Pick of the Month, October ‘07

It’s the 31st of October. Had the clock struck midnight on this Hallow’s Eve without the current Pick of the Month post, the world as we know it would have ended. Or, perhaps more accurately, Megan would’ve called and complained that I’d grossly neglected our favorite month.

And I do. Really love October. More so than any other month of the twelve. But it’s always very busy, with a husband’s and a daughter’s birthday, and Halloween, and football, and watching leaves change and such. This month, I’ve also had to throw in a long weekend at the beach and the obligatory never-ending renovation of our house. Excuses, excuses, I know. But, panting heavily from all this fast typing, I’m crossing the finish line with what in hand? None other than one of my very favorite vegetables: The Butternut Squash.

I know that I am in danger of running into the proverbial ground my incessant stories of “discovering” a food that I entirely missed out on in childhood. Be warned, because today is no exception — I do not remember knowing anything about the existence of the irreplaceable, aptly named butternut squash until sometime in my twenties. Maybe I’d seen one in the grocery, passing it by as if it were an inedible gourd — useful only in a fall centerpiece, replete with too-brightly dyed silk leaves and some oversized polymer acorns. Oh, what I did not know.

This squash is one of the ultimate seasonal vegetables. It is part of a delightful family of squashes known as the winter variety (as opposed to the summer squashes, like yellow crookneck and zucchini). These vegetables differ from their summer counterparts by being harvested when the fruit is fully mature and the skin is a tough outer rind (this helps them to have a very long shelf-life — so when they’re on sale this month, buy several and use them over the next few weeks or month). The butternut is admittedly not the prettiest of the bunch; that award might fall to the sister acorn squash, with its deep green and orange color and thick ridges. The butternut is the one that’s quite bulbous on one end, with a more slender neck protruding to one side (not unlike an elongated Mr. Potato Head), and is pale, slightly-anemic tan in color. But don’t be fooled: the color and flavor of the inside turn this unwanted stepchild into the Belle of the Ball. When you get a good one, it is sweet, creamy, buttery, pure October. They provide nice amounts of beta-carotene, fiber, and are an excellent source of vitamin A. They can be steamed, boiled, roasted, and even grilled (I haven’t tried this yet, but it’s a method that takes the fruit back to its South American roots).

Today I have a few of these beauties on my kitchen counter, and have chosen to make Stuffed Butternut Squash, from the Joy of Cooking. I’ve made this once before, and if I can recall, it involves roasting the squash halves, scooping the flesh, mixing in some sautéed apples and fresh sausage, and stuffing it all back into the shell. A meal by itself (although a side salad and bread wouldn’t hurt). Sweet, spicy, and filling. But I must say that my very favorite preparation of this month’s Pick is Butternut Squash Soup. Every time I have served this, it has outshone everything else at the meal. I really only make it in the fall and occasionally into the winter, because you need a wonderfully sweet and flavorful squash for it to be worthwhile and tasty. I’ve tried a number of recipes — many are gingered or heavily spiced with the aromatics of the season, and while that has its place, the winner in my book was published in the November 2001 issue of Cook’s Illustrated. It’s a very interesting method: you sauté the seeds with some shallots, then add water, and steam the unpeeled flesh in the liquid. You then peel the cooked squash (this is so much easier than peeling a raw one) and puree with the strained steaming liquid. Sounds complicated, but it’s really not — and makes the most flavorful soup of its kind. It calls for the addition of a little heavy cream at the end, but I’ve found that if you have a good squash, it doesn’t even need it.

If you are now inspired, or simply curious, enough to buy yourself a butternut, please be warned: they (along with all the winter squashes) can be very difficult to cut. Get yourself a good chef’s knife — no, you don’t have to spend $80, but perhaps $25 — and be sure you’re on a non-slippery surface when cutting. They can be peeled with a regular vegetable peeler (with extra elbow-grease) and can leave a funny film on your hands when peeling. But once you get used to all this, if you’re like me, you’ll relish the process. You will know that it is a means to a buttery, creamy, delectable end.

