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Archive for August, 2010

Dinner at Dixon’s

Jill and I met Dixon a few years ago through a mutual friend, shortly before we opened the bakery.  We hung out a few times and kind of lost touch, as seems to happen in these crazy days of our lives.  Well guess who showed up at the bakery a few weeks ago, but none other than Dixon himself, with a few other friends.  We chatted for a few minutes and a few days later he came over to our house to share a beer on the picnic table outside on a hot summer evening.  Dinner plans were made for the following Sunday evening at his house, and that’s how I found out that Dixon was a amateur gourmand.

We arrived at his house, which sits right on the edge of Iona Lake, at around dusk.  He invited Jill and I inside, and we talked like it hadn’t been years since we really connected.  It’s funny how food and drink will induce that into happening.  It wasn’t long before Dixon started preparing dinner.  It was to be a multi-course affair, nothing too crazy, just a hot salad followed by filet mignon and dessert.  Simple and satisfying.

Romaine hearts were removed from the fridge and onto a cutting board, where they were cut into half the long way, stem to stern.  Like an accomplished dinner host, Dixon continued conversing as he prepared the first course, casually carrying on conversation as he heated up a cast iron pan and drizzled olive oil onto the cut sides of the lettuce.  Salt and pepper were sprinkled on top and when Dixon waved his hand over the pan to find the proper heat level, he gingerly placed the cut side of each head of lettuce down onto the surface of the pan.

I had never seen anything like this before, but Dixon said he had done it many times before and it had become a regular in his repertoire.  I was certainly curious to see how it would turn out.

As the romaine sizzled in the pan and Dixon got out plates and silverware, I sliced into a loaf of olive foccacia that I had brought from the bakery.  We each took a few slices and savored the olivey bouquet while we chewed hungrily on the yeasty pieces of Italian flatbread.

Before long, the romaine was picked up to inspect and the bottoms were determined to be a satisfactory caramelized color.  Dixon placed each half-head of lettuce on three plates with the cooked side up, where they teased us with their glistening caramelized color.  They smelled fantastic too, and as I inspected my salad, the dressing was brought out of the fridge… a spoonful of fresh blue cheese dressing from Pegasus Diner in Malaga (Dixon’s favorite) was drizzled on each salad.  Little bits of crispy bacon finished the dish, and I must say, it looked amazing.

Not only did it look amazing, it tasted it as well.  The lettuce was partially cooked (normally you cook heartier greens, but why not lettuce?) and the flavors of the blue cheese and bacon didn’t overpower.  It was surprisingly satisfying, and I’m going to have to follow suit and include this in my repertoire.  So easy and so delicious.

Next up was the steak, which Dixon had picked up earlier in the day.  The steaks were coated in black peppercorns (that Dixon had just crushed in a mortar and pestle) and were then placed into the hot pan.  They sizzled with abandon, and there they sat until being flipped a few minutes later.  After the rich smell of browning meat filled the kitchen, the filets were placed into the oven to finish cooking.  Dixon was not done yet though.

A shot of brandy appeared and with the flair of a professional, Dixon quickly poured the shot into the pan to deglaze the little crusty bits of goodness where it erupted in flames with a big ‘whoosh!’

A little cream, some stock and a few minutes of reducing created the perfect sauce to accompany the steaks.  Dixon was feeling a little adventurous though and had the desire to get out of his comfort zone, so he busted out a can of crabmeat.  He popped the lid and added a few large spoonfuls to the sauce to heat through.  As if this entrée couldn’t get more decadent, the crabmeat put it over the top.

The steaks were perfectly cooked, no kidding, and the crabmeat peppercorn sauce was ridiculously good.  I didn’t know he had it in him!  Some potato gratin and more bread finished off the dish and I couldn’t help but sop up the remaining sauce from the plate with my bread.  Yum…

Fresh homemade root beer that a friend had given us provided the libation for dinner, and the bubbly, sweet, herby soda countered the spicy, rich dinner.  It was lovely.  We looked out of the kitchen, out of the porch and over the lake, which by this time had the feel of a movie set with the full moon shimmering on the surface of the water.  Fresh pie made from local peaches, blackberries and blueberries completed our meal and we chatted for a while longer.

