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December 31, 2008

The Deliciousness of 2008

Cemita Atomica at Cemitas Puebla Dominic Armato

Ahhhh, always one of my favorite posts of the year. Not just because it's so much fun to remember the year's faves, but also because it's a reminder that Skillet Doux has been around for another year. My first official act as a food blog was to recap the 2005 year, making this my fourth year-in-review as Skillet Doux turns three.

2008 was a pretty damn good year from a food standpoint, which is kind of shocking considering how little I got out. I ceased traveling for work, I spent the year in a city with no relatives to watch the little guy, and I still had to struggle to whittle this year's list down to ten. Even more of a struggle was limiting myself to two entries from Grace Garden. I figured anything more would just be absurd.

At any rate, while no 2006, 2008 was a great food year. I tried a bunch of new things. I discovered awesomeness in unexpected places. Though my kitchen this year was mostly consumed with simple, day-to-day meals for the family, it did produce a couple moments of greatness. As always, the Deliciousness of 2008 isn't strictly a "best" list. Rather, these are the dishes I enjoyed the most, the dishes that taught me the most, and the dishes that will stick in my mind for years to come.

Clicking on the image provides a larger one, while clicking on the name of the dish links to the post that talked about it. And so, in no particular order, courtesy of random.org, The Deliciousness of 2008:

Dominic Armato
Mushroom Fritters
JFX Viaduct Farmers Market - Baltimore

The JFX viaduct farmers market will definitely be near the top of the list of places I'll miss when we skip town in July. Even setting aside the scale and quality of the market, there's a great energy that I have yet to experience elsewhere. And while my exhilaration over returning to the market and the crisp spring morning may have made me unusually swoon-prone, there's no denying that the mushroom stand makes some wonderful snacks with their bounty. My favorite prepared foodstuff of the market, by a longshot, was the mushroom fritters with crumbled feta, mesclun greens, basil and a squirt of hot sauce. Hot out of the fryer, crisp on the outside, moist and tender on the inside, sitting atop just enough simple, fresh accompaniments to make them sing, they took me from happy to giddy.
Dominic Armato
Steamed Whole Duck
Stuffed with Sticky Rice

Grace Garden - Baltimore

The biggest food story of the year in my circles, by the widest of margins, was the discovery of Grace Garden -- an unassuming strip mall bastion of exceptional authentic Chinese cuisine in a town that desperately needed it. I'm so in love with the place and the people who run it that it's nearly impossible to pick favorites, but one of the dishes that was most striking to me came from one of our earliest visits. Chef Li saw fit to prepare a special dish for us -- a duck that had been completely deboned, stuffed with sticky rice, lotus seeds, bamboo, chunks of Chinese sausage as well as other light seasonings, then sealed tightly and steamed. As the duck cooks, the fat melts and saturates the rice, infusing it with an indescribably unctuous duck flavor, while the meat itself becomes impossibly sweet and tender. The duck fat shock hits you once when you first taste the dish, and again if you take some home and it has a chance to chill and congeal. Of course, as with great confit, there's no such thing as too much duck fat. But to write this off simply as a celebration of duck lipid is to sell Chef Li short. The underlying flavors, subtle though they may be, bring out the duck flavor and make a masterful dish out of something that, in other hands, could end up as little more than a pile of (tasty) goo.
Dominic Armato
Kobe & Foie Slider
Salt - Baltimore

Getting me to overlook my annoyance with the overuse of the term "Kobe" is a feat in and of itself, but this dish was so much more. A friend described Jason Ambrose, owner and head chef of Salt, as a "flavor guy", and this dish was exactly the kind of thing she was talking about. Almost exactly a year after I sampled Daniel Boulud's famous DB Burger, I tasted what it should have been. Not that there was anything wrong with the DB Burger (other than the price), but where the DB burger only hinted at rich, meaty, truffled decadence, Jason Ambrose delivered it. The small patty was topped with an equally large slab of charred foie gras, placed on a small toasted bun and topped with a sweet onion compote and truffled aioli. It was lush and juicy and as much about the nose as the palate. Anybody who eats this with a knife and fork is missing out, big time. It may be a little messy but just pick the damn thing up and eat it. When it gets about halfway to your nose, a kind of primal, Homer Simpson drooling out the side of your mouth reaction ensues. If it doesn't, don't bother checking your pulse... just sign the organ donor line on the back of your driver's license and wait for the ambulance.
Dominic Armato
Steamed Blue Crabs
Hard Yacht Club - Baltimore

