This is the latest in a series in which we ask a chef in the Triangle to suggest the menu for an elegant dinner for two, spending just $20.
It's summertime and the local produce abundant. Head chef David Mitchell of Porter's City Tavern in Raleigh is getting to know some of the Carolina farmers who deliver their fresh vegetables to Porter's parent restaurant, Frazier's. A believer in tailoring the urban bistro menu to what's in season and locally grown, Mitchell is gradually revamping it to reflect his belief in straightforward, homestyle food with a city edge and the lightness of nouvelle American cuisine--all of it made from scratch. By the end of summer, Mitchell will have mostly new choices available on his lunch and dinner menus, including an expansion of vegetarian starters and entrees.
Almost three years old, Porter's City Tavern is a perfect neighborhood restaurant, reminding one of the home-away-from-home feeling of a French country town café reinvented to cater to sophisticated, well-traveled palates. You won't find chintz or lace curtains here, but you will enjoy the cool, cave-like colors, soft lighting, wood tables and floors, and a brassy bar that create the intimate atmosphere. The elegant patio facing Hillsborough Street is a great place to catch the late afternoon sun and have a drink, an appetizer or an early dinner.
Mitchell, who's been at Porter's since January, comes to the Triangle from Atlanta by way of Johnson-Wales Culinary Institute. He says he hates to write anything down, but agreed to think about it for a bit, then dictate his recipes and "method of operation," as he calls it.
He created two courses: a starter salad of arugula and fresh strawberries followed by tapenade-topped roasted grouper with new potatoes and sautéed yellow squash. He offered an optional, simply assembled dessert (a childhood favorite, one of the first dishes he ever made): ice cream pie. The result was colorful and fresh--succulent small red potatoes, arugula, strawberries, baby squash, very fresh fish from off the coast of South Carolina. The whole meal, excluding the ice cream pie but including wine, took less than an hour to prepare and cost a total of $18.45 ($13.46 for the ingredients, $4.99 for a French white table wine, a Domaine de Montrabech from the Pays D'Oc). You can trade the wine for the ice cream pie, but if you add in the dessert and keep the wine, you may spend a little over $20. Either way, you will enjoy a delicious meal fit for any celebration or relaxing summer evening on the back deck.
Cooking it was quick, enjoyable and uncomplicated; sharing the labor with your fellow diner is even faster, easier and more fun. The order of preparation has a logical flow: new potatoes should go in the oven first while salad and fish are being prepared. When the main course is finished cooking, it will wait while the salad is being eaten and still be plenty warm; the combination is even better a little closer to room temperature rather tongue-burning hot.
For those who don't often buy tapenade, Harris Teeter's HT Traders brand in either green olive/red pepper or black olive at $3.49 per 10 oz. jar is a good choice. Mitchell also includes his recipe, so you can make your own to keep around for its many uses, but the components for this go beyond the $20 boundary.
Arugula and Strawberry Salad
Fresh arugula, 2 oz. per person ($1.98)
Fresh sliced strawberries, a cup (unsliced) per person ($.50 on special)
Goat cheese, 1 oz. crumbled per person ($1.98)
Red onion, a few slivers per person ($.50)
1/2 cup unsliced strawberries ($0.25)
Garlic $.25 (cloves left over)
Arrange the greens on a salad plate. Top with the sliced berries. In a blender or food processor, make the vinaigrette by combining the 1/2 cup strawberries, 2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar, 1/2 tablespoon honey, 1 teaspoon minced garlic. When these are blended, pour, with the machine running, 1/3 cup canola or other vegetable oil (not olive) into the mixture until its an opaque pink.
Two 1/4 pound, 1 1/2-inch thick grouper filets ($6.98)
Green olive and red pepper tapenade, 2 oz. per person ($1.34)
Salt and pepper the fish. On the stovetop, preheat to medium high an ovenproof pan with a thin layer of olive oil. When the pan sizzles, sear the fish for 2 minutes and then, without flipping, put the pan into the oven (next to the potatoes) and roast at 450 degrees for 5-6 minutes. This method seals in the juices wonderfully because they are not lost in the flipping. The top may look a little translucent as the fish oils bubble up, but this is covered by the tapenade when served.
Roasted New Potatoes
Pint of very small new potatoes ($1), cleaned, halved and tossed with olive oil, pepper and salt. Roast at 450 degrees for 20 minutes while the rest of the meal is being prepared.
Sautéed Yellow Squash
Two slender, young squash ($.65)
Wash and slice into slim discs, half moon if you like. Mince one of the leftover garlic cloves, put into a pan with a little olive oil, heating until the point of fragrance. Add the squash and sauté gently until golden brown on one side, then flip and brown the other side for no more than 10 minutes total. Sprinkle lightly with oregano (fresh from a pot on your window sill is absolutely best, but good-quality dried from your pantry will do).
Chef Davids Tapenade
Makes one cup
3/4 of your favorite olives, pitted
2-3 cloves roasted garlic
3 tablespoons good quality olive oil
1 small shallot, minced
1 tablespoon fresh herbs (chives and parsley work well)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Optional: 1 anchovy or 1 teaspoon paste and/or 1 tablespoon capers
Pulse all ingredients except for shallots in a food processor until finely blended but not mushy. Fold in shallots. Spoon into a jar and refrigerate.
Ice Cream Pie
Tart-sized individual chocolate cookie or graham cracker prepared pie crusts
1/2 pint good quality ice cream, your favorite flavor
Candy bar of your choice chopped into 1/2 inch bits
Chocolate or butterscotch sauce (if desired) for drizzling on top
This one is so easy it is hard to beat. Soften the ice cream, stir in the candy bar, divide between the two tart shells, and refreeze. Done at the beginning of meal preparation, it should refreeze perfectly by dessert time. This is a wonderful, simple dessert to do with kids. (If you want a full-size pie to serve six, use 6 cups ice cream, 3 candy bars, and a 9-inch pie shell).