Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sugar Snap Peas

Dinner guests were recently surprised when I served them 'peas in a pod', which as I explained wasn't exactly accurate.  These were sugar snap peas and differred from both pea pods and English peas.  I normally wouldn't write about something rather simple like this, but I figured if they were unaware of how wonderful the sugar snap pea could be, so might others.

Before we get to cooking them, let's differentiate the produce so you purchase the correct item at the market.  The sugar snap pea has an an edible pod which, while looking similar to a garden or English pea is less fibrous and edible when young.  You wouldn't want to try and eat an English pea pod.  However, like sugar snap peas, pea pods are in fact edible and often used in salads and Asian cuisine.  But unlike the sugar snap variety, their pods contain no peas. 

Good sugar snap peas can be hard to find.  I hate to purchase them when they have then prepackaged.  They are technically 'fresh' (because they have never been frozen) but what is in that package usually is pretty old.  I much prefer to shop where they will let you pick through the sugar snap peas selecting your own tender, green peas much as you would if you selecting fresh green beans. Check your country of origin as some are shipped in from China and I would avoid those.  If all you can find is prepacked or frozen, you may want to select another side dish.

Sugar snap peas with halibut.
Sugar snap peas are slightly sweet and nicely tender.  Simply pull off the little strings at the end, wash and they are ready to prepare.  My favorite method of preparation is to give them a stir fry in a little bit of hot oil.  Sometimes I add some chopped fresh garlic.  Finish with a bit of salt and pepper and in just a few minutes, your delicious side dish is ready for your meal.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Vienna, Schnitzel and the Sacher Torte

I'm traveling again so I thought it would be a good time to write about my favorite European city, Vienna (Wein), Austria.  Of course it's not a large country so I often take the time to rent a car and see some of the most beautiful countryside in the world, often ending in Salzburg.  While in Austria I take in the many musical options made available by a country that prides itself on music.  And like any good tourist, I not only enjoy the famed boys choir, philharmonic and opera, but also the local foods.

One of my favorites is the schnitzel.  This is a traditional Austrian dish made with boneless meat pounded thin, coated in bread crumbs and fried. It is a popular part of Viennese cuisine and available through both Austria and Germany.  But take care when requesting it outside of Vienna as I was once told off quite handsomely when I asked for a restaurant with German food and then said 'you know, like Wienerschnitzel.'   This sent my concierge into a fit who informed me of the origins of the dish and how it was in fact, NOT German.  Ooops! 

In Austria, the dish called Wiener Schnitzel (Viennese schnitzel), is traditionally garnished with a slice of lemon and either potato salad or potatoes with parsley and butter.   Although the traditional Wiener Schnitzel is made of veal, it is now often available made with pork.  In Austria, by law it has to be called Wiener Schnitzel vom Schwein (vom Schwein meaning from pork) to differentiate it from the original. There are also regional versions of schnitzel, such as Salzburger schnitzel, which is stuffed with mushrooms, bacon, onions, and various other herbs.  I often make the veal and pork schnitzel at home, which is simple to do and reminds me of that lovely European capital.

Hotel Sacher, Vienna
In Vienna I always stay at the same hotel.  It's a classic property just behind the famed opera house and has been there since 1876 when Eduard Sacher opened his fine hotel.  If you're visiting, do as I do and ask for a suite on the front of the hotel as high up as possible overlooking the opera.  You won't be disappointed and will find it has all of the latest modern amenities.  Throughout its existence, the Hotel Sacher has been a popular meeting point for the aristocracy, politicians, business people and artists. Its guest book has been signed by celebrities such as the Prince of Monaco and his wife Princess Grace, Indira Gandhi, Queen Elisabeth II and John F. Kennedy.  Artists, such as Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan or Marcel Prawy have also been frequent guests.  They have many of the items on display at the hotel so take some time to stroll the hallways and enjoy the memorabilia. 
Vienna State Opera House
While there book your opera tickets and make a dinner reservation at the hotel's "Red Bar", which isn't a bar at all but a wonderful restaurant that serves dinner late night at the conclusion of the opera.  They usually have a pianist playing and a great menu that will top off what is sure to be a fine evening indeed.  I try to do this once every trip to Vienna.  But if you don't book ahead you won't get a table so as soon as you make your theater plans, contact the hotel and make the booking.  (The hotel has other great dining and bar options as well, and do enjoy those during your trip.)