Because of the disarray surrounding our arrival in 2007 and our forthcoming early summer departure in 2009, 2008 was my one big shot at crab season in Baltimore and I tried to make the best of it. I ate steamed blue crabs at a number of places, and never quite got around to posting about it, but the folks here take pride in this tradition and they should. Crusted with Old Bay, steamed and eaten with nothing more than maybe a touch of vinegar, this is the perfect example of enjoying the natural flavor of one of nature's greatest foodstuffs. Blue crabs may be a lot of work, but I'm a convert. They have a sweetness and an almost gnarly intensity (especially if you get into the mustard, which I love) that makes a lot of other breeds of crab taste like surimi. Few of my 2008 experiences were more satisfying than taking the last slug of beer as I surveyed a chaotic pile of chitinous carnage left in the wake of an evening of crab picking. Hard Yacht Club didn't actually have my favorite crabs. I preferred Mr. Bill's slightly mellower custom spice blend. But the whole experience -- sitting outside on a dock overlooking the water on a summer evening, ordering a sack of crabs that's delivered 20 minutes later by the guy who'd just fished them out of the Chesapeake, drinking beer and sucking Old Bay off your fingers as day turns into dusk turns into night -- this will be among my fondest memories of Baltimore.
Dominic Armato
Fried Zucchini Blossoms
Dom's Kicthen - Baltimore

And so the first of our 2008 themes, battered and fried vegetables, emerges. I found a great source for perfect zucchini blossoms at the new farmers market in Harbor East, and over the course of two weeks this this past spring, I went a little nutty. I think I ended up consuming over 150 of them. Not all of them were fried, of course. Most of them made their way into ravioli. But the ravioli, as proud as I was of that recipe, couldn't match the ohmygod awesomeness of the freshly battered and fried blossoms. I borrowed a batter recipe from the Tornabenes, cooked up a huge batch, dusted them with a little coarse salt, and ate until I could eat no more. The crispy fried exterior acted like armor during the cooking process, causing the blossoms' innards to almost liquefy into zucchini blossom soup. That such a delicate floral flavor is best brought out in fried form, I'll never understand. But rather than doing mental backflips trying to determine why, I prefer to marvel, instead, at the wisdom of centuries of Italian cooks.
Dominic Armato
Fish Noodles
Grace Garden - Baltimore

Enter the second of our 2008 themes, Grace Garden. As mentioned above, I opted to cap Grace Garden's participation in the Deliciousness of 2008 at two entries. If I spent too much time thinking about it, they'd probably end up dominating half the list. But as hard as it was making that cut down to two, and while I can't get enough of Chef Li's bolder dishes, the incredible technique and restraint that goes into his fish noodles astounds me. The noodles themselves are made of fish, which is reduced to some kind of seasoned paste and then extruded into a simmering broth to cook. How he achieves their delicate but firm bite, their unusual shape and texture and their wonderful flavor, I have no idea. But they're a technical marvel. Just as impressive, however, is the treatment they receive, tossed with slivered mushrooms, chives and Chinese sausage, and dressed with a light gingery sauce that's mellow and comforting. In every possible respect, this is a perfect dish, and its gentle countenance belies the remarkable skill that goes into its creation.
Dominic Armato
Peruvian Ceviche
Rinconcito Peruano - Baltimore

