Stepping Out

Moonlight over Mekong

Moonlight over the Mekong Delta – courtesy of Dick Greenbaum and Hilly Spence and looking very much like a Van Gogh painting

 braise chicken and prunes

Monday:              Fountainbleu Cheese / Braised Chicken with Prunes (Home Cooking) / Green Salad

bucatini

Tuesday:              Spicy Weeknight Marinara Sauce with Bucatini (82, Home Cooking) / Green Salad

barley soup

Wednesday:      Hot and Sour Barley Soup, Pane Parmigiano

risotto and meatballs

Peter Slavish’s Rissoto and Meatballs

Street food in Cambodia

Street food in Cambodia – Spence-Greenbaum

Thursday:            Cajun Salmon and Brussels Sprouts from Whole Food

mussels, bowl

Friday:                   Mussels with Cider, Leeks and Pancetta / Home-made Baguette

cruising on the Mekong

Cruising on the Mekong – Greenbaum-Spence

tree and map

Christmas in Queens – Peter and Abby’s tree with subway map to the right – the way to heaven juxtaposed with the way to get around the five boroughs

Saturday:             ACORN Restaurant, Shadyside, Pittsburgh – Get your reservations in before this great restaurant gets discovered

brisket platter

Sunday:                Portobello Mushrooms on Toast / Mamaleh’s Brisket with Cacio e Pepe Polenta / Romaine with Caesar dressing / Ice Cream with Raspberry Sauce

I am grateful for the photographs from Dick Greenbaum and Hilly Spence (our world traveling friends) and from Peter and Abby Slavish.  From Dick and Hilly’s  adventures in Vietnam and Cambodia to Christmas and Risotto in Queens is a nice journey.

On Saturday, Beez and I had dinner at Acorn a restaurant that opened three months ago in Shadyside.   You’ve never heard about the place?  Well, we had not either, until a fishmonger at Whole Foods mentioned that he thought the best meal he had ever had in Pittsburgh was at Acorn the previous night (yes, fishmongers can be snooty).

Now getting Beez out of the house to dinner would have been one task too many for Hercules.  But we’ve been married a long time and I know that persistence in the face of her mule-like desire to stay home will eventually get her out of the house at which point she will become her sparkling self and brighten the lives of waiters and bartenders and me.

All I was hoping for was a night off from cooking and a relaxing dinner talking to my honey.  What I got was all of that and one of the best dinners I have ever eaten anywhere.  We’re talking about that level of tastiness where you have to take another bite, whether you are hungry or not.  Beez had a wonderful brussels sprouts salad and a fiery ravioli with smoked clams, ricotta and hot sausage, and I had a brandade moreau (baked, puréed cod) that reminded me of the bacalâ mantecato I once had in Venice (though not as ethereal, it was better tasting and the griddled soldiers of sourdough that went with it would have been irresistible on their own – which comment proves that I can be as snooty as any damn fishmonger).  I also had a trout with enoki mushrooms and maple-infused puréed turnip that was out of this world.  Add to that a superior Rob Roy and a gift from the friendly and knowledgeable bartender of 2 dozen of Luxardo cherries for yet more Rob Roys once I got home and you have my idea of a night worth spending on the town.  Beez, thank heavens, thought so too.

When we first walked in we thought the restaurant a pleasant but not particularly warm space, but by the time we finished we could have stayed the night such is the suasive power of great cooking and good service.  You will want to get there before they start marketing and get swamped.

So this week, our ‘Keeper’ is ACORN Restaurant.  But by way of extra, I’ll share my new favorite new way to cook mussels.  This too is a dish you will keep eating until it’s gone.  The brisket on Sunday was absolutely as good as anything we’ve cooked in a while, but it is a labor of love which takes at least 3 days of preparation and cooking.  And writing the recipe up would be a labor of love as well – which I’ll keep for a week when I’m feeling particularly charitable.

EXTRA –               MUSSELS WITH WHITE WINE, LEEKS, AND BACON

(adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘Mussels with Cider, Leeks, and Pancetta’)

What’s new about this?  I’ve always cooked too many mussels in a Dutch oven and to get them all to open meant overcooking some of them.  By cooking in a skillet you limit the amount, but the mussels cook quickly and are sweet and tender.  Use two skillets, if you need to cook more.

For all I know, the cider and pancetta beat the white wine and bacon – but hey, Beez and I thought this was as good a mussel dish as we’ve ever had and mussels is a go-to meal for Beez.  It’s just that I had a lot of bacon and no pancetta and, when I pulled the cider out of the closet, I could see that it had gone bad.  Hence the bacon and the wine.

Timing:    After the mussels are scrubbed, 20 minutes tops – less if you’re using pancetta in lieu of bacon

Ingredients:                                                       Serves 2 for dinner

1 ½ lbs mussels
1 tablespoon of butter
1 to 2 tablespoons of canola, olive or sunflower oil – we used canola
About 4 oz. of bacon, chopped
2 medium-sized leeks, white part and very light green only, thinly sliced (I split the leek and then slice it into half-moons)
1 teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
1 cup of white wine (we used a fairly dry sauvignon blanc)
1 teaspoon of whole-grain mustard (use standard gray poupon if you must, but the whole-grain brings a bit more pungency)
3 tablespoons of heavy cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper (yes, you can use kosher salt)
A good handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley

A good sourdough or crusty bread to dip into the mussel broth – this is an important part of the meal.

Prep:

Do yourself a favor and clean the mussels earlier in the day – it’s a bit of a task and you want to focus on the cooking here, which goes very quickly.  Scrub the mussels and remove any beards attached to the shells.  [I just use my fingernails to dislodge the sand you’ll find in the crevices of some of the shells.  You can just yank the beards off.  Wrap the cleaned mussels in a wet towel and refrigerate until ready to cook.]

Chop the bacon and measure out the butter, wine and cream.

Just before cooking, slice the leeks.

Cook:

Place a large saucepan over medium heat and add the butter and oil.  Once the butter begins to foam, add the bacon and cook for 8 minutes or so, until it crisps.  Now stir in the leek, the thyme, the bay leaf and cook for 2 minutes or so until the leek begins to soften.

Now turn the heat to high, pour in the wine and bring to a boil.

Stir in the mustard and then add the mussels and put the lid on the pan.

Cook (steam) for 3 minutes, giving the pan a shake from time to time.

By now the mussels will have opened and you can stir in the cream.

Season with salt and pepper (discard any mussels that haven’t opened) and serve in bowls sprinkled with the parsley and with a side of broken hunks of the bread for sopping up the broth.

2 thoughts on “Stepping Out

  1. It’s from Alex Guarnaschelli’s THE HOME COOK – Braised Chicken with Prunes. The cheese is just whatever hunks of leftover cheese you have in the refrigerator (we had some blue, a bit of gouda and a small tub of ricotta – cut off anything that looks like penicillin) mixed in a food processor with a little salt and pepper. If you don’t have ricotta or creme fraiche or something soft, add a little wine or half-and-half to smooth out the mixture. Most of the time this produces a really delicious spread.

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