Monday, April 26, 2010

Hey, I cook too!

Just a quick post - made some really good artisan batard this weekend. Very crusty while perfectly tender on the interior. Think Kind Pie sandwich bread, but a lot better and not floury. I also used two new techniques - pre-fermetning half of the dough overnight and steaming the oven for proper crust development. Aside from keeping a close eye on rising times and being time consuming, bread like this is extremely easy to make (only 4 ingredients). By the way, from start to finish, it took nearly 24 hours to make this batch.

The only other thing of note that I've made recently, is this Roasted Chicken with potatoes and onions (recipe by Ruth Reichl). This is a simple and delicious option for any meal.

FTW- KFC Double Down Luther

Ladies and gentelman, I present to you, the greatest culinary creation since the Double Down -

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hi-ho, the derry-o - Farm Burger

Yep, another burger place in Atlanta. Did they not get the memo that Atlanta is saturated (poly, mono and trans) with burger joints - and not just average ones. If there was one thing Atlanta didn't need, it was another burger spot. Oh, but wait, Farm Burger is in Decatur proper not Atlanta! Because Cozy Burger Town didn't just open in Decatur along with Wonderful World Burgers & More last year. Oh, and Leon's up the street also serves a grass fed burger (although it sucks). But these ballsy "farm to table" entrepreneurs had to do it. And so, we poured in on their opening day like the happy little grass-fed cattle that we feasted on this evening.

Clearly from their title, it becomes clear what Farm Burger's mission is. They are locally sourcing their meat, produce and for the most part, any product they can. They grind their own meat. Sustainability is of the utmost importance and they even focus on the material they use to serve and wrap their product. They are no strangers to this sort of operation since their parent company is Farm 255 of Athens. Props to them for their efforts in making a better product and environment. On to the food.

The #1 featuring smoked white cheddar, caramelized onions, fb sauce, and bacon ($2 extra)

The burgers here are good, but hardly cheap. Pricing is surprisingly similar to that of Flip's which is kind of disappointing considering the amount of thought and prep that goes into Flip's burgers. Farm's topping list is extensive with common (and free) items and more unique and $2 extra ones (oxtail marmalade and brisket chili). The patties are thicker than Grindhouse and H&F but sadly, are still cooked medium-well. You can certainly taste the grass-fed qualities in the beef which is closer to the gamier bison side of the spectrum than your typical ground chuck. All of the toppings I had on the #1 were quality and the star was the house-cured bacon. Thick, smokey and not overly crispy - it was a pleasant surprise.
O-rings and Fries with smoked paprika mayo

The sides of onion rings and fries were both tasty and fresh but again slightly pricey. Neither were overly greasy, like house made sides can often be and the onion rings were strikingly similar to Flip's. A combined basket of onion rings and fries was $4.50. However you can get a small order of fries with your burger for $1.50. I also opted for a root beer float featuring Albita root beer (tasty stuff). Unfortunately, the ice cream was entirely too icey and not creamy enough.

So we got two #1's at $8 each (plus $2 each for bacon), a small fry ($1.50), onion ring/fry combo ($4.50), and a float ($4). Grand total of $31. Hardly seemed fair to be honest but you have to pay a premium for quality/environmental responsibility.
How does Farm Burger compare to all of Atlanta's burger offerings? It wasn't really significantly tastier than any other options, however the farm to table and sustainable practices sure make you feel good about eating some food that isn't particularly good for you in the first place. The ingredients are surely above average in quality, but not all of them really taste that much better than the competition. Though they serve a good burger, if it was based just on taste, Farm Burger wouldn't even crack my top 5. I find it a shame that they source such good quality beef and then cook it past medium rare. So much potential flavor and juice is lost because of their temperature preparation and I find this to be the case with all the other "fast food style" burgers in Atlanta (although some patties are just entirely too thin to cook that lightly).

Looks rarer than it actually was

If you want to peruse a great article on burger terms, techniques and practices, I highly recommend this one by Adam Kuban.

