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It’s been awhile since this blog has been active, but that’s about to change.

I’m coming back, and it’s going to be Chez Fifi taking over the kitchen. First up, a little comfort food: 

Asian Short Ribs

4 shallots, sliced thin
1 Vidalia onion, sliced and cut in half
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1-inch piece of ginger, grated
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1 cup soy sauce (I prefer low sodium)
3 TB Sriracha, or chili paste
4-6 short ribs (make sure there’s a lot of meat, and not just bones. The meat should be very good quality, preferably from a butcher).
Salt & pepper

Combine shallots, onion, garlic and ginger in the bottom of a roasting pan. Top with short rib meat. Season with salt and pepper. Add brown sugar, vinegar, soy and Sriracha. Cover with plastic wrap and let marinate overnight.

Pre-heat oven to 325F degrees. Uncover the roasting dish and place in oven. Allow the ribs to cook for 3 hours or until falling off the bone. Turn the ribs over frequently – every 30 minutes, to prevent drying (ribs should be almost covered or fully covered with liquid).

Remove from oven and allow to rest for ten minutes. Serve with rice or mashed potatoes.

Enjoy!

Now a few quick notes:
– the quality of your ingredients will affect the quality of your dish. Discount meat may result in toughness, excess of fat, or a stringy texture.

– invest in an oven thermometer. Your dial may read 325F, but an uncalibrated oven can ruin your dish.

– have fun. Don’t feel the need to follow recipes to the T. Want a little more Asian flair? Add some lemongrass. Don’t have rice vinegar in the house? Substitute with apple cider vinegar instead. As long as the chemistry balance is similar – the dish should turn out fine.

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Tasting Traverse City

We decided to spend our one-month wedding anniversary in northern Michigan. We were excited for the getaway – as it was supposed to be sunny and beach weather. Yea…not so much. Instead of kayaking and laying out in the last of summer’s sunshine, we ended up indulging in high calorie cuisine as we watched the landscape through the rain-streaked windows. Not such a bad trade-off.

The lodging: we’re not typically bed-and-breakfast people. We enjoy modern amenities, martini bars and a boutique-y atmosphere. However, we booked our vacation late in the summer – and there weren’t a whole lot of options left. Our choices were between standard hotel franchises (think Sleep Inn), ratty beach resorts with decor circa 1960, and the quaint little B&Bs throughout the bay region. We decided upon a completely renovated Victorian mansion known as The Wellington Inn. Barb and Hank did a wonderful job refurbishing the 1905 estate in classic decor and accompaniments. We stayed in the Woolsey Suite (aka the Bridal Suite) – and it featured a luxurious jetted tub, fireplace, sitting area and private deck (not so shabby for an ‘antique’ estate. The breakfasts were very appetizing, and they always started with a serving of local fresh fruit.

The food: We received recommendations around Traverse City and the penninsulas…but we’d only really support a couple of those. I’ll dive deeper into why:

Phil’s on Front: Phil – supposedly the owner and chef of Windows (which used to be on the Leelanau Peninsula) now operates a small bistro-style affair on Front Street in downtown Traverse City across from the theater. The restaurant bar was absolutely packed when we walked up to the building, with people waiting outside the door. We perused the daily menu hanging outside before entering – and both the wine list and dinner selections were inviting. Signs were all pointing favorably for this establishment…but things quickly changed. We ordered a bottle of wine while we were waiting for our table, but the Conundrum we had our eye on was sold out (and had been for a while)…so was the next wine…and then the next. The bartender explained that they don’t have a very good sommelier, and this happens a lot. Great. So we chose a Sancerre and went on with it. She poured a taste, and we began to drink it. The wine itself was fine, but the glass smelled like old fish. Apparently Phil doesn’t have a separate washing machine for glassware. We asked for our glasses to be replaced, and the bartender looked at us as if we were insane. Our second set of glasses weren’t much better. This is the point when we should have left…but didn’t. Food: whitefish pate – very good, although the toasts that accompanied the pate were more ‘dried’ than toasted. Sole served with crabmeat – very good. Short ribs with braised vegetables and arborrio rice: meat felt like dried shoe leather, possibly boiled, with all loss of flavor and moisture. For one, I am curious on how a chef can consider chopped flank steak to resemble ‘short ribs’. Secondly, I would like to know how a menu (which only features new selections every day) can support a dish of such low quality. Thirdly, when Phil walked by and inquired on the meal – and asked me if my short ribs were “tough” without any prompt of my dissatisfaction – I had to bite back a snarl. If the chef knows his meat is tough, then why the hell is he serving it to clients? Is all integrity lost? Let them pay for it even though it’s really stew. Make the stew, call it stew, and sell it priced at stew. End rant. Dessert: chocolates with caramel sea salt ice cream. Yummy. Albeit the good end note, it could not make up for this horrible culinary let down. Stay away…

