast finish.

One thing that stood out at Sotto Sotto was the wine list. It's extensive (4 pages), and is broken down by region of Italy, a nice touch. There aren't very many selections under $42/bottle, and there aren't any half bottle offerings, but what they've got could please anyone.

At some point over the past few years, Creative Loafing, Atlanta Magazine and the AJC have all proclaimed Sotto Sotto as the best Italian restaurant in Atlanta. I think the meal we had on Friday was very good, but I'm not sure about the "best". I've eaten at the Buckhead Life Group's Pricci and Veni Vedi Vici a number of times over the past decade, and sometimes (but not all the time) they have been equally good. I much prefer the big fat booths at Pricci to the little crowded tables at Sotto Sotto. Sotto Sotto is quite loud, so don't expect a romantic dinner if you dine during the 8pm hour. Valenza in Brookhaven (reviewed last month) is probably also as good. However, all things considered, it was a good experience.

Verdict: Very good, upscale Italian restaurant. Great wine list.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Food for Thought: Slow Cookers

I've been using my slow cooker a lot lately. Lately in this case means the past 6 months. Kyle and I registered for a lovely 3.5 quart stainless steel version from Cuisinart, my favorite cookware manufacturer, and Kyle's mother gave it to us at a shower last summer.

For years I've wanted one of these things, the same way that home cooks always yearn for a new (to them) gadget for their increasingly crowded kitchens. Once I finally got it, I couldn't wait to take advantage of the convenience. And who doesn't love the way a slow cooker creates that falling-off-the bone effect on any meat you place within it? Who doesn't agree that chili tastes better the longer it's cooked? With a slow cooker, there's no need to chain yourself to house while you (impatiently, in my case) wait for your meal. Today's slow cookers are designed to cook anywhere from 30 minutes up to 20 hours, and models like mine have a two hour "warm" setting that automatically switches on once the pre-set time has elapsed. You can't beat my Cuisinart in terms of ease of operation. You choose the cook level (high, low or simmer), set the timer and press on - that's it.

The first thing I did upon receiving my slow cooker was buy a cookbook specific to slow cooker cooking. I opted for "Crock Pot: The Original Slow Cooker - Best-Loved Slow Cooker Recipes" (on sale right now on for $5.99). This cookbook contains all the old standards you'll remember from decades ago - beef stew, chili, queso dip etc. There are several sections on dinners that favor noodles or rice topped with a bubbling concoction - none of them seem super exciting. However, there's a great chapter called Beyond Basic Soups, with gems like Chicken Fiesta and Chicken and Tofu Hot Pot (beware the Chipotle Black Bean unless you want to burn out your esophagus). We've been especially pleased with a Teriyaki Chicken Wings appetizer and a Honey Chicken main-course dinner that's lip smacking good. Nearly every recipe in this cookbook can be thrown together in the pot within 5-10 minutes at night, after which you can put the pot in the fridge and set it to cook in the morning before you leave for work. This is, of course, the major draw of the Crock Pot - you can come home after a long day and have dinner ready to serve and enjoy.

Pretty soon I plan to graduate to a new recipe source, the cheekily titled "Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook" by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann (paperback is $11.47 on B&N's website). Or maybe "Fix-It and Forget-It" by Phyllis Pellman Good (paperback $11.75). This is actually a series, and includes one that might appeal to those New Year's resolutioners: "Fix-It and Forget-It Lightly: Healthy Low-Fat Recipes for Your Slow Cooker". Quick AND healthy? You gotta love it.

The authors of "Not Your Mother's" state that 80% of American households contain a slow cooker. If you're not in that majority, you should be. Slow cookers are a great investment, not only because of their ability to make hearty, delicious meals that won't overheat your house (like the oven in my former apartment, which would easily raise the inside temp 10 degrees), but also for all the time you'll save in the kitchen. I love cooking a complicated, multi-course dinner, but the fact is that most modern cooks don't have time for that every single day.

If you do have a slow cooker and it's been packed away in your storage closet gathering dust, unearth that thing and get one of the cookbooks mentioned above. You'll quickly remember why you bought it in the first place.