There’s nothing like the promise of good food and good company to bring old friends together again.  If you haven’t had an old friend over for dinner lately, I suggest you look up their number on your phone, give them a call and invite them over for a shared meal… it’s the best way to reconnect.

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Surprise Indian Food

The last cake delivery on Saturday evening turned out to be something special, and not because it was the culmination of a weeks worth of mixing, baking and decorating.  The last delivery of the week was to a guests’ house in East Vineland, and was two cakes for a joint anniversary and birthday party.  I do most of the deliveries for the bakery, and consequently, I get the opportunity to take a little peek into the culinary traditions of families all over town.  I love to see what people are preparing for their parties when I arrive with the cake, and because of the diverse population of Vineland, I see varied cultural and ethnic dishes all over town.  But Saturday was special because I made my first delivery to an Indian family.

I wrote a while back about my love of Indian food.  It’s definitely in my top three favorite ethnic cuisines (along with Mexican and Italian), but ever since my favorite Indian restaurant in Voorhees closed, I haven’t had it (aside from my attempting to make tikka masala once).  So when I pulled up to the house on Saturday, cakes in tow, I was pleased to see two women in colorful sari’s working the grill.  I immediately wondered what was cooking, secretly hoping that it wasn’t hot dogs and hamburgers, but something a little more exotic.

As I walked up, I could see that bluish white smoke was billowing out of the grill past bright orange cuts of chicken.  That color signified to me that it was no ordinary chicken cooking… it was tandori chicken.  How exciting.  Of course, to be fair, tandori chicken is cooked in a tandori oven, this was the Americanized version, a tandori-style chicken.  From what I know, tandori chicken is typically marinated in different spices and yogurt and the color comes from the spices that are used.  These particular drumsticks looked awesome.

On the side of the grill was a pot of heated oil ready to deep-fry something yummy.  I had to get these cakes inside though, so one of the sari-clad women took me in the house and showed me where to place the cakes.  The house was cool, a sharp contrast to the extreme heat and humidity outside, and it was a welcome relief to be in there while a boy of about ten found the guest that ordered the cakes.

I couldn’t help but notice that the kitchen was loaded with foods laid out on the center island.  All were covered with aluminum foil, and my mind could only imagine at what was inside each container.  On the dining room table, more dishes were laid out, all covered as well.  I was honestly getting jealous thinking about all that food, wishing that I could invite myself over later to join the party and to chow down at this Indian feast!

I chatted with another woman who wore a beautiful multi-colored sari about the food and about the celebration that would commence soon.  I told her about living in San Francisco and eating at Naan n’ Curry several times a week, and how Spice Corner closed in Voorhees.  She told me about Feathers in English Creek and suggested that I check it out sometime.  She was very pleasant to talk with, and I lamented the fact that Vineland is without an Indian restaurant.  Oh well, I thought, it would be a while before the spicy lure of Indian cuisine would pass my lips again.

After a few minutes, the guest that ordered the cake was found and came into the kitchen.  She checked the cakes out and seemed pleased with them, and then casually offered me some food.  Did I hear that right?  Really?  She told me that my wife had told her several weeks ago about our love of Indian cuisine, and so she insisted that I take some back to the bakery!  She then excused herself to finish her preparations and said that the other woman would take care of me.  I probably looked silly with the grin I must have had on my face…

Some sort of curried chicken was ladled into a container for me.  In another container, a snack food called chaat was spooned into another container.  Fried dough pieces went in first, followed by chickpeas, chopped onions, cilantro, cooked potato pieces, yogurt sauce, coriander chutney, and a dark reddish/brown tamarind sauce.  Even the matriarch of the house got in on the act, making sure I had all the components and pulling stuff out of the fridge.  This mixture was stirred and on the top went some spicy green chilies (at my request) and a pinch of garam masala, as they explained, for a little kick.  Yay!  I was so excited and she even sent me outside with a spoon and napkin so I could start eating in the car.

As I left, the two women at the grill insisted upon sending me out with food as well.  The pot of oil had fritters of hard-boiled eggs and mint leaves in a curried batter.  One was placed on a napkin for me, as were two drumsticks of the tandori-style chicken.  A few pieces of battered, fried fish were given to me as well.  I felt like a kid in a candy shop.

