Monday, November 30, 2015

D'Artagnan Feast & GIVEAWAY!


I was first introduced to D'Artagnan, a specialty foods company based in New Jersey, when I was in culinary school at Johnson & Wales. We procured some of our specialty items from this source, and its unforgettable name stuck in my memory for years.

I've seen D'Artagnan products at local specialty food stores, and I have even ordered foodie gifts from them in the past. If you're looking for something special for your favorite gastronome, you'll find it at D'Artagnan.

I recently had the opportunity to receive a selection of delectable D'Artagnan products in honor of their fabulous Holiday Giveaway. They will be selecting two winners (one on December 7th, and one on December 22nd) to each receive a $500 shopping spree at D'Artagnan. I highly encourage you to enter this giveaway using the Rafflecopter below.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

You can also follow D'Artagnan through their various social media pages using the links that follow:

D'Artagnan sent me a bunch of their products to sample in advance of sharing this post. I actually got to select items to try from a lengthy list. I narrowed on the Petite Charcuterie Gift Basket, the Andouille Sausage, and the Wild Boar Sausage.

The Petite Charcuterie Gift Basket makes an incredible gift for any food-lover who appreciates good charcuterie. The set comes in an actual basket and includes two pâtés (one country-style made with pork and another smooth pâté with chicken and turkey livers and truffles), Jambon de Bayonne (a French-style prosciutto), Artisanal Sausisson Sec (dry sausage), duck leg confit, and black truffle butter.

These are the makings of an incredible charcuterie platter. I utilized everything in the basket with the exception of the duck confit, which I froze to use at a later time.

My favorite items are the sausisson sec, the truffle butter, and the truffled pâté (mousse tuffée). Each is unique, and yet stands equally on my own personal pedestal of deliciousness.

There is more than enough food here to entertain guests (especially the two pâtés which are very generous portions), or even to just enjoy an intimate meal/snack with a glass of wine, and save some for the next few days of sampling.

Just keep in mind the pâtés in particular won't keep very long once they've been opened. I actually took my leftover chicken/turkey liver pâté and transferred it to small ramekins, topped them with melted butter, wrapped in saran wrap and froze them to enjoy in the coming weeks. The butter will seal them from spoiling too quickly.

In additional to my glorious gift basket, I received the two sausages I mentioned above. Andouille sausage is a Cajun-style smoked sausage, and the perfect addition to dishes like jambalaya and gumbo.

I recently reviewed John Besh's new cookbook Besh Big Easy, and was really anxious to try more of his mouthwatering recipes. I used my D'Artagnan Andouille sausage as a key ingredient in Besh's chicken and Andouille jambalaya.

The jambalaya was fantastic, and the Andouille certainly added the perfect note of spice to this traditional Louisiana rice dish. I plan to share this recipe in the coming weeks so stay tuned!

I haven't had a chance yet to cook up my fresh wild boar sausage, but am planning to most likely turn it into a wild boar sausage ragu for pasta or gnocchi. I can't wait.

Something in particular I really love about D'Artagnan is that they really use the best quality ingredients around. The pork products are made with heritage pork. The meats are free of antibiotics and hormones. Everything is natural and the absolute highest grade it can be. It's well worth the money, and anyone who appreciates good food will be able to tell the difference.

Please check out D'Artagnan's website to discover more of the fantastic specialty foods and gifts they sell, and don't forget to enter for one of two chances to win their $500 holiday giveaway.

*Disclaimer* I received no compensation to write this review other than free samples of D'Artagnan products. My opinions are always my own.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Besh Big Easy: New Orleans Shrimp Étouffée


After recently dining on excellent Cajun and Creole food at Boatwright's Dining Hall at Disney's Port Orleans Resort Riverside, I've been anxious to replicate some of these Louisiana favorites in my own kitchen. Luckily, soon after returning from my Walt Disney World trip I received a review copy of Besh Big Easy by Louisiana top chef Josh Besh. What perfect timing!

