Tuesday, January 30, 2007

An American-Canadian Cooking Project:

The proposal arrives via email, while I’m hiding out in Little Washington, Virginia. We’ve discussed a new cross-border culinary exchange and my friend Jill from Ottawa, Canada (of the famous Tale of Two Puddings) has been investigating the regional cuisine. Jill writes:

While you've been exploring American culinary history, I've been thinking about Canadian cuisine - specifically, what dish to propose for you to make. There definitely are some Canadian classics, but it's not as easy as it might seem to find a good choice, given the influences of other cuisines and the regional nature of Canadian specialties.

The province of Newfoundland and Labrador claims the title for the most creative names. My book of traditional Newfoundland dishes includes recipes for jiggs dinner, fish and brewis, figgy duff and flipper pie. I won't pick one of those, given that they're not really widely consumed outside of the province...and perhaps not broadly appetizing, either. No offence to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians - I really did enjoy dining on fish and brewis in Labrador!
In Aboriginal communities, I've eaten Arctic char, caribou, moose, Canada goose, beaver and - while I'd like to think I imagined it, I didn't - muskrat. You can't get much more Canadian than Canada goose or beaver, but I don't think there are too many beavers wandering the sidewalks of Long Island. So I'll rule those out.

Quebec offers some possibilities: tarte au sucre, tourtière, and that modern-day classic, poutine -- an artery-clogging mess of French fries, gravy and cheese curds. A few of Canada's trendier restaurant chefs have taken to featuring upscale versions of poutine on their menus. Moving west, there are recipes using Saskatoon berries, Alberta beef and there's the delicious Nanaimo bar from British Columbia.

That very quick culinary tour gives me a few possibilities, but I'm also thinking of something a little closer to home, perhaps. Stay tuned while I do a little more thinking...

Certainly, food for thought. Jill is right about the lack of beaver on Long Island, however, there is an ample population of Canadian Geese. Just visit any golf course in the area. Still, this exchange is really about cooking the food and not hunting it …

I must admit, when it comes to Jill’s assignment, I’m stumped. After suggesting an exchange of regional cuisine, I’m having a little trouble identifying something uniquely American. Okay, pizza and beer would qualify, but we’re looking to aim just a little higher on the food chain. Like Canada, there are so many regional and global influences on what we eat in the United States.

So, I head for my cookbook library to see if I can come up with an intriguing American culinary challenge for Jill.

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, January 27, 2007

A Stack of Sunnyside Eggs and Toast for a Buttondown Chef:

When it comes to cooking, I’ve typically been a slave to the recipe. I don’t waver much from the prescribed directions. When it comes to braising, basting or blending, I’m Buttondown Oxford all the way.

Lately, I’ve had an urge to loosen up, at least in the kitchen, attempting to let the recipe serve as inspiration for a more creative culinary process. I’m trying to think more about flavor combinations and I’m keeping watch for techniques in other kitchens that I can add to my repertoire and recreate at home.

My recent visit to the Foster Harris House in Washington, Virginia was instructive. John MacPherson is an intuitive chef who can look at a set of ingredients and see something beyond the conventional picture. Each morning, I studied John’s breakfasts carefully. There were certainly eggs, and breakfast meat and potatoes, but the traditional ingredients were deconstructed and rebuilt as brilliantly colorful and whimsical creations.

Think of this as the “Rubick’s Cube Culinary Technique.” Back home, I decided to take the plunge. No recipe – just ingredients. I stand at the fry pan with a momentary feeling of uneasiness, like I don’t have enough starch in my collar.

The primary ingredients are eggs, cherry tomatoes, avocados, Yukon gold potatoes and whole wheat bread. I’ve also got a new tool from William Sonoma – Egg Fry Rings that promise to produce fried eggs that are perfectly circular.

I try to visualize the end result, and circles become a common theme – circles of eggs, circles of toast and circular potato chips. It all comes down to looking at the dish in components, preparing each part and then assembling the final project. The petite Yukon gold potatoes are boiled, peeled and sliced before browning in butter. The eggs take about five minutes in the fry pan, and the tomatoes and avocados are dressed in fresh lime juice and cilantro. The miniature “bacon” garnish is a bit of kitchen prestidigitation I learned from John – slivers of prosciutto are fried crisp and sprinkled over the plate. The result – A Stack of Sunnyside Eggs and Toast.

