Monday, May 23, 2011

Adventures in Suspiciously Cheap Meat

Yes, we will freely admit it: we shop at Aldi.

Not for everything, but it's a great place to get a very good price on many staple items (like butter, eggs, tomato paste, and some decent oranges). For those who haven't been, Aldi is a deep-discount grocery store with no shelves and scarcely any cashiers. Pretty much everything is a store brand, only cash and debit cards are accepted, and you have to deposit a quarter to release a shopping cart. But, if dispensing with many of the niceties of other supermarkets means 37¢ yogurts and butter for $2.69 a pound, we'll live with it. We do have standards though, of course, and we try to steer clear of their heavily processed, corn-syrup-addled prepared foods, and we wouldn't really buy meat from there.

But.

There is an item at Aldi so ridiculously cheap, so vexingly mis-priced, that I couldn't resist its allure anymore. It's the $1.79 bacon-wrapped filet mignon.


Individually sealed for your protection, this cylinder of bargain beef is augmented with a "solution" that I suppose is meant to lend a little extra flavor to the steak, though I suspect its presence has at least something to do with getting the weight of each package up to the billed five ounces.

Mmm, solution

I made sure to pat it dry before throwing it in a hot grill pan.

Fifteen minutes or so later, the bacon was reasonably cooked and the filet was a touch below medium rare. Doesn't look so bad, does it?

The parsley classes it up

With no small amount of apprehension, I dug in. Based on my dining evidence, here are my hypotheses on why this piece of steak cost so little:
  1. God only knows where it came from.
  2. "Solution."
  3. Though cunningly connived into a filet-like shape thanks to the bacon, my piece (at least) was not a solid cut of tenderloin, but rather two split pieces of tip or end that were bound together. At least I can be thankful they didn't use meat glue to hold it together.
It's two steaks in one!

So how did it taste? Well, the bacon wasn't bad. Baking rather than grill-panning would have crisped it up a bit more. The flavor of the meat, though, I can only describe as "bologna-like". This is no doubt attributable to the overzealous flavor stylings of the Solution: all the spice, while being pleasant enough in the "tasty food" sense, obscured the "delicious beef" flavor that a good steak has. And given the likely provenance of this beef, I'm not sure how much of that flavor would have been there to begin with.

While my curiosity was certainly satisfied by finally trying this item, I can't say that my desire for big steak flavor was. But at $1.79, cheaper per serving than, well, pretty much any other meat I can think of, it presents an interesting monetary value proposition.

Still, I think I'd have to pass on trying this again. If I want a steak, number one I'm not getting a filet, and number two I'm not going to mess around. Aside from the questionable taste, the ethical ramifications of meat this cheap make me a little queasy. So, my curiosity satisfied, I will leave the Cattlemen's Ranch in the refrigerator case and use all the money I save buying everything else at Aldi to save up for a real decent steak every now and then.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Review: The Farmer's Cabinet

Wood, barrels, slate, candles, more wood, jars, stuffed animal heads, benches. Darkness. Walking into The Farmer's Cabinet is almost like entering some kind of pre-industrial dining hall. You check your wallet and find only credit cards – will they even accept these, or are they expecting me to pay for my meal via bartering a gaggle of geese or a fine pelt or two?

For all its rustic charm, the Cabinet is modern in one way: with a beer list that is seriously impressive, verging on baffling. I honestly don't know how many drafts and bottles they have available, but I do know that I have maybe heard of about one in 20 of them before. Lots of beers from Italy, from Denmark, from countries you didn't even know made beer – where and how do they even get it? So if you're into beer, study the menu hard before you come, or have faith in either the recommendations of your server or Lady Luck that you'll find suds that tickle your fancy.

On our visit, seated at the long communal table that dominates the main dining area, we had a Scottish ale called Cock of the Walk (the current firkin offering) while contemplating our dining choices. Very similar to a Jose Garces restaurant, the Cabinet's menu is broken down into traditional appetizers/small plates, shared apps "for the table", some salads, cheeses and charcuterie, traditional mains, and some family-style options. Though there are a few veggie options among the main dishes, meat, and especially game, dominates the menu.

First, we had the fried sweetbreads with tuna crudo and caper aioli, a dish that evoked some sort of mayonnaise-sauced tuna sushi roll once you got past the tasty, tender fried sweetbreads. A somewhat exotic combination that worked well, although it probably didn't need the huge volume of aioli that streaked the plate. A cheese fondue was creamy and delicious, with a slight bitter edge.

The house-made charcuterie was hit-and-miss. The duck ham was pretty magnificent, supple and smokey, but the "lamb prosciutto" was rather more salty and gamey than I would have liked, and it was served not thinly sliced but practically hacked into chunky slabs.

Although they were planning on trying some of the sandwiches, our dining companions could not resist the "what's he having?" lure of the Flintstones-sized buffalo short rib that was set down at the party next to us, so they both ordered it as their mains. Topped with shredded horseradish and set on a copious mound of sunchoke puree, the meat was somewhat unremarkable in flavor, but one of our servers was good enough to wrap up the spent bones for our friends to take home to their dog.