How good it was (or, “You’re an animal, Hugh…”)

I did say I would kiss and tell — but please don’t mistake the number of days it’s taken me to share the details as any sign of dissatisfaction or want. Because it was a magical night at the five and dime. The kind that happens once every 3 or 4 trips to the eatery; the kind that leaves you wondering how one chef can create what you just ate, and not be superhuman.

The night commenced with our meeting friends John and Maryfrances at our table in the preferred porch room, at 5:30 (as a birthday bonus, we ended up with our favorite server as well). Why so early — you might wonder. Well, my very favorite thing about my very favorite restaurant is the prixe fixe menu. This is genius (and not a new idea): if you make a reservation between 5:30 and 6:00 pm at Five & Ten, you can pay $24 for a fixed menu, complete with appetizer, entrée, and desert. The beauty of this (for the consumer) lies in the fact that, most times, the prixe fixe menu contains one (or more) of the night’s specials — which, for an entrée, can cost upwards of $20 on its own. This is a STEAL.

We have two different plans of attack when partaking of the prixe fixe: 1) if we like the looks of both menus, we each order one, and share, or 2) if we only really like the look of one menu, we order it, then supplement with an additional appetizer or two. The night’s menus both looked wonderful:

Menu A

  1. spicy squid and carrot salad with scallion, red chile, and orange vinaigrette
  2. crisp artichoke and wild mushroom risotto with local arugula, leek crema, and shaved parmesan
  3. date and goat cheese streudel

Menu B

  1. sweet onion, country ham, and marisa tart with herb salad and lemon cream
  2. grilled CAB deckle steak with aged cheddar grits, sauteed spinach, and roasted tomato vinaigrette
  3. pumpkin squash cheesecake with spiced cream and golden raisins

Now I must also mention the other entrée, because a small debate ensued as to which main course was superior. The risotto was surprisingly wonderful. I am oftentimes disappointed with risottos at restaurants, as their name usually holds a promise that the dish itself does not fulfill. I frequently grow tired of them before I can get through the enormous bowlfull. But this risotto was unique in a number of ways: it was a smaller portion, served not in a bowl but on an elongated plate. It was also packed with the modifying ingredients, almost to the point where the arborio rice took on a supporting rather than starring role. This pleased me. The artichokes were truly crisp — perhaps deep-fried? which gave them a truly unique texture, one they should sport more often. And with arugula and leek crema — what’s not to like? BUT — the entrées were so different, it’s almost impossible to compare them — if I was threatened with a mouthful of cilantro and asked to pick one to eat again, I’d go with the steak. ADOTW (Any Day Of The Week).

Last but not least, the dessert — also a surprise which one won. I have made pumpkin cheesecake before, and ordered it at restaurants. And, as big a fan of pumpkin as I claim to be, I have always been disappointed. It boils down to the fact that, when I see the piece of cheesecake, it registers in my mind as “pumpkin pie” and so I’m thrown off by the cheesecake. I haven’t been able to stop this from happening. So it could have been the presentation alone that caused this dessert to knock my socks off — it was a round piece, topped with a nice, thick slather of the spiced cream. Didn’t look at all like a piece of thanksgiving pie, so my meager mind was fooled. With our token decaf americano to wash it down, we were left begging Maryfrances for the part of hers that she didn’t eat. She graciously granted our wish, and watched us fight for the last bite. Oh, to make that cheesecake and give a piece to everyone I love.

So, yes, it was a good night. I’d recommend for all locals to get there and get some, but I think it took me so long to write this that the menu has already changed. Go anyway. With the flavors of the fall in play, it can’t disappoint.

