Have you ever been in the situation where you read about the restaurant and look at the menu, and your first thought is “ahh, it’s that same thing again…”? Continuing the situation, how many times did you actually still ended up going to the restaurant, and afterwards were glad you did? My personal account – more often than I care to admit! My latest experience – the restaurant called Arezzo Ristorante & Bar in Westport, Connecticut.
Arezzo is located at the intersection of route 1 and Riverside Ave, with its patio overlooking Saugatuck river. While restaurant had been in the same location for a while, you can consider it brand new – Juan Ceballos and chefs/brothers Llanos are the new owners of the Arezzo restaurant.
What I really like in the restaurants is the diversity of the setting – this is when the restaurant inside doesn’t look “uniformly the same”. Arezzo has a number of different areas – a spacious bar, almost as a separate room, a “foyer” with soft and comfy chairs, the main dining room, huge patio – you can come to the restaurant many times and every time discover something new.
Open kitchen and huge wood-fired oven, imported directly from Italy, are definitely creating the next level of excitement for the guests – I don’t know about you, but I can stare at the tamed flames for a very long time…
We started our evening in the bar. I personally made a rookie mistake of ordering Espresso Martini as my first drink – while very tasty, this was definitely a drink to have after the meal, not before. Well, I’m still working on my cocktail culture…
As usual, a few words about the wine list. May be only two words – Very Good. While the list is not big (which is a good thing in many cases – flipping through 50 pages looking for a bottle of wine is not the fun for all), it is modern, attractive and not boring, sporting a number of unusual wines by the glass together with some safe choices. Bottle selection is also very good, and reasonably priced, which for me is always important.
The wine list is focused on the Italian wines, with some California and France. After the fiasco with espresso martini, I needed to refresh my palate, so I started with 2011 Donnachiara Irpina Coda di Volpe DOC, Campania (13% ABV), the wine made out of indigenous Italian grape from Campania, Coda di Volpe. Bright golden color in the glass, inviting nose of white stone fruit and perfectly vibrant acidity on the palate, paired with dense and round, medium to full body mouthfeel – just what I needed (Drinkability: 7+).
The red wine, suggested by Juan, was an absolute favorite of the group. Renieri is an excellent producer, making the wines in the number of regions in Italy. While I was somewhat familiar with their Brunello wines, this wine was new to me – 2010 Renieri Invetro Ross Toscano IGT (14% ABV), a super-Tuscan blend of 50% Sangiovese, 25% Cabernet and 25% Merlot. Dark ruby in the glass, clean nose of dark red fruit, very inviting, and beautifully refreshing palate – ripe raspberries, cassis, plums, warm spices, touch of minerality, full bodied and perfectly balanced with tannins and acidity in check. Great wine overall. Drinkability: 8+.
And then, there was food.
A number of appetizers were served while we were at the bar.
Pizza Margherita ( fresh tomato, basil, homemade Mozzarella) – fresh, sweet tomato, basil – always a winning combination.
Focaccia Robiola di Arezzo (white truffle oil) – this was sublime, as anything with the right amount of truffle oil.
Lobster Arrancini (saffron aioli and Lemon) – absolutely delicious, very tasty bites!
Rosemary Marinated Shrimp Skewers – one of the group favorites – incredible balance of flavors.
Italian Sausages Skewers with Roasted Peppers – simple and very well executed. Also a pleasure to look at.
The rest of our dinner was served at the table. First, a trio of pasta:
Risotto (fresh porcini mushrooms, truffle oil) – incredible, simply incredible. If you like mushrooms, I’m sure you are not going to leave a single morsel on the plate, no matter how big the portion will be. The umami factor simply doesn’t let you put the fork down.
Short Rib Tortellini (braised us jus sauce) – why all the braised, slow cooked meat invokes such a homey feeling? This was delicious.
Cavatelli ai Piselli (home-made pea-ricotta, how and sweet sausage ragout) – this was perfectly on par with two other dishes – savory and satisfying.
Pan Seared Pink Snapper (caponata purée, fregola, vegetables) – one of the best pieces of fish ever – flaky, perfectly seasoned and cooked.
Roasted New Zealand Lamb Chop (spinach, tomato, Yukon gold potatoes) – to tell you the truth., I’m extremely picky about my lamb chop – I don’t want any fat on it, I want it to be perfectly seasoned, so it will not have that unpleasant lamb flavor – yes, I’m high maintenance when it comes to the lamb chop. So what can I tell you about the lamb chop which was served to us? In a word, wow. In another word – delicious. Seasoning, texture, taste – wow.
For dessert we had Pannacotta and Nutella Pizza – yes, it was very tasty, and I will spare you my lame attempts to describe it.
And we are done here. The only thing left to do, as usual, is to thank Juan Ceballos and Executive Chef Vinicio Llanos for the wonderful food and wine. Whether you are living in the area or visiting, Arezzo will be a perfect dining destination for you. Cheers!
Disclaimer: I attended the restaurant as a guest of management. All opinions are my own.
Arezzo Ristorante & Bar
5 Riverside Ave
Westport, CT 06880
Have you heard of Frank Pepe Pizzeria? Chances are, if you don’t live in Connecticut, you had not. With 2 pizzerias on literally every corner of every town (there are about 70,000 Pizza restaurants in US!), should you be concerned with the fact that possibly you never heard of Frank Pepe Pizzeria? Well, you decide for yourself – according to the Daily Meal publication in October of 2013, White Clam Pizza from Frank Pepe Pizzeria in New Haven, Connecticut was named the Best Pizza in the United States out of 101 pizzas considered for that title (see, may be it is time to visit Connecticut after all?).
So, how hard it is to be #1? Here is one recipe for success – in three easy steps:
- Do one thing, and be very focused on that one thing.
- Do that one thing very very well.
- Keep doing this one thing very very well, over and over again.
Easy enough, right? This is somewhat of a story of the Frank Pepe Pizzeria.
Together with the group of bloggers, I had a great pleasure of meeting Gary, the grandson of Frank Pepe, at the Frank Pepe Pizzeria in Fairfield, CT. Frank Pepe came to the United States at the beginning of the last century from Italy, in his early teens. He came through New York and ended up in New Haven, Connecticut. He got the job at the bakery and macaroni factory, as those were the skills he already had. Frank went back to Italy to fight in the World War I, then came back to the US, got married, and at some point started selling small pizzas from the cart which he was rolling around. His wife encouraged him to open the store in 1925, which he did. This is where the Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napolitana officially started.
