Sunday, December 09, 2007

Cooking with Tom and Suzanne... Spiced Pork Stew and Chocolate Bouchons

Suzanne Goin Spiced Pork Stew

This past weekend was James' 38th birthday, and to celebrate the occasion we had a few close friends over for the big Mayweather Hatton fight and some casual dinner. James' birthday present this year was a Guitar Hero III for Xbox 360, with the Gibson Les Paul Guitar, so after dinner we rocked out to some tunes by Foghat and Pat Benatar. It's a lot of fun, I have to admit - except for the fact that I now have "Slow Ride" stuck in my head on repeat.

For the food, we put out some Fra' Mani Salametto sausage (available at Taste Cheese in Hillcrest) with fresh mozzarella cheese and bread, goat cheese topped with Frog Hollow Farms Peach Chutney, and a piece of local Winchester gouda (which nobody ate much of, so I had it left over!) I also smeared some foie pate on brioche toast squares and topped them with pomegranate seeds for some canapes, and baked up some of those Trader Joes Feta and Apricot pastries, which are always a huge hit. We had beer and wine available, and as usual we went through more champagne than I thought possible.

The main course was a stew from the Sunday Suppers at Lucques cookbook - Spiced Pork Stew with Polenta and Root Vegetables with Gremolata. It was pretty involved but worth it - the complex flavors in the broth are intense, and the root vegetables and gremolata provide an interesting contrast with the richness of the pork. The vegetables were fairly simple and would be a good addition to any braised dish - even a roast chicken. The stew could also be served over mashed potatoes or grits instead of the polenta.
Pork Stew in the Pot
To make the pork, I browned it in a dutch oven, and added all of the broth ingredients - fennel, carrots, onion, spices and herbs, and braised it for a couple of hours in the oven. I then chilled it down overnight and finished the cooking the next day, with another hour in the oven. I removed the fat from the broth by skimming it off and putting the bowl with the skimmed juices in the freezer - where the fat solidified so I could scoop it out, and put the rest of the juice back in. I really love that chilling overnight trick for getting the grease out of stewed meat dishes and improving their flavor. It also simplifies the day of -preparation quite a bit, since all you have to do is reheat.
Thomas Keller Bouchons
The next day, in lieu of a cake I baked some Bouchons - the signature sweet from Thomas Keller's bakery in NYC and Yountville. I found the recipe online (which apparently had a misprint in it the first time around, calling for half the required amount of sugar) but I noticed that it didn't call for any black cocoa, which I detected in the ones at the bakery. Having planned to try these since I returned from New York - I ordered some black cocoa online from King Arthur Flour Co. and when I baked these, I swapped out half of the regular cocoa. If you've tried this recipe before and it hasn't worked, this is the secret - the result was spot on. Dare I say it - maybe even better than the ones from the bakery. I baked them in little cupcake-sized paper panettone cups, which made for an easy presentation since I didn't even have to take them off. (I found mine at Sur la Table.) You can also make them in a muffin tin or mini popover pan. The ones at the bakery are made in small timbale molds.
I also made some Honeycomb candy - from a Nancy Silverton recipe that appears in her Sandwich cookbook - which I love to look at, but I find most of the recipes impossibly complicated for a casual meal. It's part of a recipe for something called "Blum's Sandwich Cake" - a layered concoction of angelfood cake, whipped cream, hot fudge and honeycomb.
The process is super simple and fast - you cook 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1/4 cup water and 1/4 cup syrup (I used Light Karo, Lyle's Golden Syrup and honey in different permutations) to a boil - around 300 degrees (totally undisturbed) in a heavy saucepan, and stir in 1 tablespoon of baking soda. You whisk that in thoroughly, and dump the whole thing on a silpat lined baking sheet, where it spreads, foams and rises to form the "honeycomb" pattern. It's kind of neat, actually. I have two pieces of advice for you if you're planning to try it though. Actually three. One, turn the heat off as the sugar reaches temperature, so you don't have to worry about it burning. I had some stickage on the bottom of the pan from some slightly burnt sugar on my second try. Two, whisk the baking soda in thoroughly, it will bubble up but it's not done until you swirl it in to dissolve. And three - be very careful with this stuff, because if you drop it on the floor and step on it, your shoes will stick to the floor all over your house for the rest of the day - making little sticky sounds with every step. Not fun.

The first batch was flavored with half Karo and half Lyles Golden Syrup, and came out quite light - the second was Golden Syrup and honey, and came out a bit darker with more flavor - I think I overcooked the syrup on that one for a half second though, so that could account for the color. In any event, it was an interesting experiment and it turns out you don't have to have corn syrup to make honeycomb after all. (Sam, are you listening?? )

I finished up by cooking the root veg and making the gremolata and polenta shortly before serving. If I had it to do over again I might have started those things earlier - but polenta has a tendency to set up as it sits around, so you can't make it too far ahead. You might also be tempted to skip the root vegetables or the gremolata; and of course the pork stew would be great on it's own - but the flavors added by the shallots, the garlic and lemon in these components really do bring the dish to life. In fact, if I really had it to do over again - I'd put a lot less polenta in my bowl - why waste space on that when there's braised pork, buttered vegetables, lemon and garlic to be had?

