Monday, September 27, 2010

Culinary adventure #1...Pumpkin Lasagna

So last Friday, I had a craving for lasagna.  Instead of going down to Little Italy and getting a piece from one of my favorite restaurants there, I decided it would be more fun to make my own.  Afterall, it has been quite some time since I made it for myself, mainly because lasagna is not something that can be made in a single portion.  I began searching through numerous lasagna recipes for inspiration.  One thing I must note is, with the exception of my grandma's family recipes, I rarely stick to a recipe.  For me, they lay the foundation to release my creativity through food.  Recipes provide me the basic ingredients and cooking conditions.  The rest, I leave up to imagination.  One particular lasagna recipe that I came across jumped out at me in my search...pumpkin lasagna.  Perfection for my foundation seeing as my favorite fall flavor is pumpkin (yes, I also am hard at work tasting various pumpkin beers, lattes, muffins, etc etc to blog about in the future).  So here is how pumpkin infused itself into a familiar Italian favorite.

For my sauce, I made red sauce of tomato sauce, Zinfandel, basil, and various other spices.  The thing I love about making sauces is they allow you to season to your liking.  One herb I always find myself using in sauces and Italian cooking is basil.  There is something about the sweetness that really brings out the tomato and pulls together a nice pasta dish or pizza.  But enough of my basil bias and on to my cheese filling.  Here is where the pumpkin and "autumn-ness" comes in.  I used a blend of romano, ricotta, and mozzarella cheeses and one small can of pumpkin puree (like you would for pumpkin pie).  Now be careful when buying your canned pumpkin because on the shelf right next to pumpkin puree is pre-made pumpkin pie filling.  This layer I seasoned only with cinnamon.  Next time, I may also add a dash of nutmeg hoping to bring out the pumpkin a little more.  Now one thing I love about making lasagna is the freedom to build it however you want.  I chose to also add zucchini which was sauteed in garlic and sweet onion, and baby portabella mushrooms.  When you make this, you can add meat, sausage, other veggies, or just more cheese.  After topping with more of the shredded mozzarella and romano and a light sprinkle of fresh basil (there's that basil bias again), a half hour or so later, my craving was fulfilled.  I served it with acorn squash that was baked with butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar, and a piece of ciabatta along with a glass of the Zinfandel.  The perfect comforting fall meal for a slightly chilly September Sunday evening (after a tough Browns loss too).  With that being said, the leftovers I packed for lunch are calling me.

Until next time...follow your heart, fulfill you hunger.        

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Five Star Dinner of a Five Star Friend

One of my really close friends recently had the pleasure of dining at Northeastern Ohio's  only five-star restaurant, Chez Francois in Vermillion.  I would like to thank her for sharing this experience with me and allowing me to pass it on to you.  So without anymore from me:


I admit it.  I’m a food snob.  So the fact that I hadn’t been to Chez Francois in Vermilion – this region’s only 5-star restaurant – was bothering me.  But Chez Francois isn’t the kind of place you just go to for no good reason.  So, I got myself a new job, which gave people something to celebrate, and landed me a chance to check this place out.

First of all, I know what you’re thinking.  Vermilion?  What’s a 5-star restaurant doing in Vermilion?  Serving amazing food, that’s what.  And there’s a dress code.  This is a place that is truly about the complete dining experience.  It is worth the drive, trust me.  But considering that you do have quite the drive to get there, I would recommend making reservations on the early side.  Service is not at all rushed at Chez Francois, which allows you to linger in the rustic French atmosphere, enjoy your wine, and eat even more delicious fare.

We started our evening with an amuse bouche of English pea puree with crème fraiche.  It was light, fresh, and flavorful.  And it’s the perfect introduction to what Chez Francois does so well – seasonal cooking.  The menu here changes every season, so don’t get too attached to any one dish. 

Our round of appetizers included foie gras, coquilles St. Jacques (scallops, whipped potatoes, and cream sauce), and lobster in puff pastry with black currant sauce.  I highly recommend the foie gras, not just because it’s incredibly good, but it’s incredibly different.  Chez Francois gives you plenty of opportunity to challenge your palette.  This isn’t fusion cooking (not that there’s anything wrong with fusion) – this is straight-up butter, cream, truffles, rich French cooking.  The foie gras was melt-in-your-mouth delicious, served with cinnamon nut bread and a peach glaze and paired with a dessert wine.  The black currant sauce on the lobster puff pastry was divine, even if it somewhat took away from the taste of the lobster itself.

My dinner entrée was beef Wellington – filet wrapped in puff pastry, served with (more) foie gras, shaved truffles, and two different sauces (one mustard, the other similar to a bordelaise).  The beef was superb and perfectly done and the ratio of beef to puff pastry was spot-on (lots of beef, with just enough puff pastry to cover it).  But what took this dish to the next level were the sauces and truffles, giving it an intense earthy, smoky flavor.  The other diners enjoyed veal medallions, lightly breaded and topped with cream sauce and various seafood; veal chop; and lobster ravioli.