Frank managed to run a successful business throughout the depression years. Take a look at the picture of the Frank Pepe sign from those old days. Do you see the words “old reliable” there? It means exactly what it says – the business you can rely on. Always persistent quality, always persistent taste, always there when you need it. Frank was known as the guy you can knock on the window of at 2 AM in the morning, and he will get up and go make a pizza for you. If this is not dedication and reliability, I don’t know what is.
When Frank Pepe passed away in 1969, he had only two daughters; they took over running of the business and got family involved, so now 7 of Frank’s grandchildren run the business. Gary, Frank’s grandson we talked to, started working in the business when he was 14. Just an interesting fact – he took his first vacation when he was … wait for it… 35.
Remember at the beginning of this post I gave you a short list of things you need to do to be the #1? So I can tell you that, as you probably expected, there are few other small things which matter. One of the seemingly “small things” is an attention to details. Let me explain and also give you few really fascinating facts and numbers along the way.
- One and the same brand of Romano cheese is used by Frank Pepe at all of the stores for over 50 years. The tomatoes are imported from Italy, and they should have a specific taste profile (Gary and his cousin are the official taste testers). That tomato taste profile family keeps secret. More than 15,000 cases of tomatoes are imported in a year, which translates into 90,000 cans! More little details: tomato cans can’t sit under the sun in the truck – the taste is changing, so logistics matter!
- Family was always focused on just continuing the family tradition and family recipe. Only in the past 10 years family slowly started to expand its business, now operating in 7 locations, most of them in Connecticut and one in Yonkers, New York. The family is looking to expand further into New England, but they really move very cautiously. For every new location, the large part of the effort is training of the new staff and setting up the restaurant in exactly the same way as other operate (which starts with oven).
- The charcoal oven matters! It should be properly seasoned, and time is mostly the only way to do it right. The family operates 3 ovens in New Haven alone, and each oven produces slightly different pizza.
- The ovens are kept all the time at the temperature of about 600°F. It takes roughly 7-8 minutes to bake a pizza in the oven.
- All restaurants go through roughly a 500,000 pounds of mozzarella cheese in a year.
- The most asked for pizza in most of the locations is Mozzarella with sausage
- The menu at all Frank Pepe restaurants has nothing but the pizza (I’m talking about the food – soda, beer and wine are offered at all locations). Only 2 years ago green salad was added to the menu!
- Pizza Margherita is being slowly added to the menu throughout the restaurants only now, literally in 2014
- The whole Frank Pepe Pizzeria started from the original tomato pie. Next anchovies were added, then cream cheese, and then sausage. All the sausage used in the Frank Pepe restaurants comes from the same local supplier New Haven. Frank Pepe location in New Haven alone goes through 400-500 pounds of sausage per week!
- Clam pizza evolved back in mid-40s. There was a guy who was selling the clams on the half shell from the cart. He asked Frank to put it on the pizza, Frank agreed, and it became the signature pizza – clam, garlic, oregano – that’s it. In New Haven alone the restaurant goes through 70 bushels of clams per month, 90 during summer. Frank Pepe uses 3 clams suppliers, with the very strict guidelines as to type, size, type of beds etc., and all clams are sourced from New England.
- Since starting working at the restaurant at the age of 14, Gary made more than 1,000,000 pizzas in his life – by himself!
I think you got the picture by now – yes, it is easy to be #1 – you just have to work really hard until you get there.
Let’s talk about the pizza now. We tried three different pizzas – the original tomato, regular cheese and of course, the #1, White Clam Pizza.
The original tomato Pizza was very interesting – the tomatoes were unusually forthcoming, it is now easy to understand why this specific tomato taste profile is so important, it makes the pizza all unique and different. Make no mistake – of course it has cheese sprinkled on top, but the tomato is the star here.
Cheese pizza was also excellent. I don’t know about you, but for me, the crust is very important on the pizza – I need it thin, I need it slightly charred and I need it to break up when I’m folding it – this pizza completely delivered.
You know, I don’t want to lie to you. My favorite pizza, by all means, was the white clam. Before we tried this white clam pizza, I was wondering – how the clams will taste? Will they be chewy and “squeaky” as clams often get? Nope, it was absolutely delicious. Soft pieces of clams, with perfect texture, accompanied by perfect amount of garlic and fresh herbs – I’m generally not a pizza guy, but I’m craving a piece as I’m writing this. Yes, you have to taste it to believe it.
This concludes the description of the wonderful experience we had a Frank Pepe Pizzeria in Fairfield, Connecticut. Now I definitely want to visit the original restaurant in New Haven – after learning so much about the history of this restaurant, I want to experience the place where it all started.
Yes, we are done here. Until the next time – cheers!
About a month ago I got a note, which I shared with all my readers – Barcelona Restaurant in Greenwich is offering a special wine education program, called Passport Through Spain – 4 evenings of exploring the wines of the different regions in Spain, of course accompanied by the food. I didn’t have a chance to attend the classes until the very last one – but boy, am I happy I was able to attend at least one class!
The last class was focused on the region called Valencia. Valencia is more known for its paella and oranges than for its wines – but this is probably what made it more fun for me. The previous three classes were focused on Rioja, Galicia and Priorat, and I’m somewhat familiar with the wines of those three regions – but Valencia is quite unknown to me, and thus intriguing.
Region of Valencia is located on the east coast of Spain, along the Mediterranean sea line. There is a number of winemaking areas in Valencia, with Jumilla probably being the most known. There is a mix of climate zones in the region, some been more Mediterranean, and some more continental, but the very hot temperatures are quite common throughout the summer. However, in the areas with the continental climate the temperatures can drop very low in the evening, so the grapes can achieve great flavor concentration and depth. Similar to all other regions in Spain, the quality of wines in Valencia is steadily increasing, with the regions such as Valencia, Utiel-Requena and Alicante taking their place on the wine map. There is a mix of indigenous and international varieties growing in the region, with probably Malvasia and Moscatel being stars among the whites, and Monstrell, Bobal, Garnacha Tintorera and Garnacha Tinto among the reds.
