Wednesday, January 30, 2008

International Food Mart

An errand today required me to be in a very ethnically diverse part of south Nashville today. It gave me the excuse I've been needing to pay a visit to the International Food Mart on Thompson Lane. I've never left that place empty-handed, disappointed or without my curiosity piqued. This is where I've previously purchased rosewater, keffir cheese, bulk spices, and my favorite breads from the Baraka Bakery (located further down Nolensville near Old Hickory Boulevard).

My goal today was to buy some chickpeas and tahini to make some hummus this weekend as well as Baraka's whole wheat pita bread. But I was lured over to the counter where the figs are and just had to get some. They're something like $6.99 a pound (which would equal enough for about four snacks for a real fan) and they're totally worth it.

But while I was standing in line, my eyes were drawn to the produce next to me. Sitting in the middle like the crown princess on a homecoming float was a box of pears. But not just any pears, but these delicate (read: small) yellow and red pears. The red covered the yellow in the form of freckles. Being a freckledy person myself, I grabbed three of them to give them a try.

Generally speaking, I'm not a huge fan of pears. Your standard Bartlett does nothing for me. And I once waited two months for a large Asian pear to ripen only to discover I'd waited too late (checking it every day got old after the first three weeks, lemme tell ya). But these pears intrigued me. And they did not disappoint me. The first bite of this pear was like a sweet explosion. But not too sweet. Like pear jam but still in a fruit form. Oh, soooo delicious. I devoured the pear and then sucked the carcass clean like a cheetah out on the savana. All that's left is a stem and seeds. A little research suggests these are Forelle pears.

Usually, produce at this grocery is really cheap (as in, a bundle of cilantro is only $.69 as opposed to Kroger's $1.99 or whatever) and good quality, so I was surprised to see that three pears cost almost three dollars. But, when you think about it, they're hardly more than some crappy candy bar and a lot healthier. So I'm going back tomorrow to get some more of these little teardrops of heaven.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Freeze, Ginger!

Just before the holidays, I bought fresh ginger root for gingerbread cookies. I also used the ginger in this wonderful sesame ginger tofu noodle salad. For the last month, though the ginger root has been sitting on top of the refrigerator with the onions and sweet potatoes. I've been wondering about its state of being, what I could do with it, what I should do with it and then, thankfully, a tip just fell in my lap.

I can freeze the ginger. I can just stick it in a freezer bag and keep it frozen until I need it. I can't believe I didn't think of that sooner. Particularly since I froze some lemon zest (which may or may not be decent by the time I unthaw it).

I shan't mention all the other things I have in my freezer. I generally think you can freeze just about anything. As I need these items, though I will let you know the verdict. Thus far, I know I can give a thumbs up to freezing a big ol' red bell pepper.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Roasted Grapes

I had the pleasure of being invited to Claudia's house for a meal this past week where she served this delicious soup (with a vegetable stock and topped with the saffron yogurt instead of the egg).

Before the soup, Claudia served a delicious salad of arugula drizzled in walnut oil and topped with a few pinches of good (but not very good) salt, capers, and roasted grapes (the other diners also had Parmigiano Reggiano cheese on their salads).

Roasted grapes? Yes, roasted grapes. I'd never had nor even heard of roasted grapes, but I was certainly eager to try them as Claudia has yet to steer me wrong. Delicious. The roasting (and olive oil) changes the flavor and the texture of the grape so that the result is something sweet and savory at the same time. They made an excellent topping for the salad and are used for accompaniments in other dishes as well. So, how to you roast grapes?

Roasted Grapes
•Seedless grapes (Claudia's were red)--depending on how you want to serve them, you may want to remove them from the stem before cooking (it's easier)
•Olive oil
•Kosher or sea salt

Pre-heat your oven to 450 degrees. Put the grapes in a roasting pan or on a baking sheet and spritz with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and roast for 15 minutes. If you don't have a oil spritzer, put the grapes in a plastic bag with a couple of teaspoons of oil instead.

