A recent email from Roy Carter, asking about where he could find decent croutons, got me thinking. He says every box of croutons he's ever bought tastes like cardboard. And while I've never munched on a cardboard box, I could totally empathize. I've never found store-bought croutons that were any good.
When left off a salad, they are rarely missed. But when added and not good, they are easily pushed aside in favor of enjoying the salad sans croutons. However, when they're good, they enhance the flavor and texture and add a definite wow factor to any lettuce blend. So my best advice is to make them yourself.
Susan Moses, executive chef at 212 Market, says the most important thing to remember is to not use fresh bread. Day-old, crusty bread is best, she says. And not just any bread will work. French bread is a good bet. For more flavor, you might try whole wheat, focaccia or bread with herbs added, such as an olive-rosemary loaf, all of which have more body than traditional sandwich bread, making them good candidates for croutons, she says.
If you use an unflavored bread, Moses says fennel, thyme, oregano, parsley and garlic are good on croutons and can be added before baking them. "Really, it is up to your own taste," she says.
The jury is out on whether to fry or bake croutons. Both are equally good, though Moses says she usually bakes hers.
Croutons can be used in a variety of ways, in stuffings, as toppers for soups or anywhere you need a little crunch. But they're best in a summer salad with homegrown tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables from your garden. Whatever croutons you have left over are good for snacking, or put them in a food processor and turn them into breadcrumbs to top your summer squash casseroles; whatever herbs you've used for seasoning will add to the flavor.
So here is my favorite way to make croutons. As Moses mentions, add whatever herbs you want for more flavor than simple garlic croutons. I hope this will satisfy Carter's request. If you know where to buy good croutons already made, let me know and I'll pass along the information.
About 15 slices day-old French bread
1/2 cup olive oil or melted butter
2 teaspoons garlic salt
Cut bread into cubes. Stir garlic salt into melted butter or olive oil and pour into a large bag. Add bread cubes to bag and shake to coat. Spread bread cubes on baking sheet and 350 degrees until golden brown. You may want to stir them halfway through cooking to brown on all sides. Let cool and store in covered container or resealable bag. These will last for about a week -- if you don't eat them all at once.
Firebirds Wood Fired Grill is the latest restaurant to open in the Hamilton Place neighborhood. If you haven't had a chance to try it, I recommend the Bleu Cheese Filet. For starters, it's fork-tender, and mine was cooked to medium-pink perfection. Add a very generous helping of incredible port mushrooms and, of course, some sharp bleu cheese sauce, and you have one of the best steaks on the menu. At $30.25 it's not the kind of meal I can afford on a regular basis, but for special occasions ... Firebirds is located at 2107 Gunbarrel Road.
Lakeshore Grille has recently opened at 5600 Lake Resort Terrace. It's a beautiful restaurant that offers one of the best views on the lake. Its decor is outstanding, with huge windows that bring the outside in. It's nice enough for a romantic dinner but is family friendly, too, with a large outside deck for al fresco dining. As for the food, we had the surf and turf, but it was a disappointing selection. The sirloin steak was thin and overcooked, while the surf part was simply four medium-sized shrimp placed on top of the meat. The carrots that came with it were undercooked. At $24, the meal was overpriced. That said, our appetizer was delicious, a stack of fried green tomatoes which were separated by whole leaves of basil and generous dollops of goat cheese. It was a terrific take on a Southern favorite.
And while on the subject of steaks, I received an email from Applebee's spokeswoman Maggie Miller after she read a column I wrote about Vidalia onions. She was letting me know about Applebee's new Grilled Vidalia Onion Sirloin, the first time Applebee's has used Vidalias on its menu, according to the news release she added to the email. The steak is a 7-ounce sirloin, topped with a grilled and caramelized slice of sweet Vidalia onion, with garlicky spinach and smashed and crisped red-skinned potatoes in a warm, sweet-and-spicy Hawaiian barbecue sauce. The steak will be served through mid-August.
While all of the above-mentioned restaurants offer free parking, diners at Easy Bistro have had to drive around town looking for a parking space. Now the restaurant, located at 203 Broad St., is offering free valet parking. Easy's hours are 5-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 5-9 p.m. Sunday.
Lastly, there's a new chef at the historic Sheraton Read House. Bill Thompson has created a new sauce menu for steak toppings at the hotel's Porter's Steakhouse. There's nothing like a Porter's dry-aged steak, such as the 28-ounce Porterhouse Steak or the 16-ounce ribeye, topped with truffle butter or perhaps bacon-garlic confit. What about the 16-ounce New York Strip with classic Bernaise? There's all that and more. Check out the new menu next time you're downtown and craving a good steak.
Contact Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org.