Monday, February 26, 2007

Dinner at Jayne's

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On Valentine's Day, we were among the fortunate invited to dine at Jayne's Gastropub in North Park on their first night of dinner service. I had eaten lunch there before and enjoyed it, and I was looking forward to seeing what they would offer for dinner. (Unfortunately, they are now open only for dinner - but I am hoping that will change when they realize there is demand for them to serve both!)

Jayne's is adorably decorated in vintage-style black and white - with a small bar, an open kitchen and a garden courtyard in the back that will be open in the warmer months. The menu is simple but elegant, offering bistro-style dishes with an English flair - in the tradition of a British gastropub. I had the short ribs, which were served with some phenomenal mashed potatoes and nice crisp vegetables in a port wine sauce. My husband had the free range chicken, which was reminiscent of Zuni chicken with side of couscous with arugula and currants. Our friend Tracy had the caesar salad which is served in whole spears (very lemony and garlicky - just like I like it) and she ordered a side of frites - which were amazing. They were a bit thinner than they had been at lunch, and they were crisp and well salted. Even better than Cafe Chloe's in my opinion. We started with the calamari, which were tender and crisp and served with a housemade spicy cocktail sauce and tartar sauce. For dessert we had the butterscotch creme brulee and the brownie with vanilla gelato - both very good. They also serve good coffee, with real whipping cream.

It looks like they have added their burger and the Sea Bass fish and chips back to the menu since then - otherwise everything else is the same as opening night. (I'm looking forward to going back and trying the halibut!) The crostini appetizer also looked interesting - with a bowl of the bean puree in the middle, and the levain bread and peppers stacked on the sides.

They have a simple short wine list (its beer and wine only). We had a bottle of Albarino and I had a glass of the "Innocent Bystander" Pinot with my meal - love that name. The owners are lovely and gracious hosts - and I really think they will do well. I know several other couples who dined there shortly after we did. They also liked it, and said it was quite crowded.

They are located on 30th close to Adams, right next door to Air Conditioned. You can't miss it - it's the cutest building on the block!

Jayne's Gastropub
4677 Adams Avenue
619. 563.1011

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Cakes Galore!

Wow - I'm so backed up that I have three whole weeks to cover! To catch you up a bit - this semester I'm taking Cake Decorating at Grossmont College - our local community college here in the East County. It has a fantastic (and very popular) culinary program that is entirely tuition free. (That's right - free!) All we are required to buy are uniforms, equipment, textbooks and parking permits. We also pay nominal lab fees. It isn't exactly cheap when you put it all together, but it beats the alternative options and the scheduling is fairly flexible with lots of evening classes. The pastry instructor is Chef James Foran - who is also the pastry chef at Market. He used to work at Arterra along with Carl Schroeder. His style is modern but classic at the same time, and he really knows his stuff.
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Last semester, in basic baking and pastry, he taught us several different techniques - biscuits, puff pastry, bread, etc. This semester though is all about cakes. The first three weeks have been fairly basic - as far as fancy cakes go. We did a Chocolate Mocha Torte (made with vanilla cake), a Citrus Mousseline Torte (pictured above) and a Chocolate Mousse Torte. I won't reprint all of the recipes here - but I did make two of the cakes at home for "practice" - so I thought I'd share a few pictures and some things I learned along the way.
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In making the sponge cake and buttercream in class we learned a couple of basic lessons. One, when you are folding flour into your batter, be quick about it so as not to deflate your batter. I also think it's helpful to transfer the mixture into a shallow bowl. It's hard to fold in those really deep mixer bowls. We wound up with a big clump of flour at the bottom, and the end result was that our cakes were flat as a pancake and dry as a bone. The recipe we had was supposed to make enough cake for three decorated cakes - with each 9 inch cake separated into three layers, but ours were so flat we could only make two. (These pictures are of the cake I made later at home - without the mocha syrup.)
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Our buttercream also didn't work quite right in class - either because the sugar syrup we poured into the egg whites wasn't quite hot enough, or the egg whites and sugar syrup were still too warm when the butter was added. We chilled (even froze) and re-beat it, but it was still too soft. When I made it at home, it worked out fine, but it a bit too sweet for my taste. I prefer my chocolate darker.

