Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Chunky beef chili with tomato corn salad

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Working for a California-based company means a lot of conference calls with the West Coast. Waiting for everyone to join leaves a lot of free time to talk about the weather. Frequently, I'm asked why I wouldn't prefer living somewhere with consistently warm weather, like California.

I remember in particular one call last winter. I was on with one guy from California and another from Romania. As I looked out the window, more than two feet of snow had already fallen and more was on the way. The guy from California wondered how I could stand it.

Today, in mid-October, it's crisp and windy. Leaves are floating through the air and it's simply beautiful. Sure, I'll be out there raking them up in a few weeks, but as I do I'll be breathing in that spectacular fall scent. Aside from that, there is, of course, the food. As the weather turns cooler, new produce comes into season and I pull out my recipes for slow-cooked, braised, or roasted foods. This chili is just the dish for a cool fall day: warm, hardy and more than a little bit spicy. Corn and tomatoes are still good, so the salad that tops the chili offers a hint of summer. I'm sure it would taste good on a 70 degree day someplace else, but on a cool day in New Jersey, it's not only tasty, but comforting as well.

So I'll take my changing seasons. And I'll pair them with the perfect foods for each. I'll have warm, soul-satisfying soups and stews for cold winter days, and cool, crisp salads for hot summer days. For me, the food just wouldn't taste the same without the changing seasons.

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Chunky beef chili with tomato corn salad
adapted from The New Slow Cooker

For the chili:
4 lb. boneless beef chuck, trimmed of most fat and cut into 1 inch chunks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. canola oil
2 large yellow onions, coarsely chopped
8 cloves garlic, minced
2 chipotle chiles in adobo, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. chipotle chili powder
1 Tbsp. smoked paprika
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes, or more to taste
1 cup tomato paste
2 cups beef stock

For the tomato corn salad:
Kernels from 2 ears of corn
1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, quartered
2 green onions, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
2 tsp. white vinegar
1/2 tsp. finely grated lime zest
1 Tbsp. lime juice
Salt and pepper

Season the beef generously with salt and pepper. In a large heavy frying pan over high heat, warm the oil. When the oil is hot, add half the beef and sear, turning as needed to brown evenly, until golden brown on all sides, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the beef to the slow cooker. Repeat with remaining beef.

Pour off most of the fat from the pan and return to medium heat. Add the onions to the pan and saute until softened. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more. Add the chipotle chiles with their sauce, chipotle powder, smoked paprika, cumin, oregano, red pepper flakes, and tomato paste. Stir well and cook for 2 minutes. Pour in 1 cup of the stock and stir to dislodge any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Transfer to the slow cooker. Add remaining stock, salt and pepper to taste and stir to combine. Cover and cook on low for 5 hours. The meat should be very tender.

To make the salad: whisk the mustard, vinegar, zest, lime juice, and salt and pepper in a bowl. Toss with the tomatoes, corn, cilantro and green onions.

To serve, spoon the chili into bowls and top with some of the salad. (Add some cheddar cheese too if you like!)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Restaurant review: A Toute Heure, Cranford

It's been awhile since I've done a restaurant review. Having a baby will do that. We still go out but it's usually to our favorite local spots like Ginger Sushi or Bel Paese. But our anniversary was good reason to get dressed up and have Grandma and Grandpa over to babysit.

I first heard about A Toute Heure a couple years ago. I was reading an issue of New Jersey monthly and they had a feature on NJ's top chefs. It talked about David Drake and a few others, including Kara Decker. I'd never heard of her, but according to the article, she was doing great things with local ingredients right in nearby Cranford. Shortly after reading the article, we tried the now defunct Restaurant David Drake, but we just never made it to A Toute Heure (ATH), until now.

Reservations are a must at ATH; I made ours a month ahead via Open Table. Also note that this little gem is BYO, so bring your favorite bottle with you.

When we arrived, our table wasn't quite ready so the host (who owns the restaurant) offered us some house made rosemary nuts and a seat out on the porch. He promptly opened our wine and brought us some while we waited. After only about 5 minutes, we were shown to our table. He came over and welcomed us again and explained some of the night's features. The menu changes daily and features seasonal ingredients from local farms. A chalkboard in the restaurant lists all the farms that provide ingredients to ATH and the menu calls out some featured that night.

The menu offers starters, salads, bites and entrees. We shared two appetizers, a bite and two entrees. To start, I ordered a fricassee of mushrooms with green olives, and speck and topped with a local fried egg. The unusual combination includes some of my favorite things and it was delicious. Simply prepared, it was served in a small round pan. It had just a little bit of spice. The perfectly cooked egg added a silkiness to the whole thing. Jeff ordered peekytoe crab fritters. They were tasty, but a bit gummy inside and not quite as crisp on the outside as we would have liked. The "bite" we shared was a pulled pork croquette - these little nibbles were packed with flavor and crispy on the outside.

