Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Florida, pt 2: The Lucky Dill

While in Florida, I got to eat* at one of my old favorite spots when I lived there: The Lucky Dill. A New York style deli right in Palm Harbor of all places.

Inside, they have photos of various famous places in NY smothering the walls, while the customers are jammed in just a couple feet from one another...sitting asshole to elbow is truly reminiscent of New York, at least to me. There is a bakery in house, and the case you see just as you walk in is filled with enticing treats: several varieties of cheesecakes, cannolis, cookies, brownies, and more. And at 5pm, as we found, the restaurant is completely filled with old people; an absolute sea of white hair. As an old friend would say, "it smells like death in here!"

I think my only complaint, other than lack of ambiance, is that they have far too many menus. Upon seating, you receive no less than 3: a special menu, breakfast menu, and regular menu. All of them are oversized and cumbersome at the little tables. But no matter, at that point you usually see a waitress walk by with a sandwich containing what can't be less than a pound of amazing looking deli meat, and you forget about how awkward all the menus are.

Not for the caloric conscious, when you order a drink and sandwich, a cup of soup and a slice of cheesecake are free. My father decided to indulge (congrats, dad! minus 105lbs and counting!), the free soup of the day was a delicious matzo ball, while I had one of the best tomato bisques I think I've ever had. Topped with scallions, it had a kick to it that seemed to come from fire roasted tomatoes and possibly the addition of cayenne as well. Yum. My father got the reuben sandwich, which made me wish I was hungry enough to get a sandwich too: piles of corned beef around a layer of sauerkraut, all between two slices of buttered and toasted rye bread. It looked like it was roughly the size of my head. Now that is a sandwich.

Not to be outdone, the cheesecake with raspberry sauce we shared stood on its own: excellent texture and flavor, and great crust that had a little bit of toasted coconut on the outside. A million times better than the cheesecake at my school (what the hell kind of culinary school chooses to do cheesecake without a graham cracker crust, just a thin layer of vanilla sponge cake?? and then pile every type of fruit onto it, even grapes??).

Come to think of it, I went to high school with the son of the owners of The Lucky Dill and he was in the process of learning how to run it. The family owned one other restaurant nearby, called Molly Goodheads. I went there once and vaguely remember really good crapcakes. Kudos to them for putting out good food for what is hopefully many years to come.

*To be honest, we tried to go to our old truly favorite place, called McCabe's Cafe. It saddens me to say that they are no longer in business.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Florida, Pt. 1: Boiled Peanuts

I recently returned from a trip to Florida to visit my father for my spring break. Land of lizards, beaches, old people, and amusement parks.

After enjoying a fishing area, we came across a roadside stand on the way home: a hand-written sign reading "Boiled Peanuts ahead." Now, I've heard about boiled peanuts. A friend of mine, native of Florida, absolutely loves them, while my sister claims they are nasty little mushy peanuts. I figured it was time to find out for myself.

I did a little research on them to find out how they came about, and came upon this site which had great information. It is believed that they started back in the Civil War, with peanuts acting as a much-needed nutrient source (lots of fat and protein) for soldiers. They began boiling them in salt, and the salt worked as a preservative while the boiling killed the bacteria. Soldiers found they could keep the peanuts in their packs for several days without going bad. This eventually led to boiled peanuts being a southern tradition.

Most recipes seem to agree that green (freshly harvested) peanuts are the only ones to use, while the amount of salt in the water seems up for debate. Some say you can boil them for a few hours, while others say it takes at least 2 days to get them to the right softness. Traditionally of course, you would use nothing more than salt and water to boil them in, but some people add in things like Cajun seasoning, chile peppers, ham hocks, or beer to spice things up a bit.