My breakfasts still have a long way to go before they match the excellence at the Foster Harris House, but I’m exploring and becoming more adventurous in the kitchen. I’m even thinking of leaving my shirttail un-tucked tomorrow.

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Inn at Little Washington

Sunday, January 21 – Tonight is my big celebration – another year on this Earth. Since it’s been a year of culinary discovery, I’ve decided to mark the evening at a place that the International Herald Tribune called one of the 10 Best Restaurants in the World.

To get a bit more emotive about it, my friend Jill in Ottawa provides this little tidbit she found on the Internet – the food is so good, it will make you cry.

That’s extraordinary praise when you consider the humble beginnings of The Inn at Little Washington. The Inn opened on January 28, 1978 in a renovated garage located in a town that most of the world had forgotten. Washington, Virginia has deep historic roots. As a young surveyor, George Washington laid out the town in July, 1749. But until the opening of the Inn, the town was an intriguing footnote in the life of a Founding Father.

Chef Patrick O’Connell and Reinhardt Lynch are the proprietors of this culinary shrine, due west of Washington DC. In his book Refined American Cuisine, Chef O’Connell says that restaurants are “living theater” and that cooking is a means of communication. I agree with the philosophy wholeheartedly, and I wonder if the food will “speak to me.”

Before we get to that, allow me a slight diversion, since half the fun of any culinary adventure is getting there. The morning starts cold with just a few flurries. At the Foster Harris House, John and Diane serve a memorable breakfast of fresh fruit and vanilla yogurt, ginger scones, Puff Pastry Topped with Avocado Salsa, Poached Egg and Chipotle Cream Sauce with Paradise Bacon and two tender shoots of asparagus placed across the top. For the finale, we are served Dad’s (that’s Diane’s dad’s) Favorite Pancake with Chocolate Chips and Maple Butter Sauce. The salsa is impossibly bright and fresh with red and yellow heirloom tomatoes and finely chopped cilantro that pops like Independence Day firecrackers.

The snow flurries appear to be no cause for concern, and I gas up the rental at a filling station on Route 211 in preparation for a short excursion. An older woman, perhaps in her late fifties, pulls into the station and parks on the other side of the pump. She smiles at me as she parks, clearly recognizing that I’m not a local.

“Filling up before the snow gets bad?” she asks.

“I’m heading over to Monticello,” I reply, as I am intent on learning more about Thomas Jefferson’s gourmet pursuits.

She shakes her head and smiles again. “You’re heading into it. Be careful,” she recommends, and explains that the snowfall can vary considerably in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She tells me that she originally lived in DC, but moved out here to start an animal sanctuary and has learned the personality quirks of the local weather.

“I can always turn back, if it gets worse,” I offer.

“Be careful,” she tells me again, and gives me a friendly wave as I depart.

By the time I reach Route 29 outside of Madison, Virginia, the snow is thick, and I’ve skidded twice. The countryside looks like something out of Currier and Ives, but I see there is now a dense layer of snow on each cow in the field. I decide to heed the friendly stranger’s advice. She is perhaps the guardian angel of my culinary pursuits. Thomas Jefferson’s culinary story will have to wait for another day. A fender bender could really ruin my dinner plans, so I turn back towards Washington.

It is slow going on country road 231, but eventually I make it back to the Foster Harris house by about 12:30, car and body intact, content to sit with a glass of wine and watch the snow fall from the window. John prepares savory curried chicken sandwiches on toasted bread, pours red wine, and he and Diane and their young son and I spend a delightful afternoon chatting about culinary pursuits, food, wine and favorite restaurants. The snow continues to fall into the evening and the flakes get larger. It’s really quite beautiful if you have no where to go and one of the best restaurants in the world is just up the street.

About 6:00 p.m., I step out on the porch, open my umbrella and set out by foot to the nearby Inn at Little Washington. I walk, down the center of Main Street, resembling Mr. Tumnus from the Narnia books, a lone figure crunching through the snow by lamplight with umbrella in hand. Just up ahead, the warm glow of the Inn beckons me closer.

Inside, I check my coat and I’m escorted to the Living Room and served a glass of Brut Champagne. I’ve entered a wild imaginary land, the décor an exotic explosion of Tales of the Arabian Nights, Kismet, and Sunset Boulevard. There is velvet, golden tassels, fringed lamps, tapestries and tables adorned with miniature elephant tusks. I settle into a neon-blue velvet throne and snack on Pineapple chips dusted with Cajun spices and Parmesan Crisps as I take it all in.

