Recent culinary exploits and obsessions

A few foodie items I’ve recently been jazzed about:

My French Fontignac 5-quart casserole dish.

Last year, I just HAD to have a Le Creuset something or other. (I think I was probably inspired by seeing Amy Adams make a beef bourguignon in one in the movie “Julie & Julia.”) I settled for spending some of my Christmas money on a lovely blue Fontignac vessel I found at Bed, Bath and Beyond instead. This was a pricy piece of cookware – even on sale, it was still $80 – but I had visions of using it to make gorgeous stews and braises through the winter.

Long story short, this beautiful pot sat on a shelf in my basement until about three weeks ago. For starters, I was intimidated about using it. Secondly, I wasn’t quite sure how to use it. It wasn’t until I was in Ireland this summer and used a similar pot owned by one of my sisters-in-law to make curry that I got over my fear.

So a few weeks ago, I took a deep breath, dusted off my Fontignac and broke it in. I finally found out what I’ve been missing all this time. The inaugural dish? Braised country-style pork ribs with a bourguignon-ish sauce of red wine, beef stock, tomato paste and rosemary. The beauty of this pot, I quickly realized, was being able to sear the ribs in it, then simply dump in the sauce ingredients, put the lid on and throw it in the oven for a couple hours. The heavy cast-iron construction means this is a pot I’m likely to have forever. Oh, and the meal was fantastic.

Since then, I’ve used this versatile cooking vessel to boil water for pasta, to make a delicious risotto, and yes, to prepare a beef stew. Looking back now, I don’t know what I was so scared of. HUGE bonus, it’s super-easy to clean. No matter how messy it looks, whatever’s left in there scrubs right out. I LOVE this pot. And it’s so pretty, I just leave it out on my stovetop on display when not in use.

Fontignac casserole dish

Cherry pie filling and preserves.

I’m in a big cherry phase at the moment. Given the choice between strawberries, raspberries and cherries, I’ll take cherries any day. This preference is approaching something of a fever pitch lately.

It all started about five weeks ago during a freelance assignment that required me to stay in some bed-and-breakfasts in Southern Indiana. (I know, I know… it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it!) For one of the breakfasts, we were served buttermilk pancakes with freshly made cherry preserves from one of the nearby Amish farms. The preserves were presented simply in a little white ramekin, and they looked like edible red jewels. Absolutely gorgeous.

When I volunteered to make a dessert for the monthly teacher lunch at my son’s preschool last week, I came across a recipe I made some years ago for cherry cheesecake brownies. Decision made. This is a yummy and fairly easy dish to make – you make a brownie mix according to the directions on the box, then top it with a simple cheesecake batter and bake for another 20 minutes to so. When it’s cool, you cut it into squares and top it with spoonfuls of cherry pie filling. According to the thank you note I received, it was a big hit.

I also had intentions of making a strawberry shortcake for dinner at a friend’s house the other night, but the strawberries I bought were sadly disappointing. Cherry pie filling to the rescue! I bought a can and we spooned it over slices of pound cake and topped it with a dollop of Cool Whip.

Which brings me to…

Cake.

I’ve come across two new cake recipes lately that I’ve been whipping up like crazy. The first is a lemon yogurt cake I came across in Molly Wizenberg’s book “A Homemade Life.” (She specifically says in the book that she thinks recipes are made to be shared, and I heartily agree.)

The recipe uses ingredients you’re likely to already have on hand, with maybe the exception of plain whole-milk yogurt (which you can buy by the single-serving container at the supermarket for less than a dollar). I’ve made it several times within the past few weeks – it works well with the lemon glaze as directed in the book, or with a spoonful of fresh fruit sauce (or cherry preserves!) Plus, you don’t have to use lemons – they are easily be swapped out for oranges or even limes would be good. The recipe makes one 9-inch round pan full, not too much and not too little, and the cake itself is bright, lemony and luscious. I made it for a book swap I hosted last weekend, and several guests took leftover slices home for breakfast.

glazed lemon yogurt cake

The second new cake discovery is the pound cake I made for the strawberry-turned-cherry shortcake. I found it on Allrecipes.com, one of my go-to sites for cooking inspiration, and it contains the surprising ingredient of whipping cream. Whereas the lemon cake is light and fruity, this one is dense and rich, but still plenty moist. With the cherry pie filling and whipped cream topping, it made a pretty and delicious dessert. In fact, I made another one to take to my cousin’s house today and serve it the exact same way. I’m also planning to try this recipe again with some chocolate chips thrown in the mix. Because, after all, everything’s better with chocolate chips…

Sweet dreams!

Grillin' and chillin'

Last Friday, hubby and I got a rare overnight date night courtesy of my cousin Jenny and her family (MANY thanks!). We finagled a great Priceline bid on a downtown hotel and ended up at the Hyatt in a gorgeous room for the evening. We parked the car and headed out on foot to enjoy the surrounding environs.

After a long, busy day, the first order of business was a drink. We strolled around for a few minutes and ended up at Palomino. We don’t make it out downtown very often, but when we do, Palomino is a consistently good bet for an upscale beverage. The place is always hopping, and no matter how busy it is, there always seem to be seats at the bar. Nice. Something else I really like about Palomino – the lighting always flatters. Someone’s really put some good thought into creating an attractive ambiance…

After a draught beer for hubby and a nice glass of Pinot Noir for me, it was time to seek out some food. I suppose we could have stayed at Palomino, but we wanted to make the most of our night out and spread it around. We wandered a little more, contemplating our options. We sorta felt like Italian, but we eat so much pasta at home, it seemed better to splash out a little bit on something different. It was a chilly night, so we didn’t walk too far before ducking into the warm and welcoming Weber Grill.