The Valencia wine class was conducted by Jose Valverde, the Sommelier at Barcelona Greenwich, who is the wealth of knowledge and just a pleasure to listen to. We started with the wine called 2010 Bodegas Rafael Cambra Soplo Valencia DO (14% ABV, 100% Alicante Bouschet/Garnacha Tintorera, 3 month aging in oak) – it was this wine, made out of the Alicante Bouschet, known in Spain as Garnacha Tintorera, which prompted my last wine quiz – so here you can read some interesting facts about that grape.
Here are my notes about the wine:
Color: Dark ruby, concentrated
Nose: Earthy, warm, inviting, with touch of espresso, cherries and pencil shavings, very intense
Palate: Perfect acidity, cassis, almost a Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc profile, espresso, touch of bell peppers, very restrained.
Verdict: Beautiful wine, you just can’t put your glass down. Drinkability: 8+
Barcelona is actually a restaurant group, and they have a number of restaurants in Connecticut and even outside, all focused, of course, on Spanish food and wine. It was very interesting for me to learn that Barcelona takes the idea of cultural heritage very seriously – yes, I’m talking here firstly about food, cooking and overall Spanish cuisine traditions. Every year the group of chefs and other people who make your restaurant experience special, travel to Spain to immerse into, to embrace the cuisine, the food, the wines, to learn the ways Spanish restaurants operate. Best of the best is brought back home and then shared with us, lucky customers, in the form of special food and special experiences. The very first dish which was served to us, lucky customers, was the Toast with Bacalao Spread. Executive Chef Michael Lucente tasted that dish at one of the restaurants in Spain while being on educational trip. He loved the dish, and he asked for the recipe. Guess what – he didn’t get it, as the chef outright refused to share it. Chef Michael spent a year (!) perfecting that recipe, but as a foodie I think it was totally worth it. Incredible balance of flavors, and texturally interesting – this was one delicious tapas.
We continued our journey through Valencia with 2010 Bodegas Sierra Norte Pasión de Bobal Utiel-Requena DO (13.5% ABV, 100% Bobal). Bobal is a unique Spanish grape, which doesn’t grow anywhere else – however. there is plenty of it growing in Spain, with more than 80,000 acres, which makes it one of the most planted red grapes in the world. The climate in Utiel-Requena is one of the harshest in Spain, with very hot summers and cold winters with frost and hail, but still, the grapes persevere!
Here are the notes for this wine:
Nose: Freshly crushed grapes, but restrained. Brighter nose than the previous wine, with some black cherries, herbs and tobacco.
Palate: Noticeable tannins, but overall light, open and clean, should be very food friendly. I crave the complexity of the first wine!
Verdict: Nice, simple and very food friendly – will complement wide range of foods! Drinkability: 7+
The dish which was served with dish was Roasted Hen with pimento, fried chick peas and cilantro. The dish itself was very tasty, with all the flavors perfectly melding together – and it also worked perfectly with the wine! All those mild flavors of the wine very complementing bold flavors of Mediterranean cuisine, so this was definitely an excellent match.
Our last wine of the evening was 2009 Pedro Luis Martínez Arriba Término de Hilanda Monastrell, Jumilla DO (14.5%ABV, 100% Monastrell, 14 month aging in new American and French oak) – Monastrell, which is a lot more international grape than the previous one (it is known as Mourvedre in France and Mataro in Australia), is definitely the best known grape in this tasting group. One problem I often have with Monastrell wines is that they are made overly jammy, with lots of in-your-face overcooked fruit. Luckily, not this wine!
Here are the notes:
Color: Dark ruby, concentrated, almost black
Palate: Powerful, coffee, dark chocolate, espresso, black plums, firm structure with spicy undertones, tar. Thought provoking, with excellent balance.
Verdict: Excellent wine, one of the best Monastrell wines I ever tasted. Drinkability: 8-
Care to guess what our last dish was? Yes, Paella! You can’t have a class on Valencia wine and not experience the classic of the cuisine. It was not even one paella, but two – both seafood and meat (rabbit and sausages) paella were served, and they both were absolutely delicious! No, I’m not going to describe them to you – just get to the restaurant and taste it for yourself.
That was definitely an evening of fun learning, great food, great wine and great conversations. There are only a few things are left for me to do here. First of all, I want to thank Barcelona Greenwich Sommelier Jose Valverde, Executive Chef Michael Lucente and PR Director Ria Rueda for the excellent program and great experience of Spanish wines and Spanish cuisine. Also, I want to bring to your attention the fact that Barcelona Restaurant group does a lot of work to educate the customers on both food and wines of Spain, so you will do yourself a lot of good if you will check their calendar and sign up for updates – there are great events happening literally every week! You can find Barcelona Restaurant and Wine Bar calendar right here – it covers all of the Barcelona locations and even more general events where Barcelona restaurants participate, so don’t think you should live in a close proximity of Greenwich to take an advantage of these special events.
And we are done here. If you are looking for the great Spanish food and wine experience – there might be a Barcelona restaurant near you! Cheers!
18 West Putnam Ave.
Greenwich, CT 06830
It is Friday night, and you are thirsty. Not the Dos Equis thirsty, necessarily, but may be a glass of wine thirsty. Or a cocktail and a glass of wine. Or may be couple of glasses of wine. Bottom line – you want to go out and have a glass of wine. So, where do you go? Yes, I know – this is beyond rhetorical – you can find wine at any restaurant today. But – if you just want a glass of wine, or you want a glass of white, and then glass of red, or you are simply in a mood to taste a few of the different wines, you have two issues. One – by the glass selection in a typical restaurant is limited, or may be even very limited, depending on your luck. Two – by the glass selection in many restaurants is grossly over-priced. When you look at the $16+ by the glass selection, the first reaction is “I’ll just have a glass of water”. Well – the purpose of this post is not to complain about by the glass restaurant prices. My whole point here is to let you in on a little secret and to tell you that I just found a solution to this wine glass craving issue, and I want to share it with you. The solution? Vinoteca Restaurant and Wine Bar in Greenwich, Connecticut.
As you walk into the restaurant, the first thing you see is a wine bar. And then you see another bar. And then the wine list, where each and every wine is available in the glass pour of different sizes and by the bottle. No exceptions. You want to build a flight of Italian reds? No problems. Are you in a mood for a few of the California whites? No problems at all. You want to compare classic Italian Sangiovese with the one from California? You got it. The wine list has just perfect size – there is enough variety, but you are not feeling overwhelmed with the task of finding the wine you want to drink in the foliant you can barely hold in your hands.
