Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Jaunt in Sutter Creek; subtitle: They did WHAT to the Bread?

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of driving down to Sutter Creek in the Mother Lode Country to see a concert by Old Time Musician Bruce Molsky. I was to meet up with my daughter there and enjoy dinner together before the show. Always keeping in mind the possibility of new material for my blog!

My daughter was running late, so I took advantage of my time to visit a little wine tasting shop that carried wines for three local wineries. One nice thing about these little places is that the tasting is free, so you don’t have to worry about which ones to try or how much it will cost (thinking of Napa Valley 5 or 6 tastes for $25). I know what I like, so I went for the Chardonnay, the Zinfandel and the Cabernet Sauvignon, in that order. I ended up purchasing a very nicely complex and oaky Chardonnay and a fairly intense Zinfandel. While I was there, a younger woman and her mother came in. I knew they were in over their heads when they asked for something “sweet.” The first pour, a blush, was too “sour,” and the next, a chenin blanc was also too sour. They should head straight for the supermarket and pick up some Boone Hill or Wild Vines Peach.

With my daughter’s arrival, I stashed my bag in the truck and we walked the block to the restaurant. I had chosen “Susan’s Place.” It was totally charming. We ate in the patio, though I’m not sure if you can call it a patio, since it was at the front of the restaurant itself. All was rustic with lots of greenery and checked tablecloths and patio lights. Green market umbrellas hung from the translucent roof panels instead of sticking up on poles. At this point, the review will be divided—the food and the service.

The dinner entrees were cleverly designed. You chose the entrée itself, the sauce, and the side that the entrée would be arranged on top of. I chose an eggplant portabella entree, Mediterranean sauce, and a side of polenta slices. It was excellent. The sauce was garlicky and tangy pesto-ish and the polenta was browned on the outside and creamy on the inside. I ate every crumb. A Greek salad came with it. The dressing was another pesto-ish creation. I made a note to myself to copy it at home. Pesto, lemon juice, some sort of garlic seasoning, olive oil, white wine vinegar perhaps. As you would expect in a nice little place like this, a platter of bread and garlic butter was served while we were waiting for our food. More on the bread later…

When we went in at 6:15, the place was about half full. We were seated promptly and cheerfully by the greeter. And then waited. And waited. Now I have been in places that you are legitimately afraid that they don’t notice you, or that you have been placed to make you conveniently unnoticeable. But this wasn’t the case. It was like being at a garden party with the wait staff walking by you every time they have to do something. After about 5 minutes she came by and said she could take our orders in about 2 minutes. She forgot to add a zero, because that was how long it took. In the meantime, she served food to 2 different tables. I kept thinking, if she would just take our orders (obviously we knew what we wanted, as our menus were folded beside us) then the kitchen could get started on our meals!

She came by, with an apology for the delay, and took our orders. About 10 minutes later, the bread came. More on the bread later… With pleasant efficiency, the salad followed and then the entrée arrived. While we were eating, the most astonishing thing happened. My daughter and I were in deep discussion over a topic of personal interest, when the waitress, who had overheard a fragment of the conversation, injected herself into our talk with a mistaken impression of what we were talking about! I was speechless. My daughter managed to stammer out something like, “That’s not what we were talking about.” And then we just waited for her to leave. Now you would think that a new 17 year old waitress might make this mistake, but she was about 45. Hmm.

This particular trait of customer service-type folks to insert themselves into your purchases and your conversations really annoys me. I just had that experience at the Goodwill when a young clerk had a good look-over at the movies I was buying as she rang them up. “Oh, I saw that one, it was good.” “I haven’t seen that one yet, what’s it about?” I thought, what would she say if one of them was a sex movie? And the time I was buying a sack of groceries and the young bagger wouldn’t let up on trying to discuss all my items with me. Maybe some people like this, but I think it is unprofessional.

