Celebrate Mediterranean food with Birmingham Les Dames d’Escoffier

The Birmingham Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international organization that supports professional women in food & hospitality, is coming to Pepper Place Market every week in September to spotlight some of Birmingham’s female culinary superstars.

This week, we’re celebrating women food leaders who keep us connected to our culinary roots in the Mediterranean.

Quite a few members of Les Dames do this, and they’ll be at a tent in the Walk-Thru Market on Saturday, September 12 from 7 a.m. to noon.

Here’s some of what you can expect to find: Dame Kathy Mezrano (Kathy G. & Co.) will be bringing her stuffed grape leaves. Dame Sherron Goldstein of Fresh Fields Cooking School will have veggie couscous to go, along with her cookbook. Dame Stacey Craig will bring cheesecake baklava from The Bright Star, and copies of The Bright Star cookbook, too. Dame Sonthe Burge will bring Greek salads, tapenade, taziki and koulourakia (those addictive Greek butter cookies).

You can pre-order Italian dishes of all sorts from Dame Linda Croley (Bare Naked Noodles) in the Drive-Thru Market, or pick up some of her dried homemade pasta at the Dames’ tent. Also in the Drive-Thru, you can pre-order an array of authentic savory and sweet Greek specialties from The Greek Kouzina. Wow!

Meanwhile, my fellow Dames and I will be at our tent all morning Saturday, answering questions and celebrating how truly international our cooking heritage is–right here in Birmingham, Alabama.

Turning Over a New Leaf

When most restaurants right now are tweaking their business models to simply remain viable during a pandemic, one Indian restaurant in Birmingham is off to a fresh, new start. 

The new Bay Leaf, rebranded and reimagined, used to be Bayleaf Authentic Indian Cuisine. The Highway 280 location opened in 2014; they expanded to Five Points South in 2019. Now it’s Bay Leaf Modern Indian Cuisine & Bar. It’s still plenty authentic, but there’s a European-trained Indian chef running these kitchens, and he’s pretty inventive and not at all shy about putting his own spin on traditional dishes. 

Executive Chef Pritam Zarapkar (known as Chef Z) says, “I love to play with food! I experiment a lot and sometimes come up with a new product—trying to get myself better every time. … I don’t want to call myself the best. I’m just a learner. I like to call myself a learner, because life is a learning phase which is … going to go on and go on. And the more you learn, the more knowledgeable you get.” 

Chef Z is a graduate of the Business and Hotel Management School in Luzerne, Switzerland, where he studied Culinary Sciences. With more than 15 years of executive chef experience, he has launched more than a dozen restaurants across Europe and in the United States.  For Bay Leaf, he has teamed up with some local investors and Kiran Chavan, a former owner turned general manager. 

“At Bay Leaf Modern Indian Cuisine, we have given a twist to traditional Indian food,” he says. And because Chef Z has a global view and likes to serve his guests foods he enjoys eating, there are some fusions on the menu, too. “It used to be a regular Indian restaurant, but as I came to Birmingham, I came to know that people here are foodies and they like to spend money on food. They are ready for change … people are adventurous over here.”  

I toured the kitchen with Chef Z for an Alabama NewsCenter story. You can read the entire piece and listen to an interview with Chef Z here.

Chef Z draws inspiration from across the Indian subcontinent, from the northern plains to the southern coast, reflecting India’s varied geography, flavors and culture. He relies upon his knowledge of Indian, French and American cuisines to make foods that are fresh and exciting, offering dishes that feature pure, bright flavors with an emphasis on technique and quality ingredients like halal meats and heady spices imported from India. 

This is Indian fine dining in the neighborhood of Highlands Bar & Grill. In fact, Highlands was one of several places Chef Z’s partners took him to show how much people in Birmingham value delicious authenticity. They also spent time at Chez Fonfon, Automatic Seafood and Oysters and a few other places where Chef Z quickly realized people here appreciate good food and they support their local restaurants. 

He says he’s pleased with the warm welcome he’s gotten in Birmingham. “I am getting good support from all the locals, from all my guests. Everyone around here, they are making … the entire Bay Leaf team feel special, and … that makes me proud. That’s really a nice and positive encouragement for us.”

Inside the comfortably fancy Five Points location, which reopened mid-June, a chic, mirrored bar sparkles across the room from an original textured wall that indicates this building has some history. Soft lighting illuminates a large, colorful mural that depicts the diversity of India—the regions, religion, culture, art, clothes and people. It’s a fitting backdrop for a fragrant and spicy curated trip across the subcontinent.

There are traditional Indian favorites such as tikka masalas; tangy kababs; and smoky, clay oven-cooked tandoori chicken as well as modern, signature dishes like raspberry paneer tikka and tangy, slow-cooked, tamarind-glazed beef short ribs. There’s also a desi burger made with lamb cooked in the clay oven and served on a naan bun. You might want to start with some street food-style “chaats” (small snacks). The gol gappa shots, semolina puffs filled with black garbanzo, potato and mint-cilantro water, can be spiked with vodka if you want. The samosa duo is a traditional Indian snack with a savory filling of potatoes, onions and peas. The street dosa—rice and lentil crepes stuffed with vegetables—comes with a coconut chutney and lentil curry. 

