Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Recipe: Chickpea Stew with Spinach & Chorizo

Another Food & Wine gem. Chickpea stew with spinach and chorizo. It encompasses lots of food categories - the ubiquitous chopped onion, spicy meat, healthy greens, bright tomatoes, good beans - with just enough herbs to kick it into high gear. You can do without the bay leaf in a pinch, but you'll find the rosemary is absolutely necessary. As always, fresh is best if you can get it.

I pulled this recipe out of my October issue of Food & Wine back in 2005, and have been making it at least once a month during the fall and winter ever since. Being a stew, it just feels like a cold weather meal to me. The list of ingredients isn't long, and you can make it in about half an hour if you use canned (and rinsed) chickpeas instead of soaking dry beans overnight and simmering them for hours the next day. Normally I follow Food & Wine's recipes to the letter, but since chickpeas are kind of bland even when they're at their best, I haven't tasted much if any difference when I've used the canned beans.

My only other tip about this is that if you forget to cook the chorizo beforehand, you can cook it along with the onion as long as you stir frequently and don't burn it. I actually prefer to do it this way, because I omit the olive oil and cook the onions in the sausage grease instead. Make sure you get the soft sausage, in the link form, not the hard deli style chorizo. It really has a different flavor and consistency that melds well with the other ingredients in the stew.

Do yourself a favor: when you make this recipe, buy a big bag or bushel of fresh spinach, and after you make this heavy stew, use the remaining spinach in a salad the next day. That way, you can get a good contrasting use of the spinach, which is the healthiest part of the recipe.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


1814 Peachtree St. Atlanta, GA

On Thursday night Kevin and I had dinner at Sufi's, located on Peachtree right beside previously reviewed R. Thomas deluxe grill.

You'll begin your meal with traditional Persian bread (sort of a thicker, less butter, rectangular version of Indian naan), with a plate of various side items like sliced radishes, fresh mint and basil, good quality, firm feta, and olives. The restaurant is dimly lit, so be sure not to mistake the large pat of butter with feta. I've done this on both trips to Sufi's, and it's an unpleasant experience. I'm not even sure why they include butter - the bread doesn't need it, especially if you order one of the yogurts as an appetizer. The yogurts ($6 each) come with either grated cooked beets, shallots, spinach, or Kevin's favorite, cucumber and herbs. It's a nice way to lighten up your bread and prepare you for your entree.

We also had an order of dolmeh, grape leaves stuff with rice, ground beef, chives, tarragon, parsley, cilantro and raisins ($8). Not the best dolmeh I've ever had, but still at least average. It contained too much of something bitter . . . maybe tarragon?

I chose one of the specialty dishes, Zereshk polo with chicken ($18). You'll see in the pic that it comes with the usual big portion of saffron basmati rice, but in this case it's mixed with barberries and more saffron, almonds and pistachios. If you've never tried barberries, the flavor is very similar to cranberries. While I like cranberries, this is what throws me off about the dish. The tender chicken is very good, but it's overwhelmed by the tartness of the berries. Even the extra dose of saffron doesn't save it. I'd give this dish about a 7 of 10.

Kevin got another speciality dish, the ghemeh badenjoon ($16), which is chunks of lean beef in tomato sauce, split peas, sauteed eggplant and onions, on saffron basmati rice of course. This is a similar concept to the Turkish Iskender kabob, with a couple more vegetables. It's a pretty heavy dish, a good choice during cold weather.

This was our second dinner at Sufi's. When Kevin and I ate here before I had the koobideh kabob, which is 2 beef kabob skewers alongside a large plate of rice. The beef is quite good, but not as rich and flavorful as that of previously reviewed Darvish in Roswell. However, you have to weigh this against the slow-as-molasses service you'll probably get at Darvish. If your goal is to eat the best kabobs in Atlanta, trek out to Darvish and plan to stay a few hours. If you want 2nd best kabobs (which is still pretty good) and faster service, try Sufi's.