Although John Besh has written several cookbooks in the past, most are geared toward more refined cooking, less toward the comforts of home cooking. That has all changed with his newest release. If you've ever wanted to explore a cookbook that really gets down to the nitty gritty of Louisiana cookery, then Besh Big Easy is a great place to start. 

The ingredient lists are generally quite short and straight-forward, occasionally requiring special ingredients, but only because those ingredients are pivotal to the cooking of the region (think blue crabs and crawfish). The method of prep is also brief and to the point. No showy flourishes here, just classic dishes prepared to perfection by one of the most celebrated chefs in the area. 

Featuring 101 recipes, chapters in the book cover all the basics, ranging from Easy Apps; Soups & Bisques; Stew Pot; Gumbo; Veggies; Shrimp, Crab & Crawfish; Rice, Beans & Corn; Jambalaya; Big Fish; Butcher Shop; and Sweetness. With the exception of traditional sweet beignets (a recipe for savory crawfish beignets is included--see photo below), I can't think of a single "traditional" Louisiana dish that is missing from the book. There are entire chapters devoted to Gumbo and Jambalaya, two particularly popular favorites. I couldn't wait to get cooking!

My dilemma with new cookbooks is always in selecting the first recipe to try out. That's always a good sign that there are too many enticing options. After dining at Boatwright's Dining Hall at Disney World, I was anxious to try my hand at both gumbo and étouffée. After reading through Besh Big Easy, the jambalaya and bisque recipes also jumped out, offering quite a few delicious-sounding varieties. The bisques potentially require me to special order ingredients (such as fresh blue crabs or crawfish), so for now I passed over those and will plan on trying them in the future instead. I decided for my first foray into cooking from this book I would tackle the classic New Orleans Shrimp Étouffée.

Étouffée means "smothered," and refers to a cooking technique for a spiced and saucy stew prevalent in these parts. Shrimp and crawfish are both typical proteins for an étouffée, but shrimp is much easier to source. If at all possible, purchase wild caught Gulf shrimp as opposed to the farmed frozen variety. Not only is it safer to eat, but more sustainable, and likely more local even if you're not from the Gulf area. I hear all kinds of stories about shrimp... best be careful where it comes from, that's all I'm saying. Lucky for me, Whole Foods actually had a 50% off sale on wild caught Gulf shrimp recently which all but solidified my decision to make the New Orleans Shrimp Étouffée. Now I could have my shrimp and eat it too.

This shrimp étouffée is considerably easy to make, but does require some finesse. The key here is building flavors. You start off by making the roux, a process which takes about 15 minutes to get it a toasty dark brown. You then add the onions and cook for another 10 minutes or so. Another 5 minutes with the celery and garlic, and so on and so forth.

From left to right, top to bottom: roux, after adding the onions to the roux, after adding celery/garlic/spices, finished result

It takes longer than you would expect to cook each step of the way, but it's vital in making this dish correctly. The result is a slightly spicy shrimp dish with a delicately thickened broth that just coats the rice. Personally, I added plenty of hot sauce at the table to my own serving, but you can hold back when creating the dish in case other diners don't want too much spice in theirs. I also used Frank's Red Hot instead of Tabasco because that what I have. Two solid thumbs up for the étouffée and a definite recommendation for Besh Big Easy. Can't wait to keep on cooking!

New Orleans Shrimp Étouffée
Serves 4 to 6
(From Besh Big Easy)

1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup flour
1 onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch allspice
Pinch cayenne pepper
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes
2 1/2 cups shellfish or shrimp stock (I just used the shells from my shrimp and simmered them in water for about 20 minutes until very fragrant)
3 tablespoons butter
1 pound medium wild American shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 green onion, minced
Tabasco (I used Frank's Red Hot--my hot sauce of choice)
Salt and pepper
4 cups cooked white rice (I used parboiled long grain rice cooked like a pilaf with onions first sauteed in fat, a bay leaf, and then stirring the rice in before adding liquid--2 to 1 ratio of liquid to rice)

Make a roux by heating the oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot over high heat. Whisk the flour into the hot oil. It will immediately begin to sizzle. Reduce the heat to medium and continue whisking until the roux turns a deep brown color, about 15 minutes. Add the onions, stirring them into the roux with a wooded spoon. Lower the heat to medium low and continue stirring until the roux turns a glossy dark brown, about 10 minutes.

