30 June 2009

Nectar in Moscow, Idaho

I've been to Nectar a number of times, and only my latest visit has been impressive. We don't have many inventive restaurants on the Palouse, particularly ones that serve dishes that feature local or fresh produce, so I was excited to try Nectar when it first opened.

Unfortunately, the first five or six times I ate at Nectar, the food was mediocre at best, and I was really disappointed by the lack of fresh produce at a restaurant that seemed to feature local, fresh ingredients. Everyone raved about the mac n cheese on Yelp, but what arrived at my table was tasteless and without any sharp notes whatsoever. This could be because I grew up near Wisconsin and I really don't like Cougar Gold cheese, but my macaroni was so soft it practically melted in my mouth, and the cheese tasted like Velveeta, and not in a comforting way. When they first opened, they also had a pancetta wrapped meatloaf on the menu, but what came out was actually a BACON wrapped meatloaf and it was overseasoned, too salty and very gamey. I noticed soon after they changed the description to read "bacon" instead of pancetta--wise choice.

Alright, before I say too much and you all think I hate Nectar, the last two times have been fantastic. I'm going to venture out on a limb here and postulate that winter is a difficult time for gathering fresh ingredients and showcasing them in dishes, but I do still think a little more creativity might also go a long way for the price.

For my mom's last night in Pullman (way back in May! I'm behind!) we decided to take the drive to Moscow, and after a fairly short wait we were seated in the partially enclosed back room that I've often seen used for private parties and receptions. It was actually kind of nice having the room to ourselves before a few tables wandered in.

The back room at Nectar

Ah yes, and here is my shy dining companion

I have to rave about the steamed clams we ordered as an appetizer in May, but I also have to report that last Saturday the clams (which I didn't take any pics of) were horribly salty, overcooked, rubbery and without the fresh parsley and saffron taste of the first batch. Sigh.

The tasty batch

Leftover juice ready to be sopped up with fresh bread; the juice was almost better than the fresh clams

There are two reasons I think the clams were horrible, one being a kitchen staff change. One of the cooks (who happens to be opening a restaurant in Pullman, meaning a review will pop up here as soon as that happens) is nothing short of an awesome cook, and the first time I tried his clams I knew immediately I'd found a safe item on the Nectar menu. Without him in the kitchen, I'm afraid the quality will suffer.

The other reason is that the clams themselves didn't seem very fresh. Very fishy tasting, but that could also be why they oversalted? Or an effect of oversalting??

Next up, the salad was pretty standard, except I have to note that they are never swimming in dressing (which is important to me--I loathe getting dressing on the side).

Mom's entree was fantastic--Scallops with sugo (basically just tomato sauce, but the seasoning was really fresh), served on a summer vegetable tian. If one is going with the strict definition of a tian dish, the layers of veggies didn't really so much complement each other as they did taste all alike, but nonetheless, I couldn't stop stealing tiny bites of her tender scallops. I secretly wished I had ordered her dish, but mine was extremely satisfying.

My asparagus and wild mushroom risotto was cooked just right (I feel I always need to point this out on the Palouse; no gummy risotto!!) and the earthy mushrooms were just as fresh as the asparagus. My only problem with this dish was that the parmigiano reggiano was barely recognizable, as was the white truffle oil the menu boasted. Still, I was full at the end.

My mom and I aren't really dessert people, so if we did order dessert, it probably didn't even occur to me to take pics!

While the service is fantastic and the prices are pretty reasonable, the food can sometimes be a little iffy at Nectar, so the best advice I could give anyone is to go at the height of a particular fresh ingredient's season (asparagus and mushrooms were the best ingredients of the evening). Nectar is the only restaurant I actually enjoy in this area, so give it a shot if you're in the area.

Nectar Restaurant
105 W. 6th St.
Moscow, ID (across from One World Cafe)

29 June 2009

Chicago-Famous Freddy's Pizza and a Trip Back to my Childhood

When I was a kid, my parents would sometimes drop all three of us rambunctious kids at my grandmother's house in Cicero so they could...well, get away from us. If there was an event to be attended, a date to be shared, or a load of massive errands, we would head over to grandma's to eat Falco's Pizza and drink Diet Rite out of little mason jars while playing gin rummy (minus the gin, of course) with the extended family. My grandmother Ann, great aunt Mae (whom I'm named after), and my great uncle George all lived together for almost all of their lives, and I can still smell Aunt Mae's Thanksgiving stuffing baking upstairs in the second kitchen. My grandma's house was one of those unique two-flat WWII-era structures that was full of drafty corners and fun places for kids to hide. The alleyway was a frequent hangout as well, and if we were lucky, my grandma would give us money to get Italian lemonade at Freddy's Pizza right down the block.

