Saturday, April 25, 2015

Dining at Walt Disney World

Can you eat well while on a family vacation at the the ginormous Walt Disney World (WDW) resort and theme parks in Orlando, Florida? After having dined at some of the best restaurants the world has to offer, I doubted it.  But with the advice from friends and a seasoned travel planner (Karen Kalinowski from Travel with the Magic) all who visit the parks regularly, I was pleasantly surprised at the quality and variety of dining options. With that said, make sure you make reservations well in advance if you want to sit down and dine while you're at WDW or her associated resort hotels. If you do not, you will find your dining options severely limited and you'll likely be eating fast food every night.

Julian's Toast to Disney
EPCOT:  Now, you aren't going to find a Michelin starred restaurant at Disney or in fact anywhere in Orlando. But you can get some well prepared food using the latest techniques under the supervision of a respected French chef at Monsieur Paul.  This EPCOT dining establishment is under the direction of chef Paul Bocuse, who is famous for the high quality of his restaurants and his innovative approaches to cuisine. He is one of the most prominent chefs associated with the nouvelle cuisine, and operates several establishments one of which (Lyon's L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges) does rate the highest Michelin rating. With that said, the food you will find at Monsieur Paul at EPCOT comes in relatively large portion sizes, assumingly to fit the American appetite. My lobster tail in a mushroom foam, was actually two tails and too much food. Kevin had the fish encrusted with potato 'scales' which as you can see below, was also a double portion and more food than necessary. We also liked the fact that they point out the fresh foods from EPCOT's own gardens, and because the restaurant is not as large as most at WDW, they are able to have a constant supply of organic grown vegetables and fruits.

Monsieur Paul's Fish with Potato "Scales"
Classic french preparations are also on the menu, as is a cute dessert that the pleasant and helpful young French waiter informed us was the most popular, but in his estimation, not the most delicious of the dessert options. (I like an honest waiter!) As they pour on the sauce the white chocolate sphere melts to reveal a cake/custard inside.... more Disney magic!

And like all Disney restaurants, young family members are quite welcome. They seated us at a nice table for two at the window in a more quiet section of the restaurant. But there were children from high-chair sized to young adult in the dining room. They do ask you to dress up a little (no t-shirts or cut-offs) but they didn't seem to enforce any dress code onsite. Most diners however did seem to make it a special occasion dinner, and were dressed a bit nicer even if they'd spent a day in the park. I highly recommend Monsieur Paul if you are looking for fine dining and/or a special occasion while at EPCOT. While we've had finer French food in France, this is about as good as French gets in America.

MAGIC KINGDOM: If you're at the Magic Kingdom and want something where you'll be more comfortable with the children who might get loud or messy at dinner, then consider Be Our Guest. This is a quick-service lunch and table-service dining venue in Fantasyland themed after the Disney classic Beauty and the Beast.  In fact, after dinner, you can have your photo taken with the beast in his library.  But before that you'll be offered a menu of nice options.

I enjoyed the pork chop with baked macaroni and cheese with a side of French green beans. Kevin had the encrusted lamb chops and I must say it was perfectly prepared and quite delicious.

Now mind you, this is a volume dining establishment and serves thousands of people each day. The main dining room alone (shown below) is very large and noisy. There is a second, less-formal looking dining room as well but it's also lovely and large. To deal with the volume, the menu is limited, so the kitchen is cranking out plates of each item well before you've ordered it. That's not to say they are poorly prepared or even not hot/fresh, but simply that your meal choices arrive quickly as most diners want to get back out into the parks. And after dinner, they offer a nice pastry cart of choices for dessert.

If you're wondering about wine in the Magic Kingdom, the mouse does drink! In fact, in addition to a modest selection of good wine options, this restaurant boasts it's own label. We had their Chardonnay and it was pretty good and made a fine accompaniment for our dinner. Titled "L'Ombre de la Bete" (or Shadow of the Beast) the wine is called this because you are dining in the Beast's castle and as the story goes it was grown in his vineyards.

