Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Mussels in white wine and the winner of the giveaway

Mussels in white wine are a specialty of my husband Meakin. It makes an impressive dish when you are having a few friends over for a casual lunch on the terrace, sipping wine, and enjoying a lazy afternoon.

I’m always surprised when I hear people say they think mussels are difficult to prepare. Not true. Cultivated mussels that can be found in most supermarkets today no longer have beards and don’t have to be cleaned as they once did. Meakin steams the mussels in a wine and chicken broth mixture, finishes them with tomatoes, cream and a dash of Pernod, an anise flavored French liquor, and dinner is served before you know it.

We like to keep a bottle of Pernod on hand so we can use a splash of its citrusy anise flavor in seafood to give it a Mediterranean twist and a taste of Provence. In the south of France Pernod is sipped as an aperitif called pastis. Typically waiters bring small glasses of Pernod on a tray to your table with a pitcher of cold water for diluting the strong green liqueur, making it turn cloudy and yellow.

Speaking of things French, as you know, I had a quiz to “name this restaurant” in post last week with a giveaway of Top Chef fame’s Tom Colicchio’s book Think Like a Chef. The Quintessential Magpie Sheila was the first person to correctly identify the name of the restaurant as Chez Fonfon in Birmingham, Alabama. Congratulations Sheila. I’ll get the cookbook off to you immediately.

The first time I saw this photograph in Southern Accents magazine I fell in love with the charm of it. I immediately wanted to know who these people were, what they were chatting about, and most of all, where was this charming French bistro? The photo wanted to make me pack my bags and go there, no matter where it was. Here is the article, written by Lydia Longshore, about the three gentlemen in the photo which was taken by Howard L. Puckett, about Chez Fonfon.

Room service – a new Birmingham café captures the spirit of French dining – from Southern Accents

“When people stroll into Chez Fonfon, says decorator Patrick J. Dunne, right, “they check their compasses to make sure they haven’t strayed into a different longitude.”

A new restaurant venture of Birmingham’s Frank Stitt, left, creator of Bottega and Highlands Bar & Grill, Chez Fonfon is a café devoted to French food and the artful wasting of an afternoon. With well-selected wines, traditional French “small food” such as pate and croque monsieur, and a boule court out back, the café garnered a loyal following when it opened in May.

For an authentic look, Dunne and Zoubir Tabout, middle, from New Orleans’ Lucullus scoured France for Belle Epoque cherry café tables, leather banquettes, and Art Deco nickel chandeliers and found marble wainscoting in an old Birmingham building – then set it against creamy walls covered with what you’d swear was the patina of Gauloise smoke.

Chef Frank Stitt began his culinary career in the San Francisco Bay Area. While he worked at Chez Panisse, Alice introduced him to the famous food author Richard Olney, best known for his books on French country cooking. At the time Olney was writing the Good Cook series for Time Warner and needed an assistant. Stitt became Olney’s assistant and worked in the French countryside alongside culinary giants such as Simca Beck, Jeremiah Tower and Elizabeth David.

Photo from
In 1982 Chef Frank Stiff opened the Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Alabama, where southern favorites such as stoned ground grits and country ham are paired on the menu with French sauces and rich country braises.

Highlands Bar & Grill & Chef Frank Stitt have received numerous accolades. In 2001 Gourmet magazine ranked the restaurant #5 on their list of “The 50 Best American Restaurants” and wrote, “Frank Stitt’s lively mind, unerring palate, and easy grace have combined to make him the culinary king of Alabama.” Chef Stitt has also received the James Beard Award for Best Chef of the Southeast. To quote novelist Pat Conroy, "I have eaten at the Highlands Bar and Grill more than twenty times and have never had a single dish that was not superb."

After his success at Highlands, Stitt opened Bottega and Café Bottega, which showcases Stitt’s love of the Mediterranean and Italy. In 2000 he followed with Chez Fonfon, a French café - all in Birmingham. Gas-tron-o-my wrote in his rave review of Highlands Bar, “Throughout our dinner, Chef Stitt came into the dining room several times to meet and greet with longtime regulars. I think it’s quite cool that even after twenty-seven years in the business (and three other restaurants to tend to), he can still be found working the line on a weeknight. Now, that’s classy.”