As for the salt, I'm not sure exactly what Claudia uses. She keeps her "good" and her "very good" salts in wood salt boxes/cellars and she's mentioned that the good salt was English, I believe. I have a feeling that the very good salt is a Fleur de Sel. I need to check that out.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

P.F. Chang's

Yeah, yeah, another restaurant. Another, um Chinese restaurant. Just know that had I cooked in the last 24 hours, I would have wanted to cook this. It is reminiscent of the tangerine egg foo yung at Jasmine Chinese/Thai restaurant in Memphis.

Anyhoo, I started out with the spring roll appetizer. Yum. It's really hard to screw up a spring roll though. It's shredded veggies wrapped up and deep fried. Not difficult, but I'll say I enjoyed them. Just so you know.

For an entree, I had a little trouble deciding between the coconut curry vegetables and Buddha's feast stir-fried. The server warned me that the coconut curry was spicy, so I opted for the feast.

The selection of vegetables was pretty good, as you can see from their menu. It was in a light sauce that I augmented with the leftover sweet and sour sauce from the spring rolls. I think I tasted a hint of lemongrass in the oyster sauce, but it could have been some pungent ginger. It was good, but there wasn't a whole lot of the sauce (and what was there didn't have all that much flavor). But the portion of vegetables was large enough that I had a good amount left over (along with some brown rice) for another meal. I added some edamame and some sesame garlic sauce to it and viola!--dinner was uh-served.

The real story here, though is not what I did with the leftovers when I got home. It was what happened between lunch and dinner.

After lunch, there were errands to do. My leftovers sat dutifully in the floorboard of the car, patiently awaiting me in near-freezing temperatures, so I did not worry about them.

When I returned to the car from the first errand, a woman was getting out of her car right next to my door. When she passed and I opened my door, I was met with the most unbelievable foul smell. And I thought to myself (because I spend a lot of time thinking about bowels), "That woman really needs to get to a restroom."

When I got in the car after the second errand, though I smelled that smell again. Shoe checking commenced. No. All clear. Hmm. I noticed that the bag with the leftovers had fallen over, so I checked to make sure the Buddha's feast was not leaking. It wasn't leaking sauce, but it was leaking that awful smell. How could this be? It didn't smell in the restaurant! But sure enough, that container was emitting a powerfully, overwhelmingly disgusting smell. That quickly dissipated. So I don't know if it was the sauce, the lone remaining black mushroom, the asparagus, or what. I just know that not only did it smell, but it made me smell. I was informed--in no uncertain terms--that my breath was nearly as bad. And just a couple of hours later, my urine smelled pretty objectionable as well. And I'm not talking about your garden-variety asparagus pee. I'm telling you it smelled like, well, #2 instead of #1. But a #2 created by a constipated meat-eater, not yours truly, of optimal colon health.

Regardless of that, I had the remainder of the feast for dinner (as mentioned above). Luckily, it's just the cat and me, so no one has to endure this stench. But my mouth...yuck. I think I'll spray down with some Chloraseptic or maybe some bleach before I go to bed. Yikes.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


Yeah, another restaurant review. Though I plan to cook something for dinner tonight; I just don't know what.

But Friday evening, I met Jag after work to hang out a bit before going over to Malia's house for a spa party. I just had a tube put in my left ear that morning, so my only wish was to go somewhere that wasn't loud. We bounced around a few ideas and settled on Fulin's on Old Hickory Boulevard in Brentwood. All I really knew about Fulin's was that it's a favorite of Jack White, who's been frequently seen picking up takeout from there.

At 5:30 on a Friday evening, the place isn't exactly hopping, but the wait staff was ready to get going.

First, a word about the service. Jag is a new fan of sushi (as opposed to me, a former fan of formerly-swimming sushi) so she had almost as many questions as this very high-maintenance vegetarian, so that made me feel a little better. But what made me feel even better than that was having a server (Michael from Hawaii) who was patient and knowledgeable. Who not only answered questions, but made suggestions. And even brought out a few items just for tasting. The attentiveness, interest and ability to answer questions made him certainly one of the top five servers I've ever had. The irony of this is that I mentioned it last night to my friends, Rick and Laura who said that they've gone there on several occasions and while the food was good, their service was so terrible that they had no plans to return. Maybe they'll try it again and call in advance to see if Michael's working.