The chiffon cake had the most components, with a cookie bottom topped with raspberry jam, the cake, a curd and cream "mousseline", a simple syrup for soaking the cake layers, and the meringue topping. The cake itself turned out wonderful in class - and was almost as good at home. I have to reduce these recipes down to 1/3 of the original when I make them - and sometimes I think something gets lost in translation. The lemon curd was fairly easy, and the blood orange curd was almost as simple.
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I added a chocolate ganache layer to the center of my cake, and I put a drop of lemon oil in my meringue to give it a little flavor boost, which worked really well. It came out a little too soft though - I cooked the sugar syrup to the temperature suggested in the textbook instead of what we used in class and I think it wasn't quite enough. It still tasted good though!
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I haven't recreated the Chocolate Mousse Cake - partly because I wasn't all that crazy about the cake and mousse recipes that we used in the class. The mousse was a ganache lightened with whipping cream, and the cake was a classic devils food - much like the one I posted here. It was glazed with a soft ganache, coated with chopped almonds on the sides - and decorated with praline and chocolate curls that we made. The praline was my favorite part - I will definitely make that again.
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This picture shows Chef Foran demonstrating the proper way to glaze the cake with ganache. He covered it with a thin even coating of the whipped ganache, then froze it for half an hour to firm up - before setting it on a rack and pouring the liquid ganache over the cake to cover. He then coated the sides with almonds...
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pressing them into the sides. He suggested letting the ganache set up for a bit before doing this - but he had to work quickly since we were all watching!

After that we were free to decorate with our shards of praline and chocolate curls. We also crushed some of the praline and sprinkled it into the layers of mousse in the cake.
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Though I didn't make this chocolate cake - I did make another one this week. On Saturday, we had a dinner at Ortega's in Hillcrest to say goodbye to our dear friend Tracy, who is leaving us to move back East for a job in D.C. I know she's a fan of chocolate desserts, so I experimented a little with a nearly flourless chocolate cake from Lindsey Remolif Shere - the pastry chef who founded the Downtown Bakery and Creamery in Healdsburg, and before that worked at Chez Panisse.
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Since we were doing Mexican, I gave the cake a little kick with some cinnamon, orange and chiles - specifically a touch of cayenne and chipotle. It was pretty good, but I think it might have been better had I used the cinnamon and EITHER the orange or chile - the three flavors together were a bit much. My cake was actually completely flourless because I left it out by accident (damn that tiny cookbook typeface!) but it actually came out fine. Next time I'll try it with the flour, and without the additional flavors. I suspect it will taste much like a very delicious and moist brownie.

I will leave you with the recipes for two of my favorite components from these recipes - the blood orange curd and the almond praline - Bon Appetit!
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Blood Orange Curd
Blood oranges are available at Trader Joes for 1.99 per bag.

7 egg yolks
3 oz sugar (about 1/3 of a cup)
1/2 cup blood orange juice
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
2 drops of orange oil or 1/2 tsp finely chopped orange zest
4.5 oz butter, cut up (1 stick plus 1 Tbsp.)
A drop of red food coloring (optional - but it will look a lot better!)

Prepare a double boiler and start the water simmering while you crack your eggs/prep your mise en place.

Place the sugar in the top of your double boiler (I use a shallow metal bowl) and pour in the juice. Add the egg yolks and whisk immediately. Set over the double boiler and allow to cook - stirring only occasionally, until thickened to a custardy consistency. Allow to cool for a few minutes and stir in butter. Cover with plastic wrap - placing it directly on the surface - and refrigerate.

To make the filling for the cake, as pictured above - fold in whipped cream to the desired consistency - I used about 1/3 whipped cream to 2/3 curd.

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Almond Praline

1 1/4 cup toasted slivered almonds

1 cup sugar
1 1/2 oz corn syrup
1/4 cup water

2 oz butter
1 tsp salt

Prepare a work station with a smooth cool heatproof surface - like a granite countertop or granite cutting board, two silpats and a rolling pin. Fill a small cup with water, and put it next to the stove with a pastry brush.

