Dinner at Empire State South

Restaurant reviews are something that went out the window a looong time ago around here. I posted a few at the beginning and then realized that I strongly disliked writing reviews. I just wanted to enjoy my meal, not sweat the poor lighting for photos and hour long write up upon my return home. Non merci.

Plus, with two little children added to our family, our restaurant outings have slowed to a crawl. It’s not exactly like I stay on top of the local restaurant scene. And I don’t pretend to.

This past weekend, however, offered the chance for a dinner out on the town – in humid Atlanta, Georgia. Danny and I were in town for a mini second honeymoon and the Blogher Food conference – of course we wanted to eat Atlanta while we had the opportunity.

You can read my full BHF’11 recap on Simple Bites -I had a marvelous time- but over here we’re going to talk about dinner.

Danny & Shaina

The destination? Empire State South. A Canadian chef’s modern take on Southern food, served up in style, with plenty of love.

ESS proudly considers itself a farm-to-table restaurant, which reminded me a lot of our own Toque! and the scads of in-house charcuterie bordered on Au Pied du Cochon’s style.

Needless to say, I felt quite at home at Empire State South.

My dining companions? Eight fabulous rock-star food bloggers. You just may recognize a few names here: Alice & her husband Rob, Sandy, Carrie, Amanda, Tara, Jenny, Lori, Shaina.
Along with Danny and I, we invaded the small-ish Empire State South and proceeded to order half the menu.

Thanks to Amanda, I’ve got food photos from the meal. I was too busy gabbing with the girls to work the camera and was happy to hand it over to the competent Amanda.

Amanda’s first oyster! This ain’t no New York cupcake – The girl is fearless.

Carrie & Jenny

Soft Poached Farm Egg anson mills grits, maitake, baby celery.

Strawberry Gazpacho, pickled shrimp, asparagus, marcona almonds.

Ramp Orecchiette, carrot puree, carrots, english peas, squash and benne.

Roasted Grouper, pea broth, young zucchini.

There are no photos of desserts to speak of, save this one, snapped with my iPhone.

We ordered eight plates, but they disappeared so fast. I was sitting next to Amanda and I don’t know anyone who loves sweets more that that girl!

I knew that if I wanted a fighting chance at tasting dessert, I had to put the camera down. And so I did.

Alice, myself, Amanda

We sampled:

  • Coconut Cream Pie, almond brittle,
  • Fried strawberry pie, pickled strawberry, buttermilk ice cream
  • Coke soft serve ice cream, peanut funnel cake (pictured above)
  • Grasshopper Terrine, candied chocolate mint

Shaina and I have since been fantasizing over the strawberry pies.I think she’s going to have a recipe coming soon. Hopefully just in time for our strawberry season.

Shaina & Lori

Consensus? We loved Empire State South. The entire evening was surreal. Fantastic food. Brilliant company. Inspiring conversation. I think it lasted about three hours, and is definitely going in the books as one of my most memorable dining experiences.

What’s for Dinner? Risotto, step-by-step.

Pantry meals have been saving the day around here as recent snowstorms (and a good dose of laziness) have kept us from venturing out to the market. We’ve covered comfort foods from the pantry such as pancakes with homemade syrup, as well as winter pizza, and today I’m sharing another staple: risotto.

Chicken stock in the freezer, butter and cheese in the fridge, and rice, onions, and vermouth in the pantry, this is one dish I always have all the components for. And on blustery February days, risotto is the perfect one-pot dinner to stir together.

Add-ins always vary based on what I have or don’t have on hand. Frozen peas make a frequent appearance, as do leeks, butternut squash, and the occasional handful of dehydrated morel mushrooms. My mother brings me a few jars every time she visits; they’ve been picked from her Northern BC acreage and are truly a taste of home.

Basic Risotto, with a few favorite add-ins.

Recipes, methods and ingredients all vary for risotto, and I won’t go all Gordon Ramsay on you and curse if you don’t make risotto exactly my way. I would give you a warm squeeze, however, and encourage you to try my recipe, down to the last drop of vermouth.

It’s bloody good.

Staple Ingredients:

  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 4 Tablespoons butter
  • 1 medium red onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
  • 1/4 cup vermouth, or white wine
  • 1.5 litres (6 cups) chicken stock
  • 1 cup Parmesan, freshly grated
  • salt and pepper


  • 1 cup dried morel mushrooms
  • 1 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1/2 cup frozen peas


  • Grate Parmesan cheese.
  • Finely chop red onion.
  • Heat chicken stock to a simmer and locate a ladle.
  • Pour a bit of hot stock over morels and let stand 10 minutes. Then drain, reserving the liquid, and set aside. Liquid can be returned to the chicken stock.
  • Rehydrate saffron threads in a little hot stock, if using.