The Cove: located on a canal in a little fishing town called Leland, this seafood establishment is cozy and unpretentious. We dined on whitefish pate (this will be a trend throughout our excursion), which was served warm & creamy and topped with chopped almonds – very addictive – and served with a selection of crackers. The seafood bisque, which is supposedly famous, was only mediocre, and seemed more fattening and less flavorful than anything worth the calories. The highlight of the meal was definitely the Chubby Mary – a Bloody Mary served with a Chub fish sticking its head out of the glass. One is supposed to remove the Chub from the glass, deskin it, and then eat the meat with crackers. My husband was quite a fan of this odd little specialty.

Trattoria Stella: this ‘institution’ of an Italian restaurant is located in a converted asylum just west of downtown Traverse City in what is known as the Village of Grand Traverse Commons. Although the signs are a little difficult to navigate, one is placated just by taking in the view of the estate’s grounds and impressive edifices. The restaurant itself is located in the basement of the building (which is a little unnerving to most people), but once inside, it’s obvious that the space is comfortable, clean, and quite free of electroshock equipment. The genre of cooking is ‘farm to table’ Italian fare – a style that utilizes many local farms for dairy, meats, herbs, vegetables and fruit. Not only does this allow the business to keep costs down, but it sustains the local economy and encourages healthy eating habits. The staff was amazing – and trained in old-style service methodology: hands clasped, do not run the customer over when coming out of the kitchen, know your menu/technique, etc etc. But even these admirable (but quite frankly, expected) traits were underwhelming when compared with the food quality and preparation.  Gastro-orgasmic is the only accurate way to describe the experience – especially the “super special” menu item: Wagyu beef with a fennel pollen crust on a bed of tomatoes and spinach, and a side of roasted onions, garlic and fried shiitake mushrooms (and a glass of Barbaresco, of course), which was mind altering. We briefly considered shrinking Chef Myles and putting him in my purse to take him home. The steak (and the meal, period) was one of the very best that we’ve had in a long time. Kudos to Stella for making us some very satisfied customers. We’ll certainly be back.

The Boathouse: was the most recommended restaurant by TC locals, and by non-locals. As my grandmother would say, it’s “unsalted” – aka, it’s nothing that special; rather bland. Yes, the food is of solid preparation and ingredients. The wine list is quite superb. The service is attentive and provides excellent recommendations on food pairing. The whitefish pate (our little indulgence) was the most disappointing that we had on the bay. It was over-dilled, and tasted like cream cheese. To our surprise, the salads were very pleasing – not over sugared or salted – which the right combination of farm fresh produce to light dressing. The sole special was decadent in a brown butter reduction, marcona almonds, Italian couscous and morels – but the strawberries threw the dynamic of the dish off, so we tossed them to the side. Our Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc was very memorable (and our glasses did not smell like fish remnants). The 20 year port was a nice finish. Overall, we had a nice experience on TC’s most enjoyed fish haus, but we’re not die-hard fans as of yet.