Disney's Own Wine Label
L'Ombre de la Bete
Another good restaurant choice while near or in the Magic Kingdom is at the Contemporary Resort, which can be reached by walkway from the Magic Kingdom or monorail from select other resorts. Here you want to dine atop the property at California Grill.  With sweeping views of the Seven Seas Lagoon and Magic Kingdom, this is a great place to dine and afterwards watch the fireworks from the outdoor observation deck. I recommend a dinner reservation between 7-7:30PM so you are ready for the show from their high vantage that occurs around 9:00 PM.  The large menu of "California inspired" cuisine included things like sushi, crispy rock shrimp salad, kabocha squash and mascarpone ravioli and warm homemade fritters.

HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS: Looking for something less high-end and more casual? We enjoyed the Sci-Fi Drive-In Theater at Hollywood Studios. Modeled after drive-in theaters you may remember from your youth, you sit "under the stars" in 50's era cars and watch old clips from science fiction movies while you dine on burgers, ribs and mostly other picnic fare. You can get seafood, pasta and steaks as well, but we always say it's best to go for what the restaurant specializes in when making menu choices. We had some great local beer here as well.

Hollywood Studio's Sci-Fi Drive In Restaurant
I had the "Famous All American Picnic Burger", which consists of a flame-broiled Angus burger patty topped with grilled hot dog, sauerkraut, and sautéed onions. Healthy? No. Tasty. Yes!  After walking nearly 8 miles per day in the parks, we decided it didn't really matter.

ANIMAL KINGDOM:  This park, which is part zoo, part theme-park, has no real dinner options because the park closes by 7PM daily, as the animals are fed and cared for in the evenings. There is likewise no night-time show here. But you can get good dining at the associated resort hotel near the park entrance.  Jiko - The Cooking Place, offers a blend of traditional African, Indian and Mediterranean cuisine with vibrant spices, wood-burning ovens and a nice selection of South African wines. Some of the residents of the park seem to be on the menu, including roasted wild boar and crispy duck. But there is also a good selection of vegetarian cuisine.

Yachtsman Steak House Prime Steaks
BOARDWALK, YACHT & BEACH CLUB:  Likely the best steaks at Walt Disney World are found at the Yachtsman Steakhouse located at Disney's Yacht Club Resort. Here premium steaks are hand cut and well aged. The Yachtsman Steakhouse menu also includes fresh seafood all served in a family-friendly, New England-style facility. Here we found the steaks to be quite good, but the sauces and sides to be too salty. So take care in pouring on the sauce or piling on the sauteed mushrooms.

SUMMARY:  With all of that said, nothing comes cheap at any Disney property and that is also true for dining. You can expect to pay an upcharge for the privilege a being a captive WDW diner of around 20% over what you would normally expect for similar food elsewhere. But the convenience is certainly worth the premium price, keeping you close to the resorts and your hotel while enjoying a Walt Disney World magical vacation. And if you're using the new Magic Bands for entrance to parks and rides, why not pay with it in the restaurants too?  We did and that worked as seamlessly as everything else at Disney. Overall, you can enjoy great food even with the kids in tow during your WDW vacation. We were two adults traveling without children and found it equally enjoyable. Bon Appétit!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Wholewheat Blueberry Muffins

Moist, soft and delicious, I make these blueberry muffins sugar free and no one ever knows. They are perfect when blueberries are in season and always a favorite.

Julian's Wholewheat Blueberry Muffins
They are similar to my banana nut whole wheat or my heart healthy sugar free (sweetened with carrots) muffin recipe. You can of course use sugar if you prefer and I give the substitution in the recipe. The recipe makes a dozen standard sized muffins. Below I recommend a half pint of blueberries. I've used as much as a full pint for a dozen muffins. But that leaves each muffin loaded with berries which makes this a bit too moist. Use your discretion here or use a pint to make two dozen.

