Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Rhubarb at Rhubard: Asheville, NC



Downtown Asheville, NC buzzes with activity like a university campus on graduation day. From fancy dress to cutoffs and tees, folks dine in small eateries serving up gourmet and down-home dishes. Musicians serenade on street corners adding a rhythmic beat to the air. And, outdoor enthusiasts hustle up mountainous roads: bicycling, jogging, hiking while others practice yoga in the plaza. Cheers to this happening crossroads where visitors and locals thrive on the eclectic hum.   
Yoga in downtown Asheville

When I arrived for dinner at Rhubarb on Pack Square, one of Asheville's renowned downtown restaurants, I found the place in a rhubarb. Now, most people think the word rhubarb means reddish stringy stalks of fruit used in pies, but the Oxford English Dictionary defines a slang usage as "the noise made by a group of actors to give the impression of indistinct background conversation or to represent the noise of a crowd." How apt. The Tourism Council was filming a spot in the restaurant, so lights, cameras, and actors were skuttling around. I was still able to slip into a corner, keenly observe, and still enjoy a meal.
Oudoor Dining at Rhubarb  Courtesy of ExploreAsheville.com

I started my dining experience with the signature cocktail, a Rhubarb Collins. The slightly pinkish drink comes in a tall, slim glass; a mix of vodka and house made strawberry rhubarb soda. The bubbly liquid bursts with an effervescence that is refreshing, perhaps just a little too light for my tastes.


Crispy and spicy cauliflower became the appetizer of choice. This dish reminded me of India, somewhat hot, but not too pungent with a cooling dipping sauce. Yummy.

My entree, well...what else: Rhubarb Glazed Duck Confit. The preparation was spot on; crispy on the outside and tender and moist within. The sautéed greens were not overcooked and complimented by a thinly-sliced sweet potato layer hidden underneath. The portion was perfectly sized, but for many Americans, likely a tad small.

Keeping up the theme, I simply had to finish the meal with Rhubarb Crisp. A generously sized dessert arrived with dollops of Lemon-Thyme Anglaise and a beautiful fresh pansy in the center. Divine, but then again, I love cobbler! The recipe tasted tangy and not too sweet. Additional pieces of rhubarb and rye crumble garnished the edges making the entire effect delicious. 

I was also treated to another house special, The Snix: milk chocolate semifreddo, hot boiled peanuts, salted peanut brittle and drizzled with caramel. Order this to die for dessert if you want sweetness.
Chef John Fleer

Chef John Fleer, a three-time finalist for the James Beard “Best Chef in the Southeast” award, came out to meet me, a most personable and a happy man. He smiled and laughed during the photo shoot and I commented on his happiness. He says it comes from loving his choices. He moved his family from the award-winning Blackberry Farm in Tennessee to Asheville. He adores the vibrant community and maintains a close relationship with local farmers and suppliers. We seemed to agree that a happy chef makes a happy restaurant and Rhubarb indeed is. I'd be delighted to return again.

Rhubarb: 7 SW. Pack Square; rhubarbasheville.com
Beautiful Skyline of Asheville, NC
Courtesy of ExploreAsheville.com


Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Martini for All Seasons: Pomegranate

Whether it's Christmas or the Fourth of July, pomegranate martinis flaunt the essence of perfection. The gorgeous deep ruby-magenta liquid tastes divine and makes them my choice for any occasion. But beware; the luscious smooth drink also packs a powerful punch.

Christmas Day Martini

Seems pomegranates burst on the scene about 5-10 years ago, but according to the Pomegranate Council, they've been around for 4,000 years.  The fruit bangs out walloping high levels of vitamin C, potassium, antioxidants, fiber, and is low in calories. The popular brand Pom supplies grocery stores with pomegranate juice in a variety of flavor combinations.

Party planners find the red hue ideal for themed drinks during Christmas holidays, Valentine's Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and even Veteran's Day. At Thanksgiving simply can add one jigger of cranberry juice. Sadly, these drinks don't fulfill the needs for St. Patrick's Day or Halloween, but so many other libations do. Anytime you need a reddish-purple drink accent, make pomegranate martinis the special of the day.
Memorial Day, Veteran's Day or the 4th of July Martini 

My personal martini recipe contains vodka although you can substitute gin if that is your preference. Since I live in St. Augustine, I use St. Augustine Vodka from the hometown distillery. It's made with Florida-grown sugarcane. The recipe is versatile depending on your tastes. One friend prefers orange juice in place of Grand Mariner, and I've also filled in with fresh lemon juice although that tastes a bit tarter.