Combine the sugar, corn syrup and water and cook, undisturbed in a heavy saucepan until it is a nice toasty caramel color. Wash any sugar crystals down the sides of the pan with the water and the pastry brush. The length of time you cook it will determine how sweet the finished product will be - the trick is to get it to just to the spot where it has good flavor, but isn't too bitter. We took ours fairly dark, as you can see from the photo above - but we liked it that way. (We took it as a compliment when Chef Foran said it was like something Michael Recchiuti would make!) If the sugar starts to brown unevenly, just swirl it around in the pan.

You can actually taste it through the various stages by keeping a cup of ice water and a spoon handy - dip the spoon in the sugar - then dunk it in the ice water to cool before tasting. Make sure your spoon is completely dry and clean each time you dunk it in.

When the sugar is cooked - carefully add the butter, it will foam up a little bit. Swirl that around until it is melted, and stir in the almonds.

Lay one of the silpats on the work surface, and carefully pour the contents of the pan onto the silpat. Top with the other silpat and working quickly, roll it out between the silpats - spreading it as thinly and evenly as possible. It's ok if some of it squirts out the sides, but it's best if it stays in between. Be very careful because it's hot - if it gets on the rolling pin it can burn you.

You can then peel off the silpat and break it into pieces as soon as it cools. This is great coated with chocolate and topped with more chopped nuts - like toffee.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Best Chicken Salad

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My favorite lunch, bar none, is a chicken salad sandwich and a bag of really good potato chips, accompanied by a fizzy fruit juice drink (preferably a Pear Izze.) I usually get this at Whole Foods, though Waters Fine Foods take out shop near Morena Boulevard also does it very well. Whole Foods terms their chicken salad "Old Fashioned" - while Waters' is named "Rocky's."

The other day, I had some chicken breasts in the fridge that needed to be cooked - so I poached them in a deep skillet of simmering water, figuring that I would snack on them during the week. Then I had a better idea.

I hadn't made chicken salad in a while, but I figured it couldn't be that difficult to reproduce the Whole Foods formula. It's perfectly simple with only a few ingredients - chicken, mayonnaise, celery, chopped red onion, pickle relish, and of course salt and pepper. I like to cut the richness of mayonnaise salads with yogurt. and I did the same here, with a ratio of about 50/50. I also found some organic pickle relish - and used red onion, which looks prettier than white and gives a better flavor. The finished salad should be sweet and tangy, with a nice little crunch.

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This is a very approximate recipe - I just sort of mixed and stirred until I got it right. As such, feel free to adjust to your taste. A couple of hints - it's easy to get too much red onion in it, and it takes more pepper than you think it should. If you put too much yogurt vs. mayo in the dressing, it may get a bit too watery.

Old Fashioned Chicken Salad:

4 or 5 poached organic boneless skinless chicken breasts
1/2 cup lowfat Best Foods Mayonnaise
1/2 cup low fat plain yogurt - not too tart. (Trader Joes Organic works well)
2 Tbsp pickle relish (I used Organic Cascadian that I found at Peoples) plus a dribble of the juice
1/4 cup finely chopped celery
2 Tbsp finely chopped red onion

for the poached chicken:
fill a deep large saute pan with enough water to cover the chicken breasts. Add half a teaspoon or so of salt, cover and bring to a simmer.
Lay the chicken breasts in the water and simmer lightly until they are cooked through. They will visibly shrink and tighten when they are fully cooked. Cut one to test, and when they are done - refrigerate until cold. (When they are almost done, you can turn the heat off and let them finish poaching in the hot water.) To dice the chicken - slice each chicken breast in half lengthwise - place the halves flat side down and slice into 1/4 inch thick slices - stack and slice into 1/4 inch strips - chop into 1/4 inch dice.

for the dressing:
Mix together the mayonnaise, yogurt, pickle relish celery and onion. Add to the chicken and toss to coat. Season with lots of fresh ground pepper and a dash of salt.

This is fine when eaten right away, but even better after an hour or so in the fridge.

I've also made an approximation of the Rocky's formula. The "secret ingredients" there are a bit of lemon and some well drained artichoke hearts. I don't believe there is any pickle relish in theirs - but it is a bit sweet - maybe they use a little sugar.

