Friday, March 26, 2010

Easting Out

I love to eat “out”. Eating out in a restaurant makes life seem nicer somehow. Even a casual place, for pizza or Chinese somehow adds a glow to the process of eating to me. That’s the idea that they promote of course, selling us on the idea of having that certain feeling when we’re there. And each restaurant promotes their own particular brand of feeling or ambiance. The name sometimes gives it away. For example a “trattoria” is generally Italian and informal. It’s important to be aware that the American version of these sorts of names does not of necessity reflect the version encountered in another country. A bistro in America can appear as anything from a small intimate family owned place to a glossy chain owned by a conglomerate. Even though a similar restaurant in France by definition would be a small restaurant serving moderately priced simple meals in an unpretentious setting.

But never mind. I accept the manufactured tone; at least I do if it’s not too blatant. A place specializing in seafood should have a few fish and seabird type visuals scattered around, assuming they’re tasteful. And if said seafood restaurant is located by the water, so much the better. I can get into the mood they’ve set if the fish is good. Better yet, with a glass of wine in my hand and if bread is good, I am predisposed to like the fish. My favorite fish restaurant, Bluewater Grill, has seasonal menu changes which I like. In the fall it is spiney lobster season for example. Who doesn’t enjoy something that only has a season, that isn’t available at all times? That’s the basic concept behind vacation and holidays, isn’t it?

If not having to cook and having many choices isn’t reason enough to like going out to eat, eating out is fun. There are all kinds of people around that aren’t in your dining room, or if you’re the TV-tray type diner, in your living room. Not in mine, at least. So watching people, the family dynamics, couples conversations, the lively singles groups, is entertaining. How they dress, what they drink, how they focus on one another, or don’t. I’m more fun when I go out to eat. Or at least I think I am which could be the effect of the wine. I sparkle, I introduce conversational gambits, I amuse. I like myself when I’m eating out because I am so “on” which I think is the least a person can do for an occasion.

But mostly, I like eating out because the food is so good. In selecting the restaurant the food is pre-selected of course so I am predisposed to like it. In making a restaurant choice I mostly know what to expect. It’s about the food and/or the experience. Note I put the food first since why would anyone go somewhere for mediocre food? The pizza type meals are those that I count on to always be the same; dependable and good. The finer dining I count on to be good to excellent but not necessarily dependable in the same way. I want new experiences, new choices, but of course expect them to always be good and sometimes I am surprised with how exceptional the dishes turn out. So if I needed another reason, I would say that it’s not possible to be a good cook without eating out – it’s necessary to experience great food to have a knowledgeable viewpoint As if I needed another reason.

On weekends we invariably will cook in one night, usually but not always me, and go out one night, usually but not always on Sunday night. This weekend was no exception.
Sunday evening we went to one of my favorite places, Sage on the Coast, which is, appropriately, on the Coast at Crystal Cove. It is one of those places I have enough familiarity with that I have a sense of expectation when we go there. Perversely I want the things I have had in the past that I enjoyed so much, like the risotto cakes or fig and gorgonzola pizza appetizer. But the disappointing and great thing about Sage is they have a seasonal menu so there are always new things to try and experience; rendering the familiar as things of the past. Sad when I have my taster set for gorgonzola pizza but I know that whatever they do have will reflect the currently available stuff at the farmers market, done up in new and interesting ways. Their lovely patio and atmosphere makes extra worthwhile. Sadly, while there we spoke with chef Rich Mead who told us they will be going away and the location will be operated as a different restaurant. Bummer for us fans but fortunately Sage in Eastbluff will still be open. Not on the coast but still Rich mead’s lovely food and close by. And, there is a patio there too.

My Saturday night home cooking selection was a fennel and tomato gratin that I have had in my repertoire for a number of years. I originally tried it as a side dish for the big family thanksgiving feast, only to find that its lightness and originality, which was its charm for me, was not appreciated by most. Still, we like it. I think it would make a good chunky sauce mixed with a penne pasta or like I did this time, as a side for baked fish. However I did discover why I don’t make it that often – there’s a lot of cutting up of the fennel, which is required so as not to have big chunks. Other than that it’s an easy recipe and tastes really good too.

Gratin of Fennel and tomatoes

3/4 cup dried bread crumbs
5 Tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large yellow onion (about 12 oz), halved, and cut into 1/4-inch slices
6 fennel bulbs, trimmed of stalks, halved, cored, and cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 can (28 oz) diced tomatoes, drained
1 tsp kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano
Minced zest of 1 lemon

In an 8-inch skillet over medium-high heat, toast the bread crumbs, stirring constantly, until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Set aside to cool.
In a 12-inch sauté pan, heat the oil over medium heat, and swirl to coat the pan. Sauté the garlic and onion until soft, but not brown, about 3 minutes. Add the fennel and continue sautéing, stirring frequently, until the fennel has softened and is beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, salt, and pepper to taste. Lower the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes longer. Transfer to a shallow oven-to-table casserole or gratin dish.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine the bread crumbs, Parmesan, and lemon zest. Sprinkle evenly over the fennel mixture. (The gratin can be made up to this point 6 to 8 hours ahead. Cover, and set aside at room temperature.)
Bake the gratin until heated through and the topping is crisp, about 30 minutes. Serve hot.
Serves 10
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