In the car, at the end of the driveway, I ate the fritter, which was sublime.  Hot and crispy, with a touch of spice and heady curry flavor pleased my palate.  I popped a few pieces of the fish into my mouth next, and the soft breading hinted of lemon and finished with a kick of spice.  I dug into the curried chicken, but only took one bite because it was too messy for the car, but boy oh boy was it a good bite.

My wife is lucky that I love her so much, because I saved the rest to share with her.  Back at the bakery, the two of our devoured it with embarrassing enthusiasm.  It was all so good, and it made us genuinely happy to be eating homemade Indian food.  To be treated to these goodies by guests of the bakery was really special, and to the family that did the treating, thank you!  I know I’ve said it before, but I love the diversity of cultures in Vineland, it really is a special place full of special people.

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Blueberry Season!

Sorry for the delay in posting but this has been a very busy time in my life!  As you likely know, the bakery that I co-own with my wife Jill recently underwent a major expansion and we have been working like mad to get everything up to speed.  I barely had time to eat, let alone cook, so I’m glad that we’re up and running and I’m able to fall back into some sort of routine.

During the time that we were closed, strawberry season came and went and so we were forced to cancel our annual strawberry festival.  The bakery did reopen for blueberry season though, and I’m been consuming my fair share of the delicious little fruits that New Jersey is so proud of growing.

This past Friday evening, The Sweet Life Bakery attended the Hammonton farmers market.  Since there was a blueberry theme that evening at the inaugural market, we planned an all-blueberry menu.  Earlier in the week, we got our first delivery of fresh Jersey blueberries and Brittany went to work preparing them into many different blueberry desserts.

On the day of the market, the blueberry pies went into the oven, where they bubbled through the lattice-topped crust and filled the bakery with the unmistakable smell of summer.  Blueberry corn muffins puffed and browned in another oven, while on a different rack, the shortbread shell of blueberry hamantashen formed a caramelized crust around the blueberry filling.  Fresh blueberries simmered with lemon juice and zest in a pot on the stove, soon to become tart blueberry lemonade.  While those goodies baked and cooked, Brittany stirred a floury cobbler dough in a stainless steel bowl until it came together in a sticky mass.  She then scooped the topping over a blueberry cobbler filing in little metal cups, our first of the year.  (Jill and I couldn’t help ourselves and put one cobbler aside for a late evening treat for the two of us.)  Two tarts were to be going to the market as well, little blueberry crumb tarts and blueberry almond tarts, both cooling silently on a rack near the oven, waiting to be boxed up and shipped out.  The kitchen was a veritable blueberry factory.

Within a few hours of the blueberry madness, everything was gone, off to Hammonton to be bought and consumed, taken home to various dinner and breakfast tables around south Jersey and enjoyed by many.  Such a cool thought, the knowledge that the food and drink that was created by our team goes out into the world to bring a smile to the faces of those who eat them.

For dinner that night, I still had blueberries on the brain.  We were still at the bakery, a late night ahead of us, and five cooks (including myself) to feed.  What I hadn’t had in a long time was good old-fashioned blueberry pancakes, so the urge to have a breakfast dinner came on strong.  I went online and found a simple enough recipe, and so I got to work making dinner.  I added a touch of lemon zest to the recipe, and scaled out the remaining ingredients.  The eggs separated with ease, and I whipped the whites into a stiff, frothy mix.  The wet ingredients went into the dry, and then the whites were folded in to give the batter a light fluffy consistency.  Lastly, fresh picked blueberries were folded in.

One of the new pieces of equipment we got was a nice flattop griddle, and I had already heated it up and loaded the surface with diced potatoes, breakfast sausage from Serra Sausage, and strips of bacon.  After the meats came off the heat, the pancakes went on.  Silver dollar sized pools of batter quickly browned and bubbled and I flipped them over to cook on the other side. I quickly cooked some eggs to finish the meal, and toasted some bread.  Maple syrup and butter for the pancakes, katsup for the potatoes.  The pancakes were so good, and the warm blueberries literally bursted when they went into my mouth.  Blueberries really do make pancakes amazing, and I’m going to have to cook them again sometime soon.  And if you haven’t cooked blueberry pancakes, or anything with fresh Jersey blueberries, I suggest you do so soon.  With blueberries, the possibilities, much like the deliciousness, is endless!

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