When the onions have turned the roux shiny and dark, add the celery, garlic, allspice and cayenne. Cook for 5 minutes. Then add the tomatoes and stock and raise the heat to high. Once the sauce has come to a boil, lower the heat to medium and simmer 5 to 7 minutes, stirring often to make sure the sauce doesn't burn or stick to the pan.

Reduce the heat to low and stir in the butter. Add the shrimp and green onions. Season with Tabasco, salt, and pepper. Once the shrimp are heated through, remove the pot from the heat. Serve over rice.

*Disclaimer* I received no compensation to write this review other than a free copy of the book. My opinions are always my own.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

V is for Vegetables: Mushroom Crepes


Many years ago, I actually interviewed to be the assistant to James Beard Award-winning and Michelin-starred chef Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern and Untitled. The job didn't pan out, but my love for his cooking immediately grew after tasting his incredible food and taking a look at the behinds-the-scenes world of his restaurant.

I've reviewed meals at Gramercy Tavern not once but twice, and was introduced to new and intriguing vegetables at these meals (GT is 100% responsible for my discovery and love of fairytale eggplants). Vegetable cookery makes up a big part of the essence of Chef Anthony's cooking style. He is the former executive chef at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and continues the tradition of farm-to-table seasonal cooking at both of his current New York City restaurants.

Michael Anthony released his first cookbook The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook back in 2013 to rave reviews (including my own). With the recent release of his sophomore cookbook V is for Vegetables, he is really honing in on his passion for vegetables and sharing that with the world.

The book is set up almost like an encyclopedia covering the entire alphabet (even X with the creative inclusion of extra-virgin olive oil). Some letters focus on a single vegetable, while others have several. The recipes are considerably straight-forward and simple. Beautiful illustrations and photographs fill the rest of the pages.

This is not a vegetarian cookbook. This is a book for people who love vegetables, who want to make vegetables a bigger part of their meals, who want to tip the scales in their diets toward fresh, seasonal vegetables, rather than settling for the stereotypical American meat-centric model.

This is a book for home cooks. It's a book that takes an incredibly simplistic approach to preparing many of the dishes within, and yet yields stellar results without requiring a laundry list of ingredients, and an entire day of cooking. The recipe I tested out is a prime example.

The Mushroom Crepes begin quite simply with a basic crepe batter. The filling is the key here and is comprised of sauteed mushrooms, onions, and garlic enriched with butter and simmered in mushroom or chicken broth.

It's pulsed until roughly chopped in a food processor with balsamic vinegar (I used Modena--the very best) and then stuffed inside the tender crepes along with finely shredded lettuce. That's basically it, and yet it tastes absolutely exquisite.

The mushrooms are packed with so much flavor from sauteing and then simmering in flavorful broth. Anthony suggests shiitake mushrooms, but I used creminis. Not quite as fancy, but still more flavorful than your standard white mushrooms. If you can source some more exotic mushrooms, go for it, but it's definitely not required to make these mushroom crepes.

Instead of iceberg lettuce (I had none), I finely sliced some romaine lettuce into thin threads to top my mushroom mixture. It gently wilts inside the crepe square after it's wrapped and finished on the skillet. The crepe itself is absolutely tender (you may need to thin out your batter with more milk as I did). and the filling has a variety of textures, from the blitzed mushroom mixture to the few larger mushroom pieces, and of course the lettuce that softens but still retains some crispness.

