Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Memorable Meal with a Memorable Woman

My relationship with AE has many wonderful aspects, and one that I really enjoy is that our anniversary falls on December 31st. That allows me to see the New Year not just as a time to buy a new calendar, but as an opportunity to reaffirm our love for each other. As part of that celebration, a few weeks after the New Year we decided to unleash our adventurous side by checking out a Japanese restaurant that had recently opened in north Austin.

The restaurant, Uchiko, is a spin-off of a top notch sushi place here in town, and describes itself as a modern interpre
tation of traditional Japanese farmhouse cuisine. That’s a style of food I’m unfamiliar with, so it promised to be a treat for the taste-buds, but the occasion poised a bit of a dilemma as well. Ideally, every meal offers dishes that complement and play off each other, so that the overall experience is greater than the sum of the parts. The classic steak-house dinner is a good example: the Caesar salad, martini, steak, potato, and dessert are good in isolation, but served up together, they border on the sublime.

Presumably, the same sort of complementary dining experience existed at Uchiko, but I was skeptical about our ability to discover it. Dishes like Truffled Congee- short grain japanese rice, preserved lemon, cured aji, crispy collard green, périgord black truffle-sounded like a real adventure for the taste-buds, but would it pair well, or at all, with the Usagi- rabbit, pumpernickel rye, saffron, breakfast radish? And what of the dessert special- peanut butter, pretzel, chocolate, beer…was that combination genius or just thrown together by an overworked chief trying something different for the sake of being different?

We arrived at Uchiko on a dark and rainy night with our dilemma still unresolved. The restaurant itself was bustling despite the weather and it took us a few minutes to be seated. Looking around, the décor was unsurprisingly minimalist and Asian. Our favorite part was a giant chalkboard covered with detailed pictures of all the specials. It was really well done and made me wonder how long it takes the artist to draw everything in every day.

After the short wait, we met our waiter Marko, a tall fellow with an intriguing
foreign accent that fascinated AE from the first word. “He sounds French, but he’s too tall” was her take. After lots of speculation, she finally broke down and asked where he was from. It turns out Marko is from Croatia, which met AE’s criteria for ‘interesting exotic tall foreigner.’ Guess I don’t have to feel guilty about flirting around at our next anniversary dinner…

It must be admitted that Marko is a pretty nice guy. We couldn’t decide on which type of sake to order, and so he
brought us samples of the two under consideration. In a very nice touch, he didn’t tell us which was which, so as to eliminate any lingering label or price bias our subconscious might be harboring. Best of all, Marko mentioned a tasting menu, which “offers an overview of all the very best that Uchiko has to offer.” That nicely solved our dilemma over trying to construct the ideal meal and we sat back, relaxed, and prepared for our taste-buds to be tantalized.

Things started off nicely with an amuse-bouche of strawberries and beets and the meal only got better from there. We feasted on things I’d never even heard of before, like beakfish, beltfish, and gruntfish. All ten courses were excellent and proportioned so that by the end we
were full but not stuffed. Some of the highlights for me included:

King Prawns with a Basil Seed sauce: These were enormous prawns that were dehydrated, concentrating their flavor and making them very crispy. Delicious.

Jar Jar Duck: this was duck in a kumquat sauce that arrived at our table sealed in a mason jar. When we opened it, a delicious rosemary smoke wafted out. I’ll have to get AE how to figure out how to duplicate this effect at home!

Grand Saline Sweet Potato: This one was lots of fun. A sweet potato was served with thinly sliced Spanish ham and a jalapeno marshmallow. I wasn’t sure it would work, but all the different elements-crispy salty ham, gooey spicy marshmallow, and creamy sweet potato-all came together beautifully.

Peanut Butter Pretzel Chocolate Beer Dessert: we ended up being served the special, and like the Sweet Potato, all the flavors came together. The beer was served as a sorbet, was rather mild, and contrasted nicely with the pretzel, which was crumbled across the plate along with a honey mustard sauce. The chocolate and peanut butter added a pleasant richness, and was a fantastic end to the meal.

We also had a comedic interlude during dinner. Our table was near the bar/waiting area, and towards the end of our meal, an amazingly stereotypical Texan cowboy ended up standing right behind AE. Complete with ten-gallon hat and alligator skin boots, the guy drawled on and on in a thick accent about how he’d never seen so many different wines on a single list or such crazy food. It was pretty funny, although I felt a little sorry for AE, who was about eight inches from his tirade.

All in all, despite the crazy cowboy, Uchiko was a real treat, with great food and great service. The tasting menu was a great way to experience the restaurant and just as we had hoped, turned a series of intriguing dishes into the sublime experience we were looking for. Best of all, Marko slipped AE a gift card to the restaurant as we left, so we may be headed back soon. This time, we may even try our hand at putting together our own series of complementary dishes!