Other good variations I've made in the past:
Lemon Basil Chicken Salad - Leave out the pickle relish. To the mayonnaise/yogurt/onion/celery mixture - add 1 Tbsp fresh finely chopped organic basil leaves and 2 drops (no more!) of lemon oil or 1/2 tsp of finely chopped lemon zest.
Curried Chicken Salad - Leave out the pickle relish. To the mayonnaise/yogurt/onion/celery mixture, add 2 Tbsp of curry powder, 1/2 cup of Major Grey's Chutney, 1/2 of a green apple, finely chopped and a handful of sliced or slivered almonds.

All of these are absolutely delicious made into a sandwich with lettuce and tomato on lightly toasted brioche. Trust me on this - I speak from experience!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

My "Top Ten" Baking Essentials

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Chow just printed a list of top ten baking essentials that they suggest - you can see it here.

Looking at it though, I see several items that even experienced bakers don't often use (the blowtorch comes to mind) and I noticed several items missing that really are essential for basic home and professional baking. Some of these I learned about in culinary school and some I already used at home. The best part is that most of them are very inexpensive!

1. A Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer (they got this one right.) The bigger the better - especially if you like to make bread. An extra bowl is also very helpful.

2. A plastic dough scraper/cutter - great for scraping out the mixer bowl, scooping ingredients off of a cutting board, dividing dough, folding batter, leveling measuring cups, you name it. A metal bench scraper is also handy for dividing dough when baking bread and scraping work surfaces.

3. A mesh strainer - for sifting flour and dry ingredients together, straining fruit juices and sieving custards and cooked fillings - lemon curd, chocolate mousse, etc.

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4. A large, flat cool smooth surface for rolling out buttery doughs and pie crust (such as the puff pastry dough Chef Foran is schooling in this photo) and for kneading and shaping bread dough. A granite or marble countertop is ideal, but if you don't have that a large cutting board can work. (I have been meaning to go to a countertop place and ask for a "sink cut out" - supposedly they will give them to you for free!)

5. A small offset spatula for spreading batter in pans and spreading frostings and fillings - also handy for picking up or loosening things like cookies and crepes, and for cleaning up edges.

6. A digital probe thermometer for cooking sugar syrups and for heating eggs and sugar for meringues or sponge cake.

7. Shallow metal bowls - for whisking dry ingredients together, folding delicate batters, using on the stove as a double boiler for melting chocolate or making custards and curds, and for chilling down ice cream custards, pastry cream, mousse or buttercream in the refrigerator or freezer or in an ice bath (large ones can also be used to make an ice bath.)

8. A cake turntable - indispensable for cutting and decorating layer cakes

9. Sheets of parchment paper (better than a roll) - great for keeping work surfaces clean (collecting scooped and leveled flour/sugar, etc.) and of course for lining pans. I also put them on the counter under cooling racks to collect crumbs, etc.

10. A smallish (half cup or so) metal scoop - for scooping dry ingredients out of bags and into measuring cups, and for adding sifted dry ingredients to the mixer while running.

Other things I find very helpful: deep stacking bowls, for separating eggs, storing measured ingredients, melting butter and blending wet ingredients; a tupperware-style cake dome - for storing and transporting the goodies to willing co-workers; some of the items they mention, such as the microplane zester, the scale and a pastry bag (if you know how to use it and don't mind having to clean it); a silicone coated whisk - for us non-stick cookware users; a good flexible spatula; tongs - probably the most used tool in our entire kitchen; and a few decent knives - a 8-10" chef's knife, a 3 1/2 inch paring knife and a serrated bread/cake knife are the most useful.

I think it is fairly easy to get along without a blow torch (though it is fun!) Silpats are only really helpful for baking cookies, and parchment does the job almost as well. The one thing silpats are essential for is making tuiles - because you have to peel them off while they are warm and flexible. I don't have the necessary molds for making tuiles (nor do I own any silpats) so I haven't been able to demonstrate that yet. Soon, I hope!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Red Pearl Kitchen and Cafe Chloe Revisited

A couple of weeks ago, we went to Red Pearl Kitchen with two other couples - Lisa and Luis and Marc and Susan - for our second visit. It's a great place to go with a group because the food is served family style, and you will probably want to try several dishes. It's also astonishingly affordable for the amount of food you get. Our bill - even with a couple of nice bottles of wine, was less than $50 per person.

