Dinner 9/9/22

Swordfish with romesco, leeks, and tamogitake mushrooms

My wife’s sister came out from Indianapolis for a weekend visit to celebrate her birthday with us. We had fun with her last September when she came to visit, so we were more than glad to have her back. We took her to Settler in Salem for her birthday dinner and all three of us loved it. It was our first visit there, though we have been meaning to go for a while. Compared to some of the other “good” restaurants in town, this one really excels at the food and absolutely rates as a must-try. Just note, though, that it’s quite small inside and is on a little side street in downtown, so parking is a challenge.

My entree was called “Harpooned Swordfish” on the menu, so we joked with the server about it coming with an actual harpoon sticking out of it, but, alas, no harpoon to be had. The salty-savory-umami sauce ws excellent and paired very well with the fish, which seemed to be baked rather than seared or grilled (no obvious browning or grill marks). For my appetizer, I had a lovely salad of heirloom tomatoes wth ricotta salata and olives, and washed everything down with a glass of Viognier wine. I even ordered dessert, which I so rarely do – a slice of Basque-style cheesecake.

Heirloom tomatoes with ricotta salata and olives

Basque cheesecake

Dinner 9/3/22

Baked gnocchi

Meatballs in marinara with cheese

The kid headed back to college over Labor Day weekend, but before she left she wanted one more opportunity to leech a free meal off the ‘rents. Her first choice was some joint on Route 1 in Saugus (the “Saugus Strip”), but when my wife looked it up on Yelp, all the comments said it was a Mafia hangout (yes, such places do really exist, and Saugus has been a mob town for many, many years). So she nixed that and found another local Italian place for us to try, the Berry Tavern in Danvers.

None of us had ever heard of it, and my expectations were fairly low, since townie restaurants vary wildly. Apparently, though, there has been a tavern, hotel, or restaurant on that site since the mid-1700s. Longevity doesn’t always equal quality, but at least it seemed like there would be little risk of being gunned down as collateral damage in a mob hit.

As it turned out, the place was absolutely packed, including people sitting outside, and people showing up for take-away orders. We had to wait a bit to get a table.

I had the meatballs for my appetizer, and the baked gnocchi for my entree and both were really, really good. Satisfying in the way that spaghetti-house food so often is – not challenging, just warm and comforting and plentiful. i was drawn to the gnocchi because Sam The Cooking Guy had recently done a very similar dish that looked amazing. This dish was not quite as over the top as Sam’s, but was really yummy. The meatballs were excellent, too. Obviously made there and not just from a bag from Sysco.

Now that we know about this place, I am sure we’ll be back there the next time we are feeling like Italian food.

Birthday Dinner 8/27/22

Tagine Djaja – roasted chicken with preserved lemons, garlic and olives on Israeli couscous

Cigar sampler – spinach and feta, Brie and honey, spiced ground beef with raisins

“Blue Fez” martini – orange vodka, blue curacao, champagne

I didn’t particularly feel like going out to dinner for my birthday on Saturday, but my daughter seems indignant about that, so we called an audible and went to Blue Fez, a Moroccan place in Salem that we’d been to once before the pandemic and had been meaning to go back to evere since. We sat indoors, in part because the weather was fairly humid, but also because my daughter has a phobia of bees and other flying insects and hates to eat outside. We were the only diners inside, though the outside tables seemed well-occupied.

Though I was unenthusiastic to begin with, the meal itself was excellent, and by the time we were finished, I was quite pleased that we’d gone. The Blue Fez martini was delicious and not too boozy tasting, even though it was all booze. We shared the appetizer, so I got one spinach-and-feta and one beef, but they were crispy and tasty. The combination of spiced meat with the sweet raisins is a common flavor pair in Moroccan cuisine that I really like. My chicken tagine dish was a nice combo of the sharp flavors of perserved lemon and olives, with spices like cinnamon and saffron.

We skipped dessert, since we had treats from Caramel Patisserie waiting for us at home, but it made for a fine birthday dinner.

Dinner 8/28/22

Pappardelle with roasted tomato sauce and sausage

Every year for at least the last 15 years, I have made a batch of roasted tomato sauce in late August or early September. I usually make a large batch and freeze a couple of containers’ worth of sauce to use for a while, but this year I only made a half-batch. It came out really thick and dark this year, with deep flavor. Maybe the best batch I’ve made in several years. I like to use it with baked pasta dishes, but I had a package of pappardelle in the cupboard and thought it might be good with the big noodles. I browned up half a pound of Italian sausage and added it to about 2/3 cup of the sauce and let that simmer to meld the flavor, then combined it with the cooked pasta and few tablespoons of the pasta water.

I am thinking of using some as a base to add to a lighter tomato sauce for something like chicken cacciatore. I love chicken baked in tomato sauce, and I think the hearty roasted sauce will be perfect with onions and peppers.

Dinner 8/22/22

Pork tenderloin with sauteed green beans and rice pliaf

With our daughter back home for a couple of weeks before going off to start her senior year of college, I felt like I should make at least an attempt at home-cooked meals. Like the spaghetti I mentioned in the last post, this was a very modest affair. A small pork tenderloin rubber with Penzey’s Bavarian Seasoning, a rice pilaf package mix, and some green beans sauteed with sliced garlic and red pepper flakes.

Because the tenderloin was so small (3/4lb), I just cooked it in the grill pan for five minutes per side and it was perfectly pink in the middle. (If you are still cooking pork to death, please stop.) For larger ones, I usually sear them on the stovetop, then finish in the oven for 12-15 minutes to get the same doneness. I sometimes like a little HP sauce with pork, but this was quite tasty with just the spice rub. Penzey’s rubs are always great.