The effect is one of being swept away by a cyclone and finding oneself in the Land of Oz, although carried away by a snowstorm is probably a better analogy. I am about to meet the cast of whimsical characters who will lead me on this culinary journey. Simon escorts me into the dining room, wishes me many happy returns for the day, and I nestle into a perfect corner table among a cluster of small pillows. Ross presents me with a personalized menu that that is inscribed with “Happy Birthday” and the date at the top. I am conscious that I have been thrust into a grand theatrical adventure, not just as an observer, but a wide-eyed journeyman at the center of the action.

Miniature appetizers appear as if by magic – intense dollops of flavor to be sipped off white spoons, such as Parmesan Cream, Red Beet or Tuna Carpaccio. There are also crispy Tempura green beans in a silver cup with Thai dipping sauce and a pristine white porcelain tea cup filled with warm red bell pepper soup perfumed with the intoxicating scent of Sambuca.

I spend some time studying the menu, as the choices are extensive. There is a
Chef’s Tasting Menu, and many dishes under First Courses, Second Courses and Entrees with ingredients that are either exotic, artisinal or regional to the local Virginia countryside. I make my selections, and engage the knowledgeable and friendly wine expert, Sabato to create a series of pairings. He asks me if there is any particular wine I would prefer and I put myself completely in his hands. “We’re going to travel the world,” he tells me.

The first course is Carpaccio of Herb Crusted Baby Lamb with Tabouli and Rosemary Mustard. The paper thin circles of lamb are layered in a concentric pattern on a large platter. The lamb is milky, grassy and herbaceous and Sabato pours a clean, citrus-flavored Riesling from Australia.

A Fricassee of Main Lobster with Potato Gnocchi and Curried Walnuts arrives next. The succulent chunks of lobster flesh and melt-in-your mouth pillows of gnocchi are paired with a slightly spicy Viognier from Washington State.

I’ve had to do some personal soul searching over the main course. I’ve heard raves about the sweetbread entrée, and while I want to be adventurous, I’m just not sure. Ross solves the dilemma and offers me a tasting before my entrée. Sabato pours an Australian blend of Shiraz, Grenache and Mouvedre that smells of fragrant holiday spices. The tasting of Veal Sweetbreads Braised in Ruby Port on Pappardelle Pasta with Huckleberries and Country Ham is sublime with a sweet caramelized crust, and tender center that frolics with the savory ham and delicate pasta.

My Main Course is a bounty of flavors of farm and harvest. The Seared Four Story Farm Duck Breast on Turnip Skillet Tart with Wild Rice Pilaf, Brussels Sprouts and Chestnuts, is brilliant pink, fanned across the plate, and glistening with tiny pearls of Brussels sprouts. Sabato lines up three reds, from Spain, Italy and France to frolic with the duck. Simon the maitre de glances over, grins and says, “Sabato likes to play!”

I forgo the sweets for dessert in favor of the cheese course. Robin rolls out a honey-colored cow named Faira on wheels. She moos as she inches towards me, a tray of enticing cheeses on her back. Robin cuts me at least six slices describing each cheese, and he ends with a spoonful of molten-soft cheese from Burgundy which is like ambrosia. Having consumed the last morsel of cheese, I am presented with a wicker basket of sweets and a yellow marzipan banner with the words “Happy Birthday.”

With the celebratory feast concluded and my palate in near ecstasy, I am taken behind-the-scenes for a tour of the kitchen. I marvel at the sleek green custom built ranges and the scene of kitchen wizardry that continues this late in the evening.

Shortly after, it is time to bundle up again and step out into the snowy Virginia night. Like in all those fanciful adventure stories, I must finally leave this supernatural place and its wonders, but the culinary magic of the Inn at Little Washington will continue to enchant my memories.

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Foster Harris House

Saturday, January 20 -- Near the edge of the tiny town of Washington, Virginia, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, sits the Foster Harris House, a handsome yellow-and-green bed and breakfast that is as vibrant as a sunflower in full bloom.

As a young surveyor, a 17-year-old George Washington plotted the town of Washington in the year 1749. Today, there are less than 200 residents in this historic village.

I awake in a plush bed at the Foster Harris House after nine hours of deep sleep, something unheard of for me. The aroma of eggs and sausage caress my nostrils from the kitchen below.