2008 was the year I rediscovered Peruvian, after my whirlwind tour of the country a few years back. This rediscovery was inspired and sustained by the proximity of a great little family run Peruvian place just a few blocks from home. Again, there are so many favorites, it's difficult to pick one. But the dish that I tell people they can't miss, the one that is always excellent, and the one that caught me a little off-guard the most was the fish ceviche. Fresh, light and spicy, the inclusion of corn, sweet potatoes and seaweed was an exciting departure from the other ceviches to which I'm accustomed. But what kept me coming back to the dish was simply the fact that the flavor was so clean and crisp. Almost everything Luz served me this year was wonderful, but this is the dish I'll miss the most.
Dominic Armato
Kuy Teav Chha Kreoung
Tek Trey Phem

Phnom Penh - Cleveland

2008 was also the year, just barely, that I discovered Cambodian. Perhaps not like Columbus discovering America. More like your mother discovering text messaging. But it was new to me. It's tough for a completely new cuisine not to make an impact, and make an impact Phnom Penh did, putting together familiar southeast Asian ingredients and techniques in ways that were unfamiliar to me. The result was a whole new spin on one of my favorite culinary regions of the world, and a truly memorable meal. There were other dishes as delicious as the kuy teav, but none that were so unusual and striking to me. The dish combined the noodles and seasoned fish sauce of a Vietnamese bun dish, the peanuts and creamy coconut of a Thai curry, and the almost curry-like turmeric based kreoung that, for me, was reminiscent of Indian. It was three of my favorite cuisines in one, and at the same time, none of them, and it was delicious. From a meal that opened up a new door, this was the one that intrigued and delighted me the most.
Dominic Armato
Berkshire Crispy Bacon
with Halloumi and Pickled Tomato

Lola - Cleveland

The wait to put this on the Deliciousness of 2008 list has been a long one. I sampled this dish right after New Year's -- before I'd posted the Deliciousness of 2007, in fact -- and knew immediately that it would be on next year's list. The downside? It's long gone. Even worse, though I'm generally loathe to pick a singular favorite of the year, this is it. I loved this dish. Loved, loved, loved it. The crispy pork belly was topped with a wedge of pickled tomato, atop a slice of seared halloumi cheese, and dressed with a mint oil, slivered toasted almonds and a number of other small components. The result was simply explosive. It was bold and exciting and full of flavor with an unusual profile the likes of which I hadn't encountered. Every bite was a joy, and I'm sad that, most likely, I'll never have the chance to eat this one again. If every other dish he served me was tripe -- figuratively or literally -- this dish alone would have made me a Michael Symon fan. In 2008 I had three great meals at his restaurants, but this was the knockout dish that I'll be pining for.
Dominic Armato
Miso Marinated Foie Gras
Sea Saw - Scottsdale

And our final theme of 2008 was foie gras. Only fitting, in the year the Chicago City Council came to their senses (even if neither of the foie dishes in question were, in fact, obtained in Chicago). While naming two foie dishes seems like the easy way out, both really were exceptional. On the strength of these two dishes, 2008 may have been the best year in foie I've ever had. While Salt's slider went the meaty, juicy route, Nobu Fukuda's miso marinated foie went the sweet route. The foie was marinated in miso, sake and mirin, then seared and sauced with peaches sautéed in foie butter. The miso turned the foie into even more of an umami bomb, but the subtle bite of the sake cut through and kept it from being pure richness. It was, as I put it in my post on Sea Saw, eyes rolling into the back of your head good. And after all of that sweet and creamy richness, the little bit of tart yamamomo was the perfect palate cleanser.

And that's ten. But I'm going to break the rules a bit this year and add a last-minute honorable mention. I had my list all set for publication, thinking I was in the clear on the morning of the 30th, but today's lunch forced me to add one more dish to this year's list.