The Red Bar at Hotel Sacher, Vienna
One of the other benefits at staying at Hotel Sacher is direct access to the Cafe Sacher, which is connected to the hotel and where tourists and locals line up for hours trying to get a table in the elegant cafe.  Mention your desire to take breakfast or an afternoon break directly to the hotel concierge and you will be escorted through the back route and get the next available seat in the Cafe.  Here you will experience the typical elegance of a days-gone-by Viennese coffee house and treat yourself to an original Sacher-Torte.

What is a 'Sacher-Torte' you ask?  The Original Sacher-Torte is probably the world’s most famous chocolate cake. The cake is actually fifty years older than the hotel. It was invented by a teenage Franz Sacher in 1832 at the request of Prince Wenzel von Metternich, where he was employed as a young chef.  The Prince charged him to make a special dessert for important guests and the result was the famous cake.  Sacher's eldest son Eduard carried on his father's culinary legacy, completing his own training in Vienna with the Royal and Imperial Pastry Chef at the Demel bakery and chocolatier, during which time he perfected his father's recipe and developed the torte into its current form. The cake was first served at the Demel and later at the Hotel Sacher, after it was opened by Eduard. Since then, the cake remains among the most famous of Vienna's culinary specialties.

To this day it is made only in Vienna and Salzburg, where you will find a newer Hotel Sacher Salzburg, which I  also highly recommended while in the birthplace of Mozart.  The basis is a chocolate cake, thinly coated by hand with best-quality apricot jam. The chocolate icing on top of it is the crowning glory. The Original Sacher-Torte tastes best with a portion of unsweetened whipped cream, complemented perfectly with a “Wiener Melange” (coffee with milk) while at the Sacher Café.

Kevin and I at the Schönbrunn Palace, 2005.
While you can easily walk most of the city center in Vienna, take the time to visit the suburban palaces like Schönbrunn.  If you have the time rent a car and drive the lovely countryside.  I like to stay in one of the castles while taking a circuitous route finally driving through the most spectacular southern Lake District before heading to Salzburg.

The Lake District from my travels in 2009.
If altneratively you starting your trip in Salzburg, you'll no doubt use Salzburg as your gateway to the lakes (again via rental car--skip the tour buses), where you will drive to Mondsee (Moon Lake) where Maria married Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music.   Here I suggest you stroll along the lovely Marktplatz, a square filled with lively cafes.  Arrangements can be made to go sailing in the summer.  Remember though that summer is high tourist season in Salzburg so you may need extra time to travel further south to the summer resorts of the southeastern province of Carinthia where you can relax for a week or so before needing head on to that City of Music, Vienna.

Surely Vienna is the world’s music capital! More famous composers have lived here than in any other city – in Vienna, music is literally in the air: Waltzes and operettas have their home here, and the city’s concert halls and stages offer the whole range from classical to progressive sounds with end-to-end festivals the whole year through. Opera fans will meet international stars here and jazz lovers will find a pulsating jazz scene. Pop and rock concerts provide unforgettable live music experiences.  Combine this with some of my favorite unique shopping boutiques (located just behind the Hotel Sacher), world class museums, and the Spanish Riding School, and Vienna truly is my favorite European city and I'm sure it will become yours too!

Did I mention not to skip the hot dog stand? Yum
PS  If you're looking for a three-city tour consider taking the train from Prague, to Vienna, then on to Budapest.  A great three city roundup that Kevin and I very much enjoyed.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Banquet Service and Spring English Pea Soup

During a business trip my colleagues and I were invited into the professional kitchens of the Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort in south Florida.  Fairmont kitchens are known for their innovation and ability to serve hundreds of guests a banquet meal as good as they would get in many fine restaurants.  This is not an easy task and to let us experience how they do this, they took us to their recently updated banquet kitchen.

We are shown here around the plating assembly line which works just as you might imagine if you were building a car.

The food moves down the line on the blue belt and each of the cooks adds their previously prepared item to the plate.  Note the round mold in the plate center to shape the rice.