We had some of the same things we had last time, and tried a few new dishes. Both times we have visited I have been amazed by the quality of the food and the technique used to cook it. Everything has been well seasoned, well cooked and served at the right temperature - not necessarily a given in the finer restaurants of San Diego. There were a couple of dishes I wasn't that crazy about, but most of them were really delicious. We ordered waaay too much food, even for six people, but it was fun to try it all!

Here is a complete list of everything we had:

Crab and Shrimp Spring Rolls (two orders)
Fried Calamari
Pineapple Beef Satay
Strawberry Cinnamon Ribs
Red Curry Kobe Beef Hot Pot
Short Rib, Pumpkin and Banana Curry Hot Pot
Ginger Chicken Potstickers
Shrimp, Garlic and Bacon Fried Rice
Black Pepper Caramel Shrimp
Black Noodle with Beef
Shaking Kobe Beef
Cashew Chicken
Udon with Bacon, Egg and Smoky Miso

My favorite dishes, far and away, were the hot pots. Both were rich and unusual. They were delivered to the table in little cast iron pots with a ladle, and bowls and spoons for self-service. There was easily enough in each one that we were all able to try them. One of my other new favorites was the Pineapple Beef Satay - which sounded a little boring, but was delicious with a really good chargrilled flavor and tender perfectly grilled meat.

We didn't care much for the strawberry cinnamon ribs, the potstickers or the cashew chicken. The chicken was way too sweet, the filling in the potstickers was a bit rubbery, and the ribs were just plain strange.

Big hits at the table were the Black Noodle with Beef, the Crab Spring Rolls and Calamari (which is as addictive as candy). The udon (with large pieces of pork belly) and the kobe beef were also very good. The shrimp were good, but for some reason we liked them much better on the first visit.

I also had a Jade Mistress (or two) - it's an improbable combination of peppery vodka, sweet and sour, apple and basil - sort of sweet, tangy and spicy. I usually don't like "house cocktail"-type concoctions - but this one I love.

We were so full that we didn't have room for dessert, but last time we had the Andagi with coconut ice cream, which was delicious. I saw them serving quite a few desserts last night, and they did look good.

The only real criticism I have of the whole experience is that the restaurant itself was a little too hectic and loud. It's very popular and extremely crowded (it was a Saturday) and it seemed like they were pushing it with the number or reservations they were cramming in. We almost had a problem because we had six people and they tried to seat us at two tables for two they had pushed together. Luckily they found us another table, but we really thought that was ridiculous. It wasn't nearly big enough - and who wants to sit on the seam of two tables? I doubt that would be a problem on any other night though.
Note that they share a valet with Oceanaire - just around the corner - so at least parking isn't a problem.

I also had a chance to revisit Cafe Chloe recently - with my dear friend (and James' dear friend) Tracy, who is getting ready to leave us for D.C.

She and I dined there alone, while James cavorted on the slopes of Whistler, B.C. as a participant in the annual "Gentlemen's Ski Trip." I will reserve my comments on the appropriateness of that moniker, but I get the house to myself for a week so I don't complain!

I read a comment on Chowhound recently that someone said he didn't really get the hype about Cafe Chloe, he likes it - but isn't prepared to award it a Michelin star, like some on the board. To my mind, that person just doesn't get it. It's not only that the food is good - there's something about the feel of the place that just really works. It's cosmopolitan and stylish, but also welcoming. It's also the kind of place that there are more of in other cities - and that we could use more of here. They are popping up - Jayne's Gastropub, Vagabond, Modus and the Linkery come to mind - and I hope the trend continues.