Vegetarians can select from a variety of meatless rice dishes, ranging from sweet (black cherry) to nutty to substantial (dill and protein-packed fava beans). Rice dishes are only $6, and between that and the free bread you should have a fine meal.

Nice atmosphere. Lovely copper-hued walls, burgundy fabric-covered booths, and small pillows, but no flat platforms for seating or huge rugs hanging from the ceilings. If you think Darvish is "overdone" in terms of decor, you'll enjoy Sufi's elegance.

Prices listed above are on par with other Persian restaurants in the metro area. Persian dining isn't ever the cheapest available option around, but this type of food has a personality all it's own that shouldn't be missed.

Verdict: Good stuff. I plan to make it a semi-regular dinner choice.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Recipe: Pancetta-Wrapped Roasted Turkey

Here's your Thanksgiving recipe # 2 for this year, and it will put any plain ole' oven roasted turkey you've made in the past to shame. It has a hint of sweetness, a noticeable measure of spice, tender poultry and lip-smacking, fatty pancetta. If your favorite thing about Thanksgiving turkey is the fragrant, flavorful skin, then you'll be head over heels for this version.

Think that making a whole turkey is too daunting a task, will require too much time or simply produce more food than you need? You don't need a special occasion (or 4 hours) to make this recipe if you make a few, easy revisions. Kyle and I have made this several times when we've hosted another couple for dinner, and we've found that two one-pound breasts, 1/3 of the quantity of each ingredient in the rub, and 1/4 pound of pancetta will suffice. In this case, I only brine the bird for about 3 hours. This means that you can place it in the fridge to brine (using only 1/3 of each of the brining ingredients) at lunch, and still have plenty of time to get it ready for a 7pm dinner. That's because you don't have to roast it for nearly as long - an hour and a half should do it.

The other thing I would change about this recipe - and this tip applies regardless of whether or not you use a whole 13 pound turkey or a couple of breasts - is that I wouldn't add the pancetta until the last half an hour of roasting. Why bother with it so early on, when you have to worry about getting the foil on top just right and risk burning the pancetta to a crisp? If your pancetta is thin sliced by the deli, it will easily cook up to a soft, barely crisp texture in half an hour.

And as you can see from the picture, you can't beat this recipe for presentation. It's super cool looking, so make sure you make a prominent space for it in the center of your dinner table, or parade it out from the kitchen under your guests happy noses before you slice and serve. This will give them a few minutes of gleeful anticipation for their upcoming main course.

Verdict: Another fabulous, easier than it looks recipe from Food & Wine.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Coast Seafood & Raw Bar

111 W. Paces Ferry Rd., Atlanta, GA

My grandmother and I had dinner at Coast Seafood & Raw Bar on Sunday night. Coast is located right across from the St. Regis hotel in Buckhead, near the intersection of W. Paces Ferry and Peachtree Rd. Coast is in the restored house structure formerly occupied by Home restaurant. Outside is an elevated white patio with 6 tables or so, warmed on Sunday by heat lamps. Inside is a dimly lit but cute dining room with more space - bright blue accents on the walls, sculptures of fish, frameless paintings of the seashore. It might sound corny, but it was actually quite tasteful.

We started with the chilled smoked salmon dip ($8), which comes with an ample supply of lightly toasted pita chips. This stuff is addictive. Not too chunky, not too smooth, and not overly fishy. Just right.

Grandmother ordered the BBQ Jumbo Gulf Shrimp ($9), served with a buttermilk biscuit. This is an appetizer, but my grandmother rarely eats more than 8 bites of any meal nowadays, so it was pretty much the right size for her. The dish included 6 appropriately large shrimp in a heavy, dark sauce, and a decent looking biscuit. She liked it all very much.

I ordered the blue cod, blackened, with a side of spring onions and sauteed spinach. This was from the fresh catch portion of the menu, which offers 7 types of fish or shellfish served pan-roasted, grilled, blackened or "naked". At first I thought the cod was too blackened - meaning the seasoning was overkill. Then after a few bites I started to really like it, and finished it with relish. I also loved the spinach, laden with small slices of garlic and fantastic with the greens. Well worth $15.50.