Anyway, back to the bread…

It was warm. It was microwaved! How do I know? Of course I know! It was chewy, darn it! Rubbery chewy, as you’d know if you ever microwaved sourdough bread! Now that is a crime, when it doesn’t take that much to pop the loaf into an oven!

So out of 5 stars, I’d give Susan’s Place a 4 in food, a 2 in service and a 1 in bread.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Lowly Onions

Coconut, peppermint and hot dogs. Squash, cooked carrots and horseradish. And onions.

There is a list somewhere that contains the things that most little kids don’t like to eat. These were my top players on that list. I still remember staying at the table overtime while my mom waited to see if I really could eat those cooked carrots. Once, I was fooled by being told that fried zucchini was really fried okra, which I loved. I still can’t believe that I bought that one.

Over time, I’ve learned to enjoy most of the foods that I used to hate. But onions stayed on my ambivalent list. Raw, they were a little overwhelming unless chopped very fine and used sparingly. Boiled in soup, they were limp and strangely textured.

While looking at recipes some time back, I started to notice some directions to “caramelize onions.” I worked around with that method, and –My! What a difference! The onions acquired a soft, buttery texture and a sweet, rich flavor along with a soft caramel brown color. I started piling these onions on top of steak and mixing them with fried potatoes and peppers. I also learned that a fried egg perched in a nest of these onions is a nice meal.

Onions are a wonderful little food to enjoy. They are usually pretty inexpensive, keep for awhile and are nutritious. Here is just a sample of what we have learned about onions:

Higher intakes of fruits and vegetables have been associated with a variety of health benefits. Research shows that onions may help guard against many chronic diseases. That's probably because onions contain generous amounts of a flavonoid called quercetin. Other sources are tea and apples, but research shows that absorption of quercetin from onions is twice that from tea and more than three times that from apples. Studies have shown that quercetin protects against cataracts, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
In addition, onions contain a variety of other naturally occurring chemicals known as organosulfur compounds that have been linked to lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

These compounds will cause crying when you cut them up, so here’s a tip to avoid that. Take your big cutting board and lay it on the top of your range. Turn the hood exhaust on high and cut away!

I have two favorite recipes where these caramelized onion star. They are simple, lowly recipes that you wouldn’t think could be so nice. But they are. And I am going to tell you how to make them. I use yellow onions.

French Onion Soup

Thinly slice 2 or 3 onions and then cross-cut once or twice. Saute them in a little olive or canola oil at a low to medium heat. Stir frequently. It will take about 10 minutes to caramelize the onions. If they start to get too dark too soon, turn the heat down. Cook them until they are soft and an even light caramel color. I like to turn up the heat at the end of this process and get just a little browning on some of the onions.

Add beef broth until you have the proportion of onions to liquid that you want. (I use “Better than Bullion” soup base paste in hot water.)

Now pour in a little white wine. I also like to squirt in a little lemon juice to add a fresh tang. Salt to taste, if you need that.

The next thing I do is not in the recipe book, but it makes the soup easier to eat. Make a little cornstarch slurry and stir it in to the simmering soup until it thickens slightly.

And the finishing touch--in the individual oven-proof bowl, lay a thick slice of crusty bread on the surface of the soup. Generously sprinkle whatever cheeses you happen to have on hand over the bread and soup. Stick under the broiler until everything is toasty and bubbly. Eat!

Onions and Tofu with Cheese

Thinly slice 2 or 3 onions. Caramelize them in a skillet. Use oil sparingly, but as needed. Meanwhile slice firm tofu into bite-size pieces. Press some of the water out with paper towels or clean cloth. Add the tofu to the onions and see if you can get a little browning on it while you finish up the onions. Add soy sauce with a generous hand and then a little sherry. ( I had Marsala wine, so I used that) Turn off the heat and spread cheese over the top to melt into the onions. You'll be amazed at the tasty vegetarian meal! With a slice of whole grain bread it covers all the food groups.