Saturday, August 25, 2007

On The Road -- Bucharest, Belgrade and Budapest

I'm off to another adventure. My friend Mona and I are going to fly to Bucharest, take a train down to the Black Sea, explore the Danube region, tour Belgrade and finally feast in Budapest.

We'll be traveling though Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Hungry.

In addition to reading about the culture, architecture, history, natural wonders and other details of the areas we will be in, I've also been reading up on the food and wine. I've left plenty of room in my suitcase to bring back an assortment of Hungarian paprikas and I'm looking forward to trying the many dishes I've been reading about.

Well, more with photos and recipes when I return. I don't expect to blog when I'm gone, but I will check for any comments, so if you have recommendations for dishes or restaurants to try, please leave them below.

Photo Credit: Balkan Buy

Provencal Fish Soup or Don't Call it Bouillabaisse

I stay away from the bouillabaisse wars by simply not calling my Provencal-accented fish soup by that hallowed name. That way I avoid all the food fights about the fisherman's dish that has been elevated to an obsession.

If you are uninitiated in the bouillabaisse wars, let me sum it up for you. Do you serve the fish in the soup or on the side? How many types of fish do you need to make it an "official" bouillabaisse? What are acceptable substitutes outside of the Mediterranean for the traditional fish? Can it be considered bouillabaisse outside of the area where one can get the traditional fish?

I say forget all that or save it for fancy company (and save some money and effort) and make this instead. It makes up a big, bright-tasting bowlful of soup, which I enjoy accented with croutons topped with hot pepper paste. Choose the juiciest, freshest, thickest piece of white fish (ling cod, cod, halibut, monkfish or sea bass, for example) you can find and enjoy. The fennel and anisette liqueur or Penrod add a fresh, sharp taste that keeps down the fishiness. If you dislike the licorice-like notes they add, skip the fennel, add more celery and marinate the fish in white wine instead.

This dish is just as good for a homey dinner as it for entertaining. Just don't call it bouillabaisse.

Provencal Fish Soup

Serves 6
(Please note all quantities are approximate, I apologize I make this slightly different each time and didn't write down notes.)

1 pound steak or thick fillet of fresh, white fish (see above for suggestions), any bones removed and fish cut into even size and thickness chunks of about 1-1/2 inches
1/4 cup to 1/2 cup anisette liqueur or Penrod
Good pinch (maybe 1/4 tsp.) of saffron threads
grated, chopped zest of one half lemon
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Small onion, chopped
2 - 4 cloves of garlic, minced
2 stalks of celery, trimmed and chopped
2 large carrots, sliced into 1/8" thick rounds
1/2 small fennel, bulb only, chopped
1 Tbsp. ground French Herbes de Provence seasoning (usually sold in whole in a mix or make your own with a combination of dried fennel, lavender, thyme, basil, rosemary and marjoram.)
3 quarts (more or less depending on how soupy or stewy you want the finished dish) of fish stock, preferably homemade from white fish bones OR homemade light vegetable stock OR water
1-28-to-32 ounce can of whole, peeled tomatoes with juices (I prefer San Marzano tomatoes from Italy)
2 Tbsp tomato paste
12 small yellow finn or creamer potatoes, scrubbed and cut into halves or quarters depending on size
salt and pepper to taste


Chopped Italian (flat leaf) parsley
Chopped basil
Grated and chopped zest of one half lemon
Slices of baguette toasted
Ajvar, red pepper spread (available in some supermarkets or gourmet stores, or make your own by pureeing peeled, roasted red peppers with a drizzle of olive oil and red pepper flakes to taste until smooth) OR garlic aoili

To make the soup: Put the fish in a glass or other non reactive bowl with saffron, lemon zest and liqueur. Set aside and stir occasionally. Heat oil in a large soup pot, add onions, saute until beginning to wilt. Add garlic, saute until slightly golden, add celery, carrots and fennel. Saute until beginning to soften. Add Provencal seasoning. Stir well. Roughly chop tomatoes and add into the pot with their juices and the tomato paste. Stir well to combine and then add stock and potatoes. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally. When potatoes are almost soft, taste and add salt and pepper. Add in fish with liqueur, saffron and lemon zest. Stir gently to mix and check often. Fish should be almost cooked through and still plump and slightly soft. Fish will continue to cook in hot broth so be careful not to overcook.