The core of the wine list is Italian, but there is still enough variety (California, France, Germany and more). The prices are quite reasonable as well. During the course of the evening we had a number of different wines which our gracious host Sasha kept bringing over. Here are my brief notes:
2012 Gundlach Bundschu Gewurztraminer Sonoma Coast – I read about Gundlach Bundschu wines in many blogs, but never had an opportunity to try them, so when I saw Gundlach Bundschu on the list, I really didn’t care what exact wine was it, I just had to try it. The wine was very nice – Gewurztraminer wines, in my opinion, don’t have the middle ground – they are either good (can be spectacular, yes), or terrible – they don’t have the “well, okay” range – so this was a nice Gewurztraminer, well balanced, with hint of honeydew, spicy with good acidity. Drinkability: 7+
2012 Ferrari-Carano’s Fumé Blanc Sonoma County – a classic California Sauvignon Blanc, with fresh gooseberry and lemon notes, good acidity, a bit too sweet to my taste. Drinkability: 7+
2011 Abbazia Santa Anastasia Contempo Nero d’Avola Sicily IGT – excellent, herbaceous undertones, warm, smooth, inviting, toasted oak and fruit notes. Drinkability: 8
2011 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County – cassis on the nose, nice tobacco notes, touch of espresso, round and simple. Drinkability: 7+
So what happens after you have your first glass of wine? Yes, you want food. And food we got – plenty and delicious. The menu at Vinoteca is somewhat similar to the wine list – concise, but very diverse, with the good selection of “ahh, I must to try this” dishes.
We started with the nice selection of appetizers:
Polpettini (house made meatballs, whipped ricotta) – excellent, very tasty sauce, meatballs had nice texture.
Cozze (Prince Edward Island mussels, red curry, french fries) – well prepared mussels don’t need any explanations, right? The only thing which they demand is … yep, extra bread.
Panetto “Italian grilled cheese” (fontina, San Marzano sauce) – perfect comfort food, very tasty sauce.
Next, we had a few Pizzas to share – one better then the other:
Qauttro Formaggi (ricotta, gorgonzola, parmigiano, mascarpone) – was probably my favorite – very intense, cheeeesy
Rustica (charred tomatoes, olives, sea salt, olive oil) – perfectly fresh and delightful
Spicy Lobster (mascarpone, habanero, corn) – excellent spiciness, nice bite, and nice pieces of lobster. I would never think that lobster would work on the pizza – but it actually does!
As we were not fed enough yet, here came the salads:
Italian Wedge (bibb, iceberg, gorgonzola,tomato, crispy prosciutto) – The Wedge is one of my most favorite salads, ever since I tried it for the first time. Crispy bittersweet lettuce and salty
bacon prosciutto – just perfect.
Kale (Bosc pears, walnuts, pecorino) – yes, I know kale is healthy and good for me … but it is just not my thing ( but other people loved it).
Greek Chop (cucumber, watermelon, feta cheese, red onion) – a nice version of the Greek salad, very fresh and light.
You think that was enough food? Apparently not! We got to taste a few more dishes:
Parpardelle Bolognese – believe it or not, but this was my single most favorite dish of the whole dinner. This pasta was served family style, and I swear I could’ve eaten the whole “family portion” just by myself – so homey, so comfortable, so delicious.
Pollo Scarpiello (cherry peppers, sautéed spinach, spicy sausage) – wood-fire roasted chicken – delicious! Perfectly tender chicken, and you can tell that it was roasted over the wood fire. Tasty!
Salmone Al Arranciata (mascarpone mashed potatoes, asparagus, blood orange) – I personally didn’t taste this dish, but people were very happy about it.
And finally – desserts!
Assorted Desserts – Cannoli Cake, Cappuccino Cake, Tiramisu, New York Cheesecake – do you think I can give you detailed notes on the desserts? Yep – I can’t. After that amount of food, the desserts were almost an afterthought. They all tasted good – however, none of them stood out. Note the presentation – I like the choice of the stand out plates.
That’s all, my friends. By the way, today is Friday – but even if you are not reading this post on Friday, you are probably in the mood for the glass of wine and some tasty food anyway, so why not give Vinoteca a try? I’m sure you will not be disappointed! Cheers!
Disclaimer: I visited the restaurant as a guest of management. All opinions are my own.
Vinoteca Restaurant & Wine Bar
33 Lewis Street
Greenwich, CT 06830
When I got a note that there are some spots available in the Tapas cooking class with Singing Chef Neil Fuentes, of course the first word which got my attention was “tapas” – tapas, or “small plates”, is generally my favorite type of food in any restaurant, Spanish or not – so the invitation definitely attracted my attention. The very next question was – who is Singing Chef Neil Fuentes?
I don’t know what we are going to do if one day Internet will disappear – I know this is rhetorical, but don’t you have a tiny, tini tiny fear deep inside, that this incredible source of knowledge, capable of answering any questions you might, or even might not want to ask, will disappear one day? Oh well, I digress. So I used the powerful Internet to quickly come up with lots of answers about Chef Neil – yes, he is a Singing Chef because he can actually sing and dance, he is fun to watch, and he also competed on Chopped (that might be the biggest influence factor for me – huge fun of the show, and have the utmost respect for every Chef who has enough courage to enter that kitchen). Yep, I definitely want to meet Chef Neil Fuentes.
The cooking class was conducted at the kitchen at Chef’s Equipment Emporium in Orange, CT (a heaven for anyone who is into the cooking, if you ask me). When I arrived there, Chef Fuentes was, of course, already in the kitchen, preparing for the class:
All ingredients around looked very promising too:
And then the class started. I can tell you – Chef Fuentes was a pleasure to watch. He managed to cook, entertain and teach all at the same time, with ease. We found out that Chef Fuentes was born and raised in Venezuela, and he started cooking pretty much from the age of 6, as cooking was important in his family. Hmmm, let me clarify the “important” part. Neil Fuentes grew up on the farm, where cooking was done only with the fresh ingredients (yep, that includes the meat). Later on, Neil became flight attendant for the Venezuela airline, which played an important role in his culinary upbringing. You see, Venezuela airline had only 5 planes, but it was serving almost the same number of international destinations as United Airlines. How is that possible and what it has to do with culinary skills building, you ask? Let me explain. The flights were taking place once a week, so the flight crew had a week of time at their respective destinations. Instead of spending time in the restaurants and bars, Chef Fuentes, who has a great ability to make friends, preferred to visit friends and … yes, you got it – to cook with them! This way, he had an opportunity to learn a lot about world cuisines, and build the skills, which he now gladly shares with others.