The wine –

Newbie in Napa

I am a wino, albeit one with a moderate amount of training. I started my wine tasting ‘career’ in Asti, Italy with a study abroad group – but that’s a tale for a different day. Since Italy (and my obsession with Moscato, Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, Brunello, Amarone, etc etc)  I have dabbled around Europe on various vacations (Rioja in Spain, Bordeaux in France, Dingac in Croatia) gone boozing in Niagara, and taken a quick jaunt through the Leelanau Penninsula (see Romancing the Riesling) in upstate Michigan. However, no such region in my travels has been as staged or as commercialized as Napa, California.

Napa is expensive, hands down. Tastings range from $10-25/person, and are typically not comped even if a purchase is made. However, you get what you pay for. These wines are not mediocre. They’re incredible. Bold, supple, holds to the tongue and disciplines one’s mouth to expect amazing quality and character. Napa may break your budget, but it shouldn’t disappoint.

The first day of enjoying grapes gone alcoholic began in the Carneros region. This southern section of Napa has direct influence from the San Pablo Bay – thus experiencing fog and cooler temperatures. Carneros specializes in Pinor Noir and Chardonnay due to this climate. We frequented two stops in the region:

  • Etude – the most interesting aspect of Etude was the glass ‘corked’ Chardonnay. The absence of cork/plastic/metal allows the wine to remain in its purest state. (The wine itself was only fair, but I commend the ingenuity). I ended up with a bottle of 2007 Carneros Pinot Noir (all the sommeliers pronounce it no-wah…yeah I know it’s French but ya’ll sound funny anyways) at $42…ouchers. Unfortunately, I rank Etude as one of the most “unsalted” (lacking pizazz) vineyards in our journey – don’t bother going.
  • Bouchaine – <3. One of the top three vineyards that we visited on our trip (pretty much my favorite)- this winery is personable, knowledgable, unadulterated and just plain good. Bouchaine offers an outdoor tasting with ‘Nibbles’ (that is their term, not mine) that is comp’ed if one joins the wine club ($30/person otherwise). The view is asinine – mountains, vineyards, and overly manicured gardens. The trend continues as our wine guide was extremely informative, and gave us an extensive tour of the tasting notes as well as notes on the Carneros region as well as the rest of Napa. He also poured 3 more wines than were on the tasting menu. And….the wines rocked my socks off. We tasted Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer , Pinot Noir and Late Harvest Chardonnay. It was all phenom – AND the bottle of Late Harvest Chardonnay was $23 on site (discount included). That’s a 500 mL bottle for $25. Most half bottles are $65 and up. Oh yea…and I joined the wine club. PS – wine club memberships mean that you and your spouse (friends & family…) can all taste for free when visiting the estate.

We ventured into the Yountville region of Napa afterwards – which is just north of downtown Napa.

  • Domaine Chandon – yes, Chandon might have lyrical representation in pop songs, an enormous end-cap presentation at liquor stores around Christmas and New Year’s…and it does have an amazingly gorgeous estate in Napa. However, this winery is jam-packed with tourists and desensitized staff. Pass it up.

Onto Rutherford further north.

  • Peju – I gifted my husband a wine club membership last year, and in one of the shipments of boutique 90+ point wine was a 2006 Merlot. Although Sideways really didn’t make much of an impression on me, I never did enjoy a glass of diluted grape juice. However, Peju’s Merlot completely changed my perspective. It was tannic, deep with beautiful finish. I was certain that it was a mislabeled Cabernet/Zin blend – so we went to go check it out. The estate is beautifully odd with touches of troll villages and fairytale landscapes. We were led into a stone and wood tasting room where the tastemaster entertained us with his routine performance (a little practiced, but enjoyable) and we sampled all the fabulous wines (including the Merlot which still stood up to its former reputation) of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. All were remarkable. And so I joined the second wine club…

We scheduled lunch at V Sattui in St. Helena. Yes, they do have an impressive selection of deli meats, cheeses, oils and vinegar, but I wasn’t really in the mood to have my lunch heated via microwaves. I’m just sayin…

Our travels ventured up to north Napa County to visit the warmest region of the valley – Calistoga.