The prepared plates are then placed in these high-tech holding racks, sealed closed and kept at the desired temperature and humidity before being moved to the dining room and placed in front of you to enjoy.  They also showed us how they prepare steaks for big banquets, which includes browning the meat on the grill and then with it nearly raw inside, moving it into storage containers similar to the above where the meat can finish cooking to the exact correct internal temperature in very short order.  As you can see, having some high-technology tools on your side to serve the masses is very helpful. 

Before enjoying our self-prepared main course, we dined on the chef's version of English Pea Soup as our first course.  It was the first time I had enjoyed this dish and it was served chilled.  You can prepare and serve it warm as well.

Fresh English peas are only available for a short time in the Spring.  The rest of the year we typically eat frozen.  Until about 400 years ago, the only peas in existence were actually much larger, starchy, field peas which were usually dried and then used to make split pea soup.  This new variety was developed by English gardeners from which the current variety now get their name soon became the object of desire throughout Europe and eventually the world.  So make this dish only in-season and marvel at the sweet, fresh pea taste.

When buying English peas (aka garden peas or sometimes called sweet peas in your store), look for fairly plump-but not full-to-bursting-pods that are a bright green. Fat pods contain large peas that are less sweet. Flatter pods means very sweet peas, but they're so tiny, you won't get much for your money.  Wrinkly or bumpy, light colored or brown pods mean the peas are too old, and will taste woody. The sugar in peas converts into starch very quickly after picking-causing them to lose that wonderful sweetness-so you want them as fresh as possible. For freshness, buying from a farmers' market, in season, is the only way to go.

Here is a recipe based in combination on one from the Fairmont chef and Ina Garten. 

Fresh English Pea Soup
Serves 2

1 small onion, chopped
1 leek, chopped (white and light green parts only)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 cups shelled fresh English peas (about 3 lbs. unshelled)
3 cups homemade chicken stock or low sodium commercial stock
⅓ cup chopped fresh mint, plus a bit more for garnish
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons crème fraîche

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and cook the leek and onion over medium-low heat for 5-10 minutes, until soft.

Add the chicken stock to the pot, turn up the heat and bring it to a boil. Add the peas and cook for only 3-5 minutes, Do not overcook them, they should be a bright green and still pop in your mouth when you taste them.

When the peas are done, remove the pan from the heat and add the chopped mint, and salt and ground pepper to taste.

Puree the soup with a hand blender, or in batches using a countertop blender or food processor. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.

Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche in the center of each bowl and a sprinkling of the remaining chopped mint on top.

~  ~  ~

Although Fairmont and the owners of the Turnberry Isle Resort have since parted ways, the resort is a lovely respite near Miami but away from all of the hipsters.  Consider it an option for your next trip to the area, especially if you are an avid golfer.

View from my room at the Turnberry Isle

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Bay Scallops ~ Two Methods

Before you make either of these delicious scallop recipes, you need to buy the scallops. Unfortunately, that's not always as simple as it sounds.  As I often post, getting good quality ingredients is the most important step to a good meal.  Even a great cook has trouble compensating for poor quality ingredients.

Bay vs. Sea Scallops:   Bay scallops and sea scallops are closely related members of the same family of shellfish. Both make extremely good eating. I particularly prize bay scallops, which are much smaller than sea scallops, for their tenderness and the sweetness of their flavor. Because they are smaller, bay scallops require considerably shorter cooking times and benefit from gentler methods. In other words, you can't really sear bay scallops the way you do sea scallops.  In both cases however, overcooking renders them tough.  Bay scallops are usually in short supply because of the degradation of their habitat by pollution and over-harvesting.  But if you do come across them, there are several things you must know in making your selection.
Bay Scallops
Frozen vs. Fresh Scallops:  You can get both fresh and frozen bay scallops, and the following comments apply to the larger sea scallops as well.  Don't assume fresh is always better, unless you live near the Atlantic coast of North America and know your fish monger well.  "Fresh" scallops in the seafood case are often simply thawed frozen scallops.  You do not want to purchase these.  Better to take home frozen and defrost in the refrigerator a day before using.  Check the point of origin, as scallops are imported from China to the United States and Europe.  I try to avoid these as quality control and lack of governmental oversight often mean you don't know what you are getting (and it has been known for these companies to use shark and skate cut into the shape of scallops.)  Vendors offer individually quick freeze scallops packed either "wet" or "dry." Choose dry ones (sometimes labeled 'chemical free') if possible because they have not been treated with a phosphate solution that whitens them and makes them absorb more liquid, increasing their weight by as much as 30 percent.  When you cook wet packed scallops you find that all of this additional chemical liquid is released into your pan and not only adds unwanted liquid to your recipe but imparts a somewhat soap-like taste.  If you can only get wet packed, I suggest that after the scallops are thawed you rinse and drain them well.  Then place them on several layers of paper towels and salt them liberally and let them rest for up to an hour, which will help to draw out the excess moisture. Once this is done, another quick rinse to remove the salt and a pat dry, and they are ready for preparation.