Here, for your enjoyment - are the recipes as I adapted them.
Sauteed Root Vegetables
Spiced Pork Stew with Polenta, Root Vegetables, and Gremolata
adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin
makes approximately six servings

1 tablespoon cumin
2 tablespoons coriander
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
3 pounds pork shoulder, cut into 1 1/2 to 2 inch chunks
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
6 cloves garlic, smashed
1 tablespoon oregano leaves, plus 3 whole sprigs
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup diced onion
1/4 cup diced carrot
1/4 cup diced fennel
2 bay leaves, fresh if possible
1 chile de arbol, crumbled (I used fresh chile flakes)
1/2 cup white wine
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups good quality beef or veal stock
1 lemon
4 sprigs cilantro
Roasted root vegetables with gremolata (recipe follows)
1 recipe polenta (recipe follows)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper


Toast the fennel seeds a few minutes in a small pan over medium heat, until they release their aroma and are lightly browned. Pound them coarsely in a mortar.

Place the pork in a large bowl with the cumin, coriander, fennel seeds, cayenne, smashed garlic, oregano leaves and thyme. Using your hands, toss the pork and spices together to coat well. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Take the meat out of the refrigerator 45 minutes before cooking. After 15 minutes, season it on all sides with 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons salt and some black pepper. Reserve the garlic and any excess herbs and spices.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Heat a large Dutch oven over high heat for 3 minutes. Pour in the olive oil and wait a minute or two until the pan is very hot and almost smoking. Place the meat in the pan, being careful not to crowd it. (You will most likely need to cook the meat in batches.) Sear the meat until well browned and caramelized on all sides; this will probably take at least 15 minutes. As the batches of meat brown, transfer them to a baking sheet.

Turn the heat down to medium and add the onion, carrot and fennel. Stir with a wooden spoon, scraping up all the tasty crusty bits left in the pan. Stir in the bay leaves, crumbled chile and reserved garlic and spices. Cook 6 to 8 minutes, until the vegetables start to caramelize.

Pour in the wine and reduce by half, about 5 minutes. Add the stock and bring to a boil.

In the meantime, use a vegetable peeler to pull long strips of zest from the lemon.

Turn off the heat, and add the pork to the pot. Tuck the cilantro, oregano sprigs and lemon zest around the meat. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and a tightly fitting lid. (Her recipe says to put plastic wrap under the foil, but I'm leery, especially after reading about incidents like this one. Braise in the oven about 2 hours. Allow to cool, and put the pot in the fridge overnight. The next day, skim the fat off and put the bowl in the freezer - the fat will solidify so you can remove it easily.

Preheat the oven to 325. Put the pot on the stove and bring to a simmer, then put in the oven and braise for another hour.

Turn the oven up to 400 degrees.

Ladle most of the braising juices and vegetables into a strainer set over a saucepan, pressing down on the vegetables with the ladle to extract all the juices. Reserve. Discard the remaining herb sprigs from the braising pan.

Return the pork to the oven for about 15 minutes to caramelize the meat.

If necessary, reduce the broth over medium-high heat about 5 minutes, to thicken it slightly. Taste for seasoning.

Pour the broth over the browned meat and stir to coat well. Transfer the stew to a large warm platter. Scatter the warm gremolata-coated root vegetables over the stew. Serve with the bowl of hot polenta. Tell your guests to spoon the polenta onto their plates and top with pork and vegetables, making sure to get lots of delicious braising juices. (You may need to serve more braising juices on the side if your platter is too shallow to hold them all.)

For the Roasted Root Vegetables with Gremolata

Zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

9 baby or 3 regular carrots, peeled
9 baby or 3 regular parsnips, peeled
9 small or 3 regular turnips
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3-4 branches of thyme
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup 1/4 inch-thick slices shallot
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper


Zest the lemon with a microplane grater, or chop the zest finely. Place the garlic, parsley and lemon zest in a hand chopper and puree. This mixture is called gremolata. Set aside.

Slice the carrots and parsnips in half lengthwise, leaving the stems attached. If they are on the bigger side then slice each half lengthwise again, into long quarters. Clean the turnips, cut off the tails and trim the stems leaving 1/4 inch of the stems. Cut small turnips in halves or quarters; if they're larger, cut them in half and then into 1/2-inch wedges. The root vegetables should be no thicker than half to three quarters of an inch across.

Heat 1 very large, or two regular sized skillets or saute pans over medium heat. Swirl in olive oil and wait 1 minute. Divide the carrots, parsnips and turnips between the pans and season with 1 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper and the thyme. Saute 10 minutes, stirring often, until the vegetables just start to caramelize.

Add the butter and sauté another 5 minutes, tossing them often. Add the shallots and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook another 5 minutes or so, until the shallots and all the vegetables are tender and nicely caramelized. If you're serving dinner soon, turn off the heat and hold them in the pan. Re-warm if necessary.

Toss with the gremolata just before serving.

For the Polenta:

1 cup medium-grain polenta
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
Kosher salt

In a heavy-bottomed pot, bring 5 1/2 cups water and 1 tablespoon salt to boil over high heat. Add the polenta slowly, whisking continuously.

Turn the heat down to low, and continue cooking for another 20 minutes, whisking often.

Add another 1/2 cup water and cook 1 more hour, whisking often and adding 1/2 cup water as needed, about every 20 minutes. The flame should be low, so the polenta is barely simmering. As you whisk, make sure that you reach the bottom of the pan to prevent the polenta from scorching. I like to use a rubber spatula to scrape the bottom and sides of the pot.

Whisk in the butter, and taste for seasoning. Even when the polenta is finished, you might sense it thickening up a little. If so, add a little more water and whisk to get the right consistency. If you're not serving right away, cover the pan with plastic wrap to keep the polenta from thickening or losing moisture. If necessary, re-warm over low heat before serving.

bouchon batter
Thomas Keller's Bouchons
adapted from The Bouchon Cookbook
Makes 15 2-inch bouchons

Butter and flour for the timbale molds or muffin tin (paper mini pannetone molds do not require buttering)
3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup unsweetened Scharffenberger cocoa powder
1/2 cup black cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon flake sea salt, crushed (the original calls for 1 tsp kosher salt)
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups plus 3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
24 tablespoons (12 ounces) Plugra unsalted butter, melted, just slightly warm
6 ounces semisweet chocolate chips or chocolate chopped into pieces the size of chocolate chips (I used Ghirardelli 60%)
Confectioner's sugar for dusting

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour 16 (2-ounce) timbale molds or fleximolds. Set aside. Sift the flour, cocoa powder and salt into a bowl; set aside.