  • Clos Pegase – the grounds of this vineyard are grandiose and pristine. One travels through a castle-like entryway, winding around the terrace to enter the wine bar. The staff was very friendly and knowledgable, but we weren’t thrilled with the product. We bought some Pegasus coasters and headed on our merry way.
  • Frank Family Vineyard – was the last stop of our very hectic wine-a-thon. It was at this same time that apparently all the drunk college kids are making their last stops for the day. The bar was overcrowded with obnoxious winos. It was also understaffed. Our tasting experienced, therefore, was none too enjoyable.  Yet we tasted a full, buttery Chardonnay (a little pricey at $32/bottle) that soothed my senses a little – and thus they became a member of my good-list.

Dinner that night was at Go Fish. It was generic and tasted good, but nothing to write home (or blog) about…except maybe the man who had Tourette’s sitting next to us. And that we saw a hummingbird. Stay tuned for Sonoma.

Four of us decided to go on a couple’s weekend retreat in Northern Michigan – focusing mainly on skiing, and although we ended up with our fair share of winter romping, we stumbled (may be too appropriate a word) into a wine tasting marathon.

There’s only so many runs that I can shush in a day without becoming A) frozen to the bone B) bored C) hungrier than a racehorse — so we needed options. We planned our long weekend with ski bookends (Friday and Sunday lift tickets), but we needed something to entertain us all day Saturday. Enter the Traverse City wine region.

The Leelanau peninsula is a hidden gem to many Michiganders, but it’s plentiful in highly rated labels – especially if one’s into Rieslings. There are so many variations within Riesling (dry, semi-dry, sweet and ice) that the region developed an honorary Valentine’s weekend tasting tour titled, “Romancing the Riesling”. We visited four vineyards in 6 hours, and brought home 3 cases of wine (minus the one that we drank on the way back to the hotel). Our conclusions follow:

Chateau Chantal: highly developed portfolio of wine for the region. Wine varies from sparkling whites, rose, dry-sweet Rieslings, and even Malbec imported from Argentina. Our favorites were the 2005 Proprietor’s Dry Riesling, the 2008 Gewurztraminer, the 2007 Malbec Reserve — and of course — the Ice Wine.

Brys Estate: this vineyard offers both a traditional and reserve tasting menus. The ambiance is incredible with the dark wood bar, and heavily upholstered furniture. Don’t forget to sample the 2008 Naked Chardonnay (a must-try, especially for the oak-flavor haters in the world. This might change your impression of the Chardonnay varietal!), 2008 Gewurztraminer is excellent (albeit pricey), 2007 Signature White (fabulous blend) and the 2008 Cab/Merlot blend left us pleasantly surprised!

Peninsula Cellars: is located in a renovated schoolhouse, often referenced by the labels — “Detention”, “Homework”, etc. The Cabernet Franc was very pleasant, and we found an incredible deal on their ice wine. Their portfolio with not disappoint!

Black Star Farms: last, but definitely not least, on our tour was this vineyard that was appropriately accented by the Belgium horses in the distance. We tasted a bunch of Rieslings (all astounding) that were paired with lamb meatballs in a cream sauce – it was heaven! My favorite part of the vineyard is that it offers horse-boarding for guests at the Inn. And…they have a creamery…with cheese. I could retire on this dream….

The rest of our journey in the Michigan tundra was pleasantly appointed with the Inn at Bay Harbor by Marriott, and a lovely jaunt into Petoskey for dinner at Villa Ristorante for some surprisingly authentic Italian cuisine. The owner of Villa supposedly ventures around Italy in search of the perfect menu and grappa selections.

The Impression That I Get

I’m not a business expert (hello, I studied Bio in college), but I do think that a business does need a definitive business plan. A goal…focus… objective. So why, when I visited my new dentist yesterday, did I feel as though I was in 5 different business strategies under one roof?

I will admit first-off that I am slightly jaded by the dental profession. I don’t enjoy a stranger picking my teeth with sharp metal objects. I especially don’t enjoy that stranger when she shoves plastic x-ray trays that are 3 sizes-too-large-for-my-jaw over and over because her software isn’t working. Not my problem, chica – maybe you need better equipment. However, I am doubly irritated when the dentist forgets her sole business purpose: to safely and effectively maintain her clients’ teeth. No, I didn’t come to your office to eat freshly baked cookies (hmm – doubt those are sugar-free. looking for repeat business?), or to get my hands dipped in paraffin wax before my treatment, or to discuss my sentiment about the shape and color of my teeth (while your hands are deep in my mandible), and especially not to sample your personal brand of face cream. I mean, wtf?