The old neighborhood in Cicero. These unique houses never fail to bring an odd feeling of familiarity when I visit Berwyn/Cicero (hey Svengoolie fans: BERRRR-WYN).

Over the years, I've come to realize what a significant role Freddy's played in my childhood since every visit to grandma's house was accompanied by a big scoop of Italian lemonade and the rather exciting endeavor of sucking on the lemon seeds before spitting them out. My brother told me once that if I swallowed the seeds I would grow a lemon tree in my tummy, and that apprehension carried into later years when I was scared to eat pomegranate seeds for fear of a giant fruit tree emerging from my body. I was a little impressionable.

The famous Freddy's. An understated, small establishment for sure, but food this good doesn't need frills.

The original Freddy retired years ago, and Joe Quercia expanded the tiny lemonade and grocery store to include homemade Italian dishes that in my father's words are like "a trip back to Italy." This is high praise coming from my father, whose very refined palate has always been somewhat of an inspiration to me (he's the right kind of picky). Dad also mentioned Freddy's had just recently been reviewed on WTTW's Check Please, a show that I grew up watching and that I often return to before a visit to get the culinary Chicago scoop. This is also the show I recommend to those visiting Chicago, and I just found out they've been archiving some of their spotlight pieces--for the Check Please! edition on Freddy's, see here.

My mom, dad, Ian and I piled into the car on a Saturday afternoon ready to be blown away as always, and we weren't disappointed. The inside is quite cramped due to the groceries that surround waiting customers, but I loved scouring through the many different imported pastas and Italian goods whilst I waited.

When it came time to order, Ian picked the sausage, potatoes and peppers, I chose the gnocchi in creamy vodka sauce, my dad devored penne with peas in a vodka red sauce, and my mom chose the chicken piccata. We all shared a slice of thick crust sausage pizza, and my mouth was in heaven with the fresh fennel seeds (*see note at bottom of post*). I would give you all the Italian names for these dishes, but I always end up misspelling in Italian even if I can pronounce them with finesse (a little embarrassing for a PhD student in English!).

Gnocchi and Piccata

Pizza and Penne

Sausage, potato and peppers

After lunch, we headed back inside to where the sweet gelato and tart Italian lemonade of my childhood waited for us. Ian and I shared a pistachio gelato, which was fantastic, but I would recommend to others my absolute favorite, tartufo (chocolate with hazelnuts). Of course, you can't go wrong with any of the gelato flavors at a place voted Best Gelato in Chicago!

I snuck a bite of the Italian lemonade from my dad's dish, and it was just as I remembered. I still didn't swallow the lemon seeds.

Thanks dad!!

**Note: Fennel seeds are a must in any Italian sausage coming out of Chicago. In fact, many pizza sauces in Chicago (the ones that are worth eating--so stay the hell out of Lou Malnati's, Uno's or any other tourist trap) also include a subdued but fantastic fennel finish. If you order any Chicago pizza, don't get the deep dish. It's overrated, most people I know never ordered it, and it's the easiest way to throw up your "I'm a tourist! Take advantage of me!" flag. I know many people are into pepperoni or cheese or any of the California-inspired alfalfa sprout/artichoke varieties, but go for the sausage slice if you want a true taste of Chicago. If you see whole fennel seeds in the sausage, you've got a good slice.

28 June 2009

Cubs game: Overpriced, Completely Worth It Ballpark Dogs (Especially When They Win)

The last six times I have attended a Cubs game, they lost. I know this is a trend with the Cubbies, but frankly, I think I'm a losing charm. I never get to see them win. There was one time when the victory was glorious, but it was in Milwaukee against the Brewers, and the glory was overshadowed by wayyyyy too much Old Style. I believe I even drunk dialed my mother to shout "Cubs win! Cubs win!"

Let me explain. I don't really care about sports, and I don't generally care about team spirit or school spirit or any kind of competitive cheering you throw at me. I did my undergrad at a school whose mascot was the Cougars, and when I entered grad school at WSU, I soon realized that all anyone cared about was how the "Cougs" were doing. I really despise when people shorten/"cuten" words that roll off the tongue, and even more so when education is at stake. I've watched students walk into my classroom demanding special treatment because they are athletes, and I've watched poor, student loan laden peers struggle to work a couple of jobs while trying to make it through my classes, and I have to say, I'm not thrilled with the pat on the back athletes get. I'm going to hold back my tirade for now, but let's just say, the only *ONLY* sport I care about is baseball. More specifically, the Chicago Cubs.