Dominic Armato
Smak-Tak - Chicago

Confession time. I'm a food nerd who was born and raised in Chicago, and the first time I ever set foot in a Polish restaurant was today [pause for shame]. And now I've gone and started myself off with impossible standards. There's no link, because I haven't even had the chance to write about them yet, but we had lunch at one of LTH's newest darlings this afternoon, and it was one of my best meals of the year. At Smak-Tak, I expected simple, good and hearty. I got hearty, surprisingly complex, and absolutely outstanding. This was the kind of meal that forces you to reconsider using "meat and potatoes" as a pejorative. This was, undeniably, rib-sticking piles of protein and starch. But it was made with such care and bursting with so many flavors that it completely broadsided me, even though I was expecting good things. I could have named many of the dishes I sampled -- the Hungarian potato pancake stuffed with pork goulash, the subtle and smoky hunter's stew, the incredible chicken liver and onions special that's in the running for the best example of its genre I've ever tasted -- but I keep coming back to the humble pierogi, hearty yet light, filled with an assortment of meats, mushrooms, cheese, potatoes and sauerkraut and accompanied by a dollop of fresh sour cream. I finally understand why some people harbor such love for pierogi. These were not the leaden lumps to which I'm accustomed. The dough was pillowy soft, the fillings were full-flavored and beautifully seasoned, and the entire plate was slathered with butter. They were outstanding, and I'm ashamed to admit that I'm just getting acquainted with the bounty of my own backyard. Better late than never, I suppose.

And with that, I bring 2008 to a close -- a good food year that went out with a bang. 2009 already promises to be interesting. Very shortly, I may be moving to within an hour of Napa Valley. But we'll save that for next year.

Happy New Year's, everybody!

2005   |  2006   |   2007   |   2008   |   2009   |   2010   |   2011

December 28, 2008

Phnom Penh

Kuy Teav Chha Kreoung Tek Trey Phem Dominic Armato

It's a little absurd, really, that I know absolutely nothing about Khmer cuisine. I adore the foods of Thailand and Vietnam, and then there's Cambodia, sandwiched in between them with a little strip of ocean to the south and a little strip of Laos to the north. I've heard of Cambodian restaurants here and there, but they never seemed to attract much attention. Why Cambodian hasn't made the kind of inroads here as its wildly popular neighbors, I can't say. Perhaps the recent history of poverty, famine, genocidal dictators and massive political upheaval has something to do with it. Cambodia, understandably, has been more concerned with survival and stability than culinary ambassadorship over the past few decades. The exception, however, has been Cleveland's Phnom Penh, a restaurant that is mentioned frequently and lovingly in food nerd circles. It's been at the top of my Cleveland short list for a couple of years, I finally got there last week, and I wish I'd done so sooner.

Salad Phnom PenhDominic Armato
Though the newer location near West Side Market is the one most frequently mentioned, I opted for the original spot off Jefferson Park. Our server told us they've been around for ten years, but I would have guessed 20 or 30. I'll call the room humble (some may consider "dingy" more accurate) and the winter chill, though blunted, didn't stop at the front door. But the temperature of the restaurant was contrasted by the warmth of its staff, friendly, enthusiastic and all smiles. Even if we had been familiar with the cuisine, we probably still would have solicited advice. The menu is enormous, with nearly a hundred items covering Cambodian, Vietnamese and a smattering of Thai, even before you count the combinatons and permutations of seasonings and proteins. As it was, we mostly put ourselves in the staff's capable hands, making a couple of starter selections and deferring on the rest, with the instruction to stick to Cambodian classics.

NatingDominic Armato
Right out of the gate, we knew we were in capable hands. Requesting a salad recommendation, our server steered us towards the house's special Salad Phnom Penh. It arrived, very finely shredded cabbage with some chicken, carrots, bean sprouts, slivered green bell peppers, fresh basil, ground peanut topping and a garlic dressing, and made a big impression. The flavor profile won't be unfamiliar to fans of Thai and Vietnamese. It's that same combination of salty, sweet and tart citrus with seemingly endless variations, this one being an unusually light and delicate take (lemon instead of lime, perhaps?). Delicate, actually, was the operative word here. The vegetables were shredded with the utmost precision, creating an exceptionally light and crisp texture, but more importantly, it let us know right away that whoever was manning the kitchen did so with a capable hand. The dressing was perfectly balanced -- entirely worthy of house special status.