After arriving to US, Neil Fuentes started in Bridgeport as a waiter at the Taco Loco restaurant. Then he joined SBC Brewing company, eventually becoming the catering manager, until he started his carrier as Private Chef. Then, there was television. To the date, Chef Fuentes recorded 69 episodes on the Channel 8, and he is planning to start his own Chef Fuentes Live show on the Youtube – with special guests appearances, promotions, and the whole “bam” appeal of Emeril Lagasse show (this is definitely an aspiration). But – remember – Neil Fuentes is the Singing Chef! He teaches musical class on Saturdays, writing musical for kids and loves to perform on stage. Okay, let’s get back to food.
During the class, Chef Fuentes cooked 3 different dishes. The first dish which he started cooking was Tortilla Española, which is a traditional Spanish breakfast dish. To make this dish, you need to first to dice potatoes and onions (we used 3 potatoes and 2 onions), and then simmer them in a light olive oil over a medium heat.
Please note the keyword here – “simmer”, not deep fry. Effectively, you cook the potatoes and onions in the oil instead of water. You simmer the potatoes until they will become soft (will take about 20 minutes), then drain potatoes and onions and put aside to cool off. Meanwhile, Chef Fuentes whisked 12 eggs, then added potatoes and onions to the mix, with salt and pepper, and pour mix into the pan over the low to medium heat, for the next 3-4 minutes.
While the tortilla was cooking, Chef Fuentes started working on home-made mayonnaise. which was made out of the egg yolks, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, pepper, olive oil and Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce – the mayo was accompanying the Tortilla Española.
After 3-4 minutes of cooking, the tortilla was gently flipped, just to cook for another 3-4 minutes, and then it was flipped again – you want to reach a nice consistency of color. And then – voila! Tortilla Española ready, sliced up Tapas style and served with that home-made mayo. Yummy! I would gladly eat that dish for breakfast (and not only) any day.
Remember, I said 3 dishes, right? Next up – Mushrooms with Quail Eggs. Mushrooms is one of my very favorite foods (mushrooms were always an object of craving in my family as I was growing up), I can eat mushrooms every day. I love cooking them, but unfortunately, I butcher them way too often, rendering them super-dry. What Chef Fuentes did with mushrooms was, in my book, literally a masterpiece. A combination of regular white mushrooms with Shitake mushrooms was used in dish. I found it interesting that Chef Fuentes suggested using Thyme with mushrooms, as it nicely complements mushroom flavor (never done it before, but will do now). Mushrooms are sliced, minced garlic, thyme, salt and pepper are heated up over the medium heat, mushrooms are added afterwards. In about 10 minutes, mushrooms will reduce to about half of the size – and this is when they are pretty much ready. Quail eggs are fried sunny side up, and the final dish is assembled on top of the small, fresh and buttery croissant – perfect!
Last, but not least dish – Ham and Cheese Bruschetta. First the minced garlic goes into the pan with medium hot oil, and the small tomatoes are cut in half. Once the garlic heated up sufficiently and released the flavor, tomatoes go into the same pan, cut side down. Slice the baguette into long slices, and prepare cheese slices (Manchego works perfectly well) and Prosciutto rolls. Once the tomatoes become somewhat soft, start assembling the bruschetta. Take slice of bread, take half of the tomato with the oil and garlic, and simply spread it all over the bread ( you will discard the skin of the tomato when you are done). Put slice of cheese on top of the bread, then prosciutto roll on top of cheese and … enjoy!
Just to give you an idea how much I loved that dish – on the way home, I called my wife to tell her that I’m making an appetizer for everybody as soon as I will arrive. Stopped by Trader Joe’s, got baguette, tomatoes, Manchego cheese and Prosciutto, and in 15 minutes family was enjoying this wonderful bruschetta.
So I told you about fun and entertainment, now – what did I learn? A few simple, but very useful things:
1. Don’t use the knife or the edge of the bowl to break the eggs – this is how you get the shell crumbles! Instead, hit the egg lightly at the flat surface – and effortlessly get the egg’s content into the bowl.
2. When you cook the garlic first, don’t do it over the high heat, it will make garlic bitter! Start with medium heat and let the oil to absorb the garlic flavor – without burning the garlic pieces.
3. Well, don’t know if this is universally important, but – mushrooms pair very well with Thyme.
What else can I leave you with? First, lots of information about Chef Fuentes – here is the link to his website, where you can get to know him, and see him sing, dance, entertain, and of course, cook. Note that Chef Fuentes does both cooking classes and private events – if you live close enough to New Haven, Connecticut, you might consider hiring him. Also, Chef’s Equipment Emporium is running a constant slew of the educational classes and events, make sure to check their events schedule here.
As Chef Fuentes said, food and cooking should be fun and easy – and that’s what you definitely get in his class. Thank you, Chef, for the great time and great food! Cheers!
Do you like French Onion soup? Okay, this is not necessarily the question I want to ask. It is not about the soup, the question is really about the small, typically glazed and bright brown in color crock pots in which the French onion soup is often served in the restaurant. I don’t know about you, but for me the sight alone of such a crock pot is heartwarming and homey, it has the words “comfort” and “relax” written all over it in the big bold letters.
The great things about those little crock pots is that their versatility allows you to go well beyond just the french onion soup – this is a mini casserole dish, which is perfectly suitable for making any type of stew. Also, because of the small size and somewhat individual portioning, while you might be making mostly the same dish for the family, you can make adjustments to each small pot based on the individual preferences – no broccoli in this one, no mushrooms in that, and triple jalapeno for the last.
The dish which I want to talk about today is pretty much chicken and potatoes stew. My original idea was to use the chicken sausage, but – my daughter doesn’t like sausage, so this is where the small pot versatility comes to the play – I can easily make an adjustment for her and use just chicken instead of the sausage. And yes, of course, the same is true about all other ingredients. I’m sure you got my point.