There are so many options in this book for any vegetable lover. Whether you want to make a Baked Eggplant Casserole, a lighter version of eggplant parm, or Chard Shakshouka for your weekend brunch. Perhaps Parsnip and Kale Gratin for Thanksgiving, or maybe Winter Squash Stuffing for your holiday celebration. If you love vegetables, there are so many ways to love them more by delving into the pages of this beautiful book.

Mushroom Crepes
Makes about 8 (4-inch) square crepes
(From V is for Vegetables)

For the crepes:
2 eggs
3/4 cup whole milk (I needed more to thin out my batter)
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup flour

For the filling:
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for the crepe pan
1 pound shiitake or other mushrooms, stemmed and quartered (I used sliced creminis)
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt and pepper
2 cups mushroom broth, chicken broth, or water
2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 cups shredded iceberg lettuce (I used thinly sliced romaine lettuce)

Whisk together the eggs, milk, butter, and a pinch of salt in a medium bowl, then gradually whisk in the flour until smooth. Cover the crepe batter and refrigerate at least an hour or overnight.

Heat the 1/4 cup oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook until light brown, about 6 minutes. Add the butter, onions, garlic, salt, and pepper, and cook for a few minutes more. Add the broth and simmer until the liquid is almost evaporated, about 15 minutes. Set aside a handful of the mushrooms.

Transfer the rest of the mixture to a food processor, add the vinegar, and pulse until the mushrooms are roughly chopped. Keep the mushroom mixture warm while you make the crepes.

Remove the batter from the refrigerator. It should be the consistency of heavy cream; thin with milk, if needed. Heat an 8-inch crepe pan or skillet over medium-low heat. Brush the hot skillet with oil, then pour in about 1/4 cup batter and quickly swirl to coat the bottom evenly. Cook until the crepe is just set and golden on the bottom, about a minute.

Put a couple tablespoons of the mushroom mixture into a rough square on the center of the crepe (add a few of the reserved sauteed mushrooms now, too), then top with a bit of the lettuce; add salt and pepper. Fold the four sides of the crepe over the filling to make a square package. Flip the crepe over and cook for about 10 seconds more. Transfer the crepe to a plate and make as many crepes as you like.

*Disclaimer* I received no compensation to write this review other than a free copy of the book. My opinions are always my own.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Sini Kofte


Growing up in an Armenian-American household, most of my comfort foods were not the typical dishes one would expect in America. An ingredient that is used a lot in my family is bulgur, or cracked wheat. Many people, even in America, have first experienced this in tabbouleh, which is becoming more and more popular outside of the Middle East. There are so many other wonderful dishes that utilize this ingredient. One of my favorites (and actually one that is quite easy) is sini kofte.

In Turkish, sini means "pan" and kofte means "meatball" (although it's easily used to describe dishes that are not formed into ball shapes). Sini kofte is made with meat pressed flat in a pan. Taking it one step further, it's basically the pan version of içli kofte which is a made by combing bulgur wheat with finely ground beef, and then filling it with cooked ground beef. It's then boiled and served with lemon wedges.


Içli kofte was one of my favorite dishes growing up, but it's very time consuming and requires a lot of skill to make properly. Sini kofte is a much easier rendition that boasts the same flavor profile. You also don't need to get special beef for the sini kofte that would be required for içli kofte. Standard ground beef works perfectly for both the filling and the exterior layers.

Ready to bake

My grandmother's special trick to keep the meat extra juicy and tender is to add some mashed potato to the mix. I think it keeps the protein in the meat from binding too tightly and creating a tough exterior to the dish. Regardless of how it scientifically improves the sini kofte, it's the only way we make this dish in our family, and it's the best I've ever had :)

This recipe is great for company and reheats really well. Serve it with lemon wedges.