One thing I liked a lot about Coast was the selection of sides that are available with the entrees in the fresh catch section of the menu. You have your choice of french fries, cheese grits, red beans and rice, cole slaw or spring onions and sauteed spinach. For a $1 upcharge, you can have green beans, Brussels sprouts, baby squash, roasted baby vidalias, mashed potatoes and mac n' cheese. I've already mentioned that I thought the spinach was excellent, but I'm also thrilled to find Brussels sprouts on the menu. I love them, and almost never get a chance to order them when dining out. The roasted baby vidalias make excellent use of a local and famous onion. Most casual/semi-casual fish restaurants would settle for only offering cole slaw, fries or other potatoes. Kudos to Coast for providing a few more interesting options.

In addition to the above, Coast also offers baskets of fried fish with french fries, specialty entrees complete with sides, sandwiches and a decent number of starters. If you can't decide what you'd like, you could always order the seafood tower, which comes with chilled lobster, shrimp, clams, oysters, crabmeat and ceviche ($35 for 2, or $19.50 for a half portion).

Service was unremarkable. Polite, but not cordial.

I was surprised by how much I liked Coast. I used to consider Atlanta, a landlocked city, to have a very limited number of good seafood options. Lately, however, I've been getting really great fish all over town (examples: Empire State South, Grace 17:20 and Miller Union). Each of the aforementioned restaurants had better fish than what I ate at Coast, but they were also notably more expensive. Given the price, I think Coast was a great value.

Verdict: A good pick for moderately priced seafood.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Recipe: Nell's Sweet Potato Souffle'

Ingredients: 40 oz. can of sweet potatoes, drained; 1 1/2 sticks butter or margarine; 1 cup sugar; 1 cup whipping cream; 2 cups miniature marshmallows; 2 eggs; 1/2 cup brown sugar; 1 cup crushed cornflakes, 1/2 cup pecans.

Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt 3/4 stick butter and marshmallows on low heat. Beat potatoes, sugar and eggs with electric mixer. Add the whipping cream, beating thoroughly, then add the marshmallow mixture until well mixed. Pour into ovenproof dish. For topping: Melt 3/4 cup margarine and brown sugar. Add cornflakes and pecans, stir until evenly coated. Spread over potato mixture. Bake 30-35 minutes.

Before you know it, Thanksgiving will be upon us. I will be posting a few autumn/Thanksgiving recipes that you may want to include at your next family gathering.

This recipe for sweet potato souffle is courtesy (and shared with permission from) my grandmother, Nell Braxton. While I love her more than anything, I have to admit that my grandmother isn't, as most people claim of their own grandmothers, the world's best cook. However, she has about half a dozen recipes that are simply awesome, and this souffle' is a big favorite of mine. It's a little labor intensive with all the heating various things on the stove, but it's worth the effort.

The reason this recipe is called a souffle' as opposed to the typical casserole is its texture. The whipping cream makes it creamy, almost light, and the melted marshmallows and butter give it a fluffy quality. Lots of people make sweet potato casseroles with marshmallows on the top. If you'd like, you may also add some marshmallows to the topping, but be prepared for an extremely sweet dish verging into the dessert category. My grandmother's recipe has just the right amount of sweetness, along with a satisfying crunch of cornflakes on top.

Sweet potato souffle' keeps for about a week, but it is best enjoyed within an hour of removal from the oven. Why? Because the cornflakes are crisp and the pecans are fragrant at that point. Once you refrigerate the souffle' and microwave it, you'll have mushy cornflakes and reheated, tired nuts.

For those of you who want a more home-made treat, you may substitute fresh sweet potatoes for the canned ones. My friend Danielle's wonderful mom Alice recently gave us a bag of just-dug-up-on-the-farm sweet potatoes from south Georgia, which inspired me to make the souffle' last night. If you use fresh sweet potatoes, peel then boil them for about 20 minutes, until they are soft. If they are too hard, you'll have chunky potatoes that won't properly blend into a luscious souffle' consistency.