1. In a heavy-bottomed pot, melt 3T of butter and olive oil together over medium heat.

2. When butter is bubbling, add onion and stir to combine. Sauté onions for about ten minutes until soft and translucent. Stir occasionally, and do not allow onions to brown.

3. Add rice all at once and stir thoroughly. You want rice to be completely coated in butter and give each grain a chance to be toasted. This takes about one minute.

4. Add vermouth and stir well. Cook for another minute or two until most of the liquid evaporates.

5. Add several ladlefuls of hot stock to the rice. Be careful, as it will steam viciously. Stir well. Add saffron threads and liquid. Keep heat on medium and continue adding stock slowly and stirring thoroughly. Risotto will take about 15 minutes to cook. You may need more liquid, in which case, just add more hot water.

6. Taste risotto grains as you go along. When they are tender, but still with a slight bite to them, you can add the rest of the ingredients. Stir in morel mushrooms and most of the Parmesan. Stir gently to combine. Do NOT over stir, as risotto will become gummy instead of creamy.

7. Taste risotto and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper as needed. This is important to do after the cheese has been added, as it will contribute significantly to the saltiness of the dish.

8. Finish risotto with the last tablespoon of butter. Transfer to a serving bowl, if using, and top with remaining Parmesan. Dig in with a spoon and enjoy.

Food for thought: Meals for others

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about cooking for others and the meaning behind the action. I don’t mean carving up a roast chicken for dinner guests around your table (although that also has its qualities), but meals that are made with care and delivered to someone in need.

It could be someone…

~ in bereavement
~ going through a divorce
~ caring for a new baby
~ moving house
~ fighting in court
~ ill or caring for the ill
~ on bed rest
~ out of work
~ overworked
~ writing exams
~ getting married
~ caring for a special needs family member
~ fighting a long term illness
~ in financial crisis

Think about it. Do you know anyone who is struggling with one of these life situations right now? I know I do. In fact, there are dishes rattling around in my trunk frequently because I’m often making a drop-off.

They say actions speak louder than words.

Two weeks after Mateo was born, I was hit with a nasty post-op infection and ordered to be on bed-rest. Yeah right. I had a two and a half-year-old and a newborn to care for.

Dear friends and neighbors came by with boxes of food, kind wishes and prayers; that sustained us during a particularly rough patch. The fact that they eliminated the need to cook allowed to me spend more time obeying the doctors orders.

Here’s what I wrote about receiving an apple cake :

“After the hospital food (which I barely survived), the cake tasted like the best thing I had ever eaten. I’ll never forget standing in my kitchen with Danny, eating it straight from the pan. It was as though we knew everything was going to be okay now. We have this cake.”

We could have brought home newborn triplets, and I would have felt fully equipped.”

There’s a lot to be said for the benefits of good, home cooked food when you are emotionally and physically low on reserves.

Have you ever received a meal during a difficult time from a well-meaning friend? How did it make you feel?

Have you ever brought a meal to someone in need? Cookies? How was it received?

I’m curious to know if this happens regularly. Please chime in and leave your thoughts.

How to Host a Pizza Party

1. Decide to throw a party. If it happens to be your little sister’s twenty-fifth birthday, so be it.

2. Invite friends who like pizza. (Warning: pretty much everyone does, so plan for a houseful.)

3. Make a big bowl of Honey Pizza Dough. OK, make that a GINORMOUS bowl. Don’t worry, you can always freeze the leftovers. (I think I did 8 batches)

4. Roast a several pounds of Roma tomatoes for Roasted Tomato & Garlic Pizza Sauce. This stuff is so good, you almost don’t need any pizza toppings. Almost.

5. Rock as many or as few pizza toppings as you like. (See suggestions below. I went with ‘many’, as you’ll see.)

6. Set up a station for roll/tossing/stretching pizza dough. Find all the pie pans in the house. Provide parchment paper, scissors, olive oil and a rolling pin or two.

7. Preheat the oven to crazy-hot. Like 450 degrees. Invite guests to shape their pizzas.

8. Snap some photos. Sigh. Wish you were twenty-five again. Pour a glass of wine.

9. Set out the prepared pizza toppings. Pictured above: diced sauteed bacon, sliced grilled chicken breast, baby shrimp, broccoli, pepperoni.

Toppings II: sauteed zucchini, diced feta, sauteed leeks, cherry tomatoes, sliced Vidalia onions.
And more toppings…diced colored peppers, Capicola, diced tomatoes, artichoke hearts, black olives, mushrooms, apples, pears, Gouda, oven-roasted tomatoes.

10. Encourage guests to create their own pizzas.

11. Get creative. Half pesto, half roasted tomato sauce…

…finished with shrimp, red onion, mozzarella and colored peppers on the pesto, and sauteed leeks, apples and Gouda on the tomato sauce. A.Ma.Zing.