I had the rabbit, which was served two ways: braised (giant) leg portions served over a Greek yogurt-enriched polenta with cherries, and a spice-rubbed loin served over a white chocolate and carrot puree. Though the leg meat was ample and tasty, the dish was not without its flaws: the loin was a bit tough; the carrot/white chocolate sauce was a bit too sweet; and the whole dish really could have been served hotter. Lauren's skate entree had similarly disappointing elements, with the floury taste of the dredging standing out too much against the flavor of the fish, and the green tomato "frites" not having a great deal of flavor.

Desserts were pretty decent: the highlight of the apple crisp was the home-made ice cream served on top of it (they thoughtfully brought more of it out beyond the original small amount that came with the giant crisp), and spiked cherries and chantilly cream lightened up a whiskey sour cake. Service was very capable and not at all rushed despite a packed house.

The Farmer's Cabinet is no doubt a welcome addition to Walnut Street, particularly when it comes to the drinking scene (I didn't even get into the cocktails), but my impression is that food-wise, the main courses don't offer anything worth coming back for. I'd love to make this a regular place for some interesting beer and perhaps a few apps, but the entrees seem to be a case of the executions not living up to the concepts. I would almost like to see the purees and sauces and smashes toned down a bit, perhaps honoring the rustic conceit more by really developing flavors in the source ingredients and making them shine more on their own.

Farmers' Cabinet on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 16, 2011

Upside-Down Spinach and Feta Quiche with Potato Crust

Hot on the heels of Mother's Day last week, we had another brunch this Sunday to celebrate my mom's graduation from Penn. To make things a little easier on ourselves, we went with a quiche-heavy menu so that things could be prepared in advance ... but we didn't want to have our guests succumb to Pie Crust fatigue, so we came up with this alterna-tart using a Yukon Gold potato crust. For extra presentation points, we served it upside-down, almost like a stuffed version of Potatoes Anna.

It seemed to go over quite well, and the only difficult part about it is the mandoline-ing and arranging of the potatoes. I think next time, baking it a little less would result in a slightly more attractive dish, but the flavor was very nice. Here's how we made it:

2 large Yukon Gold potatoes
1 lb baby spinach, or perhaps a bag of frozen spinach
4 eggs
4 oz. feta cheese, crumbled
Nutmeg
Cayenne pepper
Cumin

If using fresh spinach, blanch the spinach in batches in salted water, shocking in an ice-water bath. If using frozen spinach, prepare per package directions. Either way, drain spinach very well by wringing in a towel. You may need to roughly chop the fresh spinach at this point.

Preheat oven to 375°. In the meantime, boil the potatoes for about ten minutes - they should still be firm, but with a bit of give on the outside. Allow to cool and then peel. Using a mandoline, or a knife and nerves of steel, cut very thin slices of the potato (cross-wise).

Lightly brush the inside of a pie plate with olive or vegetable oil. Starting from the center, arrange the slices of potato in an expanding spiral, overlapping them as necessary, and work them all the way up the sides of the plate. It should look something like this:

When complete, lightly brush the inside of the crust with oil, and place in the oven for about 15 minutes.

While the crust is baking, prepare the filling by beating the four eggs and mixing with the crumbled feta. Add spices to taste and season with pepper and a little bit of salt (remember that the feta will be salty).

Remove the crust from the oven and scatter the spinach across the bottom. Top with the egg/feta mixture, then create the top crust by gently laying the remaining potato slices on top of the filling in a similar overlapping spiral pattern.

Bake for about 20-25 minutes, or until potatoes are golden brown and filling has puffed up. Make sure the crust is free from the sides of the pan, then cover the pie plate with your serving plate, say a prayer, invert and serve.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mother's Day 2011

Time for Mother's Day again, always the premier event on our culinary calendar. Here is what we whipped up this year:

Corn soup, shrimp/scallop mousse

We did a plated first course this time. The broth in the corn soup was made with the corn cobs, some lemon peel and a chunk of Locatelli. The seafood mousse was wrapped in plastic and steamed. The little pink things are hibiscus-infused jicama, which was probably unnecessary.

Speck and asparagus Benedict on brioche

This picture is not of the prettiest specimen, but the egg was an attempt at an onsen egg done in the rice cooker. I put the eggs (in shell) in the cooker, covered with water, then switched it on until the temperature reached about 65° C. Popped the cooker to "keep warm" mode and watched it for about an hour. The asparagus was mandolined; the original plan was to sort of basket-weave it with the speck but that proved too torturous and it was likely that the asparagus would make the speck soggy. The brioche rounds were griddled for some extra flavor and texture. Not pictured: the Hollandaise.

Fingerling potato and caramelized leek hash

Nothing fancy here; the leeks were caramelized beforehand in the Crock Pot. Served with smoked paprika sour cream (not pictured).

Also not pictured, some mixed exotic mushrooms roasted in truffle and porcini oil.

Slow-roasted carrots, parsnips, fennel

Again, pretty simple here. The vegetables were tossed in a dressing of coarse mustard, Armagnac, agave syrup and olive oil before roasting.

Mixed berry tart

A classic fruit tart with strawberries, raspberries and blueberries over vanilla bean pastry cream.

Hope all you moms out there had a great day! If anyone is interested in more preparation details, holler in the comments!