Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Chain Gang

Last night, a friend and I had a beautiful dinner at Farmstead in Providence. As always, the food and the service at Farmstead were perfection.  We shared a selection of 3 artisan cheeses, Prince Edward Island muscles in rich broth and a to-die-for burger with gorgonzola cheese and fat polenta fries. Our server was warm and friendly and allowed us to draw her into ourcackly conversation with good humor. As I ate, I couldn’t help but think about how lucky we are to have such a wealth of amazing food and restaurants in our small city. From food trucksto fine dining, we Providonians, in particular and Rhode Islanders, in general, are fortunate enough to have access to amélange of mind-blowing culinary experiences… if we choose to.

That’s where my itty, bitty, tiny rant for the day comes in. There seems to be a strong contingent of folks who are happy to avoid the amazing, independently owned establishments and instead veer toward the safe, the bland… the chain. I know Rhode Islanders who hate to come “into the city.” There are one way streets! They might have to parallel park! The horror!

But it’s not even just those who don’t want to come to Providence, because I know there are tons of great restaurants in the other 38 cities and towns. I know Rhode Islanders who fear trying something other than their usual dish because they might not like it. Or fear a particular ethnic cuisine because it’s unfamiliar to them. Or fear trying that new place because “it looks sketchy.” Or fear the food truck because where will they sit?

And it’s not just Rhode Islanders. On a recent visit to my parents’ place in the South, they took me to a VPN certified, Neapolitan-style pizza place. It was incredible. Thin, crispy crust, hand-made mozzarella, delicate sauce, fresh basil. But the place was struggling because the neighborhood is used to Domino’s. I think my parents are eating copious amounts of Neapolitan pizza, single-handedly working to keep this place in business. Then there was a former co-worker of my husband, who told me that when he travels, he only eats in chains “because he knows they’ll be clean.” Sad… and also false.

I know I sound harsh here. I get it - for some people, food just isn’t that important and there’s no real reason for them to venture outside of Chili’s or Applebee’s or… Shenanigans? Is that one or am I thinking of a fictional movie restaurant?  I just wish that some of those “meat and potatoes” folks would every once and a while step outside of their comfort zone. Just for a bite or two. When I was growing up, my parents made me try everything. And while their tastes were not necessarily exotic, it showed me that there was a wide world out there and you can only benefit from venturing a nibble. Even if you hate it, you can at least check it off the list. (I'm proud to note here, that in my 35 years, I've found only one food I don't like - okra - shudder.) 

You may find me preachy. You may roll your eyes all the way to the back of your head. But do yourself a favor - leave the chain gang behind.

I hope to see you out there.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Shrimp & Bacon Farfalle in a Creamy Chive Sauce

If you ask me to bake, I will bite my nails, study my cookbooks as though my teenage SAT scores depended on it and soldier forth. I will nervously switch back and forth between the recipe and the bowl so quickly and so often it will give you whiplash. I'm a nervous baker. This Mothers' Day, while I was frosting a coconut cake that I woke up at 5am to bake, my hands were actually shaking.

But ask me to open the fridge, pull out the three remaining items inside and fix you a little dinner - that's my ballgame. Some of my favorite meals have been born from pulling random items from the fridge and declaring, "this will do nicely." This is one of those recipes. My measurements are far from exact, but don't worry, we're not bakers.

farfalle pasta
3/4 lb shrimp, peeled, deveined & patted dry
5 strips of bacon, chopped
zucchini, halved and thinly sliced
asparagus, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
cream cheese
white wine
red pepper flakes
kosher salt & pepper

Bring a pot of water to a boil and cook farfalle until al dente, reserving a cup on starchy pasta water.

Heat a large skillet and add chopped bacon. Cook until fat is rendered and bacon is crispy. Use a slotted spoon to remove bacon and set aside on a paper towel.

Add shallot, garlic and red pepper flakes (to taste) to skillet. Cook until translucent. Sprinkle salt and pepper on shrimp and add to the hot skillet, leaving untouched for about 2 minutes. Flip the shrimp to cook the other side.

Add zucchini. Cook about 3 minutes, then add mushrooms and asparagus. Add a splash (completely subjective) of white wine and stir, allowing wine to cook off.

Add pasta, cream cheese, chives, pasta water in amounts to reach the desired sauce consistency. Add reserved bacon back in. Taste for seasoning, sprinkle with parsley and serve hot.

I hope you like it!

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Happiest Place on Earth Ain't Disney

Here I am in Aiken, South Carolina, soaking up some sun, lovely weather and parental guidance. I have to be truthful, since my introduction to this southern town in 2010, the list of things I like about Aiken has been short. My parents are here, that's number 1. Their downtown area is full of cute boutiques and that old southern charm, that's number 2. And Duke's BBQ, that's number 3. Don't get me wrong, this is a terrific town, it's just a little sleepy for me, is all.

But yesterday, my mom brought me to Aiken's newest grocery store, The Fresh Market. Hold the phone. This is a new development. This town might have more for me after all. The Fresh Market has locations across the country, but with the closest to me being in Hingham, MA, I had never seen one. And I certainly never expected to see a store like this in Aiken. I may be going back every day of this visit. Move over Disney, this is the happiest place on earth.

