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Friday, May 13, 2011

Chimichurri Marinated Flank Steak with Cumin Garlic Home Fries

MAN OH MAN what a couple of weeks it has been!  Start with waking up to a little girl who had a 102 fever and finding out she had a double ear infection.  Flash forward to three hours later and Huntsville gets hit with the worst tornadoes in history and we lose power (for the next week in some places).   A little further to being displaced to south Alabama at my mom's house because of the loss of power.  On forward four days later to coming with power but myself coming down with the worst sickness I've ever had in my life (the doctor thinks it might have been viral meningitis but I didn't go get the spinal tap done so who's to say?).  Flash forward another week to figuring out what's going on at school with finals being canceled and now here we are, another week later, my little girl with two MORE ear infections and the croup.  Like I said, it's been a couple of weeks but I'm still standing!  And now back to cooking!

During the whole storm incident we had to move most of our deep freezer to my mom's so we wouldn't lose it.  I mean, the frozen veggies and odds and ends weren't a big deal, but all of the meat and all of the fresh veg we got from my families garden last summer, that's the stuff I didn't want to lose.  I came across these flank steaks that I had bought a month or so ago and thought what better way to reintroduce myself into the blogging world than to whip up something in two parts?  Chimichurri is a parsley / garlic marinade that is Argentinian in origin and is out of this world.  I first had it at a place in one of the casinos in Biloxi, MS.  I can't remember the name of the place but they walk around with huge chunks of rotisserie meat and slice it off right there at your table.  You have a card that's green on one side and red on the other.  Want more meat?  Show the green side.  Stuffed to the brim?  Show the red side.  Really cool and well worth every penny.  But I digress.

The chimichurri marinade is pretty simple.  This is what I used:
1 cup of parsley
1 cup of cilantro
6 cloves of garlic
2 shallots
1/3 cup of red wine vinegar
3 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil
pinch of red pepper flake
zest of one lime plus juice of half
salt and pepper to taste

I'll tell you to start with, this is not a traditional chimichurri marinade.  This is my version.  The original doesn't have the lime but I felt like it added a freshness with the citrus to the vinegar and oil, almost like a salad dressing.  That being said, first take the garlic and shallots (peeled of course) and run them through a food processor until chunky.  Do the same with the parsley and cilantro (you can also just run your knife through the leaves, making sure to get the stems out).  In a separate bowl, whisk the oil and vinegar together, then add the everything else.  Add salt and pepper to your own taste.  Add the marinade to a Ziploc bag along with the steaks and let them sit for anywhere from 8 to 24 hours.  These were in the fridge for 24 hours.  Of course, the longer they sit, the more time the flavors have to develop.  Plus, if you do the marinade the day before, you don't have to do everything in one sitting which is even better.

When I got home from work tonight, I pulled these bad boys out and fired up the grill.  Depending on how big they are and how you like your meat, you want to cook them for 7 to 10 minutes on each side over medium heat for a nice medium rare / medium.  Again, you know how your grill works and everyone's grill is different and you know how you like your meat right?  So, after you pull them off the grill, let them rest. 

The smell on these once you pull them off the grill is out of sight!  These look a little charred but I prefer my meat a little on the medium well side, especially for what I had planned for them.  At this point, you're done!  You can do with them what ever you please.  I sliced them thinly with the grain and set them aside.  On to the home fries!

Home fries are supposed to be chunked potatoes with onions and anything else you want to throw in there.  I had a left over shallot and some more garlic so that's what I used.  I've cooked home fries before but never got them to that right crispiness that I like, until now.  Thanks to the guys over at The Smitten Kitchen the problem is now solved! Here's how they do it:

1 pound of new red potatoes, cleaned and diced (skin on)
1 shallot
4 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon of cumin
1 teaspoon of chili powder
1 teaspoon of chipotle powder
salt and pepper to taste
4 tablespoons of butter