Okay, here we go:
Crock Pot Chicken and Potatoes Stew (makes 4 crock pots)
Prep time: 40 minutes, cooking time: 1 hour
1 lb of chicken thighs (you can use sausages, chicken breast, anything), cut up in a small pieces about an inch in size
2 large onions, diced
1.5 lb carrots, sliced into small pieces (1/4″)
4 large potatoes, peeled and sliced
1 lb mushrooms, sliced
1/2 lb fresh peas
4 tbsp chicken broth (can be substituted with water, wine, any cooking liquid)
salt, pepper to taste
[olive] oil for frying
4 dry bay leaves
whole allspice (optional) – few berries per crock pot
Cut up chicken and/or sausages you will be using and start searing it in the pan using the olive oil (if you are using just the chicken, season with salt and pepper prior to searing). You don’t have to cook it completely, but you want to give it a nice sear, so it will take you about 10 minutes on the medium to high heat. Put aside.
Slice onions and start sauteing them on medium heat, for about 15 minutes, or until onion becomes soft and translucent. Dice up carrots (I was using tri-color carrots, just for fun) and slice mushrooms, then add to the pan with the onion once it is ready. Continue sauteing on the medium heat for another 10 minutes. Add peas and continue the process for another 5 minutes. Put aside. Peel and cut the potatoes into the small chunks, add salt, pepper and 1 tbsp olive oil and toss the potatoes well.
Preheat oven to the 350°F. Put the crock pots onto the large oven pan. Put the layer of potatoes on the bottom, then layer of chicken and top it of with the vegetable mix. Of course this is when you can make all those individual adjustments for the ingredients for your picky eaters. Add 1 tbsp of broth (or wine, beer, etc.), put in a bay leaf and 2-3 allspice berries (this is entirely optional). Cover and put into the oven for 1 hour.
And we are done!
Bon Appétit and cheers!
Who doesn’t like brunch, raise your hands. Yep, I thought so. It is literally impossible not to like the slow flow of the delicious food on Sunday, when you still have some of your weekend left, and the late breakfast becoming an early lunch is one of the indulgences of the weekend time with the family.
When it comes to brunch, you have to make some choices. I don’t mean “to drink Mimosa or not”, but most fundamental choice is between brunch buffet and the regular a-la-cart brunch menu. There are pro and cons for both, but this is not a subject of today’s post. What I want to talk about is a recent experience at one of the newest restaurants in lower Fairfield county in Connecticut – Oak+ Almond in Norwalk, CT.
Oak + Almond opened in the Fall of 2013 at the same location where Tuscan Oven restaurant was located for almost 20 years. Oak + Almond is classified as new American cuisine, which I think is quite fitting – lots of focus on local farms and products – you know where the cheese came from, you know where the chicken came from, you know where the eggs, berries and produce came from. As much as possible, everything is fresh and local, which is definitely a trait in the new American restaurant style.
The place is nicely decorated, reusing some of the components of the old Italian restaurant to their advantage, such as the pizza oven (those are always nice to have on hand, aren’t they). The decor overall should be classified as retro modern (or modern retro, whatever way you see it), with some very unusual lighting and heavy dark oak furniture. Here are the few pictures for you:
Charred Octopus (guajillo squid ink sauce. potatoes. andouille. celery) – well done, octopus was just as exact “chewiness” where it is pleasant (I think cooking octopus without making it into a rubber is an art).
Funghi Flatbread (charred green onion. fontina. balsamic) – this was a masterpiece – with all due respect to all other dishes, the mushrooms were soooo … mushroomy! If you like mushrooms – don’t miss it.
O+A Margherita Flatbread (Hamden burrata. tomato. calabrian chile) – this was okay, but slightly… pedestrian, especially comparing to the previous flatbread.
We also had 3 “communal” boards to share – the Artisan Cheese Board (fruit preserves. nuts. crostini), the selection of 6 local cheeses – Cremont, Nancy Camembert, Nettle Meadow Kunik, Fiscalini Bandaged Cheddar, North Coutry Blue and Ocooch Mountain, all from the Artisanal Cheese); Meat Board (hand selected meats, pickles, crostini) and House Cured Salmon. All three dishes were well done and quite tasty.
Oak + Almond
544 Main Ave
Norwalk, CT 06851
The polar vortex is back with us again, and we need the tools to fight it, right? Well, yeah, you can’t fight mother nature – but at least you can make her blows a bit more palatable.
This is a wine and food blog, of course, so we are not going to talk about space heaters and Amish miracle fireplaces. Right food is a perfect solution for many of the life’s situations, extreme cold being one of them. When the temperature is in the teens, and every breath makes you look more like a fire-throwing dragon, there are few of the heart-, body- and soul-warming dishes which come to the rescue. The hearty stew is one of them. And rich, concentrated, hot soup is probably what comes to mind first while you are out there shoveling the snow.
So it is the soup we will be talking about today. This soup, called Solyanka (if you can read or just care to see the same in the Russian alphabet, it is Солянка Мясная Сборная) is one of the old and traditional Russian soups. Many people know or at least heard of the Russian soup called Borsch, made out of the red beets (Borsch is also a perfect soup for the cold weather, but it is not a subject of today’s post). Much lesser number of people know of Solyanka, which used to be one of the very few soups traditionally served in the restaurants back in Russia starting from the hundreds of years ago.
I believe many home cooks purposefully avoid making the soup, as it often translates into a quite a bit of hassle. Great thing about Solyanka is that this soup requires very few ingredients and very easy to make!
As you could deduce from the title of this post, the main ingredient in Solyanka is … meat! Actually, any kind of meat is going – pork, beef, veal, chicken – whatever you got. It is important to note that we are not talking about raw meat – we are talking about meat products, such as smoked or cured sausages, baked chicken/turkey breast, ham, all sorts of bacon, bologna, hot dogs, any meat leftovers – anything which goes in the category of “cold cuts”.
In addition to meat there is another important ingredient here. The word “Solyanka” is a derivative of the Russian word for salt. But the second key ingredient is not the salt per se – it is pickled cucumbers. The cucumbers can be brined in salt or vinegar, it really doesn’t matter – but they are essential taste component in this soup.
Ready to see the recipe? Let’s proceed.
Solyanka – Russian Meat Soup
Prep time: about 30 minutes. Cooking time: about 30 minutes.
2 lb meat products (cold cuts style)
3 quarts of broth (any one goes – beef, chicken, vegetable).