Ingredients (Muffins)
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup oatmeal
1/3 cup Splenda Baking mix or
          3/4 cup white sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 egg
1/3 cup milk or cream
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
6 oz plain yogurt
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 to 3/4 pint blueberries

Ingredients (Topping)
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
   or Splenda brown sugar mix
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup oatmeal plus 1 tablespoon
2 tablespoons butter, direct from refrigerator, cut into small pieces
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon almond paste, optional
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, optional
Sanding or other course sugar for decoration

Preheat oven to 400F and spray 12 muffin cups with cooking spray or line with paper muffin cups.

Stir together the dry ingredients in a large bowl and set aside.  Lightly beat egg in a small bowl and add milk, applesauce and yogurt; whisk until smooth. Stir the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients until moistened. Gently fold in the blueberries.

Topping: In small bowl, mix together the topping ingredients except for the nuts coating the butter and optional almond paste very well.  Using a hard bladed (not wire) pastry blender/knife, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until it forms small pieces. You can also pulse in a food processor if you prefer. Stir in the chopped walnuts if using. If using whole walnuts as I often have on hand, simply use the pastry blender to chop the walnuts right into the topping mixture until they are at the size you prefer. Set aside.

Ready for the Oven
Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin cups. Sprinkle topping on muffins and lightly press down.

Bake muffins in the preheated oven until they rise and the tops are golden brown, about 20-25 minutes. A toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin should come out clean.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Pan Seared Sea Scallops

These tasty morsels are easy and quick to cook, but you do need to select good scallops and get them ready for cooking an hour or so in advance of the final preparation if you want a great result.  I usually serve them on top of rice, but of course they go well with just about everything.

Julian's Pan Seared Sea Scallops
Purchasing Scallops:  Of course purchasing the scallops is where your process begins and you can find a variety of scallop options at most grocers. They come fresh and frozen. For this recipe you are looking for a larger sea scallop, also sometimes called a diver scallop. These are the same variety of shellfish, the latter designated as such because it is harvest by divers. You are looking for scallops that are 1-2 inches in diameter, sometimes called 10/30 per pound (means10 to 30 per pound) or U15 or U10 (meaning under 15 or under 10 per pound, so these are the big boys).  I don't go for the very largest scallops as I think the seared crust is better on the mid-sized scallops, but the choice is yours. Avoid the tiny bay scallops for this recipe. As always, get the fresh if available. If not, the frozen will work fine if you thaw them slowly in cold water, changing it several times in the process.

Dry Scallops are Key to Browning
Technique:  The below instructions lay out the technique for removing excess moisture from the scallops. If you do not do this, your pan will likely be filled with a white liquid that prevents the scallops from browning. While they would still be edible, they will not look or taste as good.

Cook on the second side 1-2 minutes.
Sea Scallops, thawed if previously frozen
Paper towels
Sugar, granulated white
Canola oil

Line a plate or cutting board with 2-3 layers of paper towels. Set the scallops on the paper towels and blot dry with more paper towels. Uncover, and salt heavily. Turn and salt the other side. Don't be concerned about using too much salt as this will be washed away before cooking. Cover with another paper towels, press down gently and set aside for 30 minutes. Line another plate or board with 2-3 layers of paper towels, and transfer the scallops to the new plate, turning them over as you go. Cover with another layer of paper towels discarding the wet towels from the original plate. Gently press the paper towel down onto the scallops and set aside for another 30 minutes.

Rinse the scallops in colander to remove excess salt and drain.  Line a plate or board with paper towels once again and lay the scallops on the paper. Blot with a second towel and let sit for 5 minutes as you heat oil in the skillet over medium-high heat. Uncover the the scallops and sprinkle with a light coating of sugar. This will aid in browning. Add the oil to a non-stick skillet. When the oil is shimmering hot and nearly smoking, add the scallops sugared side down and cook 2-4 minutes until will browned. Turn with tongs and cook another 1-2 minutes until they are medium rare in the centers. Serve immediately.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Light Lemon Layer Cake

As Spring arrives we're all looking to shed a little winter weight, so today I'm making a light lemon layer cake with homemade lemon curd. Just because you are watching your weight doesn't mean you can't have a little dessert.