Once you have the potatoes cleaned and diced, put them in a microwave safe bowl with two tablespoons of butter.  Cover the bowl tightly with saran wrap and microwave for 7 to 10 minutes, stirring halfway through the cooking process.  After that's done, set them aside.  Run the garlic and shallot through a food processor just like before.  In a saute pan, add one teaspoon of butter then add the garlic and shallots.  Cook until you get a nice brown color.  Set these aside.  Add the last of your butter into a clean nonstick pan over medium to medium high heat.  Once the butter is melted, add your potatoes and pack down tight in the bottom of the pan.  Let these cook for 10 minutes or until they start to get that nice crispiness that you're looking for.  While they are cooking, sprinkle the cumin, chili powder, and chipotle on the top.  Once they start to get crisp, flip the on the other side and do the same thing.  After they begin to brown on the bottom, add your browned garlic and shallots.  Continue cooking until the potatoes are crispy.  And that's it for the potatoes!  They turned out great with just a little spice and that nice cumin flavor (could have used some more salt and pepper during the cooking process though).

This is how I assembled it up.  I warmed a flour tortilla in the same pan with all the left over cumin butter residue and threw my flank steak in that.  I also added some tomatillo salsa that I had and it was awesome!  The home fries I took a little mayo and added some chili flakes and chipotle powder and threw it on top.  Pretty awesome if I do say so myself.  And if you're thinking, "Mayonnaise on fries?  Gross!", you are dead wrong my friend!  The only thing that would have made them better is some fresh cilantro on top (which I didn't have unfortunately).

So there you go!  It's almost like the Argentinian version of steak and potatoes which is kind of what I was going for.  You don't have to buy a ribeye and bake potatoes in the oven like a schmoe all the time!  Try something different.  We still had steak and potatoes tonight and everyone wins:  I got my Spanish flavors that I like so much and my wife got a home cooked meal which she only gets once a week right now.  The only thing that would make this meal better?  A big ol' fat margarita!

On a side note, Happy First Birthday to my wonderful and beautiful daughter!  It has been my pleasure getting to be your daddy for the past year.  I love you very much!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Alabama Disaster Relief

Hey guys, no food talk today.  I'm sure all of you know about the recent tornadoes that hit my area very hard.  The devastation is unreal and a lot of areas are in dire need of support and volunteers.  Any help would be greatly appreciated, even if it's just a dollar.  A lot of families have lost everything, including houses and loved ones.  In this time of need, take a second to remember how lucky we all are to be here and try and help others around you.  I'll get back to food when things settle down a bit but for now, let's do what we can to help out a little.  Here are some links if you want to donate.

-Click here to go to They were one of the hardest areas hit and have received most of the national spotlight.

-Click here to go to the Governor's Emergency Relief Fund. This goes into a general fund through the governor's office to help with relief efforts.

-Click here to go to the North Alabama Food Bank donation site. Right now, we're all kind of in a spot with no cold products like milk, eggs, etc., but non-perishable items are always great.

These are just a couple of sites. I was severely lucky to miss the tornadoes. I had four tornadoes pass through about 10 miles north and two more pass through about 10 miles south. Others weren't as lucky though. Thanks in advance and again, even if it's just a dollar, it helps.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Happy Tummy - Huntsville, AL

Looks like the beginning of a low-budget horror film right?  (I say low budget because someone forgot to move their van out of the shot AGAIN! CUT!)  Whether or not that is the case is unheard on my ears but this is actually Lowe Mill in Huntsville, AL, home to the trendy bendy world that is the art culture, skate kids, music hall, and Huntsville's only independent record store (and by record, I mean vinyl).  It is also home to one of the best sandwich shops in the area, Happy Tummy.

As far as I can gather, Happy Tummy was started up in a permanently parked food truck outside of the mill in 2008 but recently has found a home inside of the mill.  It seems like the perfect spot for a quick lunch because of it's central location to downtown (only about a mile away) and traffic doesn't seem like it gets too bad because it is off the road a little bit.  After reading a couple of reviews and hearing so much about this "Fred Bread" stuff, I figured I would give it a shot.

As usual, when I pulled up, the place had maybe 15 cars in the parking lot.  Now mind you, Happy Tummy is not the only place in the mill.  I've grown accustom to the lack of patrons at my dining time though (because of my schedule it's usually around 1 PM or a little after) and have grown to appreciate the lack of people because it gives me more time to be slow and poke a little and soak everything in without being pushed around and forced out the door once my last bite of food is being chewed.