Our entrees were served promptly. I opted for duck leg confit with butternut squash puree and a light cabbage and carrot slaw. It was simply divine. The duck melted in your mouth and the squash puree was luxurious and creamy (perhaps more than a little butter in my butternut!). The cabbage added a fresh crunch. Jeff got braised short ribs over cheddar grits with wine braised cippolini onions. The ribs were perfectly cooked and the grits were so rich Jeff could barely finish them. Both entrees were perfectly made and full of flavor.

Other entree choices included steak frites, a pot of mussels (a signature dish), two types of fish, chicken and more, all using the best local produce currently in season. They also offer a vegetarian option.

For dessert, the restaurant offers a number of options as well as a selection of local cheeses. The menu was topped with an apple toffee cake and a note saying "It's back!". We ordered one to share - if it was good enough to make a comeback, we had to try it. Served with a scoop of homemade cinnamon ice cream, it was dense and sweet, delish! My only complaint was that it was served cold. The plate itself was cold, indicating the dessert had been plated ahead of time. ATH is a tiny restaurant and I'm sure the kitchen is small, so pre-plating the dessert may be necessity, but this cake, already amazing, would have been unbelievable served warn and just a little gooey, especially next to the cinnamon ice cream.

Warm, friendly service in a great atmosphere make ATH just the dof place we like. The food was seasonal, and very well prepared. The focus on local ingredients makes it even more appealing. We will go back (many times, I'm sure).

A Toute Heure on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Dulce de leche cheesecake squares

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Last week, my husband and I celebrated our 3rd wedding anniversary. As any married person knows, the key to a happy marriage is about compromise. I chose this recipe as something of a compromise and let me tell you, if every compromise turned out this sweet, every marriage would last forever. See, Jeff's favorite dessert is cheesecake. I, on the other hand, don't really like cheesecake. But I wanted to make him something special; I remembered tearing this recipe from Bon Appetit a few months ago so I dug it out and gave it a whirl. I may not like cheesecake, but I LOVE dulce de leche. So dulce de leche cheesecake squares sounded like the perfect pairing of both of our likes.

To say this recipe is the perfect union would be an understatement. These are just plain delicious. Rich and creamy, the dulce de leche flavored cheese takes ordinary cheesecake to new heights. Topped with more rich milky caramel and a sprinkling of sea salt, I could eat these every day (I would not advise this however - I'm envisioning the episode of the Simpsons where Homer gets hugely fat and walks around in muu-muus - he must've eaten these every day!)

The recipe can be made ahead, but sprinkle the salt on at the last minute. If you don't have Fleur de Sel, any sea salt would do fine.

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Dulce de leche cheesecake squares
Bon Appetit, June 2010

Crust:
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
2 1/4 cups finely ground graham crackers (from about 17 whole graham crackers)
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
Filling:
3 8-ounce packages Philadelphia-brand cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 cup purchased dulce de leche*
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Glaze:
2/3 cup purchased dulce de leche
3 tablespoons (or more) heavy whipping cream
Fleur de sel**

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For crust:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Coat 13 x 9 x 2-inch metal baking pan with nonstick spray. Mix graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and cinnamon in medium bowl. Add melted butter; stir until coated. Transfer crumb mixture to pan. Press evenly onto bottom of pan. Bake until crust is light golden, about 10 minutes. Cool completely on rack.

For filling:
Blend cream cheese and sugar in processor until smooth and creamy, about 1 minute, stopping occasionally to scrape down sides of bowl. Add eggs 1 at a time, processing 3 to 5 seconds to blend between additions. Add dulce de leche and vanilla; process until blended, about 10 seconds. Spread batter evenly over cooled crust. Bake until just set in center and edges are puffed and slightly cracked, about 38 minutes. Transfer to rack; cool completely.

For glaze:
Heat dulce de leche and 3 tablespoons cream in microwave-safe bowl in 10-second intervals until melted. Stir to blend, adding more cream by teaspoonfuls if too thick to pour (amount of cream needed will depend on brand of dulce de leche). Pour glaze over cooled cheesecake; spread evenly. Refrigerate until chilled, about 1 hour (glaze will not be firm). DO AHEAD: Can be made 2 days ahead. Cover; chill.

Cut cheesecake lengthwise into 4 strips, then crosswise into 6 strips, forming 24 bars. Sprinkle bars with fleur de sel.

* A thick, sweet sauce made from caramelized sugar in milk or from sweetened condensed milk; available at some supermarkets and specialty foods stores and at Latin markets.
** A type of sea salt; available at some supermarkets and at specialty foods stores.
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