Farm Burger on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Please Pack your Knives and Go Home - Top Chef: The Tour

I was fortunate enough to attend today's Top Chef Tour demo featuring my two favorite chefs from past seasons, Richard Blais (Flip) and Kevin Gillespie (Woodfire Grill). Blais wowed audiences and always kept the judges on their toes with his molecular gastronomic prowess. By incorporating modern techniques like liquid nitrogen and sous vide, he often made dishes that didn't taste or seem as they appeared. Sadly, in the finale, Richard completely choked and gave way to the new Top Chef.

Kevin was a master of simple techniques. Focusing on quality of ingredients and flavor pairings, he consistently kept viewers on the edge of their seat, glands salivating. It was rare that we ever heard the judges say a negative thing about a single one of his dishes and he took home a staggering 5 challenge wins. Again, in the end, the much more female-enticing Michael Voltaggio took home the title of Top Chef.

I felt very honored to be in the presence of both celebrity chefs today as they ran a Top Chef demo in the parking lot of the Westside Provisions District. Unfortunately, I could only stay for one demo (lunch break) and Kevin led the forum with a poached shrimp dish. Blais and Gillespie alternated at each time slot and commented on each others food. I wish I could have stayed for another.

Gillespie's dish featured an olive oil poached shrimp with a prosciutto based sauce employing caramelized carrots. The shrimp was accompanied by sauteed celery and asparagus and frankly, I've never tasted celery that clean and refreshing. The dish was finished with pumpkin seed oil and balsamic vinegar.

Kevin stressed a few interesting notes that I will share with you here rather than recapping how to make his dish, which will be featured on the Bravo website. He stressed quality of ingredients - while most of the items featured in the dish were bought from Whole Foods, Gillespie supports the farm-to-table movement and recommend shopping at the Morningside Farmer's Market. He also supports sustainable practices when dealing with proteins. Kevin focussed on layering flavors and I must say that every ingredient (and there were a good number) played a complimentary role in creating a dish that was pleasing to the palate.

I found that Richard Blais really shared some great advice with the occasional humorous remark or chef wankery. Kevin's use of celery leaves inspired Blais to leave the audience with the most unique pointer of the day. He encourages cooks and chefs look for new uses of ingredients that we traditionally throw away. Things like tomato seeds, celery leaves and other "scraps" can be used for nontraditional and singular flavors. The other helpful tidbit he imparted on the group was to cook certain items that don't necessarily have to be fresh in advance. This leads to less confusion in the kitchen and less of a single time-suck when preparing a dish. Lastly, he stressed saving the flavorful oils used to cook other items for future use. He mentioned that his family kept a coffee tin under the counter with bacon fat when he was growing up. Kevin comically responded that his family did the same thing but it was a giant bucket and displayed proudly and prominently on their counter.

Blais busting out his signature Sous Vide machine at the mention of keeping a constant temperature.

It was really impressive to watch the wheels in Blais's head turning. When Kevin placed the prosciutto in the pan to make his sauce, Richard thought to use the remaining butchers paper to wrap and flavor the uncooked shrimp with. Additionally, Blais always found time to hock some device he was promoting like his Sous Vide Machine or name brand pans that sponsor him. When signing my book, Blais even drew a full ensemble featuring pork belly complete with chocolate gastrique, dill and sherry!

After the demo, there was a 20 minute Q & A where fan boys and girls alike could find out all the dirt that went on behind the scenes. This was an extremely well run (and free!) event and I found both chef's to be very humble. Cheers to Bravo, Westside Provisions District and Richard and Kevin! Can't wait to try Woodfire Grill!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Chocolate Pain - Cacao Atlanta