2. In the bowl of a mixer with a paddle attachment, or in another large bowl if using a hand-held mixer, mix the eggs and sugar on medium speed for about 3 minutes, or until very pale in color. Mix in the vanilla.

3. On low speed, add about one-third of the dry ingredients, then one-third of the butter, and continue alternating with the remaining flour and butter. Add the chocolate and mix to combine. (The batter can be refrigerated for up to a day.)

4. Put the timbale molds or papers on a baking sheet. Pour the batter in (or use a large pastry tip big enough for the chocolate chips if using smaller molds).

5. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. When the tops look shiny and set (like a brownie), test one cake with a wooden skewer or toothpick. It should come out clean but not dry (there may be some melted chocolate from the chopped chocolate).

6. Transfer the bouchons to a cooling rack. After a couple of minutes, invert the timbale molds and let the bouchons cool upside down in the molds, then lift off the molds. Dust with confectioners sugar.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Best New Bite Downtown - The Kebab Shop

The Kebab Shop
Having heard about this place for a while, I finally had a chance to drop in for lunch this past Saturday in the middle of a day of errands and shopping downtown. I dug their simple modern decor/exterior and the straightforward menu, which consists of doner kebabs made with chicken, lamb or falafel - the same offered as "shwarma" - in a sandwich, and a few specialties such as shrimp, salmon and kofte. They also offer a dish called the "iskender" kebab, which is lamb with a tomato-ey sauce and lebneh yogurt.
Chicken Kebab at the Kebab Shop
I chose the chicken doner kebab, based largely on fond memories of the Gardenia - a kebab shop in the heart of Cambridge where I spent many a late evening after the pubs during the summer of 1990. Their version is quite different, but every bit as delicious. It's served on a thin warm lightly crisp flatbread - not a tortilla though it looks like one - and stuffed with sliced chicken, lots of incredibly garlicky yogurt sauce and fresh vegetables. It was so good I found myself continuing to eat, even after I was pretty well full.
Chicken Kebab at the Kebab Shop
A few days later, I picked some up to bring home for dinner, a easy and relatively cheap proposition, considering they're located downtown and the sandwiches are only $4.95 apiece. The wrap was definitely best eaten fresh - when it sat for a while, the crispness of the bread and contrast in texture was lost. It was still good, just not the transcendent experience the first one was.
The Kebab Shop
The guys working there were friendly and professional, and extremely fast - just a couple of minutes, if that - to get the sandwiches made. They also have some cold salads in their case - but on both my visits they looked a little tired. I imagine they're best earlier in the day.

Easy? Cheap? Independent? Delicious? Convenient?

Check, check, check, check, check.

I will definitely be back!

The Kebab Shop
630 9th Avenue (at Market)
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 525-0055

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

This Little Kitty had a Pug Burger... The Hungry Cat, Santa Barbara

Bowls of Citrus on the Bar at HC
It seems only fitting that in working my way through a backlog, I should start with the entry that comes first chronologically. I'm surprised, actually, that it's taken me so long to write about this place, because it was one of my favorite dining experiences in recent memory. The Hungry Cat specializes in seafood - particularly raw bar items and fresh made innovative cocktails. They're also well known for their burger, called the "Pug Burger," but we'll get to that in a minute. I haven't been to the LA branch, so I can't compare - but I understand they are quite different.

One thing that drew me to the restaurant was the impression that they do few things, but with fine attention to detail. I've come to the conclusion - after dining in and observing restaurants a little more closely for the past couple of years - that the quality of a restaurant really hides in the details. Just about anyone can buy a good piece of meat and manage not to ruin it, but it's hard to keep the whole train on the track from beginning of a meal to the end without some little tidbit going awry. The ones that manage that and do it consistently - those are the special ones.
The Hungry Cat Kitchen
The first recommendation I will make, and I am very serious about this, is to sit at the copper bar. It's basically a chef's table, with the cooks at work in front of you - moving between a set of burners and a wood burning stove. To the left is the (liquor) bar, and to the far right is the area where they dish up the cold seafood. The tables, though only a few feet away - feel like Siberia, and the dining room is a bit small and bland, so you won't get much to look at. That might be fine if you're with another couple or want to chat privately, but if you're looking to be entertained, the guys at the grill will take care of you. They seemed to like the fact that we asked questions, and they really seemed to like cooking for someone interested in what they were doing. They were definitely proud of the whole endeavor, which may be the secret of their success in the first place.
Chef Action - Hungry Cat
I started my meal with a glass of Dampierre Champagne (which we encountered again a few days later on our trip up the coast - at Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn.) It is true Champagne - from that particular region of France, and very good - but not outrageously expensive. (If anyone knows where it's available for sale here in San Diego, please drop me a line - I've been keeping an eye out to no avail! )
The Small Seafood Platter at Hungry Cat
For our first course, we split a small raw bar platter - which included some caviar with blinis and garnishes (including a perfect egg salad, some chopped onion and creme fraiche), as well as some scallop ceviche, oysters, clams, shrimp, tuna tartare and chilled crab. Not a limp, watery, recently-frozen specimen among them - unlike the offerings on the brunch buffet the next day at the Four Seasons. The shrimp were firm and sweet and had been poached in a court bouillon; the crab was pre-cracked, but still a little messy and difficult, as it should be. All in all, it was a pitch perfect beginning.
A divine Greyhound Cocktail at Hungry Cat
I was a little bit surprised when I looked over the specialty cocktail menu and discovered several gin cocktails. Generally I am a not a fan of gin because I find it too strong, but our very competent host and server (who turned out to be the manager and wine director) strongly urged me to try the "Proper Greyhound" - made with fresh squeezed grapefruit juice and a gin he assured me would not offend my sensibilities. He was right - it was absolutely delicious, and came garnished with a large strip of well-candied grapefruit peel.
Whole Grilled Fish with Charmoula at Hungry Cat
For our main course that evening (I say "that evening" because we liked this place so much that we actually came back the next night too) we had the "whole fish" - which on the first night we were there was a sea bass, I believe. The next day it was a rockfish. It's one of their most popular dishes, and apparently one of their best. The fish is grilled whole over the wood burning fire, slathered with charmoula, and then served over a bed of basmati rice, with figs and almonds. It was the perfect size for sharing and made a fine meal for two along with the raw bar platter. The staff actually seemed proud of us for choosing so well.
Bruleed Bread Pudding with Chocolate at Hungry Cat
The Hungry Cat serves only one dessert, but it's a doozy. They call it "Chocolate Bread and Butter Pudding." Baked in a charlotte mold, it's dense and rich - covered with a brulee crust that is figuratively and literally the crowning blow. It's sized for two to share, and you'll need the help. The dark chocolate is melted at the bottom, so the best way to eat it is to dip down and pull some up along with the souffled bread. They also offer cheeses, which we didn't have a chance to sample but I would bet are very good.