Proprietors Diane and John MacPherson offer a gracious haven that delights the senses. The MacPhersons abandoned the corporate grind in California several years ago for life as innkeepers in the rural Virginia countryside. They are ever-present with welcoming smiles, a complimentary glass of wine and advice on local sights. John even loans me a new sport jacket to wear at dinner, since my packing on this trip has left something to be desired.

The rooms in this Victorian home, circa 1900, are bright and cheerful. Mine has a view of the rolling countryside behind the inn. Linens feel incredibly soft and the smoky sounds of Diana Krall and Nat King Cole fill the dining room where breakfast is served at a rustic tavern table. The MacPhersons have followed their dream and it is delicious.

John prepares a four-course breakfast that is nothing short of a work of art. He is a self-taught chef, and tells us that he is from a family that loves to cook and eat. We are served fresh mango, kiwi and blackberries with vanilla custard yogurt and granola, a perfect golden omelet of spinach, mushroom and goat cheese with tarragon potato “roshi” and apple chicken sausage, and lemon “Liebchen, ” a type of German pancake, with blackberry maple butter sauce, sprinkled with mint chopped extremely fine. It is a morning feast. The ingredients are garden-fresh and burst with an harmonious symphony of colors and flavors. The MacPhersons’ passion for good food and the country life infuses every detail of the Foster Harris House.

After the long and leisurely breakfast, I drive along the Skyline Drive deep into Shenandoah National Park. It is colder at the higher elevation, and I encounter no more than a dozen tourists during the entire drive through the park. The car thermometer reads 23 degrees, and the frigid wind buffets the rental car. I spot several deer foraging for food. I hike to the top of the Stony Man peak where a lone blackbird glides the stiff wind currents and ice fills the crevices between ancient gray boulders.

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

First Lady of American Cookery:

Friday, January 19 -- The sky is colored robin’s egg blue, the sun glistens at midday, and there is an icy wind glancing off the Potomac River. I stand on the bluff above the river and admire the stately and symmetrical white house with the brick red roof, cupola and broad piazza that stands before me.

Mount Vernon in Virginia was the life long home of George and Martha Washington. History was made with great frequency in this gracious home. And, the Washington’s fed a lot of people along the way, to the point where General Washington described the operation as similar to a well-functioning tavern. Mount Vernon was the home of the First President, but it was America’s home, with hundreds of visitors annually.

I’m at the start of a four-day celebratory trip – sort of an excursion of historic and culinary destinations in Virginia. I’m in search of distinctly American food and the people who prepare and eat it.

George Washington was deeply involved in the building and even the decorating of Mount Vernon, ordering crates full of plates, silverware and table accoutrements that adorned the dining room. But, it was Martha Washington who was the commander-in-chief of the culinary activities at Mount Vernon.

Martha was a voracious collector of recipes. If she’d lived today, she would have likely been a regular subscriber to Gourmet, or even kept a food blog. After Washington died, she burned their personal correspondence, but her culinary legacy remains. Food historian Karen Hess chronicled Martha’s efforts in the book Martha Washington’s Book of Cookery. Hess examined a document, long in Martha’s family, that contained hundreds of handwritten recipes for everything from fancy dishes, to everyday food. Some were passed on from her mother, which was the tradition, and others she added to the collection. During the 18th century, homemakers would keep handwritten books of “receipts,” or what we now call recipes. The idea was to capture the culinary knowledge, so that it could be passed on through the family.

The Mount Vernon estate was self-sufficient. Washington was a gentleman farmer who grew wheat, corn and potatoes, that is when he wasn’t out fighting the good fight for liberty. The plantation raised cows and pigs, and they caught fish in the Potomac River. What they didn’t eat fresh, they smoked and stored for later use. Many of the home-grown ingredients are found in Martha’s recipes, from a well-spiced Chicken Fricassee, to a dessert called Syllabub, which contains fresh cream and sherry.

In one of the galleries of the newly-opened education center, there is a cookbook and domestic manual called The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Mrs. Hannah Glasse, who was the Martha Stewart of the 18th century. Martha Washington gave this copy to a young relative. While she herself had great culinary knowledge, Martha Washington clearly appreciated expert advice, as Glasse was the thought leader of her day.