And I'd say it was worth trying again. The lack of good Chinese food in Nashville suitable for a vegetarian has made me miss several of the really good restaurants in Memphis. So I wasn't expecting a whole lot from Fulin's, particularly since it also serves sushi and bills itself as "Asian cuisine." But I was very pleasantly surprised. First, they have a fairly good selection of vegetarian dishes (soups and entrees) to choose from and I was told that the stocks and sauces bases are (unless noted) soy-based. I was amazed and, of course very pleased.

I started out with a spring roll (with some of the best sweet and sour sauce I've ever tasted), but was also served a complimentary bowl of miso, which was a nice surprise since I'd leaned toward ordering a soup, but was advised to go with the Vegetable Delight. The Vegetable Delight was a combination of lightly-cooked and very fresh-tasting veggies including carrots, snow peas, broccoli, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, asparagus, mushrooms, and baby corn. It was served in a light white sauce and on Michael's suggestion, I got some of the brown sauce on the side. I thought both sauces were excellent and mixed the two together. The entrees come with your choice of white rice, fried rice, or (joy!) brown rice.

I can't say that I'm a connoiseur of Chinese food, but I don't generally prefer typical takeout and instead prefer light, fresh-tasting dishes that aren't served in disturbingly huge portions, though Jag did have to help me out with the vegetables. So I'm really happy to have discovered Fulin's. Though I have to say that when we entered the restaurant, I was a little unnerved by the decor. It was beautiful, reminscent of high-concept chain restaurants like J. Alexander's or P.F. Chang's, but according to the website, it's a small, local chain. So I can continue to be a chain restaurant snob and not feel the need to eat there in shame (like I do when I go to Cracker Barrel).

If you're interested in checking it out yourself (or trying the locations in Mt. Juliet or Hendersonville), you should know that beginning January 31, you can buy $50 worth of gift certificates for just $25 at Half Off Nashville. Only a limited number will be available, though, so you should jump on the offer as soon as it starts up.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Gerst Haus

What does a vegetarian eat at a German restaurant? Well, given the unknown origin of the brown in the brown gravy on the spaetzle, I'd say, "not spaetzle." And the potato salad was, uh, not recommended. But I did have a small bowl of mac and cheese (er, make that shells and cheese), a house salad (with shredded carrots and a few garbanzo beans!) and an apple strudel for dessert. Not the healthiest meal I've ever had.

The apple strudel was the most expensive of the items I ordered at $5.25. For that price, I expected something really good (like this) or, at least authentic. But what I got was a small, thin slice of something that obviously was cut from a large pan and looked a bit like a short piece of apple lasagna. It tasted okay, but was not my idea of an apple strudel.

Regardless, Claudia's mission at the restaurant was accomplished. Inasmuch as it could be considering what she came to eat--the oyster roll--was no longer offered in its original form. Word has it that the original recipe was lost in the move from the original location to the current location. What was served in its place were these sort of oyster hush puppy things. Let's just say it was a great time to fall back on the excuse that I don't eat critters in order to avoid having a taste.

The restaurant looks like a pretty cool place to have a beer, though. And, hey it's well ventilated so I don't stink of schnitzel. Which is a very good thing. And, thankfully, the the good company made up for the not-so-good food. However, if you love all sorts of meats ground up and squeezed into cylindrical shapes or pressed into other non-natural looking masses, this might be a great place to visit. Take your nitro pill with you, though.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Polenta with Roasted Vegetables

I was feeling a little crazy last night and decided to make some polenta. I say crazy because as those of you who've prepared it before know, it can be a little dangerous.

I used Bob's Red Mill polenta and the recipe on the back for Basic Italian Polenta except that I used 1 tbsp olive oil instead of butter and did not add any cheese. And I added some dried oregano, basil and thyme as well as some extra salt and pepper to the mix. Additionally, I cut the recipe size by a third, though I should have cut it by two thirds since there was only two of us. Now I know (and now I have polenta in the fridge).