For the green beans, you want to par-cook them first, dry them off thoroughly so the water doesn’t make the oil splatter, then sautee them for a couple of minutes in olive oil. Add red pepper flakes to the olive oil as it is heating up, then add a couple of cloves of sliced garlic and let the garlic toast up just a bit befre you add the green beans. If you time it right, the garlic slices will get lightly brown and a bit crisp.

Tomatoes 8/21/22

Tomato slices with balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil

The two container tomato plants I have in our backyard haven’t been super-productive, but I have had several very nice tomatoes from them, with a couple more on the way (provided the squirrel or chipmunk who has been getting to them before I can does not strike again).

On Sunday, we had a very basic dinner of spaghetti (with Rao’s marinara sauce, which is our current go-to jarred sauce) and sweet Italian sausages, and I sliced up this tomato to have alongside. A drizzle each of a high-quaity balsamic and EVOO, with a spirnkle of salt and freshly ground black pepper is all I need on a fresh tomato.

Dinner 8/13/22

Steak bowl with brown rice, red quinoa, shiitake mushrooms, snap peas, bok choy, carrots, red onion, asparagus, red pepper flakes.

Chain restaurants generally leave me cold, but we’ve had some decent meals at the Yard House location in Lynnfield, and this recent one was especially good. My daughter and I shared an order of shiitake garlic noodles as an appetizer that we both enjoyed, and then I had this steak bowl, which was really excellent.

For starters, they did a good job with the steak. I asked for medium-rare, which places like this can never seem to accomplish, but they did hit medium spot-on, so that’s close enough for me. The veggie combo, though, was great. I love bok choy and asparagus in stir-fry. They maybe needed to do a little bit better job of de-stringing the snap peas, but they were tasty. And the grain combo of brown rice and quinoa had good textural contrast. My general assumption is that chain restaurant kitchens do very little actual cooking, but this did not seem like it came from a freezer bag.

Dinner 8/8/22

Fettucine with tomatoes and feta

We really love the zero-effort baked feta and tomatoes pasta sauce that hit the internet in a viral TikTok video in 2020. My wife made this for dinner earlier this week using a container of multi-colored grape tomatoes, along with some garlic and fresh basil, and using fettucine as the pasta. Having made it several times, we agreed that Campari tomatoes are the best ones to use in this dish, but our superamarket does not always have them. If you can’t find Campari tomatoes either, the next best choice is regular cherry tomatoes. Any block feta will do, but don’t use crumbled.

This is the first time we’ve used fettucine, and I have to say I think it’s the perfect choice. The finished sauce loves the flat noodles. We also liked it with bucatini, although that shape is usually associated with Amatriciana sauce. of course, spaghetti will work, if that’s all you have.

Dinner 8/2/22

NY Strip steak with peppers and onions, baked potato

I have tried most of the preparation methods people suggest for steak – grilling, pan-frying, sous vide, reverse sear – and for my money I still get the best results in my cast-iron skillet. Four minutes a side, flipping every two minutes, with a four-minute rest produces a medium-rare steak and lagely escapes the “gray ring” of overcooked outer meat. I picked up the two-minute flip technique from Sam The Cooking Guy on YouTube. You do have to have the pan pretty hot to get a good Maillard reaction in the short surface time, and using a high-smokepoint oil like avocado oil is a good idea.

I think New York strip is my favorite cut, even though I think ribeye tastes better. The extra fat on a ribeye is great for flavor, but it makes the steak a little greasy.

For this steak, I first sauteed up some sliced onion and green bell pepper in a small amount of bacon fat in the cast-iron skillet. The vegetables took up almost all the bacon fat, so there wasn’t any left over to burn in the pan. I put a smidge of avocado oil on the steak itself, along with salt and pepper, and used the same pan. The steak,smothered with the onions and peppers, was fantastic.

For baked potatoes, I usually follow America’s Test Kitchen’s method of dunking the potatoes in salted water before baking, but this time I only lightly brushed the potato with avocado oil. Both methods result in a super crispy skin after roasting at 450 degrees for one hour.

Dinner 7/30/22

Caprese salad with Burrata

Swordfish puttanesca

Our daughter has been enjoying her summer job working as a camp counselor at a hoity-toity girls’ summer camp in Maine, but when she gets a full 24 hours off, she likes to come spend an evening with us. She was home this past weekend and we went to dinner at The Adriatic in Salem by her choice.

Still giddy with the novelty of being 21, she likes to have a cocktail with dinner, so she and I each had a Bellini martini – your basic Bellini boozed up with vodka and peach schnapps. They were excellent and we both had a second one, which I regretted later but thoroughly enjoyed at the time.

Someone needs to explain to the kitchen at this restaurant that it isn’t 1995 any more, because their plating leaves a lot to be desired. Nevertheless, the burratta caprese was very tasty and featured some very colorful heirloom tomatoes that my photo doesn’t really show all that well.

The swordfish puttanesca was also delicious, if dated-looking. A very nicely seared piece of swordfish on a bed of pearl couscous and spinach, topped with tomatoes, green olives, and arugula. The big olives were exactly the right level of briny and salty to contrast the sweet tomatoes and peppery arugula.

The one drawback to our experience was astonishingly slow service. It seemed like they had plenty of waitstaff working, and a few tables emptied up not long after we sat down, so I’m not sure exactly why it took almost 20 minutes for someone to come bring us water and then another 10 to get our drinks. Maybe they were time-travelling back from the 1990s in the kitchen.