To prepare: Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and then add two jiggers of vodka, one of Grand Mariner, one of Pomegranate liqueur and two jiggers of plain pomegranate juice.  Shake, strain and pour into a martini glass. 

My choice ingredients: Pama Pomegranate Liqueur, St. Augustine Vodka, Grand Mariner and Pom Juice

I prefer to float pomegranate seeds in the glass; however, an orange slice works well. Use a lemon or lime as garnish if that is all you have. For other cocktails made with pomegranate juice check out the recipes from Pom: Pom Cocktails.

An open pomegrante  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Pomegranates keep very well while in season, therefore, they add color in a fruit bowl and make lovely holiday decorations. Getting to the seeds is a bit tricky, but here's the easiest way. Cut the fruit into a few sections. Submerge each section in a bowl of water and use your fingers to ease the seeds free. Strain when done.  Forget juicing - I think it is much easier to buy the precious liquid. 

Did you know: The name "pomegranate" derives from the Middle French "pomme garnete" - literally "seeded apple." It is sometimes referred to as a Chinese apple. Many scholars believe that the forbidden - yet irresistible - fruit in which Eve indulged within the Garden of Eden was a pomegranate (and not an apple). Pomegranates have been used as symbols of prosperity, hope, and abundance in every part of the world."

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Baking a Flourless Chocolate Cake with Kyra

Kyra, my ten year old granddaughter, is becoming quite the chef. She is a devoted Food Network watcher and loves to help her Mom in the kitchen.  I recently made a visit to her home in New Jersey  and while her parents we out, we got to baking. I adored spending time with her this way and we were proud of our finished product.

Our finished Flourless Chocolate Cake

Since I attempt to stay gluten free, I brought a recipe for a flourless chocolate cake which I found online from Viking River Cruises. We assembled the ingredients and got out both the mixer and the food processor.

The Batter
Other than using many bowls, the preparation was fairly simple: pulverize some of the nuts, melt the chocolate in the microwave and beat in the eggs one at a time.  The batter was firm, loaded with both ground and chopped walnuts. We baked our cake in a springform pan as directed, and had no problems with sticking.

After it cooled, we sprinkled on confectioner's sugar and topped it with fresh raspberries.  We decided the cake would taste best from the refrigerator. We also think it should be served with vanilla ice cream as it is very dense and rich in chocolate.

Licking the beater!


Flourless Chocolate Cake

from Viking River Cruises

Ingredients

6 T unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 C walnut pieces
3/4 C & 1 T walnuts, chopped
8 oz dark chocolate, chopped
3 T unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 C granulated sugar
4 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Garnish
Chocolate shavings
Raspberries with sauce

Baked Cake Cooling

Directions

Preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). Grease an 8-inch springform pan with a small amount of butter and set aside. Place 2/3 C of walnuts in work bowl of a food processor and pulse until coarsely ground. Set aside. Place chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and heat on high in a microwave at 30-second intervals, stirring between intervals, until chocolate has melted and is smooth. Set aside. In a medium bowl stir together cocoa powder, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Continue beating until mixture has turned pale and creamy, about 5 minutes. Spoon in chocolate and vanilla and beat until just blended. Fold in ground walnuts, chopped walnuts, and cocoa powder mixture. Pour into prepared springform pan and bake until cooked through, about 35 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack. Run a small knife around edge before releasing sides of springform pan. Serve at room temperature and garnish with chocolate shavings and raspberries in raspberry sauce. (We just used fresh raspberries.)

The recipes claims it makes 8-10 servings, but you could get at least 12 servings. This is a rich cake!
Store it in the refrigerator- it keeps well.