We pulled off the road to where an older guy with a great white beard sat on a lawn chair. A few feet across from him was nothing more than a table with a sleeve of styrofoam cups and notebook next to a little propane set up for a large stockpot of peanuts. I watched as he slowly got up and walked to his notebook where he tallied my visit: twenty-two people so far for the day. Four bucks bought me a giant cup of the steamy, salty boiled peanuts. And they were malodorous, mushy, foul little peanuts. Hey, I tried to keep an open mind. They had a nice peanut flavor. But that musty smell that surrounded them, and the mushy texture...I just couldn't get past it. I think I'll let the southerners keep that tradition of theirs. We gave them to a friend of my father's. We haven't heard from her since.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Cucumber Salad

In Frederick, Maryland exists the best Chinese restaurant I have ever had the pleasure of dining at: China Garden, right off the golden mile. It was one of the places my family visited regularly, and not only was the food great, but one of the special things about them was the complimentary items you'd get before, during, and after your meal. Upon seating, you could pour yourself some delicious hot tea, and munch on a sweet and tangy cucumber salad. And after you ate, they'd always give you something, whether it be just orange segments or a nice scoop of strawberry ice cream.
These experiences have been buried deep in the archives of my brain, when it was suddenly brought to life when I came across a recipe for that very same cucumber onion salad they used to give us. As soon as I saw the picture, I knew this was exactly what I had enjoyed as a precursor or side to Chinese food all those years ago.

Not only did it match perfectly, it takes about five minutes to whip up. Try it next time you're making an Asian-based meal.

  • 2 cups chopped cucumber
  • 1/2 cup red onion, sliced thin
  • pinch of crushed red pepper (to taste)
  • pinch of kosher salt
  • 1 T. sugar
  • 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
  • crushed roasted peanuts, for sprinkling

Toss everything together, and let it marinate for at least 20 minutes at room temperature. Not only will the onion get a little less pungent, but everything soaks up the vinegar, which really makes it good. There seems to be quite a lot of vinegar but that's mostly so that it can marinate. Sprinkle on some crushed peanuts before serving.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Watermelon-Cantaloupe Sorbet

It's that time of year. You run to the grocery store for something, and as you walk in and pass the fruit you see it: the year's first summer melons, already pre-sliced and packaged for your convenience. You know it's way too early for them to be as delicious as they will be a couple months from now, but after all the months of cold nasty weather and darkness the idea of sunny summer is so tantalizing that you drift towards it anyway. And it smells like summer. It hits deep: memories of sitting on a porch spitting out watermelon seeds, juice dripping down your chin and arms. Bike riding, water balloon fights, fourth of July fireworks. And before you know it, you have a giant wedge of watermelon and package of cantaloupe in your basket.

Or at least that's what happened to me. And since I recently watched an episode of Good Eats where Alton Brown made melon sorbet, I decided I should give it a try as well. Sorbet is not sherbet. And sherbet is not sherbert(that word just invented itself). Sherbet contains milk solids. It gets really confusing, as sorbet does not have an FDA classification on its own. Sorbets, ices, and granita are all related. According to On Food and Cooking, the word sorbet came from sorbetto, the Arabic word for syrup.

The trickiest part of making sorbet is to keep the texture smooth, without large ice crystals. This is often done by adding liquor to the recipe, which makes perfect sense. Alcoholic beverages freeze at very cold temperatures that you're not going to reach with sorbet, and so by blending it into the mixture, you make a kind of edible anti-freeze that keeps your sorbet at an ideal texture.

Now on to Alton Brown's melon sorbet recipe, with some of the watermelon replaced by cantaloupe:
  • 16 oz watermelon
  • 5 oz cantaloupe
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons vodka*
  • 9 oz sugar, ~ 1 1/4 cups

*Vodka is used because it won't contribute much flavor to the sorbet, but I actually used black cherry vodka because it's what I had on hand. I don't see any reason not to use flavored vodka if it's fruity and you think it will go with the other flavors, or even midori as it's a melon-based liqueur.

Place melon is the bowl of a food processor and process till smooth. Add lemon juice, vodka, and sugar and process for another 30 seconds. Place mixture in fridge until it reaches 40°F, which will take between 30 minutes to an hour. Pour chilled mixture into bowl of an ice cream maker (already running) and process according to manufacturer's instructions. Transfer to an airtight container and freeze 3-4 hours before serving.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


Yesterday I finally got to Distrito for a meal - lunch, to be exact. Chef Jose Garces is the owner, and when I worked there several months ago the buzz was about him recently being on Iron Chef America up against Bobby Flay in battle melon. The result? He won! Celebrity chef or not, Bobby Flay's food is really quite good, from what I remember when I went to Mesa Grill about two years ago. My friend and I went for brunch, and I was hooked...just by the bread before the meal. There were delicious mini muffins with golden raisins, half yellow corn half blue corn muffins, spicy cornbread. I had the bluecorn waffle with blackberry bourbon syrup and vanilla creme fraiche, and it was mighty tasty. My friend had the 16-spice chicken with some kind of tamale. Both of us were quite satisfied with the food and the price that went with it. But I digress. The fact that Garces had beaten Flay was impressive knowing what good food Flay had.