The next night, we had planned to walk down State Street until we found a place to eat. We thought about Cafe Zia, but it was closed, and I rejected every menu I saw (fried mozzarella sticks anyone?) until we arrived at Victoria Street, where Olio e Limone, Bouchon and Epiphany reside. Epiphany was depressingly deserted, and Olio e Limone too crowded, but Bouchon looked like they might have space, and the menu looked promising. They claimed they had several 8:30 reservations yet to arrive, but promised to call us if anything came available. We decided to walk around the corner to Hungry Cat to wait and enjoy another kick ass cocktail.

When we showed up, we were greeted as old friends by the guys we had chatted with the night before. They joked that Bouchon wouldn't call, and it turned out they were right - so we wound up enjoying another meal there at the bar.

This time we started with a salad, which I honestly don't remember much about, other than the fact that it was good. We then ordered two entrees to split - the spiny lobster with pork belly, swiss chard and sunchokes, and the Pug Burger.
Spiny Lobster at The Hungry Cat
The spiny lobster dish was new on the menu - that night I believe, and they were very interested in hearing what we thought about it. We really weren't sure what to tell them. The pork belly and chard worked well together, but the crispness of the radishes and sunchokes didn't quite go with either the pork or the lobster. It certainly wasn't bad, but it just didn't add up to more than the sum of its parts. It is still on the menu, and I'd be curious to know whether they tweaked it and if so how, since the first night it appeared.
Pug Burger at The Hungry Cat
The Pug Burger is so famous that I had heard about it before coming to the Hungry Cat. Stories of the lobster roll (served only at the LA location) and the burger, along with the killer cocktails, were actually what intrigued me in in the first place. The burger consists of a roughly ground sirloin patty the size and shape of a small fist, perched on a bun trimmed to fit and topped with blue cheese, avocado and crisp bacon. The process of making the burger is something to watch (especially when they're forced to grill one to well done - which takes about 45 minutes.) I'm not sure how one person could eat the whole thing, but it's perfect for sharing - especially once you add in the humongous onion rings. It was probably the best burger I've ever had - but it was so over the top in it's excesses that it almost doesn't seem fair to compare it to other burgers served elsewhere. It was worth the trip in and of itself.

Far too full after that indulgence to eat anything else, we bade our friends goodbye and promised to come back soon. Very soon, I hope!

The Hungry Cat - Santa Barbara
1134 Chapala
Santa Barbara
(805) 884-4701
no reservations, but if you call ahead they will put you on their wait list - sit at the bar if you get a chance.

recommended dishes - the pug burger, the whole fish, the rawbar platters, the bread and butter pudding. What we didn't eat, we watched them make - and it all looked very good!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Warm in a Bowl - Beef Curry with Toasted Spices

Beef Curry with Toasted Spices
It's finally starting to feel like fall around here. Some may scoff, but as a local, I definitely feel the seasonal changes here in San Diego. Somewhere along the line - about the time we switch from flip flops to uggs - the cooler weather and shorter days mean lots of fires in the fireplace, hot chocolate simmered on the stove and long cooked meals. This one-pot dish is something I've been making for a few years now - and it just keeps getting better. It takes a little while to prepare, since the meat needs to marinate for at least 2 hours, and the toasted spices are a little labor intensive, but I promise you it's worth it. The toasting spices will make your house smell fantastic, and you'll probably have some left over for the next round.
Beef Curry with Toasted Spices
I adapted this from a Cooking Light recipe by Bruce Aidells, mostly to make it a little spicier and to cut down the quantity. I don't make my own curry powder, and I sub fennel for fenugreek seeds in the toasted spices, since fenugreek is hard to find and very expensive. I have also made it without the cardamom with no problem. Bruce also suggests substituting cubed lamb for the beef, which I haven't tried - but I am sure it would be delicious. The recipe below will feed four to six, but it's a great meal for a crowd. If you're making a larger quantity you might want to just follow the original recipe, which serves twelve and calls for three pounds of meat.

