Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Avec - Bacon Wrapped Chorizo Dates with Piquillo Pepper Sauce

I have been privileged enough to have a career that has allowed my wife and I to move all around this fine country.  We have lived in places we would have never dreamed and it has become a significant factor in shaping us into the people that we are today.  It has made us friends everywhere, it has deepened our own relationship, and it has also allowed us both to expand our constantly growing love of food.  Nowhere can single handedly be more responsible for this growth than our short year living in Chicago.  During that time, my wife worked as a hostess at Blackbird Restaurant in the West Loop, and we became friends with some of the people in the culinary scene.  We ate at amazing restaurants, had memorable meals, and we learned a fucking ton about food through eating and through our new friends.  Throughout that whole time, one restaurant still stands at the top as our most reminisced about:  Avec.  Owned by the same owners as Blackbird, Avec is the casual next door neighbor.  No reservations, no fancy dress code, simple food done incredibly well, a small staff, it fit so well with our interests and we enjoyed going there so much that we still think and talk about it regularly 3 years later.  Hands down, one of the most talked about dishes at Avec is the chorizo stuffed dates.  To quickly summarize, they are large Medjool dates stuffed with fresh chorizo, wrapped in bacon, and baked until the bacon is crispy.  They are topped with a smoky sweet tomato and piquillo pepper sauce.  Piquillo peppers are somewhat similar to roasted red peppers, with slightly more peppery bitter flavor, but maintaining the same sweetness as roasted red peppers.  If you can't find piquillo peppers, you could easily sub roasted red peppers for them.

When our Memorial Day rolled around and our plans included a visit to a friend's house in a "bring anything" fashion, these guys were the first thing that popped to mind.  They are pretty easy to make and they don't take long to cook.  Just hide the roasting pan after they are done baking.  The amount of fat rendered between the chorizo and the bacon is a secret that might be better kept to yourself.

Bacon Wrapped Chorizo Dates with Piquillo Pepper Sauce
(inspired by Avec Restaurant)

1 lb large Medjool dates (roughly 24)
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 15 oz can piquillo peppers (or roasted red peppers)
1 15 oz can diced tomatoes
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 lb hickory smoked bacon (or # of dates divided by 2)
1 lb fresh chorizo

For the sauce:

Begin by sauteeing the onion in a pan with olive oil.  Drain the peppers and chop roughly.  Saute until onions are translucent but not caramelized.  

Add the garlic and saute for 1-2 minutes.  Dump the peppers and tomatoes into a blender and add the onion mixture.  Blend until smooth in consistency, like a tomato sauce.  Add the mixture back to the pan that you cooked the onions in and set heat to med-low.  Add smoked paprika.  I don't think Avec uses smoked paprika, but they also do their final firing of the dates in a wood fired oven, so they get a really nice hint of smoke on them.  Smoked paprika is just my attempt to get some of that subtle smoke flavor in.  Let sauce simmer for 30 minutes or longer, until sauce is thick and a large amount of water is evaporated.  Season to taste with salt and pepper - the sauce should be seasoned pretty aggressively.  Set aside.

For the dates:
Preheat the oven to 375º.  Start by pitting the dates.  Lay them flat and use a sharp paring knife to make a slit on the top from one long end to the other.  Dig out the pit with the tip of the knife and discard.  Cut each slice of bacon in two.  Fill the date with about 1 tbsp of chorizo.  It should be filled to the top.  Make sure that you use fresh chorizo too - the dried salumi style chorizo won't work.  After the date is stuffed, wrap one of the half bacon slices over the date, laying the seam side down on the roasting pan / baking sheet.  The seams will kind of "glue" together on the bottom, if they are on top, the bacon will cook and unravel itself a bit.

When the dates are all stuffed, bake them for approximately 30 minutes in the oven.  Check the bacon for doneness - if it is not well browned, continue baking until it is.  When the dates are done, remove from the oven.  To plate, take them off the baking sheet and rest them on a paper towel to absorb some of the fat.  Place in a dish, cover with pepper tomato sauce, and sprinkle with some parsley.

avec i luv uuuuu

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Some design changes...

I updated some of the design stuff of the blog?  I would like to acquire a logo too.  Hopefully something cool with zombies and blood and guts and other good stuff... with any luck, I'll have something soon!  Is the new color stuff better or worse than what I had before?