In many ways, Martha Washington was an individual who lived in extraordinary times, but still engaged in activities of hearth and home with great care. Her husband was away for long periods in battle, but she still had day-to-day concerns. She thought and cared about the type of food she served her family, the types of ingredients used and how it looked. And, she made an effort to pass her knowledge along to her children and grandchildren. In many ways, we are a bit like Martha Washington, too.

Late in the evening I arrive at the Foster Harris House, a bed and breakfast in Washington, Virginia. The night sky is aglow with a million stars, and the proprietor welcomes me with a glass of red wine from Washington State tasting of oak and tannin. The breakfasts are said to be sumptuous, so I’m looking towards Saturday morning with great anticipation.

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Skinny on Yogurt Cheese:

I heard you. You just gasped, “The skinny on WHAT?”

Yes, I’m going to talk about yogurt cheese. Hang on.

My name is T.W. Barritt and I am a cheese addict. Admitting you have a problem is half the battle.

I’ve struggled for years, in fact, ever since I had my first taste of Velveeta. The minute I walk in the door from a tough day at work, I crave cheese and crackers and a glass of ruby Pinot Noir. I admit the response is Pavlovian, a survival instinct I’ve cultivated during years in the business world. It’s like Snoopy’s love affair with cookies, or Garfield’s fatal attraction to lasagna. Gorgonzola, brie, cheddar or blue – my addiction knows no boundaries.

But it’s January, and I’ve been eating everything in site since mid-November. I need a “lighter” alternative to port wine cheese. As I was cleaning out a kitchen cabinet the other day, I came upon my answer – a yogurt strainer.

A yogurt strainer is a miraculous conical device that transforms plain, non-fat yogurt into a tangy cheese snack. Just drop a six-to-eight ounce container into the strainer and let it sit, covered, in a tall container for 5 hours or more. The whey – which is the milky liquid in yogurt – strains through and what’s left, is a thick spread that is the consistency of cream cheese. It is reminiscent of the thicker, rich yogurt served in Middle Eastern countries. And, if you’re trying to tame the knoshing demons just a tad, one batch is only 80 calories – with zero fat calories – per 6 ounces.

The flavor combinations are as broad as your imagination. I added a teaspoon of roasted garlic and chives, but you can use citrus zest or a touch of tahini. Any strong flavor you enjoy will blend nicely with the savory goodness of the yogurt. It’s tastes great on a crisp wheat cracker.

After all, who wants to give up snacking completely?

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Pasta Presto:

The best recipes are simple and uncomplicated with just a few, fresh ingredients. Despite an adventurous soul, and a tendency towards culinary experimentation, it’s always reassuring to return to old favorites. This is one of the first pasta dishes I ever made, in the Roman-style, and I first discovered a version of this recipe in a whimsically-illustrated book that was a gift from my parents. Just to prove to myself that I’ve “come a long way, baby” I made the pasta from scratch, but the sauce remains an effortless classic, that assembles in minutes, and is easy enough to make a weekend dinner a truly special occasion:

Tagliatelle alla Romana

10 to 12 ounces of Tagliatelle or Fettuccine Pasta
One half pint heavy cream
½ cup unsalted butter at room temperature
6 to 8 tablespoons grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
9 ounces frozen peas, (microwave for 5 minutes to heat through)
6 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto cut into strips
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

Cook the pasta in salted, boiling water. Meanwhile, heat the cream in a small saucepan. When cooked, drain the pasta. Return to the pot and melt the butter and cheese with the hot pasta. Add the hot cream, prosciutto and peas. Season with salt and pepper, toss and serve.

Makes 4 Servings

This dish is fresh, creamy and bursting with bright colors. Don’t forget to uncork the Chianti!

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

It’s Not Easy Being Green:

The bottle of emerald liquid sits on the table at the front of the room. On its label, a single eye stares back at the audience. It’s giving me the once over, daring me to take just a little taste.

I’m attending the monthly program of the Culinary Historians of New York to hear the dark and sordid history of Absinthe, a liqueur credited with everything from instigating murder to causing fatal brain degradation. The crowd is standing room only. Everybody loves a good villain.

I wasn’t familiar with this jaded cocktail, but the very name “Absinthe” was enough to send a young colleague fleeing from the room screaming something about hallucinations.

It looks a bit unearthly. Like something the Wizard of Oz or Puff the Magic Dragon might serve as a cordial. Make that something Kermit the Frog might drink on a bender. The contents are far from magical according to lore. In fact, the stuff was banned in most countries at the turn of the last century.