The first thing you notice when you walk up is the great patio seating area.  Again, missing Mobile and it's outdoor seating at EVERY restaurant you go to, it's always nice to find these places and you make a mental checklist of places to go based on sitting outdoors.  I wasn't quite sure where I was going but the big double doors with "ENTRANCE" painted on them kind of helped me out.  Once you walk in, it's kind of everything you hope it would be: quiet, quaint, people enjoying their sandwiches and reading books... kind of like a book store with much better food.

The place is literally set up in a corner with a couple of grills and presses and storage closet with a border made of movable metal tables and shelving units.  The lady who took my order actually pulled the metal table back to walk inside of the "unit" and take my order.  How cool.  Also, I always scan for credit card machines when I walk in smaller places like this because you never know, they might be cash only places.  When I asked if they took cards, the lady said "sure" and pulled out an iPhone with a gadget attached to the end.  She swiped my card and I signed with my finger.  Again, how cool is that?

The coolest thing about this place is the menu.  Of course they have the menu staples and the favorites listed (on a tack board printed out on computer paper no less), but it changes every week, the special that is.  One week you could be having french dip, the next you would be having a baked falafel sandwich.  I know that most places have specials everyday but looking back over their past menus, it seems as though they never repeat a sandwich unless it makes it's way on to the regular board.  Plus, they are creative.  A baked falafel sandwich?  That creativity bleeds over into the names like the "Bite Ya Back" which is Chicken, Bowtie Pasta, Peppers and Onions Tossed with Raspberry Habanero Vinaigrette, Served Over Lettuce and Topped with Chow Mein Noodles.  Another is the "Jamaican Me Hungry Baked Potato" which is stuffed with Jerk Chicken, Butter, Cheese and Caribbean Sour Cream.  I told the lady taking my order that I had never been there before and asked what was good and she kind of laughed, which made me laugh, because when someone has that much pride in their food, it's either super good or super bad, and it didn't strike me as the type of place that would serve super bad food.  I finally ended up settling on the Infidel, which is Ham, Chipotle Pork, Swiss, Pickle, Mayo and Mustard on Garlic Olive FredBread.  I took my sandwich and headed to the house, really wishing that I would have stayed there and devoured it so I could order another and look like a pig.  But again, wishful thinking.

I've had a lot of sandwiches in my day but this thing takes the cake (except for my #1 sandwich in the world which is the muffaleta from Food Pak in Mobile, AL... there will never be another....).  The pork was moist and juicy and the condiments weren't so heavy that it over powered the sandwich.  And the bread, wow the bread.  From what I can gather, Fred Bread is baked here in Huntsville and they make all kinds of breads from jalapeno cheddar to the garlic olive bread that I had today.  Even on the ride home, the bread held up to the heat of the sandwich and the juices in the pork.  What else can I say?  It was just delicious all around.  And again, my wishes are bigger than my stomach because there is NO WAY I could have eaten two of these things.  It was very filling and only left me wanting the taste and not another sandwich.  In the end, it was kind of disappointing because I really, REALLY like Subway.  How could I possibly compare the two and how can I ever set foot in Subway again after knowing that real sandwiches lie in wait??

This place is a true testament to what a little creativity and elbow grease can do for the cooking world.  These ladies have taken something as simple as making a sandwich and turned it into an art form.  Plus, with places like Jason's Deli (which is the closest thing that I can compare it to) you are fighting over tables and can barely hear your company talking to you a couple of feet away, that is, if you can find a parking spot and stand in line for 10 minutes before waiting 10 minutes to get your food.  If you've got 30 minutes for lunch, I would go here in a heartbeat.  The prices are moderate (around $6 per sandwich, tax and bag of chips included) and from one look at their menu, you could eat a different sandwich everyday for weeks and never have close to the same thing twice.  It's a place that I will definitely go back to and definitely feel comfortable taking my family to.  Turns out the horror movie only takes place on the outside and not the inside.