6 large Dill Cucumbers, peeled and sliced
3 medium onions, chopped
2 tbsp tomato paste
4 tbsp capers
3 dry bay leaves
1 tbsp olive oil
Black pitted olives from the can, quartered
First step is to cut your meat products, whatever you are using. I typically use smoked sausages and some types of ham, but really there are no limitations. You have to slice the meat into the small pieces, make sure you will remove any kind of skin or casing if it is present, as those will not be good in the soup. I generally like to roast all that chopped meat in the pan on medium heat, for about 10-15 minutes, to concentrate the flavor.
While your meat is roasting, chop the onions. Take the large pot or casserole dish where you will be making the soup, add olive oil, put it on the medium heat. Add chopped onions and sauté them for about 10 minutes, or until translucent. Next add tomato paste, 3 tablespoons of broth and continue sautéing for another 20 minutes.
While onions and meat are on their way, prepare pickles – remove the skin, slice in half lengthwise, and then cut into the small pieces. Put aside.
Once the meat is ready, and the onions were sautéed for the total of about 30 minutes, add meat and pickles to the pot, add all of the remaining broth, put bay leaves, reduce the heat and let the soup to simmer for another 10-15 minutes. This is it! You are done.
This soup can be served as is, or with the optional sliced lemon, olives and sour cream – I personally like to add all three, but again, it is a matter of personal preference.
And let me present to you the weapon against the polar vortex – a bowl of Solyanka:
To be entirely honest, you really don’t have to wait for the sub-zero temperatures to make this soup. Yes, it is filling and warming from the inside, but overall it has quite a bit of acidity which makes it very refreshing.
So, when are you making it? Looking forward to your thoughts and comments. Cheers!
I do like simplicity in making of the food – easy to make, reasonable prep time, limited number of ingredients – definitely all my preferences when it comes to cooking. But the interesting thing is that in any craft, cooking included, once you master a skill, it becomes simple (you can argue if you feel like it). Of course it becomes your personal simplicity – for the people who don’t practice the same art, your personal simplicity looks quite complicated.
The recipe I would like to share today falls in this exact category – it is essentially very simple – once you master the first step. I call this dish Chicken Roll – and roll it is, made from the whole chicken. The difficult first step is deboning of the chicken. I will not inundate you with the whole procedure of deboning – there are plenty of videos on internet where you will see all the step by step instructions. The key to make it simple? Practice, of course. Do it a few times, and the idea of deboning of the chicken becomes much less intimidating. And you can do quite a few different dishes once you will master that skill.
I’m not sure how this technique is taught in the culinary school – and if any professional is reading this blog (that is a scary thought!), feel free to ridicule my approach. The way I learned to debone the chicken (or any bird for that matter) is by putting the bird breast side down and first making the cut along the spine, so it looks like this:
Once you made that first cut, you start slowly cut along the bones, using boning knife, separating the meat and pulling it back, so it looks something like this:
The reason I suggest doing it slowly is that you want to avoid cutting through the skin. There will be few challenging moments, where you will need to get through the joints, the one by the leg and the one by the wing – you just need to cut around them and then you will be able to cut through. Also, I suggest simply cutting off first two parts of the wings – there is not enough meat inside to try to debone those. In the end (takes me about 15-20 minutes to complete the process), you will end up with deboned chicken, which will look like this:
From this moment on, your cooking becomes very simple! You need to decide on your stuffing – anything goes! You can use other meat as a stuffing, whether raw or cooked. You can use mushrooms. You can use broccoli. You can use couscous. You can use rice. You can use quinoa. You can use any combination of the ingredients. The keys is to use a limited amount, as you still need to make the dish into a roll. You season the chicken inside, put your stuffing in, roll is lengthwise, tie it up with the butcher’s string and … voilà! Roast and enjoy! See, I told you it is simple : )
For this particular chicken roll I used carrots and chicken sausages. Here is the recipe:
Chicken Roll, stuffed with carrots and chicken sausages
Prep time: 30 minutes. Cooking time: about 1 hour (20 minutes per pound)
1 large whole chicken, deboned
3 large carrots
1 lb chicken sausages or chicken sausage meat
1 tbsp olive oil
cotton Butcher’s string
Serve: cold or warm, both should taste good.
Debone the chicken using the suggestions above and internet video as a guidance. Slice carrots lengthwise:
Season the chicken inside using salt, pepper and any seasoning herbs your heart desires. I also used truffle salt, which imparts a bit of a mushroom flavor (it smells mostly by itself, you get very little aroma in the food):
Ahh, most important part – have a glass of wine – cooking is a lot more enjoyable when the wine is involved!
I had some leftovers of Hooker Chardonnay form the previous day – it was delicious – just a touch of butter, vanilla, nice acidity – a perfect complement for any cooking.
You can now preheat the oven for 375F. Place carrots inside of the deboned chicken, then take chicken sausages, take them out of the casings and place on top of carrots. Yes, sausage meat would be easier to use in this case, but we have only one store in the town which sells sausage meat, and I didn’t feel like going.
The only steps left are to make a roll – lengthwise!, as you don’t want any skin inside – tie it up with butcher’s string, rub with olive oil, add salt, pepper and herbs on top and roast! Roast in the oven at 375F, uncovered, for about an hour ( estimate a 20 minutes per pound of meat without bones).
The result should look like this:
And this is how the roll looks inside:
That’s all I have for you for today. Let me know what do you think about this recipe. Would you make something like this? Have fun and cheers!
I know, I know – this is the wine blog, and I’m sure you are surprised with the number of food posts lately. I guess this is all because of the holidays? Well, but then this blog is all about “wine, food and life”, so I guess talking about the food is quite appropriate. Anyway, we will be talking about food today – but this food is made with wine, so we will technically cover both subjects.
When it comes to the French cooking, there are a few dishes which squarely belong to the so called “classic category”. Beef Bourguignon is definitely one of them, fighting for supremacy with Coq au Vin. Today we will be talking about Beef Bourguignon, a.k.a. Boeuf Bourguignon, a.k.a. Beef Burgundy, a stew-like dish, generally attributed to the Burgundy area in France. I personally like all of the stew style dishes, as they generally are easy to make and very rustic and comforting as food, which to me is a very important characteristic.
