Friday, March 12, 2010

Walk Against Hunger with I'll Eat You

Time out for a little PSA: sad to say, while we're here sharing recipes or nitpicking a new fancy restaurant to death, a staggering number of people face the prospect of simply not having enough food at all. In a place as rich as ours, it's a crime that anyone should have to go hungry, so please join us in supporting the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger with their Walk Against Hunger event on Saturday, April 10.

If you're interested in walking, why not join us in Team I'll Eat You? Just click the link to register. Or, make a donation – every little bit helps. Participants and donors will have our hearty and eternal thanks, not to mention the knowledge that they will be helping a few more people pull up a seat at our region's communal dinner table.

(as a side note, apologies for active.com; it really is a pretty terrible and hard-to-figure-out site, and the registration doesn't seem to work properly in Safari. Boo-urns.)

Friday, March 5, 2010

Jambalaya


Emeril. It seems as though the man has come under a good deal of ridicule over the years – the catch phrases, the live show with the fawning audience who responded in Pavlovian fashion at the very mention of "pork fat" and "gaaaaaaaaaaalic", and of course the very, very ill-advised NBC sitcom. But I'm not ashamed to admit that I learned a hell of a lot about cooking from the man.

Back in the early days of Food Network, before its invasion by the nightmarish likes of Sandra Lee and Guy "Fee-eDRD-i", the show was The Essence of Emeril, and it was just the man himself, a simple white tile background, an occasionally misbehaving electric range, and the food. Far from the manic caricature he became, indiscriminately dumping bowl after bowl of pre-prepped ingredients into saucepans between exchanging banter with Elmo, the Emeril of the Essence days was a very informative host, entertaining yet mostly sedate, and he got a lot of important concepts across. Like seasoning both sides of whatever you're cooking so "both sides taste good". Getting your pans hot and not moving things once you put them in. Building layers of flavor with the use of things like the "trinity" of onion, bell pepper and celery. Making a roux from blonde to chocolate brown. It all really clicked.

So just as Emeril was something of a TV-watching staple in my formative years, so too were his recipes part of our family's dinner rotation. We had a few of his cookbooks, and always had a batch of his "essence" seasoning blend on hand, ready to sprinkle on anything and everything. Once in a while, it was crawfish étoufée on a Saturday night, but usually it was Emeril's jambalaya. And I'll be damned if it hadn't been at least seven years since I made it, so I threw a batch together the other day.

This was made a little easier because someone at Emeril Inc. had sent a little care package to I'll Eat You some time back. It included some Emeril-brand chicken stock and a few bottles of the vaunted Essence, all pre-mixed and ready to sprinkle. Once you have the Essence, the rest is easy, and here's how it goes:

Jambalaya
A smallish batch, recreated from memory from one of Emeril's cookbooks

1/2 lb. chicken (preferably thigh meat, I was stuck with breasts)
1 or 2 links andouille sausage (kielbasa works in a pinch)
1/2 lb. shrimp, shells off
1 1/2 C. rice (long grain white is best)
1 green pepper
1 medium onion
2 stalks celery (omitted from this batch because Lauren doesn't like it)
1 large clove gaaaaaaalic
The Essence - if you don't have this, here's a recipe
A few bay leaves
2-3 plum tomatoes, or small can of diced tomatoes
Worcestershire sauce
Hot sauce
Chicken stock

Cut the chicken into chunks and sprinkle liberally with Essence (shout "Bam!" as you do this). Get a large, deep pan hot and add a tablespoon or two of olive oil. While you're browning the chicken thoroughly, dice the onions, peppers and celery, and cut the sausage into small chunks. Once chicken is browned, add vegetables and andouille; reduce heat to medium and cook until vegetables soften.

Add the garlic and rice, then stir around for a minute or two. Add bay leaves, tomatoes, a few dashes each of Worcestershire and hot sauce, and add enough chicken stock to completely cover the rice. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cover. Read through script of proposed sitcom pilot; reject it.

Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. If it's getting too dry in there and the rice is sticking to the bottom, add a little more stock. When the rice is almost cooked, add the shrimp and re-cover. Cook for another 5-7 minutes or until the shrimp is pink and opaque. Serve with a Turbo Dog or the beverage of your choice.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Review: Amis

So after the much-lauded Vetri and Osteria, here's Marc Vetri's third restaurant in town, Amis, located a little off the beaten path on 13th Street near Pine. The concept this time is Roman small plates, served in an atmosphere that is rather more raucous and industrial than Vetri's other two joints. It's a welcome idea, and Vetri is just the guy to pull it off, but we left just a bit disappointed with the execution.

Though the setting is intentionally rougher around the edges, it's still comfortable and inviting. Touches of wood like the attractive multi-toned tables brighten up the dark concrete and metal vibe. I've heard some complaints about the noise level, but for us, it was not so loud that conversation was a struggle.

As is typical in a small plates restaurant, we were a little unsure of the ordering strategy. Our waitress validated our hypothesis that we should order two or three things from each side of the menu. The left side is smaller stuff: bruschette, salumi, cheeses, and other antipasti. The right is pastas and more traditionally "main dish" items.

It was hard not to be intrigued by the mortadella mousse, so that was the bruschetta we ordered. It delivered on its promise: it tasted just like the big round deli meat, but in a creamy, whipped-up form, a bowl of fluffy pink topped with a pretty superfluous drizzle of olive oil. I would have preferred more, thinner toasts alongside it rather than the two thick slabs we got – thinner toast would provide more surface area for topping with the mousse, not to mention making it easier to bite through.

Next, the artichokes. They are fried, small; the entire thing is edible. The browned outer leaves taste almost like potato chips and are just as addictive and delectable. The inner portion of the artichoke is tasty, if a little greasy.

Our third "left side" dish was the sweetbreads. These are small nuggets, breaded with crushed almond, fried, and served with a fennel marmalade. The sweetbreads had great flavor, and the marmalade worked wonderfully as a counterpoint to the, again, somewhat greasy fried items.

On to the right side – we got two pastas, the tonnarelli “cacio e pepe” and the gnocchi with oxtail ragu, and the mixed seafood grill. First, the gnocchi, which were not the typical small potato-based dumplings: they were large, semolina-based, and very, very light, which is just as well because the oxtail ragu on top of them was quite rich. There was a welcome black-peppery zing to the tonnarelli, but they seemed over-sauced to me, leaving a puddle of greasy cheese residue at the bottom of the plate. The mixed seafood grill of swordfish, skate, shrimp, scallops, and squid (brought to you by the letter S, incidentally) was pleasant enough, served with a few small slices of grilled polenta and fresh lemon.

Perhaps you have noted a theme. I have no aversion to fat as an ingredient, or to fried foods, or to nature's fattier fish or meats. In isolation, or possibly as part of a meal that included fresher counterpoints, most of what we had was very good. But the cumulative effect of eating one oil-sodden dish after another was unpleasant. I thought we maybe just happened to order things that tended towards the slippery side, but reviewing the menu again, it doesn't seem like we had a lot of latitude for escaping the lipid onslaught. Even the seafood grill could have used a lighter hand from the oil can. I know that something called mortadella mousse is going to be fatty, but how about, say, a little arugula salad on the side? Or more use of things like the fennel marmalade with the sweetbreads, which woke up the palette a bit and cut through the fried flavor?

Desserts looked pretty good, but with our mouths still somewhat slicked, we took a pass for this visit. Service was decent, though a different pacing of the dishes would have been nice: our first three dishes came out at the same time, and then the second three dishes came out at the same time. Since the second three were all hot, this meant that the last dish we ate was cold by the time we got around to eating it. A more fluid pacing like Amada's would have been nice here, as would have been an option for a tasting menu to make ordering a little simpler.

I would love to give Amis another chance. It could have been what we ordered, or perhaps it was an off night. Maybe with the coming of the spring, some brighter flavors will make their way onto the menu. What I am hoping is that the over-larding of the food is not deliberate, a cynical ploy to appeal to our baser culinary instincts. Fat is an invaluable and irreplaceable tool – to carry flavors, to provide texture, to impart its own flavor – but too much of a good thing becomes unpleasant pretty quickly.