The main menu features a variety of traditional Indian curries:  a rich and creamy tomato-based tikka masala; korma with a mild mix of spices, cashews and yogurt; and a spicy, slow-braised vindaloo, which is a Goan curry of lamb, goat or beef with potatoes. There’s also a saag curry made with baby spinach, fenugreek and other Indian greens. Soak up every bit of gravy with pillowy rounds of butter-drenched naan.

Chef Z’s training and global experience shine in some of his favorite recipes. The aromatic, coconut milk-based shrimp moilee is a curry from southern India. The lamb lal maas, from the deserts of Rajasthan, features savory, tender braised lamb in a fragrant, deeply red sauce that gets all its color from dried chilies. 

Even the cocktails are lovely and exciting.

Birmingham native Kayla Goodall is the lead bartender, mixing signature cocktails like the Paan Old Fashioned with Indian gulkand sugars muddled with rye whiskey and bitters, garnished with a twist of citrus rind, a maraschino cherry and a large betel leaf. There’s a chai-tini that combines Indian chai tea with vodka, a splash of ginger liqueurs and a garnish of nutmeg. The Cardamom French 75 is a tasty, spice-forward drink made with cardamom, cognac, champagne and lime juice. 

Because Chef Z’s partners are doctors, there are careful COVID-19 protections in place here, and extra attention has gone into the in-person, dining room experience. There’s no-touch digital ordering with QR code scanning (disposable menus are available for diners who prefer those). Tables are purposefully spaced apart for social distancing. The staff members (wearing protective gear, of course) are trained in proper preventive techniques by healthcare professionals. The space is regularly cleaned and sanitized throughout the day—morning, afternoon and evening. And there’s lots of hand sanitizer—in fact, there’s a big bottle on every table. All that’s reassuring, allowing diners to come back to a dining room and experience some semblance of normality.

Chef Z says, “We need to give something good to people because a lot of people are still wanting to go out.” And he’s proud of his team for helping make that possible.

“My team is making everything successful,” he says. “They’re doing that. They’re doing a lot of hard work—my kitchen team, my servers, my bartenders—everybody who’s associated with Bay Leaf. I’m proud of all of them … because they are my roots at this point, and they are making us successful.”

Bay Leaf Modern Indian Cuisine & Bar

bayleaf@thespicelibrary.com

https://www.bayleafbham.com

Five Points South location

1024 20th St. S. Unit 101

Birmingham, AL 35205

205-777-3070

Lunch served daily 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Dinner served Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.

Valet parking available

Highway 280 location

5426 Highway 280, Suite 14

Birmingham, AL 35242

 205-518-0208

Lunch served Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Dinner served 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday and weeknights and until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Monday.

Reservations strongly suggested.

Still Serving: Crestline Bagel Co.

We’ve been baking bread here at my house. Well, my husband has been baking bread, and I’ve been really enjoying it. Here’s my blog post with the tried-and-true, no-knead, made-in-a-cast-iron-dutch-oven recipe. The original recipe is from Sullivan Street Bakery.

But one bread we always buy: bagels. We just can’t do them like my friend Jennifer Yarbrough and her teams at Crestline Bagel, so we don’t even try.

Luckily Crestline Bagel is still serving during this current crisis.

The downtown location is temporarily closed, but the Mountain Brook and Cahaba Heights stores are open 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. seven days a week.

Photo by Jennifer Yarbrough.

They are doing delivery through UberEats and Waitr. Or you can order online for curbside and takeout at Crestlinebagel.com.

So my go-to whole wheat everything with honey-walnut cream cheese–the perfect mix of savory and sweet, creamy and crunchy-remains something to enjoy.

And I’m truly grateful for that.

My Favorite (Game-Changing) Hair Tool

My older daughter told me about the Revlon One-Step Hair Dryer and Volumizer Hot Air Brush when I was recovering from shoulder surgery recently. Blowouts at Blo Blow Dry Bar in Homewood were awesome (love that head massage!) but I couldn’t do that every week.

But even with very limited range of motion (happy to say I’m better now!), I was able to use this brush-dryer combo to get smooth and sleek, yet still full, results. It really is an amazing product.

And now that most of us are spending more time at home anyway, this is a good item to have on hand.

While I’m all about supporting local stores, most are not open now so you can order it from Amazon here.

But when all this is over, I encourage you to visit my friends at Blo. They do a really great job and it’s such a treat!

Three-Minute (at Most!) Bathroom Update

The ’80s called, and they want their crystal faucet knobs back.

Especially this one with its off-kilter label.

Here’s my new rule:  I’m going to tackle at least one update each month around my house. And once a year, I’m going to take the “Swedish Death Cleaning” approach to my space (especially my closet). This is where you clean and organize like there’s no tomorrow. Really no tomorrow. The idea is to go ahead and clear out all the (often needless) stuff you’ve accumulated over the years so loved ones don’t have to do it after you’re gone. Think of it as the ultimate consideration.

Margareta Magnusson explains it in her book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter.”