Beef Curry with Toasted Spices
Adapted from a Cooking Light recipe by Bruce Aidells

For the Beef:
2 tsp. good yellow curry powder (I used Dean and Deluca Hot Curry Powder)
1/2 teaspoon flake sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 -2 pounds beef stew meat, trimmed and cut into bite-sized pieces

Toasted spices:
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
3 whole cloves
1 fragrant cinnamon stick, broken
1/2 tsp chile pepper flakes
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon salt

Remaining ingredients:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, sliced vertically
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
4 cloves minced garlic
1 tablespoon Hungarian sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon pure chile powder or cayenne pepper (or to taste)
1 cup plain low-fat yogurt
1 1/2 cups low-salt beef broth
1 medium red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 cup minced fresh cilantro stems
2 Tablespoons of tomato paste

To prepare beef, combine first 3 ingredients; rub evenly over beef. Cover and chill 2 hours, tossing occasionally.

To prepare toasted spices, heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add coriander and next 6 ingredients (coriander through bay leaves); cook 1 minute or until fragrant, shaking pan constantly. Place coriander mixture, sugar, cardamom, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a spice or coffee grinder, and process until finely ground.

Heat 1 1/2 teaspoons oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add half of beef mixture; sauté 5 minutes or until browned on all sides. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon. Repeat procedure with remaining oil and beef mixture; remove from pan. Reduce heat to medium. Add onion and ginger to pan; cook 6 minutes or until onion is tender, stirring occasionally. Add the toasted spice mixture, cayenne or chile powder, garlic, and paprika; cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add beef, yogurt and remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 1 and a half to two hours - until the beef is tender.

The rice in the photo is the ready made Trader Joe's Jasmine Rice with Flaxseeds and Quinoa - it comes pouches on the pasta aisle, you just heat in the microwave for a minute or two. It's an easy cheat for two people, but if you're making it for more you'll probably want to cook up some Basmati or Jasmine rice, either would work. It would also be great with brown rice.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

More San Francisco...

Yes I went again! This time it was for a lovely girls' weekend with my good friend Susan. We stayed at a little hotel called the Hotel Serrano which I can highly recommend. It's literally right around the corner from the Clift and the St. Francis (just off of Geary on Taylor) at about one third the rate. Free NY Times, good (organic) coffee in the morning, beer and wine happy hour in the lobby at night - good sheets, a decent shower, iPod dock, minibar, robes - everything you could want. It's also right next door to a wine store, close to a taxidermy shop and around the corner from a happening bar called "Swig."
Zuni's bar
First we hit Zuni , for their stupendous burger, as I mentioned earlier. (It was fun to try the red onion pickles that I had made for our party a few weeks ago!) I also had a couple of oysters and some champagne - gotta live it up on vacation, ya know. Dinner was some entirely forgettable appetizers and a couple of pizzas in the bar at Postrio - where we met up with Tommy. I was looking for something interesting but relatively casual and inexpensive in the Union Square zone - we probably should have just done starters in the regular restaurant. The one highlight was spotting Gavin at the bar. He looks a little bit like Christian Bale in person. It was my second mayoral sighting at a venerable San Francisco eatery. The first was Willie Brown, who gave me the old up and down at Boulevard a few years ago.
Capay Organic
The next morning we hit the Ferry Building for the Farmers' Market - I bought my usual assortment of cookies from Boulette's, and we munched Acme pastries. I also bought some Frog Hollow Farms Jams and Chutneys which I've been enjoying with my Acme toast for the last couple of mornings.
Frog Hollow Jams
We checked out Tony Bourdain doing a signing at Book Passage - though the books were sold out. We met up with my friend Moira down at the Ferry Building, and when we were done there we went to Delfina Pizzeria for lunch. Roasted Cauliflower with Peppers and Garlic at Delfina Pizzeria
Delfina is the kind of place where they can take something you wouldn't necessarily expect to taste good, and make it absolutely delicious. We ordered a cauliflower dish that turned out to be one of the best things we ate all weekend - along with the baked ricotta (with arugula and those little peppers and some levain toast) and a Margherita pizza. A glass of crisp and fruity white wine and I was all set. We then traveled over to Bi Rite Creamery , where Moira and Susan enjoyed some Roasted Banana ice cream and I had my fave salted caramel/mint chip combo again - why mess with a good thing?
Flowers at Stem
In between the eating occasions we did some tooling around the City - we walked around Union Square and enjoyed the lights and decorations, hiked up to Coit Tower, and did a little boutique-ing on Fillmore Street. It was cold and foggy, so we stopped in at the Bittersweet Cafe for some frothy hot chocolate. I'd ask for it extra hot next time, but it was very good and rich. They have nice thick whipped cream that they dollop on out of a container, and homemade vanilla bean flecked marshmallows.

Dinner that night found us back in the Mission at Foreign Cinema. I had heard about this place before, but had a different impression - I thought it was more casual and cafe-like, with an outdoor movie venue. It's a really lovely space - sort of industrial chic with lots of candles, a huge fireplace, windows, etc. They play movies on the large wall in the courtyard, with subtitles. Our experience with the food was mixed - I ordered a tuna tartare starter, and a dish advertised as a curried mussel stew for my main course. The tartare was so oversalted it was inedible, and the curry sauce with the mussels was bitter and unpleasant. The other starter we ordered, the foie gras torchon, was delicious - and came with a nice cranberry chutney, mizuna and toast. (We actually sent the tartare back and asked for a second torchon.) Susan ordered a ribeye steak, which was perfectly cooked with good minerally flavor, and came with some rich, cheesy potatoes. Luckily, she had plenty to share. I think the lesson here is stick to the basics. It's no Delfina, that's for sure.
Cafe Fanny and Acme Bakery
On our way out of town in the morning, I took Susan by Cafe Fanny, Alice Waters' casual cafe on San Pablo in Berkeley (named for her daughter.) It was a really easy detour on the way to the Oakland airport - only about ten minutes out of the way. This was one of my favorite spots when I lived up there, and it hasn't changed a bit. We had some mochas, made with organic Dagoba chocolate, and some beignets, and I had a couple of poached eggs on toast. I also picked up a big bag of bread at the next door bakery to take home - which we've been enjoying. I also took some by Jora and Brian's on my way home from the airport. Little Juliet is absolutely gorgeous.