Sini Kofte
Makes 6 to 8 servings

Gheyma Filling:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 pound ground beef
1 medium onion, finely chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

Beef and Bulgur Mixture:
1 medium potato, peeled and diced
1 1/2 cups grade #1 fine bulgur (cracked wheat)
1 to 1 1/2 cups cold water
1 pound ground beef
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 large egg
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

To Finish:
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup water

Start by making the gheyma. Heat the butter in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. When melted add the ground beef, stirring and breaking up into small pieces. When the beef has started to brown but is not completely cooked yet, add the onions and season with salt, pepper, and paprika. Continue to cook until the beef is well-browned and cooked through. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Stir in the parsley and remove from the heat. The gheyma can be made ahead and reheated as needed. It can also be frozen.

Place the peeled, diced potato in a small saucepan filled with cold water. Heat over medium-high heat, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer until tender. Drain any excess water and mash. Set aside.

Meanwhile, place the bulgur in a large mixing bowl. Soak the bulgur with 1 cup water (or more as needed) for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until softened (you can add a bit more water at a time until the bulgur absorbs it all). Mix in the ground beef, cornstarch, egg, and season with salt, pepper, and paprika by hand. Then add the mashed potato and combine until smooth. Wet hands as needed to easy in mixing.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F, with the rack set in the middle of the oven.

Lightly grease a 13-by-9-inch baking pan with olive oil. Divide the beef and bulgur mixture in half. Take large handfuls of the mixture and press them into the bottom of the pan creating an even layer to cover the entire pan (again, wetting hands will make this process much easier). Spread the gheyma evenly over the beef and bulgur layer.

Next, take large handfuls of the remainder of the beef and bulgur mixture and press them between your palms to flatten them to the same thickness you had beneath the gheyma, wetting hands between each frequently. Arrange these flattened discs of meat/bulgur over the gheyma evenly, patching them together to create a solid layer, filling in gaps with smaller flattened pieces as needed.

Cut into squares about 2 to 2 1/2 inches across, wiping down the knife in between cuts (wetting and wiping the knife helps clean it between cuts). After cutting the entire pan into squares, pour the oil evenly over the top. Next, pour the water over the top.

Bake, uncovered, for about 45 to 50 minutes, or until it is cooked through and the surface has lightly browned.

Use a knife to cut around the edges of the pan, and in between the squares. Serve hot or at room temperature with lemon wedges for squeezing. Sini kofte can also be made in advance and reheats very well.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Walt Disney World: Garden Grill


Epcot's Future World is not well-known for its dining options. The World Showcase definitely draws a crowd with its globe-spanning restaurants, but there are still some great choices that don't fall within the international pavilions.

Take for example the Garden Grill in Future World's The Land Pavilion. Not far from one of Epcot's biggest attractions, Soarin', the Garden Grill is a family-style character dining experience with a rotating dining room. Yes, you heard right, the restaurant is actually round and rotates very slowly throughout your entire meal. The view from your table is pretty awesome if you're a fan of Living with the Land, since that's your view through the majority of your meal!

If you're lucky enough to have one of the booths facing outward, like we did, you will see some of the classic scenes from the first portion of Living with the Land (before all the greenhouses).

You can see our reflection in the glass to give you perspective as to where we were sitting with the Living with the Land view beyond :) Hey, bison! What's up?

The biggest draw at Garden Grill is definitely the character experiences, so let's start there. You'll meet four classic Disney characters while enjoying your meal, and they will visit your table FREQUENTLY! In fact, we got three visits from each character throughout dinner. That's tons of great photo opportunities. You get to see Farmer Mickey, Pluto, Chip, and Dale. This is the highlight of the meal and the reason people are willing to pay extra to dine here. I especially love that you get a lot of quality time with each character, rather than just a quick visit.

So the character experience is a huge plus, as is the rotating dining room with views of Living with the Land, but at the end of the day you're here to eat. Although Garden Grill will start serving up breakfast and lunch on November 8, 2015, at the time of our visit dinner was our only option (please also keep in mind that prices vary throughout the year--we paid $41.99 per adult and $24.99 per child in early September 2015). The menu is all-you-care-to-enjoy family style and includes lots of delicious comforting dishes to please any palate.