Julian's Light Lemon Layer Cake with Lemon Curd
While the photo above looks like a standard layer cake, it's actually much shorter. A "little dessert" doesn't hurt anything if indeed, it is little. So this recipe makes a smaller than usual cake and removes much of the fat and sugar you find in other recipes. Of course there's always a trade off in flavor and texture. To counter this, make sure you do not over bake the cake. Check it regularly and pull it out as soon as a pic comes out clean. Do use the lemon curd, because it keeps it more moist and adds flavor.

Zesting the Lemons
With that said, this recipe can be made ever lighter and lower in calories than my method below by making these small adjustments. Bake in a single layer 9-inch round. Omit the frosting and just dust the top with a little bit of powdered sugar. Substitute skim milk for the cream. Make lemon curd as noted, but serve it in a separate bowl and let anyone that would like it, spoon on a little or put a small pool on the plate next to the cake, with a few fresh blueberries. This super light version will taste just fine and look good too.


Vegetable oil, cooking spray
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 cup skim milk
1/3 cup canola oil
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon,\
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
4 large egg whites, room temperature
1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar

4 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
Finely grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1 cup water
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup of salted butter, softened
2 cups of powdered sugar
Finely grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1-3 tablespoons lemon juice
milk or water to thin to consistency

1 1/3 cups blueberries, optional garnish

Preheat oven to 350F degrees.

Make the cake: Coat two 8-by-1 1/2-inch round cake pans with cooking spray. Line bottoms with parchment. Spray parchment; set aside.

Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt into a medium bowl; set aside. Whisk together 1/4 cup sugar, the milk, oil, vanilla, lemon zest, and lemon juice in a large bowl; set aside.

Put egg whites into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on medium speed until foamy. Raise speed to medium-high. Gradually add remaining 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, beating until stiff peaks form.

Add half of the flour mixture to the milk mixture; whisk until smooth. Fold in remaining flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with the egg white mixture. Divide batter among prepared pans. Bake, rotating pans halfway through, until a cake tester inserted into centers comes out clean, about 15 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Turn out cakes onto rack. Remove parchment; reinvert. Let cool completely.

The cakes will not be brown. Do not over bake.
Make the lemon curd: Put egg yolks into a medium heatproof bowl; set aside.  Whisk together lemon zest, sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a medium saucepan. Add 1 1/2 cups water and the lemon juice; whisk until sugar and cornstarch have dissolved. Bring to a boil over medium-high
heat, whisking constantly. Cook 2 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low; gradually whisk one-third of the lemon mixture into the reserved egg yolks. Pour mixture into pan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, 2 1/2 minutes.

Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla. Pour into a bowl; place plastic wrap directly on surface. Refrigerate until firm and cold, at least 1 hour (up to 1 day).

Delicious Lemon Curd
Note: Extra lemon curd can be served on the plate, or saved in the refrigerator in an air-tight container. It makes an excellent spread using it as you would jam.

Make the lemon frosting: Beat butter with the paddle attachment (or standard beaters) of an electric mixer. Add powdered sugar, a little at a time, beating continuously until all combined. Mix in lemon zest. Add lemon juice, one tablespoon at a time tasting between each addition. Once it is as 'lemony' as you like, switch to milk or water to thin to a consistency that is easy to spread on the cake.

Julian's Light Lemon Layer Cake with Lemon Curd
Assemble and frost:  Set the bottom layer on a cake plate and slice off the domed top, if any. Spread with 1 cup lemon curd. Top with untrimmed layer.