I'm going to go ahead and post this - but I'll be back to add some more links, and photos later. I will also be posting one of my new favorite Thanksgiving recipes (thanks to my friend Isabel), so check back for that if you like sweet potatoes! As you can see, I've now had a chance to update this post with the photos and links, and the sweet potatoes are posted here. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Central Coast and Other Adventures...

I just got around to putting up the last batch of photos from our Central Coast adventure on Flickr - if you're interested, just click on any of the other photos below (not the collage though) to get to the page. I'm posting this fron my iPhone now, because I'm in San Francisco on a little girl's weekend with my friend Susan. Tony Bourdain is going to think I'm stalking him- he was signing books this morning at Book Passage at the Ferry Building. Love that man.

In addition to the Ferry Building, we've also hit Delfina Pizzeria and BiRite Creamery, and I finally made it to Zuni. Their fantastic burger really hit the spot after a long flight delay! We also popped into Bittersweet on Fillmore for hot chocolate - which was perfect on a foggy afternoon. Tonight we're planning to go to Foreign Cinema, and tomorrow I'm hoping we wake up in time to hit Cafe Fanny before catching our flight - and pick up some Acme bread to take home. I'd especially like to get some to take back to Jora and Bryan - who just welcomed little Juliet into the world this morning. Congratulations to them!

More to come - lots more - when I can find the time. At least this coming weekend will be a long one!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Comfort in North Park - Urban Solace

Independent restaurants have been springing up like crazy in North Park lately, and as much as I love many of the ones I have already visited - I predict that they're going to face some stiff competition from this newest entry. Urban Solace Sign
When I first heard about Urban Solace, I sort of struggled with the name. It sounds more like a spa than a restaurant to me - but it makes more sense when you think about their focus on fun but sophisticated comfort foods. Open only a few weeks, they're already serving Sunday brunch, lunch and dinner - which sets them apart from some other neighborhood places - and their prices are eminently reasonable, topping out at around $16.00. Both the owner, Scott Watkins, and Executive Chef Matt Gordon come to the business with seventeen years of experience in the restaurant industry, which also bodes well for their success. Matt's wife, Young Mi, works the front of the house periodically.
Urban Solace
After reading some positive comments from the somewhat tough crowd on Chowhound, I headed over here for lunch when I returned from my recent travels. My friend Susan and I split the pile of of the warm cheese biscuits with orange honey butter ($4.00), an iceberg wedge salad with bleu cheese ($7.00), and the burger ($8.75). The biscuits were light, crisp and airy with a slight savory flavor, and the honey butter complimented them perfectly. Their small size is just right for nibbling with a glass of wine or beer.
Iceberg and Bleu Cheese Wedge at Urban Solace
The iceberg wedge with blue cheese was perfectly fresh and crisp, with a tangy rich dressing, crunchy spiced pecans and pickled onions. It was almost identical to a salad I had at Jacks' Ocean Room several months ago at double the price.
Burger at Urban Solace
The burger is made with Brandt Farms beef and served on a housemade bun with Vermont cheddar cheese. I can't quibble with any of those things, and everything on it - including the meat - was juicy and flavorful - but it comes to the table already stacked and dressed, and I found it a little sweet and rich, with the grilled onions and thousand-island sauce. I prefer my burgers to have a little bite to cut the richness - next time, I might ask to customize it.

One quirk is that they serve sweet potato fries here both as a starter and with their sandwiches. I have only had truly crisp sweet potato fries once in my life, at Taylor's Refresher in Napa Valley, and I suspect they got them that way through some tortured process that infused the fries with at least 50% oil by weight. Urban Solace's version isn't soggy, but they aren't exactly crisp either. They taste good, but at least in the case of the burger, their sweet flavor compounded my feelings about the sandwich itself. It would be nice (not to mention more economical for the restaurant) if they offered a choice of both sweet potato and regular russet fries. I am sure that if they did put out some regular fries they'd be fantastic.
Urban Solace - Peanut Butter Chocolate Creme Brulee
For dessert, Susan and I split the Chocolate Peanut Butter Creme Brulee ($6.00) - which sounded a little over the top, but was really stupendous. The bottom of the ramekin is lined with bittersweet chocolate pot de creme, and a tangy rich peanut butter custard sits on top. It's not insanely sweet, and the perfect crust shattered with a satisfying crack when I tapped with my spoon. The Diedrich's coffee was also fresh and hot - but I'd love to see them using an even more local brand, say Caffe Calabria just down the street.

On a second visit for dinner the other night with James and our friend Lisa, we branched out a little on the menu. I did notice that they offer most of their lunch menu at dinnertime for the same prices as lunch. We ordered the cheese biscuits again (just as good as before if not better) and the Watermelon, Tomato and Cucumber Salad - which also features feta, pine nuts, mint and a pomegranate vinaigrette ($7.25). I couldn't get enough of this - it was crisp, sweet, savory and refreshing all at once - perfect with the cheese biscuits.