Dessert was raspberries Romanoff, with homemade vanilla and chocolate chunk ice cream.  While it was delicious, I found myself having dessert envy over the chocolate molten cake next to me.  Given the choice again, I don’t think I’d pass up the opportunity for one of Chez Francois’ chocolate creations.

Overall, it was a fabulous dining experience – from the food to the atmosphere to the service.  To make your next truly special occasion over-the-top, think about taking a drive out to Vermilion.

As an aside, there is a wine bar located at Chez Francois called Touche.  It’s more casual, but features some of the same appetizers as the restaurant.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Girls Night with the Iron Chef

One of Cleveland's culinary high points would have to be Iron Chef Michael Symon.  As this blog progresses, you will probably notice many references to him, his restaurants, book, etc. etc.   I remember loyally watching the first season of "The Next Iron Chef" on Food Network back in 2007 because of him and when he won, I was almost as excited as I will be when the Browns, Cavs, and Indians bring home a championship.  To me, he is what Cleveland is all about.  A hometown boy who made it big, yet remains true to his roots.  It is fun watching "The Best Thing I Ever Ate" when he is on since many of his choices are Cleveland favorites (pierogi from Sokolowski's, beef jerky from the West Side Market, and the polish boy from a food truck outside of Dean Supply on East 30th and Woodland).   I started following his career a few months prior to "Next Iron Chef" when Cleveland Magazine named him "Best Local Chef".  Next to my Snuggie, my best Chirstmas gift this past year was his book "Live to Cook".  I have dined at all four of his Cleveland restaurants (Lola, Lolita, Bar Symon, and B Spot) but have yet to go to Roast in Detroit simply because I was only in Detroit once this past winter for the auto show.  However, next time I am in Motown, a trip to Roast is a must.  I have chose to focus my first Michael Symon related blogs on Lolita in Tremont.  Maybe since it was the location of his first restaurant (Lola was first here prior to moving to it's current location on East 4th Street).  Maybe it is my way of wishing the Iron Chef a Happy Birthday (September 19).  Most likely, it is because I had a wonderful Girls Night there a few weeks ago with two of my bestest friends from high school and the meal I enjoyed is still fresh on my pallet.  

About a month ago, one of my best friends was back home in Cleveland for a few weeks.  I figured that before going back to Denver, she must eat at one of Michael Symon's restaurants.  We decided to have a Girls Night at Lolita in Tremont and it was the perfect choice.  One thing I love about Lolita is the atmosphere.  It has that chic bistro charm and fits perfectly with the eclectic feel of the Tremont neighborhood.  It has a nice blend of elegance and simplicity, much like the Iron Chef's food.  After choosing a bottle of wine to share (Lucien Albrecht, Gewurztraminer) we enjoyed the chickpea dip (hummus) appetizer that probably put most hummus I have had to shame.  For my entree, I had the gnocchi which was tossed with peas, pancetta, swiss chard, and ricotta.  The saltiness of the pancetta perfectly complimented the sweetness of the peas, and the lightness of the ricotta salata balanced with the plump gnocchi.  On the side, I had to try the fried brussels sprouts.  Now you may be thinking "Fried brussels sprouts, ewww!"  I now ask you to please pause for a moment here to get whatever your initial idea of fried brussels spouts (probably something drenched in batter and deep fried) out of your head.  These were pan fried (no breading, batter frying, etc) and wilted with capers and walnuts.  The tanginess from the sprouts went very well with my entree as well.  Finally, for dessert, what girls night isn't complete without something chocolate and Lolita's Chocolate Pot du Creme fulfilled that requirement.  Simply put, it is the best chocolate mousse dessert you will ever eat.

I would recommend Lolita for any occasion from girls night, to date night, to a special celebration.  The menu has something to please anyone, even vegetarians.  I also recommend it for Happy Hour (see their website listed above for specials).  From prior visits, I also would recommend the macaroni and cheese.  One thing, please promise me you will try the brussels sprouts ;)  

Until next time...follow your heart, fulfill your hunger.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

From the Ice Cream Man to Dim and Den Sum

Growing up, one of my favorite food memories (and trust me, there are many) was buying ice cream from the ice cream truck that would come on my grandparents' street or after a softball game.  I think I was able to hear the familiar tune streets away and I would drop whatever I was doing, find my grandparents, and wait on the curb.  I never got the same thing twice, but my favorite would probably have to be the cherry sherbet in the shape of a baseball glove with a bubblegum baseball.  Maybe it was my love of baseball, the fact that it was a shade of pink, or the simple fact it just tasted good.  Those days are now only memories but I do see that same truck driving around from time to time, only now instead of white, it is school bus yellow.   I have now discovered a new food truck around the streets of Cleveland that in a way, takes me back to those summer days of the ice cream man.