Now you can understand we’re dying to go to Birmingham and visit Chef Stitt’s restaurants and sample his fabulous food for ourselves. Believe me, this will not be the last you hear about Chef Frank Stitt and his restaurants on this blog.

Chef Stitt has two cookbooks. Frank Stitt’s Southern Table, Recipes and Gracious Traditions from Highlands Bar and Grill and Bottega Favorita: A Southern Chef's Love Affair with Italian Food. 

Although Mussels in white wine don’t happen to be on the menu at Chez FonFon, we nevertheless though it was the perfect dish to conclude the quiz and giveaway. Sheila, this dish is prepared by my favorite personal chef and husband Meakin especially for you. Bon appétit.

Mussels in white wine a la Chez Meakin
Moules a la Mariniere

3 pounds of small cultivated mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1 leek
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cups chicken broth (we like the low sodium & fat free variety)
1 cup dry white wine
1 - 14.5oz can whole tomatoes
½ cup of half & half or cream
2 capfuls of Pernod (optional)
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

Rinse the mussels in water, scrub and debead if necessary.

Cut the dark green leaves off of the top of the leek and discard them. You will be left with the light green leaves and white end. Cut the roots off of the white end and discard it also. Cut the remainder of the leek in half lengthwise, rinse well under running water to remove any dirt, and shake dry. Cut each half of the leek in half again and thinly slice.

Add the olive oil to a large non-aluminum stock pot and set the heat to medium. Sauce the leek and garlic in the olive oil for 3 to 5 minutes to soften, taking care not to brown.

Add the mussels in their shells, chicken broth and wine to the stock pot and stir well. Raise the heat to medium high. Cover and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the mussels open. Discard any mussels that do not open.

Remove the stock pot from the heat and allow the mixture to cool. When it is sufficiently cool, carefully remove the mussels from the liquid and pick them from their shells, leaving a few in their shells for a garnish.  Discard the remaining shells.

Add the mussels back to the liquid in the stockpot along with a can of whole tomatoes which you have gently crushed with your hands along with their tomato liquid. Stir, then bring the mixture to a boil, immediately turn the heat down to medium low and let it simmer about 10 minutes.

Add the half & half, Pernod if using, a good pinch of cayenne pepper and salt and pepper to taste. Let it heat through. Serve immediately in bowls with chopped fresh parsley for garnish. Accompany with slices of a crusty French baguette. Serves 4.

News: If you love mussels as much as we do, check this out. Ina Garten - The Barefoot Contessa - has a brand new book How Easy is That? that is hot off of the press. She has two great mussel recipes - French Mussel Bisque and Mussels & Basil Bread Crumbs. I'm never disappointed with Ina's recipes.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Blogger get together in Asheville & a clue for the cookbook giveaway

What do fourteen women bloggers do when they get together? Talk, eat and shop of course. Last weekend I was one of those fourteen bloggers invited to a get together at Penny The Comforts of Home’s lovely home in Asheville, North Carolina.  The states of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia were all represented.

From left to right:
Back row: Ulrike, Angie, Mary, Sherri, Jeanne, Jennifer, Melinda
Front row: Me, Penny, Rhondi, Diane, Penny (our hostess), Donnie

I apologize to Kim because somehow I’m missing her in this photo. I have no idea why she’s not pictured. Here are a few shots of getting to know each other before brunch.

Penny is a talented mosaic artist with a studio in her home. She is a fantastic decorator and her home and gardens are gorgeous. She also happens to be a great cook. For brunch she prepared a selection of delicious homemade quiches, a lovely fall salad of baby greens, pears and nuts, and for dessert a yummy pumpkin bread and fresh fruit.

After brunch she took us to her favorite spots for antiques in Asheville. We went to six antique malls, including The Screen Door, which was my favorite. In addition to lovely antiques, collectables and fascinating yard art, The Screen Door has a large bookstore with an absolutely huge selection of cooking and decorating books – all at half price.