Tacos de Papa (Fried Potato Tacos)

In late 2009, one of my favorite food related magazines, Gourmet, closed its doors with next to no notice.  Publisher Conde Nast cited declining advertising sales and customer interest shifts as their reasoning behind the unexpected closure.  I can't argue their financial reasoning for closing the magazine, but from a reader's perspective, the closing of Gourmet left a huge void in magazine publications.  Gourmet was great for taking me out of my apartment and putting me somewhere far away. It inspired me to want to travel, it showed me the amazing food that exists in faraway places, provided some of the best recipes that I have, and the photography was the best in the business in my opinion.  Instead, Conde Nast kept Bon Appetit alive to cater to boring housewives with 15 minute dinners and their annual burger issue with just enough variation in the recipes to not call it a reissue.  But I'm not bitter or anything.

Stepping up to the global cuisine periodical plate, Saveur magazine has become the next best thing to Gourmet.  Perhaps it doesn't bring me to the same daydream state that Gourmet did, but it often comes close.  This month's issue (#138) had a great article about the author's visit to his home state of Zacatecas in Mexico with some amazing photography and great looking recipes.  Saveur also is very free with its recipes and articles, and despite this issue still being available at newsstands, you can already read the full thing online here (http://www.saveur.com/article/Travels/Mexico-Feeds-Me).  In a day and age where people like Christopher Kimball from America's Test Kitchen (and his subscription-only site) openly challenges the quality of food blogs and boldly considered them to be the reasoning for the fall of Gourmet Magazine (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/08/opinion/08kimball.html?_r=1), I commend James Oseland and the Saveur staff for accepting the open paradigm of the internet and still seemingly finding a way to run a profitable company.  In this month's issue, the recipe that immediately stood out to me was a taco stuffed with cumin-spiced potatoes and then pan fried to get a crispy shell, dressed with salsa roja, cabbage, and cotija cheese.  Maybe it was the photo on the cover, but we had to try these as soon as possible, so I set out to recreate the magazine's recipe.  It's easy to make, it's cheap, it lasts for several days, and it is vegetarian (easily vegan too!).  This one will undoubtedly go down as a regular in our house.

Tacos de Papa
(Saveur Magazine issue #138, also found here but mine is better =D)

1 tbsp finely chopped cilantro
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp sugar
2 ripe tomatoes, cored (+1 for topping)
2 red jalepenos, stemmed
1 clove garlic, smashed, plus 2 cloves, minced
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 lb russet potatoes, peeled
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 c canola oil
18 corn tortillas
thinly sliced green cabbage and tomatoes and crumbled cotija cheese, for serving

Puree cilantro, oregano, sugar, tomatoes, jalepenos, smashed garlic, and 2/3 c water in a blender until smooth; set salsa aside.

Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to a boil, add potatoes, and cook until tender, about 25 minutes.  Drain potatoes and transfer to a large bowl.  add minced garlic, butter, salt, pepper, and cumin, and mash until smooth.  Set potato mixture aside.  It should be crumbly, but form-able.

I found that it was easier to deal with the tacos by heating them up first.  Microwave the desired number of tortillas for anywhere from 30 seconds to 1 minute.  They should be malleable without cracking.  If they are still stiff, microwave for a few seconds more.  Heat oil in a 12" skillet over medium-high heat.  Using a spoon, spread a layer of potato mixture in the middle of each tortilla.  Gently cup tortilla in one hand, press the potato mixture down with the back of a spoon, and fold in half with your hands.  Pressing the potato mixture helped it from falling out of the taco during frying.  Working in batches, add tacos to oil and fry, turning once, until golden brown and crisp, about 3 minutes.

Stuff cabbage, tomatoes, and cotija into tacos; drizzle with salsa before serving.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Garden Update: It Lives!!

Ok this post is exciting (for me anyway).  North Carolina has had a very mild spring to date - temperatures in the 70's and frequent rain have apparently made nature very happy over the past month or so.  Our little garden is no exception.  Last week I posted about a joint collaboration between ourselves and our duplex neighbors - a little box garden in our front yard.  All of our growing hopes and dreams are contained in a small 10'x10' cube of reclaimed wood.  We planted last week with the hopes that something, anything, would grow.  Our contingency plan was a handful of tomato plants that we felt would at least give us something to be excited about provided that the rest of the garden was an utter failure.  Well, it turns out that we must have done something right, because this weekend resulted in the sprouting of several of our seeds!  The black eyed peas came first, unraveling themselves and stretching out on a sunny Saturday morning.  We also saw the very beginnings of our lettuce coming up, as well as some very small beet greens.  Just 24 hours later, the beets were popping up all over and the Kentucky blue pole beans were also coming up for some real sun.  As it stands now, the only things that haven't showed a sign of life are the peppers and carrots.  I'm hoping that they decide to make an appearance - I really want poblano peppers!  Also, I picked up 2 more planters to place next to our box garden because I decided that I need to grow okra this summer.  They have been seeded, so hopefully they do as well as everything else thus far.  Seeing as this is my first personal garden, I am incredibly excited at all of these developments.  It's so exciting to walk outside and actually see hourly changes in the garden - sprouts coming up, beans unraveling and beginning to show leaves, it's amazing to watch unfold.  It's going to be a great summer.