The first time I ever stepped foot into Wrigley Field, it was like a magical experience. Even before I checked my ticket, the crowd outside was like a magical, enchanted forest of people who were excited to attend a game. There were songs, chants, dances and face paints that made me feel passionate. I went home the first time I ever attended a Cubs game, and I wrote four full, handwritten pages in my journal about the experience. I was a nerd at a very young age.

Yet the Cubs always lose, despite my passion for Wrigley, for Chicago and for baseball. Once my greatest friend ever (hi, Jason) and I sat during a heat wave and watched the Arizona Diamondbacks defeat the Cubs in a 14-2 margin. I cried. I believe I also had sunburn. I flew back to Pullman with a heavy heart.

Last year, if you recall, Ian and I were forced to leave Wrigley after 10,000 lightning strikes occurred in one hour and a massive tornado watch overtook the north end of Illinois. A microburst meant an interesting commute home, and I was bummed to not witness a Cubs miracle.

This year, we *won*. We were 7-0, losing to the Indians until in the latter innings the Cubs pulled off a comeback that was nothing short of miraculous. After several hotdogs (no ketchup, people! no friggin ketchup!!) and many plastic cups full of Old Style beer, I went home to my parents' house full and satisfied.

Ian and I not enjoying the humidity, but thoroughly enjoying the game.

Expensive Chicago dog: $4 but well worth the satisfaction. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh.

W!!!! Display it proudly, Chicago!

Road Trip Detox Part One: Chilled Sweet Potato Carrot Soup

Since Ian and I ate a ton of fatty, greasy, not exactly healthful foods for almost two weeks on vacation, I quickly returned our daily eats to the kind of comforting whole foods we usually eat on a daily basis. My first object was to get some veggies into our systems, so I decided to just barely cook one giant sweet potato (a little longer than the rest of the ingredients, obviously), 1/2 an onion, and three giant organic carrots in olive oil. Once soft, I added them to the blender and then added about a cup of chicken stock. After chilling overnight, I ate a few bowls over the week along with a garnish of fat free Chobani and a few sprigs of cilantro.

Detox complete!

Uptown Cafe in Butte, Montana, or, the end of a very LONG road trip

The very last night of our 10 day drive to/stay in/drive back from Chicago, Ian and I were absolutely exhausted. When I was 22, I took my first road trip to Washington state from Chicago, and after taking this drive a number of times (6 now one way each), I've realized one important piece of info: I'm too old to take these trips. Or, at least I'm too old to drive consistently for 27/28 hours without stopping. The first leg of our cross-country trip, we stopped in Miles City, Montana. Depressing tourist town with no impressive tourist attractions. The second night, we stopped in Tomah, Wisconsin, near the Dells. Probably a cool town judging from what I briefly saw while almost falling asleep at the wheel, but we were much more interested in the soft pillows that awaited us in the hotel room and the sweet, sweet feeling of satisfaction in reaching my parents' house in Chicago the next day. Blarg.

The second leg of the trip is forthcoming. Many many Chicago eats need to be chronicled, and a yearly craving has been satisfied. Okay, the craving isn't yearly. It's daily. Double blarg.

The very last leg of the trip took us to Chamberlain, South Dakota the first night, and Butte, Montana the next. We could have driven all the way home that last night, but frankly, we wanted that last night of vacation. So Ian and I decided to head out for a nice dinner, and with a few online reviews in tow, I was hopeful to try Butte's top-rated Uptown Cafe. Although the meal was much more akin to stepping into your favorite low-scale diner, it satisfied the last night vacation needs quite nicely.

The starter was a cannellini bean-tomato soup, but unfortunately what sounded comforting and promising after two days on the road arrived at our table with virtually no seasoning or....taste. I didn't taste a thing, which leads me to believe that the soup was most likely left in a soup warmer all day. Nothing like the taste of something completely overcooked, and this was unfortunately how the rest of the meal turned out as well.

We had a strawberry salad that I forgot to take pics of, but it really wasn't anything special. Store-bought raspberry vinaigrette, under-ripe strawberries and tasty greens. Nothing special.

Second course (this sounds very forced, doesn't it?) was clams maison, which were definitely not fresh, but I'll forgive that since I was in Montana. People, Montana. Come on. Sadly, it was my favorite dish.