Main components of Beef Bourguignon are beef, wine, few of the vegetables and aromatic herbs. For a while, I had being making Beef Bourguignon using the recipe from the book called “France: A Culinary Journey”, which is quite simple. In a nutshell, you quickly fry beef, onion carrots and celery together on the high heat, then add the wine and aromatic herbs, close the cover, and let the magic happen over the next few hours. Then I came across some recipes on internet which were a lot more complex, with marinating the meat, boiling the wine before cooking, adding bacon and mushrooms, and so on. After reading through probably 5 or 6 different recipes, all claiming originality and “classicism”, I decided that I have to come up with my own, as none of the recipes really spoke to me. Before I will talk about the recipe itself, let me give you couple of the points I find important.
Wine: The source of this recipe is Burgundy, so stick with the classics on this – Pinot Noir is your ideal case, but I also have done it a few times with Gamay wines (Beaujolais), and it worked quite well. In the wine, you are looking for acidity and light fruity profile. In general, avoid high alcohol, aggressively fruity wines – they will impart an unpleasant flavor. The wine doesn’t have to be expensive, but general rule is very simple – cook with the wine you want to drink.
Marinating the meat: based on my reading and conversations, marinating the meat in the wine is an essential step. It seems to be highly recommended for both Beef Bourguignon and Coq au Vin, so I’m going with this. I usually marinate the meat in the wine for the kabobs, which tenderizes the meat and makes it to absorb the flavor, so this definitely makes sense to use the same approach here.
Bacon: My general notion is that bacon makes everything better. However, in the case of Beef Bourguignon, the recipes usually call for making of the lardons (fried square pieces of bacon), which are then added to the meat during the last 15 minutes of cooking. As you are not cooking with an actual pork fat, I see such an addition only as textural, and I don’t believe it adds anything to the dish which is already quite rich, so here I’m saying no to bacon.
Okay, enough of the introductions, let’s proceed with the recipe.
Prep time: about 1 hour. Cooking time: About 3 hours.
6 lb beef for stew – use stew-cut meat from the good store, or take chuck or roast cuts and cut them into 1″ – 1.5″ cubes)
1 bottle of red wine – Pinot Noir or Beaujolais
5 large onions (one for marinade, 4 for cooking)
10 sticks of celery (2 for marinade, 8 for cooking)
4 large carrots (I really mean large, thick carrots – if they are thin, double the amount)
1.5 lb of whole mushrooms
1/2 cup of all-purpose flour
4 cups beef broth
2 sprigs of thyme
6 fresh bay leaves
1 tsp allspice
1 tbsp peppercorn
Olive oil for frying
Salt and pepper
Serve with: boiled potatoes (classic!), egg noodles, pasta
As a first step, you need to marinate the meat, preferably overnight, so you should start cooking in the evening of the day before. Take two stalks of celery, cut in half. Peel one onion, cat in four pieces. If you are using the whole piece of meat, cut it up into 1″ – 1.5″ chunks. Put celery and onion into the large bowl, put all the chunks of meat on top, pour in a bottle of wine. The wine should fully cover the meat – if it is not – sorry, get another bottle. Take cheese cloth, put in 3 bay leaves, a sprig of thyme and allspice. Tie cheesecloth together and put it into the same bowl with meat. Cover, and put in the fridge overnight.
In the morning, get the bowl out of the fridge, strain and reserve all the liquid (you will use it for cooking). Discard celery, onion and herbs, let the meat to drain completely and warm up to the room temperature.
Now, you can start with vegetables. Dice all of the the onions and start sauteing it in the skillet with the small amount of oil – use medium heat. Meanwhile, prepare the rest of the vegetables. Dice the celery, put aside. Cut up the carrots in the big chunks – round slices of about 3/4″ in size. If the carrot is too thick, you can first cut it in half lengthwise. Put aside together with celery.
Wash and cut up mushrooms into the half or quarters, depending on the size of mushrooms. Start sauteing the mushrooms in the separate pan with small amount of olive oil and medium to high heat.
Cover the pan initially, as you want mushrooms to release the water, stir a few times. After 3-4 minutes, remover the cover and let the liquid to evaporate. Continue cooking for another 5-6 minutes, or until the liquid will completely evaporated and the mushrooms are lightly fried. Add celery and carrots to the same pan, mix and continue sauteing for about another 10 minutes, stirring periodically.Turn off the heat, put aside.
After about 10 -15 minutes of sauteing the onions (they should gain color and become translucent at this point), turn off the heat and set aside.
Time to start working with the meat. First, we need to sear it. Put the cast iron casserole on the high heat (definition of the high heat depends on your stove – mine is electric, and if I use the highest dial setting of 10, everything burns before it sears, so my high heat setting for the cast iron vessel is 8). Add couple of tablespoons of the olive oil, and let it heat up. Put the flour on the plate, add salt and pepper, and drench the first batch of meat in the flour.
Once casserole is heated up sufficiently, put the meat inside in the single layer, and don’t touch it for about 3 minutes. Turn around, and let it sear for another 3 minutes – you want to get a nice color on the meat.
Prepare the next batch of meat (drench in the flour). Remote the seared meat to another plate, and repeat the process until all the meat is seared. Once the last batch is seared enough, splash some of the reserved wine into the casserole and use your spatula to deglaze it. Reduce heat to medium-low, put back all the meat, add sauteed mushrooms and vegetables. Pour back the rest of the reserved wine, add four cups or beef broth. Prepare the bouquet garni: take cheese cloth, put in thyme sprig, 3 bay leaves and peppercorns. Tie together and put in the casserole (immerse in liquid). Give the content of the casserole a good steer. Cover with the lid, pour yourself a glass of wine and relax, your work is mostly done.
Check the casserole periodically and give the content a good stir every time. Make sure the liquid is slowly simmering and not rapidly boiling – reduce heat further if it is. Also, check the sauce for salt – adjust the amount to your liking. The cooking process should take about 3 hours from the moment you combined all the ingredients – check the meat periodically to see if it is done to your liking. Tougher cuts of meat might take a little longer.
When done, remove the bouquet garni. Prepare your favorite starch and … voilà! You are ready to serve Beef Bourguignon and accept complements from your guests. Of yes, and I hope you didn’t use all the wine – you might enjoy some with your dinner.
So, what do you think? Do you have your own twist for Beef Bourguignon? What do you think of this recipe? Cheers!