Wanna check these guys out?? Give them a visit:
Happy Tummy (located inside Lowe Mill)

2211 Seminole Dr.
Huntsville, AL  35805 (for weekly menus)
Happy Tummy on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Bacon-Wrapped Smoked Pork Tenderloin plus a Pineapple Chipotle BBQ Sauce

Spring is here and that means one thing to me:  like cutting grass, my smoker will be running every day I have off until it gets too cold to use it again and even then, we may use it for special occasions like a leg of lamb for Christmas or a turkey for Thanksgiving.  Smoking is something that everyone can do and I suggest that if you don't have a smoker, go out and buy one!  I can say this, I have never messed up a piece of meat on the smoker, and even if I did, I didn't know it because the smacking of lips from those who were eating whatever was cooked was too deafening.  My favorite is brisket.  I LOVE cooking brisket on the smoker because when you cut into it, it relays that perfect smoke ring and I always make mine salty.  There's something about a freshly smoked brisket sandwich with homemade barbecue sauce.  But this weekend, I went with the old standby but updated it slightly.  My family has been cooking bacon wrapped pork tenderloins for.... I don't know really know.  It was just one of those things that appeared one day and I don't really remember life before it.  If I had to draw a time line, instead of BC and AD, it would be B.B.W.P and A.B.W.P (before bacon wrapped pork and after bacon wrapped pork).

The logistics of this are amazing if you really think about it.  Pork on pork love baby!  The slow cooking in the smoker makes the meat tender to begin with.  But then you add the fact that it's wrapped in bacon and all the fat from the bacon 1) soaks into the tenderloin and 2) drips on to the coals creating a different dynamic with the smoking process, call it "bacon smoke" if you will.  I have used the cheapest bacon I could find, the thinnest cut you could imagine, and the bacon almost fuses with the tenderloin.  Really cool stuff.  Most of the time I use a dry rub that I get from a BBQ joint in the town I grew up in, wrap it up, set it, and forget it.  This time I wanted to try something a little different though.

Marinating always makes meat better, no matter what cut or how long or what type.  The flavors soak into the meat and change the flavor, also tenderizing in most cases.  This time, I used a pineapple marinade because if it's good enough for a Hawaiian pizza, it's good enough for me.

Here's the marinade I used:
1 can diced or crushed pineapple
2 tablespoons of cilantro
1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder
a pinch of salt and pepper
a dash of liquid smoke

Run all of these ingredients through a food processor until you don't have any chunks of pineapple left.  Pour in a Ziploc bag or put it in a dish (like above) and let your pork sit.  We had a long day and I was running out of time so I only let this sit for about an hour.  I suggest about 4 hours.  I wouldn't leave it overnight because the acidity in the pineapple may begin to "cook" the pork, but that might just be my misconception.   When it's done marinating, pull it out and scrape off the excess.  Then comes the fun part:  wrapping!  Before wrapping, I seasoned the tenderloin with more salt, pepper, garlic powder, and bit of that dry rub I spoke of before.  

When you're wrapping the tenderloin, lay out a bunch of toothpicks before hand, non-colored mind you. (If you use colored toothpicks, the dye bleeds into the meat, not changing the flavor, but making weird little colored lines throughout the meat!)  Start at one end, securing the bacon with toothpick numero uno.  What you want to do is work your way around the tenderloin.  Once one piece of bacon runs out, get another, overlap a little, secure with another toothpick and keep going.  This is the most time extensive part.  After the first piece or two, it becomes like second nature and you can run through it in about 10 minutes.  Make sure to leave enough of the toothpick sticking out so you can remove it once the cooking is over.  Believe me, nothing is worse that having this beautiful cut of meat, slicing through a toothpick, and ruining the whole thing (just kidding, it's just really annoying to find a toothpick when slicing).

All that's left now is to smoke this thing!  I prefer to use natural wood charcoal, just because it seems to burn longer that your regular briquettes.  It looks like black pieces of wood (go figure).  As far as the wood, it depends on your taste really.  If you want something strong, go with a mesquite or hickory wood.  Want something more subtle?  Go with an apple or cherry wood.  I usually just keep a bag of hickory chucks in the freezer.  Freezer you ask?  Keeping the wood in the freezer allows for the wood to hold it's moisture and not burn out in 10 minutes once put on the fire.  When lighting the fire in the smoker, put a handful of chunks in water to let them soak up.  I've even heard of soaking them in vinegar but have never personally tried it.  I'm not going into the logistics of smoking but if you have any questions, shoot me an e-mail or post them to the page.