The first thing anyone notices of this "modern Mexican" restaurant is, of course, the decor. It's insanely bright with pink walls and chairs and tables in various shades of pink and green. Some find the adornment obnoxious, others love it. I found it to be a little unsettling at first, but got used to it. Obviously they're going for the overly-ornamented look, but the shared sinks by the bathrooms upstairs are a little awkward. It's a very trendy place, the hostess had kind of giraffe-like skinniness and looked as though she should be a supermodel, and most of the people there appeared to be on business lunches. The constant theme of Mexican wrestlers is a goofy one that I find hilarious - they even have a giant TV screen upstairs that plays scenes from Nacho Libre(they may have changed that by now to something else). Friday and Saturday nights (I think) they have a flamenco guitarist/singer with a beautiful voice that serenades customers.

Distrito has a lunch special - two courses for $15. This is a pretty good deal, especially considering the quality you're getting (though I've read many other reviews that complain of how expensive it is - it looks as though a la carte adds up quick, and people forget that this is a tapas place). It's a little limiting though, considering how much more is on the dinner menu, including the Kobe beef tacos I'd been told to try that are apparently amazing. There's an incredible range of food even on the lunch menu, from ceviche and soups and salads for first course, with second course items containing duck, chicken, pulled pork, short rib, yellowtail, and even cactus.

For first course, I had the chilango chop: a salad of baby arugula, watercress, cherry tomatoes, green olives (ew), orange segments, and pecans, with shaved coconut on top and a tomato-lime vinaigrette (you can choose that or the chipotle buttermilk dressing). I added the Kobe beef, which will get you about 5 hunks for $7. Except for the olives, it was simple but good. I loved the pecans, and the Kobe beef was rich and served medium-rare. My friend had the camarones ceviche - shrimp served with avocado, a spicy tomato sauce, and plantain chips. He was entirely unimpressed and when I tasted it, I knew why - the flavors instantly made me think of Indian food, and he is not at all a fan of that. Oh well. I liked it, though I've never been impressed by plantain chips. Both were very different in portion size: the salad was a decent spread, while the ceviche was basically 4 shrimp in a sauce and a few little plantain chips.

Second course brought my hamachi tacos - fried yellowtail that resembled a fishstick, chipotle remoulade, red cabbage, avocado, and a lime for squeezing over top. This I really liked - there was good texture contrast with the soft tortilla, crunchy cabbage, creamy sauce, and flaky fish. The sauce had a good balance of spice; it didn't overwhelm the other flavors. It was my favorite. My friend ordered the queso fundido - with duck and poblano and tortillas. Though not healthy or low calorie by any means, it was lovely. It was greasy of and cheese will do that...but not as much as it could have been. However, it's hard to get the flavor of duck out when it's covered with 3 types of cheese, and it most definitely isn't going to be rare. It could easily be mistaken for pork if unaware.

For dessert we split the coconut flan, as they were out of the tres leches. Having worked the pastry station, I knew how good it would be and it was nice to be able to sit and enjoy it instead of putting it together as fast as possible. Garnished with a quenelle of whipped cream (which had melted on ours by the time it got to us), toasted coconut, and a coconut tuille, it was a good ending to a good meal.

I love the range of dishes available, and the variety of ingredients used. All in all, the food was good - but there was nothing I had that I'll be craving in a couple weeks enough to make me want to go running back. I may go back anyway in a couple of months when I can legally drink to try a margarita - they boast having around 80 types of tequila. And maybe along with that I'll try a couple of the dishes that I've heard the most about, and it will make me want to go back time and time again.