We start off with "Living with the Land" Harvest-inspired Farmer's Salad featuring produce from the greenhouses in The Land Pavilion. It also includes some protein from a hard-boiled egg and bacon. My only criticism is that I wish it was dressed a bit better. I was one of the last in our group to grab some salad and I couldn't really taste any dressing.

We also got to enjoy a Basket of Warm Bread served with orange blossom honey butter. Bread and butter is one of my favorite things in the entire universe, and the combination here doesn't disappoint. The bread is fluffy with a bit of crust, and the butter is drizzled with honey and topped with a sprinkle of sea salt. Pure comfort.

A large platter consists of all of our entrees paired up with sides. From left to right we have Sliced Turkey Breast with Turkey Gravy, Bacon and Leek Stuffing, Cranberry Sauce, Sustainable Fish of the Day with Tomato Jam, Rice Pilaf, Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes, Char-Grilled Sliced Beef Filet with Red Wine Demi-Glace.

My favorite is probably the beef because it's the most tender, and I absolutely love the demi-glace. It gives the beef even more flavor. The mashed potatoes are a good counterpart and oh so comforting!

I also really enjoy the turkey breast, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. It's basically Thanksgiving dinner, so what's not to love? It also reminded me of the wonderful all-you-care-to-enjoy family-style Thanksgiving dinner at Liberty Tree Tavern at Magic Kingdom, and that's always a winner too! You can't go wrong with this combo...

The fish is really tender and well-cooked, offering another great option on a platter full of great options. The sauce is also a nice compliment for such a mild fish, and the rice is a good pairing for this entree. I do feel like the fish can easily be overlooked here, and even I only tried a small piece because I was more excited by the other choices.

We still have more food to discuss! There's also another platter including more side dishes. This features Garden Fresh Vegetables (in this case we got broccoli), Home-style Macaroni and Cheese, and Sweet Potato Fries. I'm not gonna lie, with all this awesome food I didn't even touch the broccoli. The mac and cheese is your typical Stouffer's-style (or even possibly ACTUAL Stouffer's), which is so comforting even for this food snob. I love that they top it with goldfish crackers! What a brilliant way to add a crunchy topping, while still being playful. The sweet potato fries are also excellent, crispy, and irresistible. At this point you're really wishing you could phone in for an extra stomach. But I digress...

In general the food was pretty cold by the time I started eating because we had characters show up at our table just as the food at arrived--and then of course I was busy taking pictures of the food before diving in, teehee. Even with the food being on the colder side, I have to say I was still quite pleased and would be thrilled to visit the Garden Grill again. It was just kind of unfortunate that the food arrived and then immediately Chip & Dale stopped by. I shouldn't complain though. They're both pretty adorable!

I didn't exactly save room for dessert (remember what I said about needing an extra stomach?), but it's included with the meal, so here goes! You get a Seasonal Dessert Skillet with Vanilla Bean Whipped Cream. We were here in early September and had a four-berry skillet featuring strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries and topped with a lovely nutty crumble topping. I took a couple bites and thought it was excellent. I only wish I had saved more room to really indulge :(

For the kids they bring out chocolate cake cones, which look awesome! I was tempted to try one myself, but again was so full and we were actually rushing towards the end of our meal to catch our Fast Pass time for a sunset ride on Test Track! Definitely don't wanna miss your Fast Pass window ;-)

I'm so in love with Garden Grill. Although I generally sway toward many of the enticing dining options in the World Showcase, Garden Grill definitely holds its own for so many reasons. Between the delicious comforting food, the wonderful character interactions, and of course the rotating dining room overlooking Living with the Land, it's definitely worth making Advanced Dining Reservations here if you're planning a visit to Epcot.

The Garden Grill
1510 N Avenue of the Stars


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