La Dolce Vita

Tim and I hadn’t had a date since sometime in July, so when my mom was in town last week, we quickly made plans to take advantage of free babysitting. Last Tuesday afternoon, we excitedly considered our options for a nice meal out. We haven’t been to the scrumptulescent Five & Ten in a really, really, sadly long time. But we’d also been deathly curious about a relatively new Italian place downtown that’s been getting good reviews (via both printed media and word-of-mouth). We’d even looked at the menu one night while passing by — and it looked incredible. The night’s lineup reminded me of a restaurant I went to in Little Italy while once in Manhattan — a far cry from the Americanized-Italian places that have been our only option in Athens thus far when the craving for olive-oil-doused carbohydrates has stricken (I know — Bischero tries hard — but it’s gone downhill since the ownership changed, and the past two meals we’ve had there have been disappointing, so we boycotted).

La Dolce Vita is located on the second floor of an early 20th-century building overlooking Broad Street. The space offers high potential for quaint Italian charm, but I must say that our first impression was that they ever-so-slightly missed that mark. They tried — but the plaster-coated brick walls were just a touch too primary-yellow, and the places where the plaster was peeled off and the underlying brick exposed just a touch too perfectly shaped. They could have gotten away with a whisper, but instead went with a raised voice. The server was very friendly, attentive, and entirely alone in his venture: he was the sole server on a night that eventually sat 6 or 7 tables at once.

I opened the menu, and immediately saw something I absolutely had to have: carpaccio. I had just watched Giada De Laurentiis prepare her version of it on my second-favorite FoodTV show — it was the first time I’d ever seen it, and it looked spectacular. Read an interesting history of the dish at wikipedia; but the gist is thinly sliced raw beef, topped with olive oil and citrus, served as an appetizer. I confess that, even being a long-time sashimi consumer, I was a teeny bit wary of the raw factor. But, you must keep in mind that it is cured beef — they’re not slapping a quarter-pound of red ground beef on your plate. The menu offered a host of toppings for the beef — everything from arugula to mushrooms. We went with the assorted sautéed mushrooms, citrus vinaigrette, and shaved parmigiano. And I must say — what a start. This was nothing short of mind-bogglingly good. We practically ate the serving plate, and I think we both stopped breathing for the length of time it took to completely consume the raw, cured, perfectly-balanced heavenly goodness. (Note: If you live in Athens, and go to La Dolce Vita, the menu offers a selection of fully-cooked carpaccio. DO NOT CHEAT YOURSELF. Get the raw. The cooked version is only a cheap, plastic, mirror-image of the real thing.)

After a few minutes of recovery (is it gauche to say I could’ve smoked a cigarette?), we looked forward to our entrées. With an appetizer like that, we were hungry for more of this Italian-superhero’s concoctions. It is with great sadness that I must write our disappointment. Our entrées arrived, and even their presentation was underwhelming. Tim ordered one of the specials — a Pork Tenderloin in a Port Wine sauce with Peaches and Pecans. I ordered the Gnocchi, with a simple bolognese sauce. The pork was simply not what I was expecting; I imagined an actual sliced tenderloin, topped with the sauce. But it was more breaded, pan-fried medallions that were part of a sauce that topped bowtie pasta. Good, but nothing noteworthy. And, my gnocchi — it was just plain bad. The actual potato dumplings were as good as I’ve had (not many times, mind you), but the sauce was thin, with grainy meat and an off flavor. The texture was sort of like a Cincinnatti chili, and the flavor reminiscent of a can of Spaghetios. Really. I honestly couldn’t believe how bad it was (Tim was in agreement), and all I could feel was utter disappointment. After the carpaccio, I was poised to find a New Great Place. This was, at best, a place we knew we could go and get great carpaccio (and, honestly, that’s not a bad thing to be, in my world) — but not much else.

Thoroughly disheartened, we glanced at the dessert menu, only to pass. It was filled with the usual Italian suspects: tiramisu, cannoli, gelatos, etc. I was so burned by dinner, I feared the worst. So we passed, payed our large sum of money to the nice server, and left longing for our next dinner with Hugh.

Which will actually be TOMORROW NIGHT. Yes, friends, Five & Ten has a table with our name on it, in celebration of Tim’s birthday. You gotta know I’m gonna kiss and tell.

My favorite season for food, at my favorite restaurant, with my favorite husband. What more could I ask for?