What is this controversial brew? Absinthe is actually distilled from herbs in the thyme family (hence the green color) and was first used as a medicinal drink. In plain terms, it was a vermicide, and was great for ridding the digestive system of parasites. French soldiers used it during the Algerian campaigns to purify water and later drank it as an aperitif. The key ingredient is wormwood, a bitter compound that can be toxic in large doses. Sounds like fun, huh? Well, the café culture in France loved it. They would drink it with sugar cubes and ignite tablespoons dipped in Absinthe.

Yet, despite being banned, Absinthe seems to be enjoying a renaissance. Just last week, Harold McGee explored the drink in the New York Times and our speaker, Professor David Weir of Cooper Union, seems intent on rescuing Absinthe’s tattered reputation. He is wearing a Kelly green handkerchief in his breast pocket. He reads a quote from a late 19th century author who describes Absinthe as “a nectar like the last kiss on the lips of a discarded mistress.”

The story of Absinthe is really about a clash of cultures. It was a working class drink. Weir shows us slides of famous Impressionist art depicting the iconoclastic members of the French café culture, each enjoying a bright green glass of Absinthe. As the years progress, and the reported effects of Absinthe spread, the pictures get uglier. The upper class blamed it for all kinds of distasteful, common behaviors. It was said that it only took six glasses before you would start hallucinating.

I’m about to get my first taste.

Glasses are passed through the audience containing one part Absinthe and five parts water. When combined with water, it takes on a milky, chartreuse color, and looks a bit like fresh squeezed lemon juice. I smell the astringent aroma of caraway and herbs. I take a sip and detect anise and licorice. There is a bitter, chemical aftertaste on the tongue and a strong aroma of insecticide or cleaning solution. This stuff is potent, with a capital P. Forget about hallucinating. Six glasses would probably kill me.

Professor Weir says the appeal of Absinthe was in its forbidden qualities. After two sips, I decide I’ll stick with approved beverages like Green Apple Martinis or Green Tea.

Besides, my taste buds are in shock, and I need to save them for next month’s program – an historic overview of love and chocolate.

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, January 08, 2007

An American in Paris in Las Vegas

I’m on an unusual weekend work assignment, and find myself in Las Vegas, Nevada of all places. Not at the top of my list for cities to visit, and even worse, I’m alone. Where is my colleague, Splint McCollough when I need him? Vegas is his kind of town – tawdry and as glittery as a disco ball, with a slot machine for every out-of-town tourist.

Alas, Splint is at home. I send him an email upon arrival: The Christmas lights are still up here, and David Hasselhoff is starring in “The Producers.”

Splint responds within the hour: Wow. You mean he’s not doing “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat” anymore?

So, when work is concluded I am forced to strike out on my own in this dazzling city of decadence.

I step out of the hotel and onto the Las Vegas Strip. It is a chilly night. To the left, I see the Empire State Building. To the right, I see the Eiffel Tower. I set off in the direction of Paris.

The contentious voice inside my head immediately starts an argument. “But, you’ve already been to the REAL Paris.”

“Sure, but it’s either French food Vegas style, or the all-you-can-eat Comfort Food Buffet at the Aladdin Casino,” my rational side argues back.

As I head down the strip, I encounter a life-size version of the Arch de Triumph, and a gargantuan hot air balloon, done in neon lights, with the word Paris emblazoned in script letters across its mid-section. I have arrived in the City of Lights, and I’ve only had to walk a quarter mile. Above me, the Eiffel Tower looms. It is a luminescent gold against the desert night sky. I decide to dine at Mon Ami Gambi, a Parisian-style bistro that sits in the shadow of the faux Eiffel Tower. I take a seat in the outdoor café that parallels the Las Vegas Strip. Torch heaters radiate warmth to fend off the cold desert air. In fact, they are downright toasty, and I fear my hair has been singed as I am led to my table.

Mon Ami Gambi is billed as a French Steak House, so I make a swift decision after quickly reviewing the bill of fare and order Steak Roquefort from the “Steak Frites” section of the menu. After all, “When in Rome…” Or is it, “When in Paris?” Or should that be, “When in Las Vegas?” I fear that I am suffering from a case of mistaken location. I decide to roll with it. Las Vegas is the land of dreams and illusions. Okay, maybe it’s not really Paris. But I could do a lot worse on a Sunday night on the road.