I suspect the perfect location to eat it is on a Viking River Cruise, but that wasn't an option!
Kyra puts on the finishing touches

Monday, April 6, 2015

Fruitland Augusta Peach Vodka: A Masterful History Lesson

It's Master's Week in Augusta!
Fruitland Augusta Peach Vodka and Peach Tea


Celebrate with Fruitland Augusta Peach Vodka:


Please click on the above link to read my story about this fantastic spirit.



Sunday, April 5, 2015

Louisiana Food Fantasy

A traveler in Louisiana will find a fantasy of food choices among Cajun and Creole cuisine , including casual or elegant.  The southern state receives a bounty of seafood from the Gulf and numerous dishes feature fish or shellfish, but watch out - many are fried. Don't leave Louisiana without tasting beignets, boudin, Bananas Foster, cafe au lait, cracklins, crawfish, etouffee, gumbo, Hoppin John, Hurricanes, King Cake, Oysters Rockefeller, Po Boys, pralines and of course, Tabasco sauce.






























Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Tequila Time


While a margarita is one of my favorite cocktails, I learned during a trip to Riviera Maya, Mexico that good tequila is sipped plain - without the other ingredients like Cointreau, lemon and lime juice.  I attended a few tequila tastings and naturally found the most expensive brands tasted best.

Tequila is a distilled beverage made from the blue agave plant, primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, 40 miles northwest of Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. 

The red volcanic soil in the surrounding region is particularly well suited to the growing of the blue agave, and more than 300 million of the plants are harvested there each year. Agave tequila grows differently depending on the region, just like grapes used for wine. Blue agaves grown in the highlands region are larger in size and sweeter in aroma and taste. Agaves harvested in the lowlands, on the other hand, have a more herbaceous fragrance and flavor.
Blue Agave Plant


Mexican laws state that tequila can be produced only in the state of Jalisco and limited regions in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. The United States officially recognizes that spirits called "tequila" can only be produced in Mexico, although by agreement bulk amounts can be shipped to be bottled in the U.S.

Tequila is strong stuff: most often made at a 38–40% alcohol content (76–80 U.S. proof), but can be produced between 31 and 55% alcohol content (62 and 110 U.S. proof).

Various Tequilas in Mexico

There are also different types of tequila depending on the aging. Tequila Silver or Blanco is the blue agave spirit in its purest form. It is clear and typically un-aged.

A Reposado Tequila is the first stage of "rested and aged". This type is aged in wood barrels or storage tanks between 2 months and 11 months. The spirit takes on a golden hue and the taste becomes a good balance between the agave and wood flavors.

Tequila Añejo (extra aged) must be aged for at least one year before it can be classified as an "Añejo". The distillers are required to age Añejo Tequila in barrels that do not exceed 600 liters. This aging process darkens the Tequila to an amber color, and the flavor can become smoother, richer, and more complex.

Tequila Extra Añejo (ultra aged)
A new classification added in the summer of 2006, labeling any Tequila aged more than 3 years, an "Extra Añejo". Following the same rule as an "Añejo", the distillers must age the spirit in barrels or containers with a maximum capacity of 600 liters. With this extended aging, the Tequila becomes much darker; more of a mahogany color, and is so rich that it becomes difficult to distinguish it from other quality aged spirits. After the aging process, the alcohol content must be diluted by adding distilled water. These Extra Añejo’s are extremely smooth and complex.
Tequila is sold in all shapes and sizes

I was sent a small bottle of Damascus Process Tequila to taste and really found it quite wonderful and smooth for sipping. It was only afterward that I read that the Damascus Process uses the cheapest and most impure tequilas on the market and washes and filters the liquor five times.  Amazing.

A team of chemists at Capjem, a culinary science research and development organization, developed a technique to purify alcohol by washing it with fat. The end result is a high quality liquor like top shelf brands. Capjem is the only company in history to successfully develop a process to clean alcohol, by pulling impurities from the liquor, yet maintaining the integrity. Imagine taking poor quality anything and transforming it into top of the line. That's magic!
I also tried the Damascus Process Vodka which had to be washed and filtered ten times. I am not usually a vodka drinker, so I can't compare it to other brands, but I was able to drink it straight without a burning feeling in my mouth or throat.

I still have one taste test to go: Damascus Process Artisanal Amaretto. It starts with their purified vodka and adds a special Sicilian family combination of spices and flavors.  I suspect I will love it as well.