12. Do not laugh at ‘stuffed crust’ attempts. Even if you think that looks like a lot of crust.

13. OK, go ahead and laugh.

14. Eat pizza, pour more wine. Laugh a lot.

15. Berate your friends for not eating more. Attempt to make up for it with another slice or three.

Meatless Monday: Coconut Rice & Beans (but so much more than that)

I wish I could form one or two well-written paragraphs about how our eating habits are changing here at UtHC. I keep procrastinating over writing anything because I don’t know where to start and there’s so much I want to say, but not enough time to devote to this space.

If I had a quiet afternoon to write, I would begin by filling you in on how our family table (and pantry, fridge, etc…) has slowly been evolving into more nourishing food, even though the rare (we’re talking twice in 8 years) appearance of glazed doughnut would make it look otherwise.

In those paragraphs, I would paraphrase the many conversations Danny and I have had over what we put into our bodies, feed our kids, and the small, but steady steps we are taking to improve our families diet.

I would aptly summarize my myriade of thoughts after watching programs like Food, Inc. and Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food, conveying my ragged emotions after each one finished, (cried myself to sleep after Food, Inc, no joke) and my square-shouldered determination to DO something. For myself, for my family, for my community.

(Oh, not to mention this book club with the enlightening and deeply disturbing-yet-inspiring, In Defense of Food. There would be a pretty long rant about the state of our grocery stores these days.)

Then, if anyone besides my mother was still reading*, I would formulate a moving conclusion to my post by sharing some of the steps we are taking to eat more nourishing, real, food, as well as daily making choices with our fork to help change our sadly derailed food system.

Things like Meatless Monday.

I brought you The Beef Chronicles** which honored (and rightly so) the locally raised, grass-fed Angus, and now I’m swinging the pendulum and introducing a new series called Meatless Mondays.

You can call it contradictory OR balanced, either way I’m still going to be eating one more vegetarian meal a week, so it doesn’t really matter. Why says you can’t have a meat-lovers series and a vegetables series on the same blog anyway? (OK, so it’s a little confusing.)

I’m going to try my darnedest to share the dishes with you every week, which may end up being every second week… I think we all know that the new baby gets all the attention–and there’s not a lot of leftover time for older siblings.
I’m aiming for a Sunday posting, so you can add the recipe to your weekly menu plan.

We’ll see how it goes.

OK, about this weeks recipe. We enjoyed it, but then again anything with a cumin/lime/cilantro combination, I pretty much flip over. Add toasted coconut and mango, and it gets added to our regular repertoire stat.

You know what the thing is about this recipe, besides the brilliant flavor profile, of course, it that it is CHEAP. Plus most items are pantry stapes, making it a good choice when the fridge is bare.

Give it a try. Give Meatless Monday a try. Be a part of the solution***.

Coconut Rice & Beans
adapted from this recipe, originally found in Southern Living.

1 cup sweetened flaked coconut
1 cup chicken broth
3/4 cup coconut milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons butter, divided
1 1/4 cups uncooked basmati rice
1 small onion, chopped
1 (15-oz.) can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 can black eyed beans, drained and rinsed
1 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 red pepper, chopped (optional)
1 lime
2 green onions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Toppings: lime wedges, diced mango, sour cream, cilantro, green onion.

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Bake coconut in a single layer on a baking sheet 8 to 10 minutes or until toasted. Cool.
2. Bring broth, coconut milk, salt & pepper, 2 Tbsp. butter, and 1 cup water to a boil in a 2-qt. saucepan. Stir in rice. Cover, reduce heat to low, and cook 15 to 20 minutes or until rice is tender and water is absorbed.

3. Meanwhile, melt remaining 1 Tbsp. butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat; add onion and sauté 5 minutes or until tender. Stir in beans, chili powder, cumin, and 3/4 cup water. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, 15 minutes.
4. Grate zest from lime, avoiding pale bitter pith, into a bowl; squeeze juice from lime into bowl.
5. Fluff rice with a fork. Fold lime zest and juice, coconut, green onions, and cilantro into hot cooked rice. Serve bean mixture over rice with desired toppings.

*My mother doesn’t read. That’s right, you heard me correctly. It’s kind of hard to when you don’t have the Internet. I’d like to see you try.

** The Beef Chronicles are alive and well, on our table, anyway, if not on this blog. We ordered another half-cow, having plowed through all 120-plus pounds of Angus over the winter. It’s currently at the butcher, getting divided up into future ossobuco and roast beef dinners.

***Meatless Monday: a worldwide movement to reduce consumption of animal products in favour of more plant-based meals to fight global warming and improve personal health.