My pork entree was cooked just right (not dry at all! almost a first in the West!) but it was underseasoned, as was the plum sauce. The cloves of garlic were wonderful, but I would have liked if the rosemary garnish had also been included in the sauce/meat seasoning. I almost took a lighter out of my purse and lit the plate on fire from underneath in order to get some of that seasoning into the dish. But then I looked at the sea of cowboy hats around me and the likelihood that I would be mistaken for a Jewish terrorist, and I shoved another mouthful in without another thought.

I also received a "side" with my entree. When the waitress asked which of the sides I would like to order, I didn't account for the fact that the sides were most likely already made and were sitting around waiting to be taken out to customers. After ordering the snap peas in lemon butter, I received very soggy snap peas with a pool of lemon juice at the bottom of the dish and a pat of butter on top. Hmmm. That's a new take on lemon butter I hadn't seen.

Ian ordered the Scallops Norfolk, which came out much like you would get in a family-run Greek diner in Chicago: overcooked, underseasoned and completely tasteless. It was a disservice to scallops, if I ever saw one. His "side" was a vegetable ragu with penne, which also, true to form did not have any seasoning that I could taste.

Needless to say, we skipped dessert and headed back to our hotel full and ready to cook our own meals once again. Ahhhhhhh, home.

25 June 2009

We're back!!!

So I probably didn't mention on this blog that I'd be out of town. Yeah. Most likely a responsible thing to do, to update one's blog, eh? Well, here's the lowdown: Ian and I drove back home to Chicago, and we're resting up. Yes, drove. 3400 miles round trip total. Fifth time I've taken that trip now. Fifth.

I promise to update with all the lovely Chicago foods that don't taste like Pullman nothingness rather soon. For now, here's some Chicago food pictures to tickle your fancy. Sorry about the photo quality....I suck at taking pics when excited beyond belief.

A little Ian action shot. That's one happy consumer.


Harold's Chicken Shack. Screw you, KFC.

Chile relleno without cheddar cheese (yes, that's generally what I get in Pullman). I love you, Bucho's.

Chicago dog!!!!

10 June 2009

Olympia Farmer's Market

Can I just go ahead and admit that I want to live in the Olympia Farmer's Market? Kthx. Back at the end of April/beginning of May, a few of us set out for our friend BT's wedding, and I *believe* I let you all know how happy I was to leave town for a few short days. After spending the semester busy as a bee and not really even having time for a haircut let alone washing my hair, I was psyched to leave my work behind.

Although the food at most of the restaurants left something to be desired (I still haven't found much attention to taste or detail in the NW), the Farmer's Market was pretty darn awesome. A staple of the Olympia community, the Farmer's Market has the requisite food stands and fresh produce, but there were also stands devoted to natural health and beauty products (we like this) and fresh seafood from the Columbia River, as well as a wide variety of meats, whether farm fresh, organic or grass fed. Our first stop? The jerky stand.

I'm not sure how he does it, unless there is some invisible meat homing device installed in all men, but Ian managed to find the dried meats stand within seconds of entering the market. There was a great assortment: salmon, buffalo, beef, Hawaiian, jalapeno, and teriyaki jerky. Ian was like a kid in a....meat store. We settled on the Landjaeger, which was smoky with a bit of spice, but tasted to me
like a jerkied (is that a word?) hot dog.

While Ian made grunting noises and happily chowed down, I was marveling in the fresh seafood at a number of stands. The oysters and clams at one table had me kicking myself for not bringing a better cooler, and the Columbia River Chinook had me seriously contemplating gutting a fish in my hotel room.

The focus for me was on the food, but the live music and responsible recycling and waste system, as well as the WSU Extension site's entrance garden (beautifully planned and executed) gave this market an aura that is missing from the Moscow Farmer's Market. Not that I'd complain--I adore my market!

If you're ever in Olympia, and you've tired of visiting the State Capitol (truly a beautiful one, by the way), the Farmer's Market is the place to be.

07 June 2009

Bring on the cheap summer meals! Baked Falafel with Tzatziki Sauce and Quinoa Tabbouleh

Early summer is an inspiring time for me in the kitchen. The grocery stores and farmer's markets are rich with beautiful, aromatic herbs and fresh produce, but not being rich myself means carefully budgeting and planning meals faced with an abundance of healthful options.

One of my favorite ways to get a little mileage out of weekly foods is through summer pasta, rice and grain salads. I make a large batch on Sunday evenings and then eat it throughout the week for lunch with fresh fruit, for breakfast smothered with an over easy runny egg, or with light summer dinners.