For anyone who is interested in further information, here’s the URL for both Uchiko and its sister, Uchi:

AE has also kindly recreated the entire tasting menu below:

Amuse Bouche of Strawberry Beets
Winter Yellowtail sushi
Kusshi Oysters with Asian Grapefruit
Assorted Sushi-gruntfish, bluefish, and bluenose
Diver Scallops with uni, wild salmon roe, and truffles
King Prawns with basil seed and smoked butter
Jar Jar Duck with kumquat confit and rosemary smoke
Sushi-beaknose fish
Wagyu Ribeye with cauliflower and leek blossom
Grand Saline Sweet Potato with jamon Serrano, jalapeno marshmallow, and bourbon maple syrup
Dessert Special-peanut butter, pretzel, chocolate, beer

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Rockland’s Pies on Parade: Cranberry Apple Walnut Pie

The historic inns and many businesses of Rockland, ME, have celebrated National Pie Day (Jan. 23) in grand style for the past 7 years by hosting the Pies on Parade tour. The event is not solely traditional fruit pies; everything from Refined Sugar-Free, Lavender, Honey & Yogurt Pie to Seafood Pie to Cider Braised Pork Brioche to Savory Breakfast Pie is served. Ticket holders wander from inn to inn and restaurant to restaurant sampling pies and soaking in Rockland’s atmosphere. Many inns and hotels offer special 2 night packages for the convenience of overstuffed out-of-town guests. I didn’t know any of this when I chose the Captain Lindsey House Inn’s Cranberry Apple Walnut pie recipe for Christmas Eve which was a pie featured in the parade one year, but I hope someday to attend the event.

I chose the recipe because I wanted something with cranberries on the menu. The non-traditional idea of combining cranberries and dessert was too tempting to pass up. Plus, I love walnuts. I found the recipe simple and am eager to try a few slight variations on it – mainly substituting the sugar with more honey.

Cranberry Apple Walnut Pie

1 double-crust unbaked pastry crust
1/2 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon orange peel
1/2 cup honey
1 Tablespoon butter
2 cups fresh cranberries
3-1/2 cups diced apples of your choice
1/2 cup walnuts

Cook sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt, orange peel, honey and butter for 2 minutes at medium heat in a heavy saucepan.

Add cranberries, diced apples and walnuts and cook for 5 minutes.

Pour into an unbaked bottom crust, and use the top crust to create a lattice design on top.

Bake for 35-40 minutes at 425°.

Serve a la mode. (Top photo shows the pie served with homemade Maple Nut ice cream)

Possible Variations:
• Slice the apples instead of dicing them
• Use a variety of apples
• Use lemon peel instead of orange

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Lobster or Lutefisk?

That was the choice my mother offered when she suggested a New England or Scandinavian
themed Christmas. As much as Zeb and I were tempted to select something fr
om my heritage and use our Scandinavian Feasts: Celebrating Traditions Throughout the Year (Ojakangas, 1992) cookbook, we couldn’t turn down the fresh seafood.

We started with Connecticut oysters which were wonderfully shucked by Zeb. Then we continued with New England Clam Chowder from James Peterson’s Cooking (2007). The third course was Maine lobster with boiled corn and potatoes. The meal ended with a scoop of homemade Vermont Maple Nut ice cream (lovingly made by LA and Zeb) and Cranberry Apple Walnut pie which I made from Captain Lindsey House Inn’s recipe (located in Rockland, ME).

No one missed the lutefisk.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Hearty Breakfast

When was the last time you went to a restaurant and ended up ordering everything on the menu? Well, I almost managed to do just that at the Lambert's brunch the other day. Lambert's, for those readers not familiar with the Austin area, is an upscale barbecue establishment that tries to combine fine dining with brisket and ribs. Basically, it's as far away from Smitty's as you can get while still serving the same type of food.

We went at 11:30 on Sunday, trying to beat the lunch rush, but the place was already bustling. Luckily, we'd gotten reservations and were promptly seated. The waiter came by and explained to us how brunch worked. There's a buffet line you can go through as many times as you want, plus a short menu you can order off of as many times as you like. In short, it's an all-you-can-eat extravaganza for $26. Since all the food is top-notch and prepared fresh for you, this is actually a pretty good deal if you come hungry.

AE and I decided to start by heading for the buffet line. AE was just getting over a bad cold, and didn't have much of an appetite, putting a lot of pressure on me to eat as much as possible to ensure we did get our money's worth. I rose to the occasion as best I could, grabbing the following on my first pass through the line:

Classic New Potato Salad
Jicama and Cilantro Slaw
Deviled Eggs with Caviar
House Smoked Gravlox Salmon
Apple Smoked Bacon
New Potato Home Fires
Brown Sugar and Coffee Rubbed Natural Brisket

All of the food was really good, with the salmon and the truly excellent bacon being my favorites. More importantly, a quick look at that list will show how carefully I was balancing the proteins and carbs to ensure I could eat as much as possible. Pacing yourself is vital at these all-you-can-eat places, and although I don't have much practice at it, I was working hard to keep going for the long haul.