The Recipes:  The following two recipes can be made for an appetizer or main course.  The first, quite simple recipe, is always popular.  The second, made popular in America by Julia Child is a bit more complex but still easy even for the beginner. 

Adding the Bread Crums for the
Garlic and White Wine Recipe
Garlic-White Wine:   The simplest of preparation methods for bay scallops is to use the technique I describe for Shrimp De Jonghe.  After purchasing and preparing the scallops as noted above, placing them in individual baking dishes with minced garlic, white wine and butter; followed by a topping of buttered bread crumbs, is all that is required.  A quick bake (15-20 minutes) at 400F is all that is required to finish the dish.

The Baked Garlic White Wine Version
Coquilles St. Jacques:   The name of this dish, while French, is actually tied to Spain where, as the story goes Saint Jacques (i.e., Saint James of the 12 Apostles) saved a drowning knight’s life and the knight came out of the water covered in scallop shells. It is also said that the body of St. James himself was lost in the ocean on the way to Spain for burial and later washed ashore covered in scallops. The French dish was named in his honor.  What follows is Julia Child's recipe.

·        2 tablespoons minced shallots or green onions
·        1 cup dry white wine
·        1 bay leaf
·        1 teaspoon finely-minced fresh
·        tarragon (optional)
·        1/2 teaspoon salt
·        Pinch fresh-ground pepper
·        1/2 pound sliced fresh mushrooms
·        1 pound washed bay scallops (or sea scallops, cut into crosswise slices 1/8" thick)
·        3 tablespoons butter
·        4 tablespoons flour
·        1/4 cup whole milk
·        2 egg yolks
·        1/2 cup heavy cream
·        Salt and pepper
·        Squeeze of lemon juice
·        1/2 tablespoon butter
·        6 tablespoons grated Gruyère or Swiss cheese
·        6 scallop shells or ramekins of 1/3 cup capacity
·        Sprigs of fresh herbs for garnish: tarragon or flat-leaf parsley

The Cheesy and Rich, Coquilles St. Jacques

1.      Simmer the bay leaf, tarragon, salt and pepper in the wine for 5 minutes. Add the scallops, mushrooms and enough water to barely cover them.

2.      Bring to a simmer, cover and simmer slowly for 5 minutes. Remove scallops and mushrooms with a slotted spoon and set aside.

3.      Reduce the cooking liquid to one cup by rapidly boiling. While the liquid is reducing, whisk the egg yolks and cream in a bowl.

4.      In a separate saucepan, cook the butter and flour slowly for two minutes.

5.      Remove from heat; add the cooking liquid and blend; then add the milk, stirring to blend into a smooth sauce. Return to heat and boil for one minute.

6.      Beat the sauce from the pan into the egg yolk mixture, by driblets. Return to pan and boil, stirring, for 1 minute. Thin with cream if necessary. Season to taste with salt, pepper and a few drops of lemon juice. Strain.

7.      Blend 2/3 of the sauce with the scallops and mushrooms.

8.      Butter the shells or ramekins; spoon in the scallop mixture and cover with the rest of the sauce. Sprinkle with cheese and dot with butter. Arrange shells on a broiling pan.

9.    The recipe can be prepared up t this point. Fifteen minutes before serving, set the scallops 8 to 9 inches beneath a moderately hot broiler to heat through gradually, and to brown the top of the sauce. Serve immediately.