After getting a pretty awesome deal on quinoa a few weeks ago, I decided to reinvent a traditional tabbouleh side using the grain. If you haven't tried quinoa, it's a little nutty but has a pretty interesting texture that adds an unexpected bite to side dishes, warm or cold. I rounded up a bounty of fresh produce and prepared one of my new favorites.

Quinoa Tabbouleh Salad

2 cups cooked quinoa
1/2 cup chopped cucumber
1/4 cup diced carrots
3 green onions, sliced into 1/4" pieces
3 campari or roma tomatoes, chopped
2 tbl. finely chopped Italian parsley
1 tbl. finely chopped mint
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
1 1/2 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
Pinch of sea salt, fresh ground pepper

1. Mix all ingredients together except for quinoa. Slowly fold in quinoa.

Ian isn't a fan of cucumber, so he generally picks the pieces out of this particular salad, but he doesn't mind cucumber if it's finely blended. Making tzatziki sauce in this household is a bit tricky, so I had to pre-mix red onions, peeled and diced cucumber and a clove of garlic in my food processor before adding to Fat Free Chobani Yogurt. I never measure out this sauce, since I generally just prepare it to taste, but the trick for me has always been to add just the right amount of sugar for the cucumbers to stand out.

As for the falafel, I'm not a huge fan of frying these bad boys up, so I bake them as patties instead. I used this recipe, subbing the peanut butter for the last bit of sunflower butter I had left. As one might expect, baking falafel patties means a few cracked casualties occur, but this girl isn't very picky: I ate the cracked ones straight with tzatziki about three minutes after they finished baking.

Pizza for the busy #2

Store-bought refrigerated pizza dough is not my favorite canvas for pizza, but in a pinch, it does the trick. The second night I craved pizza, I went to a more reasonable pizza-in-a-pinch source: leftover whole wheat pita bread. After making baked falafel the day before (and eating ALL of the leftovers around 1 AM that evening), I needed to use up the leftover flatbread. With a container full of leftover shredded chicken and some black beans that needed a use, I mixed in some frozen corn and slathered my favorite BBQ sauce on the pitas, and then topped with leftover shredded cheese.

Have you had Sweet Baby Ray's BBQ Sauce? I grew up eating that stuff, and I love the sweetness of the original (the Honey BBQ is overkill). The other plus? It's a Chicago BBQ sauce! Ahhhh, homesickness lasts a lifetime.

Not even ten minutes later, dinner was ready, and most of the week's leftovers had been recycled. I retired to the couch to read happy and full.

04 June 2009

Pizza for the busy I-don't-have-time-for-no-knead-pizza type #1

I adore pizza, and after growing up eating Falco's Pizza (Psssst! Don't go to the downtown location, go to the original in Cicero) and other Chicago pizzas (besides the tourist traps that are Uno's and Lou Malnati's) I can't imagine ever trying to eat Pullman pizza again. Let's just say our options are the major chains (Little Caesars, Pizza Hut, etc.) and local CRAP (Pizza Perfection/Pizza Pipeline--shouldn't the names alone be a sign?) so I often make pizza at home when the craving hits me. The only problem? No time to make my own dough. Refrigerated home dough works just fine for this grad student/teacher/editor extraordinaire.

Ian and I had been craving pizza, and while when I eat out in Chicago I usually order sausage, I had some chicken that needed to be used. After perusing some posts on tastespotting.com for pizza sauce ideas, I found Laura Flowers's blog and was astounded--she's from Moscow, Idaho!!!!! That's my stomping grounds!!!! After pumping my fists in the air 80's love ballad-style, I decided to make her pesto cream sauce for a chicken pizza. The sauce was incredibly tasty, but I did adjust a tiny bit.

For the pizza making, I spread the sauce on two refrigerated pizza dough forms, and then added shredded chicken, shredded homegrown basil, chopped roasted red bell peppers, and mozzarella.

Here's my revamped version of Laura's awesome Pesto Cream Sauce for Pizzas:

Pesto Cream Sauce
Original source: http://www.thecookingphotographer.com/2009_04_01_archive.html

Pesto Cream Sauce
1 tbl. unsalted butter
3/4 cup fat free half and half
1/4th tsp. sea salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 Tablespoons prepared pesto (I used homemade--I'm sure Laura did too, but it's worth mentioning!)
1 1/2 tbl. grated Romano Cheese

Mix all the ingredients in a sauce pan. Stir constantly until consistency is desired.