Samlaw Machou Phnom PenhDominic Armato
We moved on to our sole request of the evening, Nating. Crispy puffed rice cakes -- not unlike those that might be dropped into a Chinese sizzling rice soup -- arrived alongside a small bowl of a concoction meant to be spooned over them. The bowl contained tender ground pork in what I'd describe as a very mild tomato-based curry. Though it employed coconut milk, it did so in a very light fashion, lacking the creaminess I associate with many Thai coconut curries. The specific seasonings, I couldn't begin to deciper, mostly because I was too busy enjoying it. The subtle, round flavor of the sauce, the tenderness of the pork, the contrasting crispness of the rice -- this was in the running for favorite of the evening, though we're still unsure whether it was meant to be eaten with fingers or utensils.

BayonDominic Armato
Cold weather means soup, and that gave us the opportunity to sample another Cambodian classic. Listed under the somewhat painfully titled "Fantasy Stew" section of the menu were two iterations of the Vietnamese-influenced samlaw machou, a sour Cambodian soup. Our server steered us towards the second version, prepared with pineapple, sliced celery, basil, shrimp and chicken. Though I can't speak for this specific preparation, pickled lime is apparently common for the dish. But the primary flavor in this bowl of tartness was tamarind. And while the paste of the pod is well-known, the soup was also seasoned with an herb that our server identified as tamarind leaves. In contrast to the previous two dishes, there was nothing subtle going on here. It was lip-puckering, warm and delicious, if not quite as keenly balanced as some similar Thai soups I've had.

Stirred Beef and Shrimp ChiliDominic Armato
The first of our entrees was the low point of the evening, though I suspect that was as much our fault as it was the kitchen's. In deference to a highly chile-sensitive member of our group, we ordered the bayon mild, and it was the wrong dish to do non-spicy. A Cambodian curry made with large chunks of zucchini and summer squash, it came across like a Thai pad prik king minus the prik -- sort of missing the point. In response, we asked the server to bring on the spicy, and she responded with house special stirred beef and jumbo shrimp chili with special fried rice. I'm not sure what makes the fried rice special. It was boilerplate carrot, peas and eggs. The beef and shrimp chili, however, was interesting. It was intense, sweet and saucy, striking me more like an Americanized Chinese dish. Chinese migrants have had a significant influence on Cambodian cuisine, and I wonder if this dish reflects those influences. But the spicy sweet also had a nice funky almost seafoody undertone. I understand that Cambodian frequently utilizes fermented fish paste. Perhaps that card was in play.

Kuy Teav Chha Kreoung Tek Trey PhemDominic Armato
The star entree of the evening was the impressively titled kuy teav chha kreoung tek trey phem. From what little I can find online (and those conversant in Khmer, by all means, jump in) the chha refers to stir-fry, kreoung is a Cambodian seasoning paste akin to curry, kuy teav is a beef or pork noodle soup similar to pho, and the rest... no idea. But what I find curious is that Phnom Penh's kuy teav doesn't even remotely resemble any descriptions or photos of the dish I see elsewhere online. Noodles aside, this was in no way even remotely pho-like. It reminded me more of a Vietnamese bun dish, with topped fresh noodles and an accompanying fish sauce similar to nuoc cham. But then it took kind of a right turn. The noodles were topped with fried spring rolls, stir-fried onions, slivered basil and ground peanuts, all in a sauce of kreoung and coconut, the former deeply flavored and heavy on turmeric. The creamy coconut, turmeric-heavy curry and tart and salty fish sauce seem like an odd combination on paper, but it was a wonderful dish, vibrant and rounded at the same time. With elements reminiscent of Thai, Vietnamese and Indian all thrown together, it was precisely what I found so compelling about a wonderful introduction to Cambodian. The foods are clearly southeast Asian, and they employ familiar ingredients in familiar ways that are at times reminiscent of (or directly influenced by) the other cuisines of the region, but the dishes were nonetheless novel to me. I'm obviously in no position, after one meal, to be making any authoritative generalizations about Cambodian cuisine, but the dishes we tasted had a unique character that I'm anxious to learn more about. Sadly, this jaunt to Cleveland only afforded us one opportunity, but Phnom Penh is at the top of my list for our next visit.