Once a company loses focus of its mission to the client, the client can easily question the motivation of the company (greedy little bitches) or become uncomfortable/distracted by the lack of streamlined service. Personally, when I visit a doctor I want to be comfortable with the procedure being performed, and I want to trust the staff. When the staff are arguing about the tray arrangement of previously mentioned fresh-baked cookies, I highly question their competence.

I think there are lessons to be learned from this experience. What are our personal goals in our relationships, work and society? Are we focusing on the bling – the fresh-baked cookies, the face cream and paraffin wax – aspects of our life? While the glitz and glam is attractive, it’s not who we are. New goal set: streamline life focus to tangible and wholesome goals. Who are you?

Apparently I am naïve on people’s perspectives about proper etiquette for the landscaping of nether-regions. I was under the assumption that it’s a non-negotiable housekeeping task: keep it neat! Heaven forbid one gets in a car crash only for the delicious surgeon to discover that your loin cloth is permanently attached. Or a bout of spontaneous sex with McSteamy is quickly curbed due to the profound chafing….

Supposedly not everyone feels the way that I do – that it’s not mandatory to keep a set of tools handy for special up-keep – in fact, it’s not even on their radar. They look at me as though I am the one that needs to be hand-held through a discussion of proper social behavior. They asked me where I came up with the idea. I responded that I started my maintainance plan in high school, and that I haven’t deviated since (minus one break-up episode in which I decided to go free for one week – didn’t end well). They were astonished by my confidence that, yes, everyone I know – male and female – partakes in the same behavior. And it’s not a social pressure, or vanity, or anything that Big Brother has intimidated me to do. It’s comfort. It’s polite. I mean – who is really going to perform anything oral on someone who is all puffy and out of control? Just sayin…

My friends and I pondered this phenomenon and hypothesized a few ideas of where this ‘unkempt’ approach originated. Hippie? Nope, even my hippie friends admitted to the benefits of good nether region housekeeping. Age? Nah…all the high school kids I grew up with had my same philosophy. Demographic? Perhaps beer chugging men with abdominal overhangs would lose their manliness by trimming. Maybe they just can’t see their genitals. Heritage? Overly hairy people might not trim much if it gets unruly 5 seconds later – maybe it just blends in with the rest of their fur.

Either way – I suppose it only matters if your partner insists/suggests a preference. I just know quite a few people who wouldn’t have it any other way…

Guinea Pig Sundays

There’s a new tradition brewing in Fifi-land: test kitchen Sundays. Since I have hoarded hundreds of recipes from Bon Appetit, Fine Cooking, Everyday Food, FoodNetwork, etc etc etc…I need a time and a place (and a bunch of hungry mouths) to give me the motivation to whip up a selection of goodies. If they pass inspection – then they go into the recipe file. If not – into the recycling can.

This week was fairly mundane. My contribution consisted of Root Vegetable and Mushroom Pie w/Rosemary Biscuit Topping, Beer Biscuits (trial run for Super Bowl party), and a recipe for Hot Italian Milk Cake.

Results: the hot milk cake is a definite keeper. Very Old World – slightly lemon flavored and low in sugar. My Polish grandmother is even a fan. The other two contestants…not so much.

The beer biscuits were rather dry and unflavorful – maybe I’ll try a mixture with ham and Gruyère cheese instead. And the veggie bake was reminiscent of a dish served by Bill Knapps – no teeth required ya’ll! I mean, really, baking vegetables for over 2 hours with simmering and resting, yada yada yada results in a meal with baby food consistency. The biscuit topping didn’t mesh well with the earthy flavor of the vegetables, either. However, I did get to use a celery root for the first time.

If anyone has suggestions for next weekend, I would greatly appreciate some tried and true’s.