Sunday, January 29, 2012

Recipe: Veggie Risotto

I decided to change things a little. Instead of only writing about things I eat out, I will start posting some of the things I make at home as well. I do cook a lot. I come up with my own recipes a lot, and they turn out delicious about half the time :P This was the case just now, so I decided to share what I made for dinner.

I had some left over things in my fridge that I didn't know what to do with: chicken stock, celery, carrots, tomatoes... I suppose I could have looked up a recipe that uses all of those things, but I decided to just add them to a risotto. Making a professional chef-quality risotto is a tricky thing, and I don't claim to be a risotto specialist. But I do love the way mine turn out. Plus, the number of variations are limitless. The key is to start with good arborio rice or other risotto-grade rice; simple write or brown rice doesn't work here...So here's my recipe for risotto with veggies, along with a few suggestions for variations:

1 large carrot, chopped
2-3 stalks celery, chopped
1/2 of a medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon canola (or vegetable) oil
2 plum tomatoes, or any other tomato, including sun-dried, diced
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and drained
1 cup arborio rice
2.5 cups stock (chicken or vegetable) or water, warmed a little on the stove or in the microwave
Salt and pepper to taste
Oregano, parsley, basil or any other combination of dried herbs
1 wedge of Laughing Cow cheese (I used Chipotle and Queso)

1. Heat the oil in a pot. Add the onion and cook until it's softened. Add the garlic and stir. Add the carrots and celery and cook 2-3 minutes, until their color intensifies. You can use any vegetable you have. After all, the purpose of this risotto is to use up old things in the fridge.

2. Add the rice and stir frequently until the rice grains turn mostly opaque. Then, start adding the liquid of choice, 1/2 cup at a time. Simmer the risotto, stirring occasionally, until all the liquid is absorbed. Then add the next 1/3 cup. The general rule of thumb is 3 cups liquid per 1 cup rice. I added only 2.5 cups risotto because the tomatoes have some liquid in them. If the rice is not all the way cooked after adding all of the liquid, add some more.

3. After the addition of the first or second portion of liquid, add the tomatoes and the capers. Season with salt, pepper and herbs. Don't add too much salt because the capers are very salty even after rinsing them. You can taste the broth to see if it's seasoned enough.

4. When the rice is soft and cooked, turn off the heat before all of the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the cheese. Real risotto is made with 1/2 cup parmesan or other hard Italian cheese, but I didn't have any :-/ I assume any melting cheese will work well. Stir the risotto until the cheese has melted. Let stand a few minutes and then serve!

Note, you can substitute the FIRST 1/2 cup liquid for white wine. It does make the risotto taste better, but I didn't have white wine :( DO NOT add red wine. It will turn the risotto an ugly purple color. Yes, I know that from experience... Thankfully, the taste is not compromised.

I hope someone will try this and like it :)

Friday, January 27, 2012

Cuban Nights

After not ever having Cuban food ever in my life, I started eating it quite a lot in the last half year or so. Unfortunately, I haven't talked about it here. So let me quickly mention a few places that I have been to in Atlanta.

The first one is a tiny, quintessentially mom-and-pop place called Las Palmeras. It is hidden on 5th St, behind the Biltmore, going away from Georgia Tech. The building is a converted old house, and it looks like the owners still live in it. Everything on the menu is authentic. I had the pork with fried plantain chips. I can be a little picky about pork (my mom's in the best!), but the one at Las Palmeras was moist and delicious. The fried plantains were french fries-style, not caramelized as I expected. The caramelized plantains are actually called maduros. But I liked them in chips form as well. They have just the right texture for frying.

Another place I've been to is La Fonda. They have several locations around town, but I went to the one on Ponce de Leon. The Huevos Rancheros is amazing. One of the best scrambles I've had. I also had one of their breakfast wraps, which was also good.

Finally, the place I've been to the most is Havana at the intersection of Clairmont Rd and Buford Hwy. Their specialty is the Cuban sandwich, which I've had multiple times. If you order it as part of a plate, you get only half the sandwich, but it comes with rice and black beans on the side. Believe me, even half a sandwich is a lot of food (see picture!) and definitely filling enough. The bread is probably my favorite part of the sandwich. It's toasted, with a very nice crisp exterior that is sturdy enough to hold up all of the meat. However, my absolute favorite thing at Havana are their yuca fries :) Yuca (aka, cassava) is a starchy root similar to potatoes, but with slightly different texture. The fries are very very crispy on the outside, just the way I like them, and soft inside. What makes me like them so much is the "stringiness" of the fries. I can't really explain it, but I can almost see individual fibers, whatever plant structure they might be, that makes eating them very enjoyable. Oh, and fun fact: tapioca is basically dried yuca :P

A couple of other things I've had at Havana are the roast beef sandwich and the maduros. The roast beef was good, but not as good as the Cuban. The maduros are really delicious, but I like the yuca fries so much, that I always order them... The menu has a pretty extensive sandwich list and sides. I guess I'll have to pass on my favorites next time I go there and maybe try something different...

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Cakes & Ale

What could be better than a restaurant that serves up great drinks and in house-made desserts? A restaurant that also offers amazing food! That's exactly what Cakes & Ale in Decatur is. Cashew took me there for dinner for my birthday a few weeks ago, and we had a great experience. We went there without a reservation on a Saturday night, so the only available seats were at the community table. That worked out really well because the people sitting next to us seemed really nice. At the same time, we didn't feel forced to interact with them the whole time.

If you look at the dinner menu, it is a little confusing because there are no headings to separate appetizers from entrees and so on. It turns out that the first few items are cold appetizers. All the items after the space are warm dishes, but the fist few of them are small, appetizer-size plates. Only the last few items, the pricy ones, are true entrees. With that said, Cashew and I shared three of the "appetizers." We had the a carpaccio-like dish, gnocchi with duck ragu, and an octopus dish. The carpaccio came with chopped kale and cranberries. We ended up rolling them inside the beef pieces. The taste was just ok. Surprisingly, it was pretty bland. I just tasted a lot of sweetness; I don't even know where it came from.

In contrast, I loved the potato gnocchi. That was a very filling dish, so we weren't too worried about eating three small things. The gnocchi just melted in your mouth. The ragu had that "warm me up on a winter night" feel to it. I can't remember any flavors standing out, but the texture and the feel of the dish made it a successful choice for me.

I can't complain about the octopus either. It was the first time I've had cooked octopus (not in sushi), so I was simply surprised by the texture. It was a lot smoother than I expected. And it had a wonderful smoky taste that contributed to the melt-in-your-mouth taste. The octopus rested on a piece of garlic bread with harissa sauce on the side. They were as delicious as expected as well. My only disappointment was with the endive. It was a little too bitter for my liking, but I finished all of it anyway.

And because it was my birthday, we couldn't leave without dessert. We got a hazelnut-honey tart that was just divine. Somehow, the hazelnuts were so soft and easy to eat, but they still retained some of the crunch that you expect of a nut. And the honey added a lot in terms of taste with its characteristic sweetness and flavor without making the tart cloyingly sweet. I was very impressed with how they accomplished such an amazing taste because it could have gone horribly wrong in many different ways. Oh, and let me not forget about the parsimmon ice cream! I don't even like parsimmons, but I liked it here :)

Finally, I want to say a word about the drinks. We did not order any at the restaurant because we had other plans for the rest of the night, but there were some very interesting options on the menu. The great thing about Cakes & Ale is that the menu changes all the time, so I'll definitely go back to try some of the other things it offers.