There was a Weber Grill next to my apartment building when I lived in Lombard, Illinois several years ago. I ate there twice and thought it very good, but hubby had never been. It wasn’t terribly romantic, but the wait was fairly short and the aromas wafting around were very tempting, so we settled into the bar to wait for a table. Another beer and glass of wine later, we were seated and perusing the menu.

Weber Grill’s claim to fame is that they cook everything on site on, you guessed it, Weber grills. It’s like one big barbecue – ribs, chicken, steaks, wings, whatever you can throw on a grill and sear. However, the decor is fairly upscale – lots of dark wood and leather booths and a nice bar with the ubiquitous big screen tvs broadcasting the sporting event du jour.

The boring old bread plate here takes on an interesting twist – the server brought us a basket of steamy pretzel rolls that were just chewy enough and a cheddar butter to drench them with. A promising start.

Since we’d gotten such a great deal on the hotel, I justified splurging on dinner and ordered a filet mignon, medium well, slathered with a schmear of bleu cheese and herbs. My steak was darn near perfect – cooked exactly the way I like it and so tender, I hardly had to use my knife. Definitely every bit as good as the cow you get at some of the pricier steakhouses downtown. I also upgraded the standard garlic mashed potatoes to the potatoes au gratin, served in a very generous baking dish and brimming with cream and cheese. YUM.

Hubby ordered the beer can chicken, half of a juicy bird that’s been roasted upright with a open can of beer stuffed up its ass to maintain maximum moistness. Not sure who first came up with this idea and what kind of crack they were smoking, but it works. Hubby is not a mashed potato fan — which I think is something of a sacrilege for an Irishman — but devoured every bite of his garlicky spuds, a true testament to how good they are.

We thought about dessert for a minute, but not seeing anything on the menu that we couldn’t live without, we passed it up in an impressive display of self-restraint. Back to the hotel room, where we slept like the dead until 10 a.m. the next morning. Ah…

Weber Grill – http://www.webergrillrestaurant.com

Grillin’ and chillin’

Last Friday, hubby and I got a rare overnight date night courtesy of my cousin Jenny and her family (MANY thanks!). We finagled a great Priceline bid on a downtown hotel and ended up at the Hyatt in a gorgeous room for the evening. We parked the car and headed out on foot to enjoy the surrounding environs.

After a long, busy day, the first order of business was a drink. We strolled around for a few minutes and ended up at Palomino. We don’t make it out downtown very often, but when we do, Palomino is a consistently good bet for an upscale beverage. The place is always hopping, and no matter how busy it is, there always seem to be seats at the bar. Nice. Something else I really like about Palomino – the lighting always flatters. Someone’s really put some good thought into creating an attractive ambiance…

After a draught beer for hubby and a nice glass of Pinot Noir for me, it was time to seek out some food. I suppose we could have stayed at Palomino, but we wanted to make the most of our night out and spread it around. We wandered a little more, contemplating our options. We sorta felt like Italian, but we eat so much pasta at home, it seemed better to splash out a little bit on something different. It was a chilly night, so we didn’t walk too far before ducking into the warm and welcoming Weber Grill.

There was a Weber Grill next to my apartment building when I lived in Lombard, Illinois several years ago. I ate there twice and thought it very good, but hubby had never been. It wasn’t terribly romantic, but the wait was fairly short and the aromas wafting around were very tempting, so we settled into the bar to wait for a table. Another beer and glass of wine later, we were seated and perusing the menu.

Weber Grill’s claim to fame is that they cook everything on site on, you guessed it, Weber grills. It’s like one big barbecue – ribs, chicken, steaks, wings, whatever you can throw on a grill and sear. However, the decor is fairly upscale – lots of dark wood and leather booths and a nice bar with the ubiquitous big screen tvs broadcasting the sporting event du jour.

The boring old bread plate here takes on an interesting twist – the server brought us a basket of steamy pretzel rolls that were just chewy enough and a cheddar butter to drench them with. A promising start.

Since we’d gotten such a great deal on the hotel, I justified splurging on dinner and ordered a filet mignon, medium well, slathered with a schmear of bleu cheese and herbs. My steak was darn near perfect – cooked exactly the way I like it and so tender, I hardly had to use my knife. Definitely every bit as good as the cow you get at some of the pricier steakhouses downtown. I also upgraded the standard garlic mashed potatoes to the potatoes au gratin, served in a very generous baking dish and brimming with cream and cheese. YUM.

Hubby ordered the beer can chicken, half of a juicy bird that’s been roasted upright with a open can of beer stuffed up its ass to maintain maximum moistness. Not sure who first came up with this idea and what kind of crack they were smoking, but it works. Hubby is not a mashed potato fan — which I think is something of a sacrilege for an Irishman — but devoured every bite of his garlicky spuds, a true testament to how good they are.

We thought about dessert for a minute, but not seeing anything on the menu that we couldn’t live without, we passed it up in an impressive display of self-restraint. Back to the hotel room, where we slept like the dead until 10 a.m. the next morning. Ah…

Weber Grill – http://www.webergrillrestaurant.com