For entrees, James chose the Braised Beef Cheeks (around $16.00), I went with the Lobster Pot Pie with Artichokes and a Homemade Fennel infused Pastry Crust served with a Warm Frisee Salad ($15.75), and Lisa ordered the burger (which is the same price at lunch and dinner, $8.75) I also enjoyed a glass of Zaca Mesa Viognier, and James quaffed a Boont Amber Ale from Northern California.
Urban Solace Lobster Pot Pie
I was a little wary of the pot pie, not being a huge fan of artichokes or fennel generally - but my risk (such as it was) was rewarded handsomely. The presentation was exceptional, with the pie taking up half of a small square baking dish, and the salad nestled in the other half. The fennel was a subtle flavor in the crust, which was as flaky as it could possibly be and rich as a Christmas cookie. The tangled frisee and cherry tomatoes nestled in the dish were a welcome counterpoint to all the richness. My only complaint - if I'm allowed one at the price - is that I would have liked to see a couple more of the large lobster knuckle-meat chunks.

James' beef cheeks served with tomato jam and celery root mashed potatoes were braised like short ribs, but the meat seemed to be a bit stringier and less tender. When I tried it I thought it was a little bland, but I was also eating something else and drinking a totally uncomplimentary wine. It's always hard to tell if it's the piece of meat itself or the preparation with something like this - and it is a new dish on their menu, so it's possible they'll fine tune it. (Postscript: I had this at a wine dinner the following week, and it was excellent, better than it had been that night.)

We also shared a side of their highly-touted mac and cheese ($6.00), featuring chunks of pancetta and a crumb crust. When it came to the table, it was as hot as molten lava and extremely liquid, and the noodles were small and fairly soft. I prefer my mac and cheese a little more solid, but I couldn't tell if that was just the portion we had, the fact that it was really hot - or if that's how they make it. It had good cheese flavor though.

We skipped dessert this time, having indulged so thoroughly in the meal, but eyeballed the butterscotch "puddin" and the key lime tart. If they're as good as the peanut butter and chocolate creme brulee they're worth saving room for on a future visit.

Urban Solace
3823 30th Street
San Diego, CA 92104
(619) 295-6464

Especially recommended dishes: the biscuits, the wedge salad, watermelon, cucumber and tomato salad, Brandt farms burger, lobster pot pie and chocolate peanut butter creme brulee.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Gourmet Institute 2007, NYC - Day One

There's something about New York that makes it more exciting than just about anyplace else I've been. Paris has it's sophisticated swirl, Los Angeles it's choking sprawl, and San Francisco it's own special claustrophobic buzz, but none of them compare to the gritty, frenetic livewire that pulses through the streets of Manhattan. Maybe it's the sense that so many things are happening there - I don't know, but whatever it is, it's both intoxicating and exhausting!

Maybe it makes me sound like a rube, but I'm not afraid to admit that I've never been to a party where Moet White Star was freeflowing by the glass. Welcome to the world of Gourmet. And New York. After that opening, I knew this weekend was going to be special.
The Gourmet Institute

We started the day on Monday with a buffet breakfast at the Millenium Broadway Hotel. I'm not an early riser to start with, and having to actually be in my seat at these programs at 9 AM (on vacation!) was a little daunting, I have to admit, but I managed to get to the buffet in time to scarf down a bite to eat and grab some coffee to go. My first seminar was with Ruth Reichl and Drew Nieporent, on the relationship between restaurants and critics.
Ruth Reichl and Drew Nieporent at the Forum on Restaruant Critics

Drew was hilarious, and told many stories about his encounters with critics - including the first time he met Ruth. When she was a critic at Westways magazine, on the West Coast, and he was managing his first restaurant - he walked up to her table while she was dining there and asked if anyone at her table was related to Ruth Reichl. Her mother, who is quite a character (as you know if you've read her books) said something to the effect of "Who wants to know?" Ruth was shocked that he would know who she was at that point, it was before she went on to become the critic for the Los Angeles Times and eventually the New York Times. Apparently he reads and pays attention to reviews religiously, including blogs.

Ruth talked about her feeling that a critic owes a duty to the reader and no one else, and should be utterly honest in reviews. She also talked about journalistic standards and about blogs - which of course don't always adhere to those standards for various reasons. The topic of blogs was the subject of a whole nother seminar that I did not attend (it conflicted with Masaharu Morimoto's demonstration) but I would if it were offered again, from what I understand it was quite interesting.
Zanne Stewart and Chef John Besh

My next seminar was called "Recipe Accessories" taught by Media Food Editor Zanne Early Stewart and Chef John Besh. Chef Besh is currently on the "Next Iron Chef" show - and I have to say, either he was faking it here, or they are making an extra effort to make him look arrogant on the show. He was sweet as pie in person, and really just worked his ass off during the whole weekend, including this seminar. The "recipe accessories" were condiments and add-ons that you can make and store and then use to accessorize your meals, like relishes, jams, etc. Zanne Stewart said she came up with the idea when she had kids who liked plain food, but she and her husband wanted something more interesting - with these "accessories" you can customize.
Condiment tasting

We were allowed to sample several, and the recipes were handed out. Some of them, like the preserved lemons and the quick tomato sauce Chef Besh made, are very easy. He also had a vinaigrette that he proposed as a southern alternative to balsamic vinaigrette - made with something called "cane syrup" - it was more like molasses than Lyles Golden Syrup, but made a nice sort of sweet and sour dressing. The other recipes included candied fennel, habanero jelly, fig jam and a caramel fudge sauce. Zanne Stewart has been with the magazine for years, and I've enjoyed her articles for a long time - especially one I always look back at in the December 1995 issue about her family's traditional Christmas quiche recipe.
The Salad Bar at lunch