After two hours at 275 to 300 degrees, it's time to pull it off.  The beauty!  The grandeur!!  What you must remember and what you must always remember with any cut of meat when smoking is no matter how tempting, no matter how bad you want to, LET THE MEAT REST!!  This is crucial!  Why would you go through cooking something for 2 to 24 hours (!!!) just to cut right into it and have all that juice run out and be lost forever?  You won't so don't.  I let it rest for 20 minutes or so on the cutting board covered with a piece of tin foil.  After it's rested, pull out the toothpicks and slice it to the desired thickness.

It's really a delicious meal no matter how you do it.  The pineapple marinade added a back end sweetness to the pork that wasn't there before.  It was great, one of the best I've done.  Maybe it's because it's been going on six months since I've done one.  The pineapple chipotle barbeque sauce just added that much more to it.  The following is the recipe.

Pineapple Chipotle Barbeque Sauce

1 can diced or crushed pineapple with juice
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup of ketchup
2 tablespoons of mustard (any kind)
1 teaspoon of diced garlic
1 tablespoon of chipotle powder
1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon of dried cilatro and basil, run through mortar and pestil (see Lamb blog for info)
salt and pepper to taste

-Run pineapple through food processor until no big chunks remain.
-Add pineapple with juice, vinegar, and diced garlic to medium pot.  Bring to a boil then reduce to a -simmer for 30 minutes.
-After simmering, pour mixture through a strainer to remove garlic and pineapple pieces.
-Return pineapple/vinegar mixture to pot and add all other ingredients.  Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer for 30 minutes.
-After cooking, run sauce through a cheesecloth or any other fine strainer to remove the leftover bits of pineapple and pepper.

    And that's it!  It's a great sauce.  Put it in one of those squirt bottles that you can get from anywhere (the yellow and red two pack thing).  It was pretty mild the night of but as it sits in the fridge, it gets a little spicier every day which is kind of cool.  You don't have to have a smoker to do this dish though.  You can put it one a charcoal or propane grill and slow cook it the same way but again, I urge everyone to get a smoker.  And you don't have to drop a thousand bucks on the Big Green Egg if it's your first outing.  My wife won our first smoker in a raffle at work.  It was a $30 Brinkman dome smoker.  Last season I stepped up to the safe smoker because it was really hard to smoke a 12 pound turkey in the dome smoker.  One day I will have my own pit in my backyard but not until I get to where I am going.  And if you've never had a bacon wrapped smoked tenderloin, what are you waiting for?  In a couple of hours, you'll be in piggy heaven I promise.

    Thursday, April 14, 2011

    A meal so good, it licks it's own plate...

    A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of going to Cabo San Lucas on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico.  The one thing that I wanted to do while was eat in an authentic cantina or from one of those taco trucks that you see on the side of the road.  Unfortunately that didn't happen, but we did get to eat at one place that was less touristy.  I just remember how fresh everything was and how simple it was compared to the Americanized version of Mexican food that we eat all the time.  I always wished that there was a place that I could get that same simple, traditional food.  Turns out after two years of living in Huntsville, that place existed less that two miles away from my house and I have passed it every day on the way to work.  Go figure.

    Taqueria El Cazador is a hole in the wall that I wasn't even sure was open.  It's nestled in a three shop building that looked closed and worn down.  Turns out they are open and turning out classics like menudo and hand made tamales.  I stopped by today and as soon as I walked in, I had that feeling like I was back in Mexico.  One reason was because everything was in Spanish, from the menu on the wall to the Telemundo on the television.  Another was because of the 20+ people inside of the restaurant, I was the only one of Caucasian ethnicity.  How many Mexicans have you ever seen in the Mexican restaurants you go to actually sitting down and eating?  That's what I thought.  But the lady who took my order was very nice and very helpful and did, indeed, speak English.