Did I seriously just take out a loan to buy some chocolates? Cacao is a small boutique chocolate shop nestled in the side of a building in the Inman Park commercial district. Since its inception in this location, "foodies" have embraced the chocolatiers like their own children - waxing ecstatic about their child's bean to bar accomplishments that they learned in college while studying abroad. Let me say this - there is a fine line between knowing what you're talking about and jumping on the bandwagon because of price and impressive techniques. I'm afraid that many Atlanta gastronomes have fallen into the latter category. After all, you get what you pay for, right? I fear that if some of the most seasoned and experienced palates gathered in a room and took a blind taste test between Russell Stover's and Cacao's offerings, Mr. Stover might take home the gold.
I couldn't help but be reminded of the scene in Half Baked where Thurgood wants to score some weed:
Dealer - You want highs, mediums or lows ?
Thurgood - How are the highs, man ?
Dealer - I say they got a piney taste, almostminty. Notice the little red hairs.
Thurgood - Yeah.
Dealer - And the rich greenery?
Thurgood - I see those.
Dealer - It's definitely the highest grade hydroponics in the city.
Thurgood - What'd you go to weed college?
Cacao is a small boutique chocolate shop nestled in the side of a building in the Inman Park commercial district. They are one of the very few groups that actually hand select their beans and produce a finished, chocolate product. It's impressive. Read one of the many press articles featuring owner Kristen Hard, and you will think that their chocolate must be as world class as it sounds.
Upon entering the storefront, I was greated by a chocolate scientist draped in a white, choclate-dusted lab coat. The scientist was actually very helpful in informing me about where their current batch of beans was from and informed me of the flavors that I should be looking for when sampling their selection - smokey and tobacco-y. I can absolutely attest to the fact that you can taste these subtleties in their product. Admitedly, I felt like high society at three moments in this visit. The first was the chocolate schooling I received and very thorough explanations of the products. The second time was when I selected the truffles, they were literally placed on a silver platter before being dropped in the bag. Lastly, when I was rung up at the register - $35 dollars later I was bringing home one of their Love Bars and 8 truffles.
If there is anything Cacao has done unquestionably correct, it's naming their business because their chocolate, much like the unprocessed cacao, is extremely bitter. I understand there is a certain amount of pride taken in procuring your own beans and you want to showcase the individuality of the harvest, but both the bar and the truffles really could have benefited from some more sugar.
If you do go, my only suggestion is to try the Love Bar. It is Cacao's signature product and each one is wrapped in a dainty note from Kristen Hard explaining how much work went into the bar. The flavors of the Dominican beans were most prominent in the bar and frankly, it was the tastiest of the sampling that I took home. The bitterness is certainly a little understandable as the bar is 75% cacao which is 10% more than what you can usually get in most stores. By the way, it's $8. This ain't no Snickers.
The truffles use wonderfully unique and epicurean flavors and ingredients but the bitterness is so overwhelming it's hard to enjoy them. The tree-shaped cardamom and rosemary was unbearably bitter (I thought this would be one of my favorites). On the other side of the spectrum, the "Harmonize" featuring clove honey, crunchy peanut butter, and dark chocolate ganache was actually sublime if not a little bitter (expected by this point). The "Lotus Sutra" was a ginger filled mini-buddha thats belly even has a piece of candied ginger - another one of Cacao's better choices.
I can see it now, a bunch of yuppies rolling up to Cacao in their Audi's, BMW's, and sweater vests. Don't worry, they're in Inman Park, they've got street-cred! They all gather, make their selections and take their chocolates to the outdoor seating. Everyone simultaneously takes their first bite and they are caught off guard by the bitterness. They all eye each other suspiciously and the head, self-proclaimed foodie of the group rejoices, "This is divine! The most scrumptulescent morsel I've ever tasted!" Everyone else chimes in, "Yes, yes! A chocolate masterpiece!"

Cacao also offers a number of other items including ice cream, hot chocolates, and chocolate dipped fruit at $85 a pound! I truly believe that Atlantan's have been duped into buying extremely expensive chocolate because the employees at Cacao talk a good game. If it tastes unpleasantly bitter to everyone, it's not an unrefined palate that's the problem. I've eaten a lot of chocolate in my day, both high-end and low brow options and I can honestly say Cacao ranks right in the bottom tier of my experiences.

Cacao on Urbanspoon