Noon brought a lunch buffet prepared by the Millenium Broadway hotel. They outdid themselves once again with a huge buffet of salads, sandwiches, soup and an amazing assortment of pastries and desserts. The Good Living Travel Pavilion (really a very elaborate Hospitality Suite) was also open during this time with food samples and book signings - I had Morimoto sign a copy of his new cookbook, and bought a calendar to have some of the chefs sign.
Chef Besh's Shrimp and Grits

Chef Besh's lunchtime demo was a shrimp and grits dish that was fabulous - I just bought some grits today, and I'll post the recipe sometime soon (I don't think he'd mind since he was handing it out like candy at the demo.)
Beer to go with Chef Besh's shrimp and grits

These demos were also accompanied by some local Louisana beer that he had brought, and wine and cocktail tastings were available at all times - not to mention the Haagen Dazs table, the crab salad and ceviche served up at the Peruvian table (with Pisco Sours) the wine tasting... you get the picture. Luckily, there was also coffee.
do you like my socks?

My first afternoon seminar was Morimoto's cooking demonstration. Let me tell you, that guy is hilarious in person. Really funny. He did a sugar cured salmon, a demo sushi roll (which he admitted looked better than it tasted), a tuna "pizza" that we sampled, and a daikon "pasta" dish made with ribbons of daikon tossed with tomato sauce. He has the whole cooking demo thing down pat - a few jokes, some good food, dazzling technique, and of course he has a great subject for Q and A at the end - Iron Chef. It turns out the "secret" ingredient really isn't so secret. The chefs are given a list, and they know it will be one of them - they then plan a set of dishes for each ingredient. He said he hates Iron Chef, because he has to plan - he said - 72 dishes for each episode. Sheesh.
if only you could hear his accent...

After that I was back in the same room for the Spanish molecular gastronomy demo. Originally this was supposed to be a demo with Grant Achatz, which would have been phenomenal - but he is ill with oral cancer and was unable to attend. I haven't heard any updates on his condition lately, I hope he's doing ok. Jose Andres was going to fill in, but at the last minute he couldn't make it - so his adorable sous chef (I assume) stepped in to take over. He was so charming that we didn't even care - in fact we scarcely noticed - that he burned the paella.
Mojo de ajo with olive oil encased in isomalt

We got to sample some interesting items - including ajoblanco (cool creamy garlic almond soup) with olive oil encased in isomalt, and a spoonful of red wine sauce encased in a jellied shell - almost like an egg yolk. The soup was cool and garlicky - the best way to eat it with the olive oil was to put it in your mouth, break it, and then drink the soup. It was really quite good. The red wine sauce was good too. It was sweet, since it was part of a dessert using red wine poached apple and vanilla ice cream.
red wine syrup encased in jelly

He had the chemicals there and explained how it was done, but honestly I wasn't able to follow it. Something to do with a calcium bath - but that's as much as I got. In any event, it was fun, and he was adorable. Did I already say that?

After that, it was back to the Travel Pavilion for a glass of wine and a chair massage, and off to my room for a nap before dinner at Le Bernardin.

To be continued...

Monday, October 29, 2007

Daring Bakers - "Bostini Cream Pie"

bostini cream pie
I have to say that after the events of this week and a busy weekend - I'm a little bit numb - but I've missed a couple of challenges lately, and I had a good excuse to make this one since we hosted my parents for dinner tonight. We don't cook for them too often, so we wanted to do something nice. They brought steaks, and I made an heirloom tomato salad and some corn - sort of a "last hurrah" of summer. For dessert, we had the bostinis.

I have never made boston cream pie before, but I have always thought it reminded me of a doughnut - with the thick chocolate glaze on the top and custard filling - or an eclair, possibly. Essentially it's a chiffon cake, flavored with a little bit of orange, layered with a custard cream and a chocolate glaze.
chiffon cutouts
I baked my cake in a sheet pan, and cut the rounds out with a knife, which worked fairly well. I am glad I took it out of the oven when I did - one or two more minutes and it would have been dry. We were allowed to substitute in a couple of areas - I didn't have orange juice, but I used orange oil and a little lemon juice - making up the difference in the liquid with 1/2 a cup of milk, and I thought it had nice flavor. The custard was also really good. I used vanilla paste instead of the bean, and I improvised with a mixture of cream, half and half and nonfat milk to make up the whole milk and cream called for, since I could only get my hands on one pint of organic cream at the market and already had the half and half and nonfat milk at home. It worked just fine and I had LOTS left over. (Then again, I only served four and the recipe is for 8.)
bostini cream pies
The cake layers were about one inch thick, so to plate the dessert, I spooned some custard into the cups, added a layer of cake, more custard, another layer of cake, and the chocolate sauce. (Actually, my mom and I had only one layer - as you can see on the right - but we got the gist of it.) There was double the amount of custard that I needed, but I would have had a hard time getting enough cake out of the recipe to fill eight ramekins.

There was nothing wrong with this dessert, and the chocolate sauce, the cake and the custard were each great on their own, but I'm not sure the dessert was more than the sum of it's parts. In fact, it might have been less. The cake soaked up the liquids and became a bit soggy, and I wasn't crazy about the look of the chocolate poured straight onto the cake. Maybe if it were a bit thicker. James thought the chocolate was overwhelming and suggested the cake and custard would be better with some fresh fruit or berries. It was a LOT of trouble to make, and is one of those recipes that uses up nearly a dozen eggs - 9 yolks in the custard alone.

Regardless, I have nothing but love and respect for Mary, the kind and generous administrator of our Daring Bakers site and pro baker who selected this recipe for the challenge this month. At least it was something that could be completed in a single afternoon, which is more than I can say for some challenges. Not that involved baking projects are a bad thing, but when you're as short on time and concentration as I was today, less is definitely more!