    I decided to get my order to go because I was, again, eating alone and saw no reason to sit there and soak up the ambiance.  The main reason for my visit was because outside of this place sits a van with the words "beef tongue" printed on the side.  Now, for most of us, that's the end.  I texted my wife a picture and told her what it was and her response was the same as almost anyone I know would be: "gross".  I was concerned on how to order this beef tongue because I knew I didn't want just a big hunk of tongue to chow down on, so I went with the Tortas filled with beef tongue.  A torta (for those (like myself) who don't know what it is) is a kind of sandwich served on an oblong 6-8 inch firm, crusty white sandwich roll, called a bolillo, telera or birote. "Telera" is soft, round bread; also commonly used is the bolillo, a torpedo-shaped French roll with a thick and crunchy crust. Tortas can be served hot, typically toasted in a press in the same manner as a cuban sandwichpanini, or cold. (Wikipedia)  These tortas are served with your choice of meat, lettuce, pico de gallo, mayonaise, and guacamole.

    I have to admit I was scared of the tongue.  So in addition to the tortas, I order two Al Pastor Tacos, which were spicy pork tacos that came with this beautiful, spicy pickled array of onions, jalapenos, and carrots.

    On the way home, I was paranoid.  I was riding with the windows down and every strange smell that my nose would pick up, my brain would think it was the beef tongue.  But when I finally got home and cracked open my goodies, I was very happy.  I ate the tacos first which were fantastic.  They weren't as spicy as I would have hoped but the pickled condiments helped with that.  It was kind of like eating a sandwich with a pickle, except the sandwich was a taco and the pickle was a jalapeno.  After scarfing these down in a couple of bites (no lie) I cut my tortas in half.  A piece of beef tongue fell on to my plate.  I stared.  I picked it up.  I put it in my mouth.  And it tasted... like beef.  Really good beef!  It had the same taste as your general steak, but the texture was of course different.  It was diced and had the texture of pot roast but not and stringy, more like a solid mass of squishy beef flavor, and I tried to stay away from the word "squishy" but that really is the best way to describe it.  The mixture of all the flavors with the crusty bread was fantastic.  I am glad I saved it for last because it really was delicious.  It wasn't spicy.  Again, kind of disappointed from the lack of spice, but it is my fault.  They had a sauce bar but I didn't know what anything was and again, it was very daunting to be there out of my element so I passed.

    So there it is, my first beef tongue dish!  I was really happy with the whole experience and will be eating at this place exclusively from here on out (when I'm on my lonesome of course).  Also, I now have a place that I can stop and get a sandwich on the way to work and not get the same old drive-thru crap.  All in all, I'm happy.  Happy with myself most of all.  I overcame that feeling that most people have, the hang up with the unknown, the fear of not trying something new.  Who knew that a beef tongue sandwich could make a person feel alive??  As for the tripe?  One step at a time and maybe with someone else's dollar...

    On a side note, I have been doing so many restaurant reviews lately because I don't have time to cook right now!  With work, school, an 11 month old, and a wife who travels for work five out of seven days a week, it's hard to get in the kitchen and whip something up besides mac and cheese or hot dogs.  I'll get back to it soon though, promise!

    In the area?  Check 'em out!

    Taqueria El Cazador
    10099 Memorial Pkwy S
    Huntsville, AL 35803

    Taqueria El Cazador on Urbanspoon

    Tuesday, April 12, 2011

    I scream, you scream, we all scream for... Mofongo?? (My Old San Juan - Madison, AL)

    The North American strip mall has become a thing of great burden and great mystery.  Nine times out of ten, they are filled to the brim with nail salons and cell phone stores and hole-in-the-wall restaurants.  Other times they sit abandoned with one or two shops hanging on for dear life.  Some do hold treasures though.  Little places that become our favorites that maybe no one else knows about.  Recently, I downloaded the Urbanspoon app for my iPhone which has opened up all new possibilities for dining out.  It really is a great app.  It has a shuffle button that works like a slot machine to pull up random restaurants based on location, type, and price.  Was I surprised when I found out that Huntsville actually had a Caribbean / Puerto Rican place called My Old San Juan that actually serves Mofongo!

    For those of you that don't know, according to Wikipedia, "Mofongo is generally made from fried green plantains (although fried yuca or breadfruit are possible) which is mashed together with broth, garlic, olive oil, and pork cracklings or bits of bacon. It is often filled with vegetables, chicken, crab, shrimp, or beef and is often served with fried meat and chicken broth soup."  I saw it once on an episode of "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives" and it always looked really good.  I've had plantain chips before but never fresh.  I knew that I had to stop in and being as how A) I have no one to go with me to restaurants when I can actually go and B) I work almost every weekend, I figured I would stop by after school today and check it out.