To prepare the garnishes: Combine the chopped herbs with the lemon zest and sprinkle on top of each bowl of soup. Spread a teaspoon of the red pepper paste on top of a crouton and serve on the top or side of each bowl, as desired.

Leftovers are just as good, even cold. Need directions for making fish stock? See comments below for my technique.
About the photo: No that isn't a lavender field in Provence, it's just my front yard.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

What I've Done (and Eaten) This Summer (So Far)

I'm back. It's been a busy summer. I've spent more time on the road for work and pleasure than I have at home and it's not over yet. I leave on August 26 for a tour of Eastern Europe and the Danube from Bucharest to Budapest. More on that later.

Where in the world have I been?

Two visits to Pinecrest, CA, with its lovely lake and alumni family camp where my oldest is a staffer this summer. I have no culinary glories to report, although a good time was had by all.

One trip to suburban Long Island, New York to visit my sisters and their families. I spent one day in the "big city" and had a very, very disappointing meal at the Empire Diner. This diner is one of those restored classics and one of the earliest to have been restored and converted to a "modern" menu. The best of the meal was the sweet potato fries which had a spicy brown sugary finish. I also had a very dry brioche at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which fortunately had lots of tasty art to consume -- check out the newish Greco-Roman art galleries) and a fun time re-exploring the Chelsea Food Market, home of Food Network. (I saw a few empty studios but no Rachael Ray or Emeril sightings.)

My middle sister is an accomplished cook and her husband is an accomplished deep sea fisherman, so even if they didn't catch it, she cooked it and it was wonderful. I came home with a cache of fresh yellowtail tuna and frozen bluefin.

I also spent a week in Las Vegas. In July. It was 100 degrees at night at 11:30 p.m. and you couldn't even claim it was a dry heat since it rained several times. My husband and I are manufacturers' reps and we were working a trade show in town. I patrolled a showroom the size of Texas (well, it was 10,000 sq ft on a concrete floor with no rugs, so it felt like it anyway) and he went between three showrooms in two buildings. We worked hard and it was hectic, but we found some time for fun. Tops on that list, the show "O" at the Bellagio (Cirque du Soleil gets wet) and Mario Batalia's new restaurant at the Venetian, B&B. The food at B&B started off amazing and ended up being good. Think of it as the type of food your grandmother might cook if she had unlimited access to the best ingredients, was a gourmet and was an Italian peasant.

The marinated anchovies were brined perfectly, the texture still firm and the bite of the vinegar sharp without being overwhelming. My reaction to the mini ravioli stuffed with lamb brains in butter, lemon and sage sauce was mixed. The sauce was divine, the lamb brain stuffing more of a fluffy texture than a taste but worked well since it had a slight game note that cut through the butter sauce. The pasta dough was a bit thick and tough. The main course translated out from the Italian to be braised beef. On the plate it translated to a chunk of pot roast without enough sauce. You had to look really close to find the polenta it was served with. I've never seen a serving of grain that insubstantial before. It came under the heading of why bother. It certainly didn't add to the dish. The beef had a nice taste but was very dry.

Dessert was cinnamon ricotta fritters and a chocolate-hazelnut dipping sauce. I thought this was incredible. Gary was not that impressed and didn't finish his half, which left more for me.

The restaurant had only been opened for two months but you would never know it, the service was personable, modern and just right. The wine choices are amazing (B&B's co-owner is a wine importer) and I thought reasonably priced for the style of restaurant and location. Prices in general were about $25-29 for a main course which is not unusual for a Vegas "name" restaurant, but portion sizes of all but the main course were small. Since my husband I usually share that means minuscule. (I got two filets of those wonderful, but tiny anchovies and about six or so mini raviolis.)

The photo is of a small bookcase at B&B. The cookbooks are Molto Mario's and for sale. The orange clogs are presumed to be Mario's as well but are not for sale.