We all had a fabulous time. I’ve met so many wonderful friends through blogging and now I’ve had the opportunity to actually meet some of you face to face. This is the second blogger get together I’ve attended. Last June you may recall I met some of my Tennessee blogging friends at Larry Big Dude’s Eclectic Ramblings home on beautiful Lake Tellico in eastern Tennessee and did a post. Blogging is such fun, isn’t it?

Thank you again Penny for hosting this wonderful get together in Asheville last weekend. On the way home we took a couple of pictures of the fall foliage in western North Carolina. It wasn’t quite at its peak as you can see, but it’s getting there.

In my last post I featured a restaurant and quiz with a cookbook give-away for the first person to be able to identify the name of the restaurant. I didn’t realize that it would be as difficult as it was, so I’ve decided to provide a clue.

Here’s the clue – one of the gentlemen in the photo is Patrick J. Dunne. Although he’s not the chef, with that lead you should be able to follow the crumbs on the internet to the name of the restaurant.

I really want one of you to receive the give-away - Top Chef's Tom Colicchio’s great cookbook Think Like a Chef. The rules remain the same. The first person to correctly name the restaurant will win the cookbook. There will be only one winner, so best of luck. Please post your guess on the actual post featuring the give-away, not this post. Thanks so much.

Update: The Quintessential Magpie Sheila has correctly identified the name of this restaurant. The race is over. Check out her answer.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Where is this restaurant? And a Giveaway

Photo by Howard L. Puckett

Over this past weekend I attended a blogger get together in Asheville hosted by Penny of The Comforts of Home. Penny is a talented mosaic artist and decorator, so you can imagine that her home is gorgeous. We had a great time and pictures will follow soon.

Each weekend Penny has been playing a game called “Where is this?” It’s been such fun that I thought you might want to play too.

In the photo above, where is this restaurant? It it in France or the United States?

The first person to be able to correctly identify the name of the restaurant above will win a copy of Tom Colicchio’s book Think Like a Chef.

In addition to being the head judge of the highly rated television series Top Chef, Tom was also the chef of Manhattan’s popular Gramercy Tavern. This is a wonderful book with 100-plus recipes that help the reader see the way a trained chef sees cooking and how they develop recipes.

There will be only one winner, so good luck to all.

Update: The Quintessential Magpie Sheila has correctly identified the name of this restaurant. The race is over. Check out her answer in the post on the Blogger get together in Asheville. More later.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A visit to a country farm stand and a recipe for a colorful French gratin

This is a typical country farm stand that can be found in the mountains of western North Carolina and north Georgia.

They sell all sorts of things in the fall including bright orange pumpkins, colorful fall mums in a variety of different colors, Indian corn to hang on your door, lots of different kinds of winter squashes and apples, roasted peanuts, and hand crafted bird houses.

Look at all of these pretty turban squashes. Their golden yellow flesh tastes as if it’s been flavored with hazelnuts.

Turban squash makes a lovely soup bowl if you slice its top off, hollow it out, and fill it with your favorite fall soup. I’m thinking for Thanksgiving that it would be perfect filled with my creamy rich Clam Zucchini Chowder.   

Most country farm stands sell roasted peanuts. Here they roast their own and the smell fills the air as you drive up.

How about a hand crafted birdhouse?

While we were there, I picked up some zucchini and tomatoes to make a French gratin. This is one of our favorite side dishes of all times. It seems to pair with almost any kind of meat or chicken dish, it’s gorgeous to look at, and a snap to make. It is equally good served hot as well as room temperature, making it ideal for a buffet.

I normally use a heavy French gratin dish, such as the Le Creuset oval au gratin baker, for this dish. Today I decided to give it a little star power and make it in a tart pan with a removable bottom. If you decide to make it in a tart pan, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, after you fill the tart pan with the squash and tomatoes, put it on a sheet pan to bake it, because it has a tendency to leak. Secondly, it helps to take the vegetables up in rows with a long, slender blade spatula for serving. If you wish to take up the entire tart and place it on a plate, use two pancake turners to lift the gratin and remove the bottom of the tart pan very carefully.