The dinner effectively fuels my Parisian hallucination. I start with a ruby-red glass of Louis Jadot Beaujolais 2004. A waiter brings a hot, crisp baguette to the table tucked in a narrow white paper bag. The Salad Maison is fresh greens dressed in tart vinaigrette and topped with a long narrow crouton spread with creamy goat cheese. The Steak Roquefort is classically prepared. The steak is carved thin, infused with smoky charcoal and topped with a slab of blue-green tangy cheese that melts over the hot meat like butter. The mountain of frites are wiry, crisp and paper thin, almost like wontons. Quite frankly, the meal is exquisite in its simplicity and intense flavors. As I bask in the golden glow of the Eiffel Tower, I’m starting to believe that I’m on a Parisian holiday. All that’s missing is Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dancing in the street.

To my right on the Las Vegas Strip, the tourists stream past, some in scarves and parkas, and some in shorts and tee-shirts. The torch heaters are so hot, that I fear I am getting sunburn. I’m almost certain that I’m getting feverish.

As I devour the steak, the fountains across the street at the Bellagio erupt into a twenty-story high dance, and the voice of Gene Kelly croons “Singing in the Rain” as the fountains spurt in unison.

“Wrong movie, Gene!” my contentious inner voice complains, but it is still kind of charming, nonetheless.

In the end, it’s all pretty absurd, but it has a certain appeal. It takes a city with an outrageous imagination to imitate the great cuisine and wonders of the world. Think Epcot Center with neon and showgirls and you’re well on your way to imagining the experience.

As I leave the restaurant through the casino exit, there is a woman about to win big on the “Wheel of Fortune” special edition. Tres bien!

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Friday, January 05, 2007

Twelfth Night Cake

Not much is made of Twelfth Night in the United States, although there is the occasional Three Kings Celebration to signal the start of the Epiphany season. While the celebration of Christmas once lasted for 12 days, now it seems to start in early October. Too often, the Christmas holidays can whimper to a close in January, and I like the idea of one final, festive night to enjoy the music, the candles and the confections of the most special season of the year.

January 6th or Twelfth Night is the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the arrival of the three Kings from the Far East to worship the Christ Child in Bethlehem. They brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Twelve Days of Christmas were typically a time of great merriment. Families were gathered together and balls and celebrations were held to mark important occasions. George Washington married Martha Custis on Twelfth Night. Shakespeare wrote a theatrical comedy called “Twelfth Night” to be performed for Queen Elizabeth I at the close of the Christmas holidays.

Just as important, there were sweets prepared to serve on this final night of feasting. The custom of Twelfth Night was practiced for years in England, where Victorian homemakers baked fancy, rich “Twelfth Night Cakes” flavored with candied fruits, citrus zest and liquor. Buried in this “Cake of Kings” was a bean, a tradition that dates back to Roman times. The guest who found the bean in his or her serving of cake would be named the king or queen of the revelry.

Some years ago, I purchased a lovely terra cotta Twelfth Night Cake mold. In honor of the 12 Days of Christmas just past, I give you this simple version of a Twelfth Night Cake that sparkles with colorful candied fruit and is heady with the flavor of orange and Grand Marnier.

If truth be told, the intricate crown design in the cake mold doesn’t really show in the final cake, so I decorated mine with powdered sugar stars to remember the “Star of Wonder” that shown brightly on this singular night.

A Festive Twelfth Night Cake

¼ cup golden raisins
¼ cup chopped candied fruit
4 tablespoons Grand Marnier
3 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup sugar
Zest of one orange
1 egg
1 ¼ cups milk

¼ cup orange juice
2 tablespoons butter melted and cooled
½ cup chopped almonds
1 large dried bean


2 tablespoons butter, melted
½ cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Mix the raisins, candied fruit and Grand Marnier together in a bowl and let soak. Sift flour, baking powder and salt. Mix the sugar with the orange zest and add the dry ingredients. Beat the egg with the milk, juice and butter. Stir the almonds and the fruits and liquor into the liquid and add the dry ingredients. Combine with several strokes until barely blended, but don’t over mix. Pour half of batter into a greased round, flat cake pan that is approximately 11 inches wide (a large shallow, ceramic quiche pan is a good option). Place the dried bean on top and cover with the rest of the batter. Bake for 30 minutes. Cool briefly in the pan and then turn out. Mix together the glaze ingredients and pour over the cake while it is still warm. Decorate with powdered sugar.
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