On a less morbid note–and also once a year–I’m going to consider what I would change/update/replace/repair/ditch if I were going to sell my house tomorrow and have it be as nice as possible. Why wait? Why do those awesome things for someone else?

It’s OK to start small. Take a look at your space, and see what bugs you. Maybe it’s a paint color. Maybe it’s some hardware. Maybe it’s an easy fix.

So last Saturday, I made two trips to Home Depot and got replacement knobs for our old bathroom faucets. Two trips were necessary because I first bought the “universal” versions. Do not do that. Go ahead and get replacement parts specific to your brand. In our case, it was Delta.

The chrome knobs came with everything we needed to make a big difference with very little time and money. We (OK, my husband, Rick) popped off the old knobs and slipped the shiny new ones in place using the Allen wrench included in the package.

Voila! A happy bathroom!

 

Dinner at My House: Black Bean Chorizo Casserole with Pickled Onions

When my family requests something specific for dinner, I almost always comply. Cooking for my husband and kids is one of my favorite ways of showing how much I love them. Sometimes, though, the requests are bigger than other times.

Melissa Clark‘s Black Bean Chorizo Casserole with Pickled Onions is a big ask.

This recipe, from the New York Times Cooking site, involves multiple steps–the first being the shopping. That’s not entirely a chore because it takes me to Mi Pueblo, which is always a treat. (See my blog post about the delights of shopping there.) This recipe also involves a trip to The Fresh Market for the cured (cooked) chorizo (do not substitute!). But then, with the shopping done, there are several steps to this recipe and it can take a while to make.

It’s worth it though. The sauce especially, made with fruity, smoky dried pasilla peppers, takes this Mexican casserole to a whole new level.

You can get your ingredients ready early and then assemble this casserole and cook it later in the day. The best thing (other than the incredible textures and flavors):  There are usually lots of leftovers, and this dish is even better the next day.

Black Bean Chorizo Casserole with Pickled Onions

INGREDIENTS

1 cup Mexican crema, crème fraîche or sour cream

Zest of 1 lime and 1/4 cup fresh lime juice

1 red onion, halved root to tip and thinly sliced into half moons

2 ¼ teaspoons kosher salt, more as needed

2 ½ teaspoons sugar

2 ounces dried pasilla (also called negro) chiles rinsed, seeded and stemmed (6 to 8 chiles)

6 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 pound cured (cooked) chorizo, finely diced

1 white onion, diced

1 small bunch cilantro, leaves and stems separated

2 teaspoons ground cumin

3 cups cooked or canned black beans, rinsed and drained

4 cups chicken stock

8 garlic cloves, unpeeled

12 6-inch corn tortillas

12 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, grated (3 cups)

½ cup roasted pumpkin seeds (optional)

PREPARATION

  1. Make the lime crema: In a small bowl, whisk together sour cream and lime zest. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
  2. Make the pickled onions: In a separate bowl, combine red onion, lime juice, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon sugar. Let the onion pickle at room temperature for at least 1 hour.
  3. Meanwhile, toast the chiles for the sauce: Heat a very large skillet (or use a Dutch oven) over medium-high heat until hot. Lay chiles flat in skillet and toast until fragrant and pliable and color darkens, 10 to 15 seconds a side; do not let them burn and turn bitter. Transfer chiles to a large bowl, cover with hot water and let stand 30 minutes. Wipe out skillet.
  4. Make the bean-chorizo mixture: While chiles soak, heat 2 tablespoons oil in the skillet over medium-high heat. Add chorizo and cook until golden, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate.
  5. Stir white onion into skillet and cook until softened, about 7 minutes. Finely chop 1/4 cup cilantro stems and add to pan, along with cumin. Cook 1 minute.
  6. Return chorizo to pan. Stir in beans, 1 cup stock and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Bring to a simmer; reduce heat to medium-low and cook gently 10 minutes. Taste and add more salt if needed.
  7. Make the chile sauce: Heat broiler. Place garlic cloves (in skins) on a baking sheet. Broil, turning once, until very tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Peel garlic when cool enough to handle.
  8. Drain chiles and place in a blender or food processor. Add peeled garlic and 2 cups stock. Purée until smooth.
  9. Heat 4 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chile purée and simmer vigorously, stirring often, for 5 minutes or until sauce has thickened. Be careful, and do not let it burn! Add remaining 1 cup stock, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer gently, stirring often, until sauce reduces to 1 1/2 cups, about 25 minutes. Stir in remaining 2 teaspoons sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt and remove from heat.
  10. Assemble the casserole: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spread a quarter of the chile sauce over bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Place a layer of 6 overlapping tortillas on top of the sauce, followed by another layer of sauce, half the bean mixture and half the cheese. Cover with another layer of 6 tortillas, a layer of sauce, remaining bean mixture and remaining cheese. Spoon remaining sauce on top. Cover pan tightly and bake 20 minutes. Uncover and continue baking until casserole is bubbly around edges and cheese is melted, 20 minutes more.
  11. Let casserole rest 10 minutes, then serve topped with dollops of lime crema, some pickled onion, pumpkin seeds and cilantro leaves.