Just as I was finishing up my plate, the waiter came by and I decided to order some stuff off the menu as a change of pace. This time I went with a michelada (bohemian beer with a spicy mix of olives, limes, and ice added...flavorful AND light, which was of course perfect for maximizing food intake), and some eggs Benedict with Niman Ranch ham, poached eggs, and a tasty Tobasco hollandaise sauce.

So far, things were going least until I noticed AE just picking at her food. At that point, she forced upon me some buffet line items she'd snagged but wasn't going to finish. My carefully planned and balanced approach came crashing down under the onslaught of her:

Fresh cut fruit and berries
Chilled Asparagus with Sherry Shallot Vinaigrette
Spicy Breakfast Sausage
Chedder and Roasted Poblano Grits
Baked Mac and Cheese

It doesn't take Takeru Kobayashi or Joey Chestnut to see the problem here...way too many carbs and not enough protein. Even though her food was super tasty, it was also super filling. Just to rub things in a bit, after I ate all of AE's food for her, she revived enough to order some Thick Cut Brioche French Toast and a Banana and Berry smoothie. After I helped her (again!) to finish her french toast, I had only enough room left to order some Smoked Brisket Hash.

Tragically, my planned second trip through the buffet line thus never happened and trying things like the Niman Ranch prime rib and the coriander and maple crusted Berkshire pork ribs would have to wait for another trip. Oh, I did manage to grab some fried pie as I waddled out though. I think Miss "my eyes are bigger than my stomach" enjoyed it too...the picture at the start of this entry was stolen off of flickr from someone with better photo skills than me, but it does a good job of capturing what was on AE's plate.

Anyway, it was an extremely tasty time, even if I did end up having to take the dogs for a long calorie-burning walk after being such a pig.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What's fresh next month?

I’m not the food connoisseur that Zeb is. I know that fruits and vegetables are seasonal and I have a rough idea of peak seasons. Sadly, most of this knowledge comes from examining prices at the grocery store. Lately, I’ve been more researchy and use’s handy peak season map to help me plan future meals. It’s also fun to play around and see what grows when and how it differs per location. Maybe I am easily amused or I may just love maps.

Peak-Season Map at

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Starting the Year Off Locally

Zeb and I are always looking for ways to support our local businesses. I suppose it stems from his alternative upbringing and my French one (Thank you O wonderful parents!). To start 2010 off right, we signed up for 3 months of Farmhouse Delivery.

This week the brightly colored delivery van dropped off our first shipment: Louisiana shallots, sweet potatoes, Marrs oranges, green cabbage, broccoli, leaf lettuce, mixed Asian greens, curly parsley, white icicle radishes, and cherry tomatoes. They came in a large plastic container which we will set out next time to be reused by Farmhouse Delivery.

Although we received an email with a list of what to expect, we also knew the items could change. This was a valid concern this week due to the holidays and abnormally cold Texan weather. I eagerly waited for the delivery Friday morning. Zeb was good and only texted once to ask if it came. I was pleasantly surprised by the contents. It was packed full of great smelling vegetables plus fresh eggs and goat cheese which Zeb ordered to surprise me :)

After rearranging the fridge to fit the new food, I plopped down on the couch with several recipe books. Zeb wanted to use his new tagine, but winter vegetable don't mix well with Moroccan cooking. I'm still not sure what we'll cook, but I am willing to bet the cabbage is used in a Polish dish.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Winter Vegetable Ragout*

The goose was good, the potatoes were great, but the winter vegetables were superb!

Caution: This recipe serves 12!
Preheat oven to 350 (later change to 425)

4 lg carrots
1 butternut squash - peeled & cut into 3/4" cubes
2 med. turnips - peeled & cut into 3/4" cubes
2 med onions - cut into 1" pieces
1/4 C olive oil
Salt (we used Himalayan)
Fresh ground pepper
3/4C Madeira
1 lg tomato
2 tsp fresh thyme

In a large roasting pan, toss carrots, squash, turnips, and onions with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for about 25 minutes until they begin to soften but are not browned.

Stir in
Madeira and tomatoes. Roast for another 25 minutes, stirring once, until the Madeira has evaporated and the veggies are golden.

Turn oven up to 425. Add the thyme. Roast for 20-25 minutes more, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are lightly caramelized.

The dish can rest at room temperature up to 6 hours. Reheat before serving.

*Adapted from