Phnom Penh
13124 Lorain Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44111
Mon - Thu11:00 AM - 9:30 PM
Fri - Sat11:00 AM - 11:00 PM
Sun3:00 PM - 9:00 PM

December 27, 2008

Deep Dish

Gino's East Sausage Supreme Dominic Armato

Feels good to be home.

December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

Pork Loin in the Style of Porchetta Dominic Armato

I'm a sucker for a good Batali recipe. Especially when it's this festive.

Merry Christmas, everybody... some great eats this week. Posts soon!

December 16, 2008

Cauliflower Pasta

Cavatappi con Cavolfiore, Zafferano e Mente Dominic Armato

Hey, we haven't had a good pasta recipe around these parts in a while!

Cauliflower has become my go-to pet pasta ingredient as of late. It's easy to prepare, it gets beautifully sweet when caramelized, it pairs perfectly with a chaotic, chunky pasta and it loves parmesan. The obsession started with an absurdly simple Batali recipe that's threatening to unseat Rigatoni all'Amatriciana as the official Armato/Scudiere household pasta and has persisted through a few spur of the moment variations, of which this is one of my favorites. Plus, bonus... what Italian word is more fun to say than cavolfiore?

Dominic Armato

3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
1/2 head cauliflower
salt & pepper
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 pinch saffron threads
1/4 C. chopped fresh mint, divided
1/2 lb. cavatappi
grated parmesan
Cavatappi con Cavolfiore, Zafferano e Mente
Serves 2 as an entree, 3-4 as a primo

As always, first refer to the Ten Commandments of Dry Pasta for instructions on general pasta cookery.

While your water is coming to a boil, you can do all of your prep and start the cauliflower. Trim the cauliflower and break it into small florets, slicing larger ones into halves or quarters, giving it time to dry after washing. Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat and, when hot, toss in the garlic cloves. Cook the garlic cloves, turning as necessary, until they're light golden all over, then remove and discard them (or, if you're me, set them aside, salt and eat them). Immediately toss in the cauliflower, spread it evenly around the pan and for the next few minutes, resist the urge to play Chen Kenichi, practicing your pao action, and don't touch it. You want each piece to take a nice browned color on one side. When the underside of the cauliflower has started to brown nicely, toss well and season with salt and pepper. Continue cooking for another ten minutes or so, tossing occasionally, until the cauliflower is browned all over and has started to soften. Rather than constantly stirring, try to leave it alone for a couple of minutes at a time so the cauliflower has time to develop its color. If it starts to burn, however, turn the heat down and take it off the fire, stirring constantly, to give it a moment to cool.

When the cauliflower has reached this point, drop your cavatappi in the water, turn the heat under the cauliflower down to low, and let it cook gently, tossing occasionally, for another 7-8 minutes.

When your pasta is just a couple of minutes away from being done, the cauliflower should be browned and tender, but maintain some texture. Shove the cauliflower to the edges of the pan and drop the butter into the middle. When the butter melts, add the saffron threads, stir the butter and let the saffron warm in the butter for a minute or two until your pasta is just about ready. Toss the cauliflower and saffron butter thoroughly and check and adjust your seasoning. Drain the pasta, add it to the cauliflower skillet and toss for a minute to combine and let the flavors come together. Just before serving, quickly chop the fresh mint, add two tablespoons to the pasta and toss.

Plate the pasta, top with a bit of the remaining mint and some parmesan cheese, and serve.

December 08, 2008


Eggs Amanda Magnano

I realize this is a food blog, but the 25 members of the Veterans Committee who didn't vote for Ron Santo can go suck an egg. There... that makes this food-related, right?

December 04, 2008

Birthday Swag

Pollo en Escabeche de Cebollas Carmelizadas Dominic Armato

Tonight's dinner, from Rick Bayless' Mexican Everyday. Thanks for the present, guys!