Black Eyed Peas

Kentucky Blue Pole Bean - just waking up

Kentucky Blue Pole Bean


Chiogga Beets

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Summer garden season

So spring in the south is in full swing.  It has been a really mild spring, lots of rain and lots of 70 degree days, which I am all about.  For a couple of summers now, my neighbor Bruce and I have threatened to start a garden in the front yard, but we never got around to it.  This year we fell on the same page and decided that we needed to actually get the garden set up.  Bruce was able to acquire some 2x6's (and one 2x8) from a friend and we cobbled together a raised bed for our garden.  We started by choosing the part of the lawn that gets the most sun throughout the summer, which also is probably the most out-of-the-way spot in the lawn, which is a nice coincidence.  We laid out a squarish section about 10'x12' and dug as far down as we could to clear the grass and get some topsoil turned up.  Unfortunately we are planting right near a maple tree, so roots were abundant and we weren't able to turn up a lot of previously existing topsoil.  We discarded the grass chunks and got a good gauge of how much we needed to fill.

From there, Bruce was able to borrow a friend's pickup truck to get the majority of our fill.  Our neighbor Mike made a great suggestion to check out the city yard waste department, where we got a full pickup truck worth of very fine mulch for only $15.  We complimented the mulch with about 150 lb of composted topsoil, some GardenTone fertilizer, and some lime (more suggestions from Mike).  We mixed everything in and watered it well and let it sit overnight.

Now it was time for planting!  Neighbor Mike was kind enough to give us 2 Mater tomato plants, and we picked up some cherry and Cherokee Purple plans as well.  In our small space, we managed to plant the following:

  • Black eyed peas
  • Carrots
  • Lettuce
  • Thai chile (1 plant probably)
  • Poblano chile (gotta have them chile rellenos)
  • Fennel
  • Kentucky Blue Pole Beans
  • Chiogga beets
  • Thai basil
No doubt it is a lot of stuff to grow in a small area but we are not totally convinced that we will succeed on all fronts.  Everything's seeded now, so we just wait to see what happens and hope for the best!

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Almost 3 weeks since an update but I hope that this post will make up for it!  My wife and I had an amazing trip to Vietnam that was full of good food and memorable experiences.  Our trip started out in Ho Chi Minh City, where we visited the War Remnants Museum and checked out a large indoor market that was flooded with people.  The latter photos were taken from one restaurant that really turned out to be a letdown.  I was really happy with the photos but I think that they are a classic case of food photography looking better than it tasted.  It certainly had us worried, but after making the flight up to Hoi An, our food fortunes turned for the better.  Ho Chi Minh, in general, felt like a newer sprawly city.  It very easily could have just been a combination of culture shock and jet lag, but we didn't love Ho Chi Minh City.  It was interesting for sure, but after visiting the other spots in our trip, I would have to say that I wouldn't put it at the top of my list of places to return to in Vietnam.  

Pho in Ho Chi Minh City, first meal of the trip and it was a good one

Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City

Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City

Shrimp grilled on sugarcane, Ho Chi Minh City

Green Papaya and Shrimp Salad, Ho Chi Minh City

Banh Xeo, rice crepe stuffed with shrimp and bean sprouts, Ho Chi Minh City

From Ho Chi Minh City, we caught a flight to Hoi An, where we spent the most time of the trip.  Hoi An is an amazing little port town dating back to the 15th century.  We had some great local specialties including Cau Lau, White Roses, and these little wonton guys with shrimp and tomato sauce on them.