The cheese is optional, but highly recommended. The original recipe called for freshly grated imported Parmesan, which is what I used here. We’ve also used Gruyere cheese and it makes a fantastic, rich topping. Don’t be tempted to use dried thyme. The fresh thyme just makes it and its fresh flavor really sings.

French Zucchini & Tomato Gratin
Gratin de Courgettes et Tomates
Adapted from Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells

1 large garlic clove, peeled and halved
1 pound zucchini (about 2 medium), ends trimmed, thinly sliced
8 small red Roma tomatoes (about 2 pounds), cored & thinly sliced
Kosher or sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup freshly grated imported Gruyere or Parmesan cheese (optional but delicious)

Note: Try to find zucchini & tomatoes that are about the same size to be able to alternate in the dish.

Preheat the oven to 450. Rub the bottom of a large oval porcelain gratin dish or tart pan with garlic. Arrange the vegetables in a single layer over the bottom of the pan, alternating the slices of zucchini and tomato. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then the fresh thyme and olive oil.

Bake, uncovered, until meltingly soft, about 20 minutes. (If using a tart pan with a removable bottom, place the tart pan on a sheet pan before baking to catch spills.) After 20 minutes, top with cheese if using and place under the broiler to melt. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The secret to making a spectacular Italian hoagie sandwich

One of our favorite spots to visit when we’re in Florida is Carmine’s Gourmet Market in Palm Beach Gardens. We like to dine outside for lunch on their patio and listen to Dean Martin crooning Arrivederci Roma and other Italian favorites while we admire the gorgeous yachts in the marina. Without fail we always order our favorite sandwich from their extensive menu – The Carmine. It’s a cold Italian hoagie with ham, Genoa salami, capicolla, pepperoni, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato and red onion, dressed with plenty of olive oil and vinegar.

Perhaps you’ll remember when we were there last winter and I posted a tour of their fabulous deli and fresh market.

I’ve tried many times to duplicate Carmine’s hoagie at home and, while it’s always good, it just never quite measures up the original.

I racked my brain trying to think of what made their sandwich so special. Carmine’s always mades their hoagies to order. They would never prepare it in advance and allow it to sit on the counter or in a case. That’s one trick that’s easily mastered.

Then I tackled the ingredients. Obviously I would only buy the best and freshest ingredients I could find. A sandwich is only as good as the bread it’s made on, so I tried all sorts of breads - Italian bread, a French baguette, hoagie rolls, you name it, I’ve tried it, looking for a crisp crust and soft interior crumbs. I asked my deli to slice their very best cold cuts (never, ever use that pre-sliced stuff in a package). I sought out the freshest, juiciest vine ripe tomatoes and seasoned them generously with good sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. I carefully shredded romaine lettuce. I never even once considered buying a bottled Italian dressing. I made my own oil and vinegar dressing by mixing together three parts extra virgin olive oil to two parts vinegar (we like this sandwich with that extra zing of vinegar) and seasoned it with Italian herbs. I spooned the vinaigrette over both sides of the bread. In short I did everything I could think of to make it perfect.

My sandwich was very good, even bordering on great, but something was missing to put it over the top and make it spectacular. The only problem was - I couldn’t put my finger on what that “something” was.

Finally I stumbled across the secret to how to make a spectacular hoagie and it just happens to come from another Carmine - the one who has a very successful Italian restaurant in Times Square in New York City. In Carmine’s Family Style Cookbook they shared their secret of how to make a spectacular hoagie.

The secret to a spectacular Italian hoagie is so simple that it’ll make you want to slap yourself on your forehead like a silly Italian cartoon character. Slice the ingredients paper thin. That’s the secret – slice the ingredients paper thin. Never overload the sandwich they say or it will make it overflow and be hard to eat. As Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, would say, “How easy is that?”

This will be linked to Food on Friday at Carol's Chatter.