Sunday, March 25, 2007

Trattoria Toscana

Saturday night Tim and I decided to try the new Italian restaurant in town. It opened 4 months ago in the former Mavericks location. I reviewed the menu on line before we made the reservations and started drooling immediately... So expectations were set. We've eaten at some amazing Italian restaurants in NYC and in Stockholm, yup you heard right, Stockholm. So we were pretty excited to try this new place. We had heard nothing about it from anyone we knew so it was risky but we were up for the challenge.

When we arrived we were pleased to see they had updated the decor to match a more Mediterranean style restaurant. It was a bit bright but cheery. We were seated in the back room along the wall. Now this is the seating style I dislike the most when you have a row of tables lined up so that you are sitting beside your neighbor like it is communal dining. It's hard to have a private conversation this way. The waitress did look to move us but the place was fully booked. The real reason she looked to move us was because we couldn't hear each other. It was so noisy! Neither of us could ever remember it being that noisy when we ate in the same room when it was Mavericks. And there was no background music. Some nice cheery Italian dinner music would have been perfect. I could see speakers but only heard the loud ramblings of the other diners.

We were served drinks in a reasonable time period which always makes me happy. The waitress took our order then had to come back to clarify a few things. She quickly explained that she had only been waitressing for 3 weeks but that the food was way better than her service. She was actually a full time paramedic who was waitressing as a new challenge. By her taking the time to share this with us it endeared her to us and we were quite willing to be patient and offer our feedback. And, as I said to Tim, I could never imagine being able to waitress myself so I have a lot of respect for those who attempt this.

I ordered a bloody caesar to start. I feel this is one of the basic measures of a good restaurant. Tim had a glass of chianti. Both were perfect. And my caesar had 2 spicy green beans as garnish - my favorite! They also served us bread with olive oil and balsamic for dipping, another of our favorites. We were off to a good start. And the large table behind Tim was about to leave so there was hope that the noise level would drop soon.

Tim ordered the calamari to start and I ordered the mussels. I only ordered the mussels because usually the calamari is a relatively small order. Not here! It was huge. Had we known that I wouldn't have ordered the mussels too. However, they were delicious. They had a cream wine sauce with basil that was amazing. The calamari was obviously seasoned with course salt because we would actually bite into a piece of salt while eating them. Now if you remember, we eat low sodium at home which means we are a little salt sensitive. Tim told our waitress because really the calamari should have been salted with a finer salt, even a plain kosher salt would have been better. Tim figured this was a course sea salt. It may have had more to do with the fact that the calamari may not have been salted as soon as it came out of the fryer so the salt didn't melt into the calamari like it should have. We also recognized that we may have to start asking for the chef to leave off the last seasoning of salt because of our own sensitivity. Anyway, the calamari itself in the batter was a good texture, not too chewy. We had the remainder of it wrapped to take home because it was just too much food and we didn't want to spoil our appetite for the main course.

We didn't order salads because there was creme brulee on the dessert menu. However I saw a bunch of the salads come out to other tables and I will definitely be trying one next time. They looked divine.

I should tell you about our dining neighbors because they were moderately amusing. I wouldn't normally but I'm pretty sure they won't be reading this and there are some good lessons to be learned from their night out. First of all they were seated after us with wine in their hands so they had obviously had to wait to have their table prepared. There were 4 of them. From what I could tell, a couple, the sister and the mother. We had reservations for 7:30. Even if they had their reservations for 7, it is still way too late to be taking out Granny. When dining out with your beloved elderly mother or grandmother, make reservations for no later than 5pm. Older folks tend to be on an earlier schedule. This poor woman looked as though she was going to fall asleep in her chair while her dining companions proceeded to sling back the wine and behave badly... When I say they behaved badly, well aside from the basic disregard for Granny needs, they sent back the caeser salad which I drooled over when it came out. It was not a diner caeser salad, no this was a gourmet caesar salad with big freshly toasted croutons and beautiful crisp green romaine. I think their complaint was how the dressing was placed on the salad. I believe it was drizzled and they wanted it tossed. I'm not sure why they hadn't gone to East Side Marios, especially when I heard them order the lasagna. Why bother going to an upscale Italian restaurant if all you want is lasagna? Mind you, every good Italian restaurant in North American must have it on their menu but all 4 of them order it. So you could tell they were really gourmet connoisseurs...

Things were moving slowly as we waited for our main course. We had ordered a bottle of wine and neither of us was driving home so we were quite content to drink our wine and enjoy each other's company. However, the table next to us were missing Granny's med time and were getting antsy. The gentleman went to complain to the manager and felt quite vindicated when, as he returned to his seat, their meals appeared. The lasagnas were individually baked so while the gentleman was convinced that complaining to the manager made their meals appear, the truth is it was just coincidence that they came out of the oven at the same time. At this point he felt compelled to tell the waitress that he was from Nova Scotia. I'm not sure what that proved but as a fellow bluenoser I was embarrassed. And then he went on to state that they were reviewers. Okay no reviewer ever reveals himself like that. It was quite laughable and Tim and I were quite entertained.

We were offered complimentary drinks for the wait since we had polished off our bottle of wine. This is always a nice touch when the service isn't going smoothly. Nothing like free booze to make your customers happy! Our meals arrived, Tim had the beef tenderloin with wine sauce and gorgonzola while I had the salmon stuffed with shrimp and scallop puree. It was totally worth the wait! And this is an important point - if you make your customers wait, it better be perfect when it gets there! We both cleaned our plates.