The flower section at The Fresh Market transports you to a 
far-away tropical locale.

Willy Wonka was here...

l feel it's important to say that this is not a sponsored post. I'm just a wee blogger, so no one cares enough what I think to ask me to do that... plus I'm not sure I would. But I wanted to show you all this place because my lord, I was practically skipping through the aisles.

...but Willy Wonka's packaging was never this good.
From gorgeous produce, to desserts, craft beer and wine, prepared foods, meats, fish and more, this place had it all.

The fish monger was happy to let me try the cold smoked and the
roasted salmon. The roasted was the winner.

I was just the strange girl, taking photos of all the food... and maybe drooling a little. Each time my mom saw me whip out my iPhone, she would walk a few steps away. "I have no idea who this person is," her face implied.

Greek, sure. Icelandic, sure. But I'd never seen New Zealand yogurt before.

The staff at The Fresh Market was lovely, though I can't say if that was the store philosophy or simply a southern thing.

Hello, spices.

If my parents can't find me later, can you please tell them where I'll be?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Almost Stressless

This Sunday, I had an 11-person, surprise birthday dinner for my mother in law. But I also had a 5K to run the morning of the party and well, a life. That means I couldn't do anything too time consuming, or that I couldn't tackle ahead of the party. Here are a few things that can be made pulled together quickly or made ahead - and the most important things I've learned about stress free partying.

Mediterranean Orzo Salad I made this for Sunday’s party on Friday night and wrapped it tight in the serving bowl I planned to use. By Sunday, the flavors had combined beautifully and it tasted even better than when I made it on Friday. And the beauty of an orzo salad is that it's a blank canvas. I included olives, roasted peppers, tomatoes, feta, tarragon, olive oil and lemon. 

Buffalo Chicken Wonton Cups On Saturday, I baked the wonton cups and put them in an airtight container. I made the Buffalo chicken filling and put it in a Ziploc bag so that on Sunday, I could just snip a corner off the bag and use it to pipe the filling into the wontons. Right before the party I baked the filled wontons and added garnishes. If Buffalo chicken is not your thing, baked wonton cups can be filled with just about anything.

Deviled Eggs Have you ever met someone that doesn't like a deviled egg? Me either. They’re a total crowd pleaser. I used the same phased approach for the eggs that I did for the wonton cups. I hard boiled the eggs on Friday night; made the filling on Saturday and put it in a Ziploc bag; and piped the eggs straight from the bag right before guests arrived. 

Salad Bar Why not let everyone fulfill their own salad destinies? I chopped up various veggies and set them out with toppings and dressings. It was the “choose your own adventure” of salads.

Lobster Rolls It’s summer. It’s New England. People love lobster. I love lobster. But the nice fish market man did the math for me – 1/3 pound of lobster meat to make a roll – 3 to 4 pounds of whole lobster to get a pound of meat. For 11 people? I did not have the time for a lobster massacre of that ilk. The nice fish market man then let me in on a little secret: 24 fresh, prepared mini rolls for $70. Sold. Picked-up on Saturday, refrigerated until Sunday. Ask your local fish market what they have available. These rolls, while cocktail size, were well-stuffed, fresh and delicious.

Take a breath. Have a drink. Get some help.

Take a breath. Your friends and family are happy to be invited to your home and not have to make dinner themselves that evening. If you aren't quite ready when the first guest arrives; if someone alerts you mid-party that there is not a square of toilet paper to be had; if you burn the dip – relax. No one. Really. Cares.

Have a drink. Your guests will have fun if you’re having fun. Do the prep work ahead of time. Go ahead, get crazy and anal-retentive about it – or don’t. But once your guests arrive, be with them. Pour yourself a cocktail when you pour theirs and have fun at your own damn party!

Get some help. People like to help and it will help you immensely. The birthday girl’s close friend makes outstanding cakes. She was happy to be the dessert hero of the evening. I asked another friend of the family to do a signature cocktail. Never hesitate to ask for a hand.

All in all, it was a successful party. My mother in law  and all of her guests had a lovely time. The food was good and plenty, glasses were full and merry was made. And not a single soul missed that dip anyway.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Welcome Back Cotter

Here she is. The most delinquent blogger in the history of  blogging. Since I last wrote in October of 2011, I've finished culinary school, walked down the aisle with my best friend and lived a lot of life. I'm not going to apologize or make excuses for my absence. Life got in the way of this thing that I love. It happens.

But this spring, I was at a food event with all sorts of great folks who inspire me and I bumped into Andrea, owner of The Locals restaurant and fellow JWU grad. She introduced me to her friend as "Kate, a food writer." It was like an arrow to the heart. Didn't she know? I wasn't worthy of such an introduction! I hadn't put pen to paper to talk about food in almost 2 years! But sometimes an arrow to the heart is also a flame under the ass and here I am. 

You'll notice I've tweaked the look of The Coquettish Cook a little bit. I like to think it represents a little bit of growth in the last 2 years. I have some ideas of what I'd like to do here, beyond the usual recipes and restaurant trips. I can't promise that I will post every day, but I am vowing to myself - and to you - that I will make this my home once again.