    They say you can judge a restaurant by how busy it is, but that's junk.  You can only judge a restaurant on how good their food is.  But I can say it was daunting when I walked in a little after 1 PM and the place was completely empty.  But hey, they could focus all their effort on me right?

    It's a quaint little place with about six or seven tables and two hightops, very clean, and the server was very friendly.  It didn't take long to figure out what I wanted because I had already seen the menu on Urbanspoon (which is another great feature) and came for one reason and one reason only.  I started off with an Empanada De Yuca.  The menu describes it as a Cassaba pie, so I asked the waitress what cassaba was.  She said that it was a root vegetable, almost like a potato.  Turns out it's actually cassava but you know.... potato / potato, tomato / tomato....  This thing was awesome!  I can't stress how awesome it was.  It could have been hotter, but other than that, man oh man.  It was almost like an apple pie that you get from fast food places but it had almost a deep fried batter on the outside with this cassava mixture on the inside that almost tasted like pork and sweet potatoes.  I imagined myself with a picnic basket full of these things, hiding where no one could see me eat every single one by myself, almost like Yogi Bear.   Then the Mofongo came out...

    I got the Mofongo con caldo y chicharrones, Mofongo with stew and  pork rinds.  So from my understanding it would come out stuffed with a stew and topped with pork rinds.  Wrong.  The waitress brings it out and of course I don't know how to eat it!  Do you pour the broth (which was the stew) over the mofongo?  Do you pull apart the pork (which was actual pork meat and not fried skin like I imagined)?  I didn't get instructions so I just went to town.  The first bite I was actually taken aback.  The texture was kind of like polenta or maybe even grits, but stiffer.  It was also kind of dry.  Ahh, the stew!  I got into a rhythm where I could take the mofongo on my spoon and actually regulate how much stew was mixed with it.  And as I sat there eating in silence, it dawned on me:  this is comfort food.  Being from the south, we are used to fried chicken and cornbread and collards and okra and things like that for Sunday lunch, and I just imagined sitting in my grandmothers house eating mofongo.  That's the effect it had.  It had a great mild flavor though, a lot more mild than other fried plantains I had had before.  And the broth was simple and effective in making it moist and delicious.  It really was a great dish.  The pork I ate on its on and it was killer.  I don't know what part of the pig it came from (if someone knows help me out here) but it was these little pork nuggets, bones intact, deep fried to perfection.  In the same sense that the mofongo made me feel at home, I looked down on myself and realized I was gnawing the bones of the pork in the middle of a restaurant!  I had to laugh a little.  I didn't think I would be able to finish but I did and felt like ordering another plate but of course, passed.  All together, It was a great meal and the service was great.

    It makes you feel good when you find these things in your own small corner of the world that people have decided to share with you.  Coming from a small town (8,000+ people), I never thought that I would be sitting after class one day enjoying Puerto Rican cuisine and loving every minute of it.  The point I'm trying to make is go outside of your comfort zone.  Find something new and experience it!  Now I can actually say that I am the only person I know that has tried mofongo (unless they just haven't told me about it) and it's something that I look forward to sharing with my family and maybe even trying on my own.  But for now, I'll stick to My Old San Juan and look forward to trying some of the other great things they have on their menu soon.

    If you're in the area you can pay these guys a visit:

    My Old San Juan

    8760 Madison Blvd
    Madison, AL 35758

    My Old San Juan on Urbanspoon

    Saturday, April 2, 2011

    Cotton Row - Huntsville, AL

    The weather in Huntsville finally decided to take a turn for the better this weekend, highs in the low 70's today.  My wife and I decided to leave the munchkin with the grandparents for a couple of hours to visit one of the finer restaurants in this area, Cotton Row.  It's one of the places where you can actually go and get a "fine dining" experience in Huntsville.  And this is no Ruth's Chris or Longhorn or whatever you might consider to be fine.  This is REAL "sit-down-white-linen-white-plate-presentation" dining.  To top it off, they have patio dining which is great this time of year and is unfortunately a rarity in Huntsville (for some reason). It really took us back to Mobile where all restaurants offer outdoor seating.  Plus, it features one of the only "real chefs" in the area, James Boyce.  The following was taken from his Facebook bio:

    This 20-year industry veteran launched his culinary career at New York’s venerable Le Cirque, where he worked for six years under the tutelage of Daniel Boulud. While working in New York, Boyce studied at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, graduating with top honors. In 1990, Boyce made his first trip west to The Phoenician, where he worked with Mary Elaine’s former chef de cuisine, Alex Stratta. After an initial five years with The Phoenician, he went to Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas as chef de cuisine at Palace Court. He joined Loews Coronado Bay Resort as executive chef in 1995. While heading culinary operations for Loews, he made a name for himself as one of Southern California’s leading chefs, earning critical acclaim and a variety of awards.

    With his experienced, inventive approach to the culinary arts and dynamic leadership qualities, James Boyce was tapped to be the anchor of Studio when it opened in 2003. After earning a second Mobil Five-Star award for Studio, he relocated his family to Huntsville, AL to begin new culinary endeavors with the development of his own company, Boyce Restaurant Concepts.

    In 2008 he opened Cotton Row, in Downtown Historic Huntsville, featuring fine American cuisine with strong Southern influences. He also opened Pane e Vino Pizzeria, which offers rustic-chic Italian fare in a superbly artistic setting - just below Huntsville’s own Museum of Art and overlooking Big Spring Park. In December 2010, on the opposite end of the Courthouse Square, he opened Commerce Kitchen - influenced by turn of the century style and classic cuisine.

    Each restaurant within the Boyce Restaurant Concepts portfolio offers guests unique tastes and experiences which combine to make Downtown Historic Huntsville, Alabama a compelling travel and dining destination.

    Jimmy is regularly featured on the cooking segment of the Today show, in Martha Stewart Weddings, and on Martha Stewart Living Radio. He and his restaurants are also featured in highly acclaimed magazines from Cooking Light, and Food & Wine, to Men’s Health.

    As you can see, a foodie like me was very excited to have someone of this caliber in our area.  On to the food!  BUT, before that, I skipped my general Macallen with dinner for a craft beer instead.  The one I picked was from a brewery in Krebs, OK called Choc.  For unfiltered wheat fans, it was great.  It was called Last Laugh.  I'll get more into beer in another post.

    For our starter my wife and I split an order of Spicy Beer Steamed Black Mussels.  I decided to get a little adventurous and I have never had mussels before, nor am I a huge seafood fan.  If I had the choice between eating a boiled boot and a piece of the most wonderful salmon in the world, I'll take the boot any day of the week.  But these mussels man... THESE mussels!  Un-frickin-real... I like oysters and they had a milder flavor than oysters, plus the sauce they were in (smoked bacon, sriracha, green onion, and cilantro according to the menu) was out of this world.  The funny thing was, my wife didn't like them at all and she loves seafood!  Go figure right?  I would eat these dudes seven days a week.  No lie.

    For the "salad" portion, neither of us got salad.  My wife got pan seared foie gras with braised pineapple which was great and I got a crawfish risotto which was also great.  I'm not a big foie gras fan but this was really good and risotto in restaurants is always better than what I can do at home.  Then to the main course!  I chose the grilled Muscovy Duck Breast with fork mashed sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts, french horn mushrooms, and a port-cardamom sauce.  Umm... yeah, for real.  It was fantastic!  My wife had seared Maine diver Sea Scallops with butter beans, buttered leeks, sundried tomatoes, and a caper-white wine sauce.  Again, I'm not a seafood fan, but these scallops were great.  I would order them on my own.

    All in all, the meal was amazing, the company was amazing, the service faltered at the end, but the guy had the entire patio by himself (about 10 tables) and I think he may have gotten his butt chewed out by someone because at the end of the meal, he didn't even thank us for coming.  When you are at this caliber of restaurant dropping that kind of money, you would expect excellent food and service all the way to the end.  My wife was quite upset (which reflected in the poor guys tip) but me?  I think I was on a high of mussels and duck...  If you're in the area, come see this guy, you won't be disappointed!

    James Boyce can be found at:
    Cotton Row Restaurant
    100 South Side Square
    Huntsville, AL
    Cotton Row on Urbanspoon