We were too full of wine to have room for dessert. The chef came out to say hello. But this time there was only us and one other table left in the restaurant. Apparently he had just come back from catering. It's a hard call to make for a lot of these folks in the restaurant business in small markets like Moncton. When it's busy you have to try and do it all because in a small market it can be slow for a long time. It turned out that the kitchen had a hot water problem halfway through service and the chefs in the kitchen were panicking. I thought the service was just slow because they had been only open for 4 months and getting the timing down to keep meals running smoothly is truly an art. My point here is to tell your customers what is going on. You'd be surprised at how most of them will be understanding. Life happens. We still had an excellent meal.

And then the chef sang for us. This chef is known as the "Singing Chef" and he was quite good. At the end of the evening when the bill came we were shocked. We had a full evening for under $125! Tim tipped the waitress well and made sure he told the chef what a great job she had done. We'll be back!

On a side note, on the cab ride home we were also sang too. Seems our cabbie was a long time singer songwriter. Tim and I just may have to get out more often.

Mac and Cheese Tip

Everyone knows I am a big fan of freezing meals for eating later when life is short on time or I just don't feel like cooking. This week we had a meal I wasn't thrilled with. I had made macaroni and cheese a few months ago and put one square aluminum pan in the freezer. I took it out this week and baked it. It was toooooooo dry. And not very cheesy. I've talked about freezing your pasta separately from sauces and soups because they tend to continue to absorb the liquid until completely frozen, making for mushy pasta and gloopy soup. Well I think this also applies to some casseroles. In the future I will make my cheese sauce and boil up my macaroni but I will stop there. I'll freeze them separately. When I'm ready eat the meal at a later date, I'll defrost both the pasta and the sauce and then combine them in a pan for baking. If it gives a nice creamy casserole then it is definitely work the effort!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Crepes! They aren't just for breakfast!

Here is a fun idea for the whole family or for a romantic evening in.... Crepes! They aren't that terribly complicated and you can put almost anything inside of them. We used a simple recipe of 1 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
3 large eggs, beaten
2 cups of skim milk
2 Tbsp melted butter
Mix it all together. You should have a thin batter. You don't need a crepe pan, any frying pan will do. Heat the pan to medium and spray it with a little cooking spray. You should put the batter in the middle of the pan and then sort of swirl it around. You want to cover the bottom of the pan. It will most likely take you a couple of tries to get a nice crepe but even Julia Child used to throw out the first one she made out of each batch! So don't get frustrated. Once you get the hang of it you'll be fine. This recipe makes about 10 - 10" crepes. They freeze well so don't worry if you aren't going to eat them all at one meal.

The recipe I used was inspired from the cookbook "A New England Table", a great resource for home style recipes.

We had crepes because I had bought some lovely asparagus at the grocery store and Tim isn't a big fan of them just steamed or sauteed with garlic so I wanted to dress them up a little. We had leftover ham from Christmas in the freezer so we pulled it out to go with the asparagus. Then I made a "mock" Hollandaise sauce.

Mix 1 cup of milk with 1 Tbsp of cornstarch and 1 egg yolk. Heat them in a pan over low -medium heat, stirring until thick. Remove the pan from the heat and add 1 Tbsp of butter, 2 1/2 Tbsp of lemon juice, 1/2 tsp of dijon mustard, 1 tbsp of sour cream and a pinch of salt and pepper.

I sauteed the asparagus and ham, which I had cut into strips. We then assembled the crepes by putting in some asparagus, ham, shredded mozzarella and mock Hollandaise sauce. The important thing is for everything to be warm. That way the cheese melts all through it.

You make your crepes with different things. Chicken and broccoli with cheddar cheese would be nice. Smoked salmon and spinach with a yogurt dill sauce. Lunch meat would work well since it's thinly sliced or leftover roasted meat would be nice too. Layer in some veggies like spinach or any other leafy green, green onions, chives, mushrooms, sliced tomatoes, zucchini, etc. Consider cheese if you like. Cheddar and mozzarella are good choices but what about brie or feta or Gouda? Remember crepes are french so hit that section in the cheese aisle. Sauces are optional but aside from Hollandaise, Bearnaise or any of the store bought fondue sauces will work. Or just add some herbs and seasonings to yogurt.

The nice part about crepes is that each family member can make their own. So if you have picky kids they can just put add the ingredients they like to their crepes.

Turning Leftovers into a Frittata

How many of us had a nice "cooked" dinner yesterday? Being part Newfoundlander, it is a tradition in my family to have a nice big dinner on Sundays with all the fixin's. Usually there is a roast chicken, beef or pork with mashed potatoes, turnip and carrots. There may be some greens, turnip tops or green peas. Gravy is a must. All these things freeze reasonably well which is convenient for quick meals at a later date. However, how about trying something different with the leftovers on Monday night? I'll often take the leftover veggies, sometimes the meat too, and make it all into a Frittata (which is basically Italian for omelet). Due to the fact that the eggs add protein to the dish, I often leave the leftover meat out, using it instead for sandwiches for weekday lunches. And I put away the gravy in the freezer for making meat pies at another time. There is no place for gravy in this frittata unless you are feeling super adventurous...

All I do is fry some onions in a non-stick pan with some cooking spray. Add in the veggies, dice up any veggies that are big. You want everything to be about 1/4 to 1/2 inch. If you mashed your potatoes and/or turnip, don't worry, just add them to the pan as is. I like to get the veggies browned a bit over medium high heat. Stir over 4 to 6 beaten eggs. I like to add some cheese too. Mozzarella or cheddar work well as do ricotta or even cottage cheese. Yes I'm serious! Put a lid on the pan if you have one. It will be quite thick and a lid will help it cook through quicker with the steam. If your pan is oven safe you can also put it in the oven for about 10 - 15 minutes at 350.

And that's it! There is your Monday night dinner. Quick, delicious and nutritious. Anything the kids don't like? Make smaller ones for each person or just a separate one for the kids. And if you are lucky you'll have leftovers for lunch on Tuesday.