Shrimp and Tomato Sauce on a Fried Wonton, a Hoi An Specialty.  Miss Ly's, Hoi An

"White Roses," rice dumplings stuffed with shrimp and pork, a Hoi An Specialty.  Miss Ly's, Hoi An 

Roasted Pork Spring Rolls with Fish Sauce. Miss Ly's, Hoi An

Cau Lau (Noodles with Pork, Wonton Croutons, and fresh herbs), a Hoi An Specialty.  Miss Ly's, Hoi An 

Hoi An Banh Xeo, stuffed with pork and bean sprouts and served with sliced green bananas.  Mermaid Restaurant, Hoi An

Clay Pot Fish cooked in Caramel Sauce with Pineapple.  Mermaid Restaurant, Hoi An

Squid stuffed with ground pork.  Mermaid Restaurant, Hoi An

Tea fields in the mountains west of Da Nang

Fresh pineapple growing along a trail that we walked
From Hoi An we took a two day motorbike trip through a company called Hoi An Motorbike Adventures into the mountains near the Laos border, to a town called Hien (or Prao).  We returned to Hoi An and then ventured up to Hanoi before returning home.  The cities were busy and the traffic was crazy, but we really got to see the beauty of Vietnam on the motorbike tour.  2 days of winding roads up through the mountains and back; dodging water buffaloes, chickens, dogs, other motorbikes, trucks, giving children high fives as we rode by and stopping often to take photos and get to know our tripmates better.  We were accompanied by guides Pete and Emmelie, a local mechanic named Mr. Sao, my wife's driver Mr. Hien, two Aussies named Ant and Ash, and another American named Jarred.  The group got along so well and we couldn't have been happier to go with a group of such great people.  Probably one of the more ironic things about the trip from this blog's perspective is that we had some of our best food in the cafe attached to the hotel we stayed in.  It was a small dingy cafe which was run by a small woman who was very pregnant.  We got coffees and a round of what they called "pho" for breakfast, but it was incredibly different than any pho I've ever had, and being that I was hungover, tired, and had low expectations for breakfast, I did not bring my camera.  It was a large bowl of rice noodles with a small amount of relatively spicy broth at the bottom, garnished with chicken and ground peanuts and some fresh herbs.  It was incredibly simple and it was amazing.  So amazing that I ate my entire bowl and half of my wife's as she declared that she was full.  I wish that I had taken a picture of it, but in the meantime, it will live on in my head as the pho that got away.

Beef, onion, and pineapple and egg omelette.  Hien/Prao

Fish cooked with tomato sauce.  Hien/Prao

Small sampling of local brews.  The Aquafina bottle is home made rice wine that was similar to sake but with more burning flavor.

A cafe where we stopped for coffee along the Ho Chi Minh Trail highway, South of Prao

Rice Paddies west of Hoi An

Fried pork spring rolls with fish sauce, Coco Restaurant, Hoi An

Fish grilled in banana leaves.  Coco Restaurant, Hoi An

Fried crab in tamarind sauce.  Coco Restaurant, Hoi An
 After having a great time in Hoi An, we made our way up to Hanoi before flying home.  We stayed in the historic Old Quarter in a hotel that had a clear view of Hoan Kiem Lake.  The lake is rumored to be the home of an ancient good luck turtle but we were unable to spot him.  The streets in the Old Quarter are very narrow and windy, making walking an adventure and an exercise in 360º awareness.  Nearby our hotel, we went to a restaurant specializing in Cha Ca (pronounced cha ga), or fried fish with fresh herbs.  When you enter the restaurant, they present you with a single laminated card saying that they only serve one thing and the price is 175,000 vnd.  It's a steep price by Vietnam standards, converting to roughly $9 USD per person.  Tourists bitch and complain about the price and 'what you get' for your money all over the internet, but the truth is that this was fantastic and worth every penny in my mind.  They bring out a hot pan and a burner frying fish in oil and turmeric.  Along with the fish, you are given a large bowl of fresh dill and green onions, roasted peanuts, rice noodles, other fresh herbs and fish sauce.  You fry the dill and onions at the table with the fish and fix a bowl with all of the other condiments.  It is a small bowl of heaven and I will be trying to recreate this one as soon as I can.

Frying at the table

Noodles and the bowl of dill and green onions

Bowl ready to eat
 Our final meal was a big bowl of pho before heading to the airport - we were let down by this dish but it looked nice so I kept the picture.  I got the pho "all" which included beef tendon, tripe, meatballs, brisket, and thinly sliced steak.  It wasn't terrible but I have had better, even here in Raleigh.  I didn't let it damper our final thoughts of the trip, I only wish that we had finished eating about 30 minutes earlier, because as we were walking back to the hotel I saw a little food stall on the side of the road packed full of locals wrecking bowls of rice noodles with entire pigs feet in small bowls next to them and fish sauce for dipping.  I really wanted to try it but we had another crazy cab ride in store for us before the long flight home.  I hope we get an opportunity to go back at some point... there was so much food to explore and so little time to fit all of it in!