Dim and Den Sum is making it's way onto the Cleveland culinary map.  I first found out about this truck on a friend's Facebook page, thus becoming a D&DS fan.  Luckily, one of their regular stops was near my place of employment over lunch.  However, until today, I finally made it a point to stop for lunch, and I was far from disappointed.  They had a few different lunchtime options ranging from different types of tacos, to burgers, to a vegetarian curry, all very reasonably prices.  Everything is also made to order.  Since I could not decide between the three different tacos (chicken, fish, and BLT) and since they were 3/$6, I had one of each.  They were a perfect lunch or snack sized and well stuffed.  The first one I had, and ended up being my favorite, was the fish.  I would like to consider this a Mexican-Asian fusion taco since the flavors of the catfish and slaw were distinctly Asian, while the corn and tortilla were the Mexican half.  It had a very sweet and light flavor to it and next time I visit this truck, I may opt for three fish tacos.  The second one I tried was the BLT taco, taking a deli favorite of mine and wrapping it on a tortilla.  Again, I was not disappointed, however I would have preferred a bit more aioli on the side to add and my bacon a little more crisp (again, this is my personal bacon preference).  Lastly, was the chicken taco, again following the Mexican-Asian fusion of the fish taco.  I loved the teriyaki flavor and next time would consider adding a little of the Sriracha hot sauce since I love the combination of sweet and heat.

Dim and Den Sum is also a finalist to be on the next season of Food Network's "The Great Food Truck Race".  They currently are in third place and there are only a few days left to vote.  It would be awesome to see another Cleveland culinary star competing on national TV.  So please take a moment to vote for them here:

Check out their weekly schedule and menu online and "Like" them on Facebook.  Next time they are in your neck of the woods or you see them on the streets of Cleveland (their truck is very hard to miss), I highly recommend trying sum.

Until next time...Follow your heart, fulfill your hunger.  

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Welcome friends, neighbors, and strangers

So I finally did it, something I have talked and thought about for quite some time.  That is, starting this blog.  Plain and simple, I love food.  Everything about it, from cooking, learning about it, being obsessed with Food Network, and most importantly EATING!  I am far from an expert but I still chose to share my culinary and dining adventures with you.  So why listen to me?  That is entirely up to you.  Maybe your new to Cleveland and need advice on where to eat.  Maybe you need some form of entertainment to lighten  up your day and you stumbled across this blog.  Maybe you are a dear friend of mine and are reading out of love and support.  Or maybe, much like me, you are just hungry in Cleveland (or whatever city you call home).  

You may be wondering "Why Cleveland?" and I am here to answer that.  Aside from being born and raised here, Cleveland has recently been emerging onto the foodie scene over the past few years.  Many of our historic neighborhoods such as Tremont and Little Italy offer numerous options to satisfy anyone's pallet.  Aside from being the home of rock and roll, the Indians, Browns, and Cavaliers, Cleveland is home of Iron Chef Michael Symon, The West Side Market, Melt Bar and Grilled (recently featured on both Food Network and Travel Channel), and the Great Lakes Brewery.  We made the pierogi popular, ethnic food enticing, and show nothing but love for local favorites.  So move over New York, Los Angeles, and San Fancisco, Cleveland is making a mark on the culinary map. 

As mentioned earlier, I am not an expert and this blog focuses on my experiences and opinions.  You may agree and you may not.  Feel free to offer comments and suggestions, however I ask one thing, PLEASE BE RESPECTFUL.  This blog is meant to be fun and lighthearted.  Anything with food should be fun and enjoyable.  I look forward to sharing my adventures with you and hope they inspire you in some way.  

And now a look at things to come.  Since it is September 1, today begins my annual quest for "All things Pumpkin".  Fall is slowly becoming my favorite season and nothing says "autumn" to me better than pumpkin.  Ok, football is right up there too (GO BROWNS!).  I already was tipped off on Facebook that Pumpkin Spice Lattes are in season at Starbucks.  I do plan on consuming many of those and comparing various Pumpkin Lattes from both national and local coffee shops.  I was also beyond excited to read my monthly "Big Cheese Club"  e-mail from Melt Bar and Grilled to see that their September beer feature is Southern Tier Pumking Imperial Pumpkin Ale (more on why pumpkin beer and Melt hold a very special place in my heart in a future blog).  Winking Lizard's "Glass of the Month" is Dogfish Head Punkin Ale.  Look for another future blog all about pumpkin beers.  So with that being said...I hopefully am leaving you hungry for more.

Until next time...Follow your heart, fulfill your hunger.