While my polenta was cooking in the pot (resembling a witch's cauldron), I prepared a few vegetables for roasting:

1 carrot, peeled and cut into quarter-inch rounds
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into quarter-inch cubes (so they'll cook at the same rate as the other vegetables)
A few slices of red bell pepper*
A few slices of yellow onion
A couple of handfuls of broccoli crowns, cut into bite-size portions

I tossed the vegetables in a bowl with about three tablespoons of olive oil, a teaspoon of chopped garlic, a teaspoon of salt, some fresh ground pepper, and a few pinches of dried rosemary, oregano, and basil. I spread the vegetables in a 9 x 13 baking dish and roasted them at 475 degrees for 20 minutes. I then I sauteed some sliced baby portobella mushrooms in olive oil, salt, and pepper on the stove top while waiting on the polenta.

When the polenta finished cooking, I pressed it into a round baking dish to let it set. Had I prepared only what I needed, I would have pressed it into a pie plate, which would have been better for the next step. When it cooled, I cut it into triangles and pan-fried it in olive oil on medium-high heat. I like for my polenta to have a crispy crust. My polenta was a little thicker than I like because I had so much, but it did have a nice crust. It was just a little too polenta-y in the middle for my taste.

Anyhoo--the fun part. As if the bubbling mixture in the pot wasn't scary enough, now it's time to fry this stuff. Polenta will bubble and pop and send little satellites of pure heat in your direction while frying. I suited up with long sleeves and some old gloves for this task, though a couple of stray kernels found their way to my hair (I'm just glad they missed my eyes). But the end result of polenta with a nice, crispy crust makes it all worth it.

When the polenta was done frying, I set it on the plate and topped it with the roasted vegetables and sauteed mushrooms. Viola! A healthy, hearty (and vegan!) meal.

Monday, January 14, 2008

New favorite salad

Don't tell the locavores, but I've got a new favorite salad. I'm still tossing baby greens in O Organic blood orange infused olive oil, but I'm now adding chopped toasted hazlenuts and chunks of organic Gala or McIntosh apples (when available) instead of cheese and tomatoes. I'll also sprinkle on some goat cheese when it's around (I've run out). The apples and the citrus oil are such a good combination. And the organic grains bread from Provence goes well with this salad. It goes well with everything, though.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Now you're cooking with pressure

Many years ago, when I was first out on my own, my mom and I made the rounds at estate and yard sales for miscellaneous kitchen equipment to get me started. At the time, the most she was willing to part with was a dented pan--a relic from her first marriage dented from swatting cockroaches in my parents' first apartment. Needless to say, strangers' cast-offs were more appealing.

One of the things I remember seeing was an old pressure cooker. And my mom quickly warned me off it convincing me I'd never be able to use it properly and would likely kill myself in an explosion. So I've never given it a second thought.

Until I got this month's issue of Sierra Club magazine. Rice in five minutes? Rice that doesn't come in a red box in five minutes??? Yes! And not only is it a huge time-saver, it's an energy-saver (which is, of course why the pressure cooker is being featured in Sierra Magazine). So, now I'm interested in pressure cooking. Because I like rice and I am impatient.

The irony of this being a possible crock-off in the future. The question is, do I come up with some all-day dish to compete with the slow-foodies or be a total spoiler and whip up some pressured risotto or one of these tasty dishes in a matter of minutes to blow everyone away?

Blow everyone away figuratively speaking, of course (I hope).

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The New Year in Williamsburg/Virginia Beach

The Significant Other (SO) and I took a road trip to celebrate the beginning of the new year and the birthday of his niece in Williamsburg, Virginia where his brother and sister-in-law (SiL) live. I'll spare you the details of the occasional trip to Subway and Taco Bell and hit only the highlights of the trip.

New Year's Eve was spent dining at Sonoma Wine Bar and Bistro in Virginia Beach. It had an excellent and thoughtful wine list (many wines from Oregon, which are generally very good in my opinion) and a menu with plenty of (what I thought were) vegetarian options. I started with the spinach salad (substituting goat cheese for the bleu cheese) and for dinner had a plate of side dishes including vegetable Israeli couscous, whipped garlic mashed potatoes and pumpkin risotto. Despite asking the server earlier about the vegetarian status of a soup, I was not informed that the pumpkin risotto included ham. The SO enjoyed the pumpkin risotto quite a bit while my focus moved to the Jigsaw Pinot Noir.