This recipe makes approximately 10 side dishes. When Kyle and I made it last night, we used 7 medium sized sweet potatoes, which made enough for about 8 side dishes.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Iberian Pig

121 Sycamore St., Decatur, GA

Last Thursday night my friend John treated me and Kyle to dinner at Iberian Pig. He's been raving about it for months, so I was excited to try it out.

Wow, what an awesome place! One thing about dining with John is that he typically orders anything and everything on the menu that looks even remotely interesting, so we got to sample a ton of dishes. This is especially fun when we're having tapas, and the Pig is a tapas/wine bar.

If you're now rolling your eyes, muttering that you're sick of the ho-hum, overpriced and underwhelming little dishes often found in Atlanta's tapas restaurants, you can rest assured that you won't have that experience here. The tapas are pricey, but they are really, really tasty and unique. You won't find that cross cultural, mix of Asian/Spanish/American/Italian tapas you'll find elsewhere. Iberian Pig seeks to replicate the original, authentic Spanish tapas experience - the menu offerings are comprised of traditional ingredients and combinations. No sushi, no sliders. Instead you'll find lots of cured meats, Spanish cheeses and flatbreads.

We started with the charcuterie, which, in hindsight, was my favorite part of the meal. We chose 3 types of cured pork, all in the Iberico category. The menu tells you the pigs dine on acorns, and you'll detect a distinct nuttiness when you chew these wafer-thin slices of goodness. We also got 3 cheeses, my favorite being the Valdeon, which is a pungeant blue cheese made from both sheep and goat's milk. Stronger than grocery store blue, but not as ripe as gorgonzola. Fantastic.

Next we moved on to the regular tapas. We liked the Albondigas ($7), wild boar meatballs stuffed with dates, peppers, and roasted tomatoes, finished with a pimenton creme and oyster mushrooms. You can't go wrong with oyster mushrooms in my book. I've noticed they've become increasingly popular on the menus of upscale Atlanta restaurants, and I'm happy about it. If you haven't had wild boar, I can tell you it tastes more like beef than pork. Good, but not excellent.

Here's something that was excellent - the braised veal shank ravioli ($9). Each lovely ravioli burst with flavor, and the topping - rioja cream sauce, black truffle creme fraiche, white truffle oil, roasted shitake mushrooms and fresh thyme - could you just die hearing that, much less eating it? Iberian Pig needs to convert this into a main dish, so the gluttons among us can eat unto our heart's content (or until our stomachs explode, whichever comes first).

We also loved the Pulp a la Parilla ($14), grilled Mediterranean octopus with roasted fingerling potatoes, garlic, watercress pistou and little bits of bacon. As all of you know, bacon is always a welcome addition to any dish. However, it's the watercress pistou atop the perfectly grilled, firm but not chewy octopus that makes this dish.

Cheese lovers should definitely order the Croquetas de Queso ($8), chevre with honey-citrus yogurt, and lavendar honey. Goat cheese with honey is an excellent combination, and the citrus lightens up this heavy, fragrant dish.

And by the way, the Spanish olives are in some kind of divine olive oil with sherry vinegar, which Kyle compared to tasty plastic. I know that sounds odd, but it just tastes like it's been processed a little differently. If plastic could be appetizing, this is how it would taste.

It's a little dark in the dining room for my taste, but if you like a happening scene, Iberian Pig is for you. It was packed both inside and out last Thursday, and that's apparently the norm.

Now for the service - some of the best I've received this year. Patrick was a true gem, a sommelier with good suggestions who is also extremely knowledgeable about every dish on the menu. He's so attentive and pleasant that you'll want him to pull up a chair and join your feast - although you don't want him to actually eat any of your food, because you'll want it all for yourself.

Verdict: Perhaps Decatur's best restaurant.