Because I'm a native Tennessean, it's imperative that I eat my blackeyed peas and greens on New Year's Day. My mother thinks it's bad enough that I don't eat ham any more, but she'd likely feel the need to pray for me every day if I didn't have the peas and greens on the first day of the year. The SiL, sensitive to my southern and vegetarian needs, prepared a vegetarian version of her family's tradition of blackeyed pea jambalaya just for me. It was quite tasty. A nice fresh salad of romaine lettuce as an accompaniment should ensure that I make some money this year.

On the evening of New Year's Day, the SO wanted some fresh seafood since we were so close to the coast. Side note: a friend visiting Nashville recently from Baltimore noted our lack of seafood restaurants, prompting me to tell her that the local seafood consists of catfish and other river junk that most city folk don't eat regularly. I certainly wouldn't eat anything out of the Cumberland River. It's bad enough that I have to drink from it.

Anyhoo, Williamsburg is a bit of a sleepy, touristy town so most of the seafood restaurants were closed. Instead, we dined at Food for Thought, which turned out to be a great choice. To start us off, the server brought us a bread basket with rolls and sweet potato cornbread. Holy cow, that cornbread was good. There is rarely ever an orphaned sweet potato in my house, so I might just have to hijack one to make this cornbread at home. It was so good. We also got an appetizer of toasted ravioli which was quite good, but had I known that I'd love the cornbread so much, I probably would have skipped the ravioli and saved the space and calories for more bread.

For an entree, I got the vegetarian special, which was whole wheat penne pasta (yay--whole wheat pasta!) with wild mushrooms and artichokes in a chunky tomato cream sauce. It was excellent, but about two-to-three times the amount of food I could eat. Were I a local, I would have gladly boxed up the leftovers for one or two lunches, but sadly, I had to leave it behind.

The SO was sated with some dish of multiple things that once swam (I didn't pay much attention) that he said was also very good. Neither of us had any room for dessert, though I was tempted by the hot apple nachos. I think if I lived in the area, Food for Thought would be a frequent dining spot for me because the food was not only quite tasty, but (as the name implies) thoughtfully selected and prepared. It's not total junk food like a lot of restaurant food tends to be. It's healthy and good. The only downside to the restaurant is the little cards on the table with mind teasers written on them. The SO quickly discovered I'm not as smart as I seem.

The next day, the SO's family headed out for a 1st birthday celebration lunch for the niece by going to the first restaurant she ever ate at (when she was just over a week old), The Trellis in Colonial Williamsburg. I was pleased to see that there was a vegan "garden selection" which consisted (that day) of salad greens with pine nuts and other accoutrements over roasted potatoes. It was quite good and would allow me to have room for their famous (original) Death By Chocolate for dessert. Due to some logistical issues (which are sure to arise during lunch with six and a half diners), I had to get the dessert to go. I ate a few bites that afternoon and can confirm it's as delicious as it sounds. I can't eat very much chocolate and/or sugar at one time, so the remainder of the dessert (after I split it with the SO's mother) is in my refrigerator waiting for me to finish it off. I doubt it will be there much longer.

In sum, if you visit Williamsburg, be sure to visit Food for Thought (conveniently located near Olde Towne and the majority of the chain hotels on Richmond Road) and, if you're a dessert lover, The Trellis (or if you're a vegan travelling with a dessert lover). And if you're in Virginia Beach, check out the new town center area and Sonoma Wine Bar and Bistro (just be sure to ask about the vegetarian status of every choice).

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Death by Chocolate

I ate the original Death by Chocolate at The Trellis restaurant in Williamsburg yesterday. Oh, y'all. A vegan selection for lunch and then Death by Chocolate. Definitely the way to spend the second day of the new year. More later about another excellent restaurant in Williamsburg as well, but I'm going to spend the next 10-12 hours on the road back to Nashville, most likely having chain restaurant meals, the highlight of which is probably going to be a Cracker Barrel. Happy New Year to all!