I had the steak frites - one of my favorite dishes, and Tracy had the moules frites. We also ordered a little boat of their olives to share, and a couple of glasses of wine. The steak frites were very good, as usual - but they served the steak on top of the frites - which unfortunately made them a bit soggy. The frites with the moules were served in a cone, which works much better. For dessert we had the chocolate pot de creme. I know this is nitpicky - but they are now putting the brandied cherries on top, and there are fewer of them. I preferred it when they were on the side, in more of their own syrup. I also had an espresso, which was a bit cooler than it should have been, but that's a common problem. So often it is served in thick cups that are not preheated - so they suck all the heat right out of the coffee.

Anyway, it didn't detract from a lovely meal, with a great friend who I will miss terribly when she goes. We are already missing her fiance, Brian, and can't wait to go and see them when they get settled in their new house back east!

I have a couple of other similar posts coming, on Cantina Mayahuel and Jayne's Gastropub, as well as a little report on cupcakes that I sampled recently at both Bread and Cie and Starbucks (of all places.) We also made a fantastic citrus chiffon layer cake in class this week - I didn't get any pictures because I forgot my camera, but I'm hoping one of my classmates will send them to me. I also really need to put up the post about the Big Cat Cabin - before snow starts to look downright ridiculous - it's in the 80s here today!

Hope you are having a great long weekend!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

My Funny Valentine

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Valentine's day will always have a special place in my heart, because it's the day my husband and I first came into contact with each other. Seven years ago today, to be exact.

Let me explain.

Back in 2000 (before came on the scene) - on a lark, I placed two silly ads in the San Diego Reader for myself and a friend. They were completely tongue in cheek - nothing serious.

The ads ran over the weekend of Valentine's day, which happened to be on a Monday. I had left the phone number and pin code to check the messages in my desk at work, and it just so happened I was also out on Monday. When I returned on Tuesday and dialed the number, there were over thirty (!!) messages. I grabbed a yellow pad and started going through them, jotting down the names and phone numbers.

I took special note of one who said he was an attorney, that he was thirty, that he lived and worked in Middletown, and he lived above a pub. My ears really perked up when he mentioned that he had "skippered a yacht around the Greek Isles" the previous summer. He sounded nice, normal. I later discovered that he had placed the call (at that time you had to pay to respond) on a dare from Alan, the owner of the pub. He had been sitting around moping that he didn't have a girlfriend - so Alan threw the Reader at him and told him to find himself one. He might as well have thrown a dart.

At that point, I was also thirty, an attorney, and I also worked in Middletown (better known as Bankers Hill,) around the corner from a pub called Speakers Corner. (Alas, it no longer exists.) When I called, he thought it was a business call until I explained who I was. We laughed about the coincidences and our shared neighborhood, and made plans to meet for a beer at the pub at the end of the week.

On Friday, I wound up getting in fight of sorts with a good friend who was also my co-worker. It was unpleasant, and I was upset. I called to cancel but he had already left - so I packed up my things and went to the bar to apologize and excuse myself.
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As I walked in, I locked eyes with a guy standing just inside in the doorway - grinning from ear to ear. My date had told me that he was about six feet tall, with dark hair and a medium build. Though he was handsome, this guy didn't look quite six feet tall. He had salt and pepper hair, and was a little heavier than what I would call medium build.

I walked right past him, went to the bar, and told Alan that I was supposed to meet someone. He turned back toward the doorway and bellowed "James!" Of course it was him. (We've had many good laughs about this since.)

I immediately began apologizing, saying that I wasn't myself and didn't feel up for drinks, but I had come to excuse myself in person since I couldn't reach him by phone. But he was charming and funny in that particular way of his. He laughed and at my story, and made me laugh - which was what I remembered most about our meeting. I stayed a little longer than I had intended, and before parting company we made plans to meet again - this time at Laurel on the following Wednesday evening.

As part of the single-person self-improvement mission I was on at the time, I had planned to start Lindy Hop lessons that same night at a dance studio on 5th Avenue - just up the street from Laurel. He was late, and when it was time for me to leave we'd only been there for forty-five minutes. Not wanting to be rude, I asked him if he'd like to come with me to the swing dancing lesson. Much to my surprise, he said yes.

To this day I can barely remember what the Lindy Hop looks like, let alone how to do it - but I do remember that I started to look forward to dancing with James as we rotated partners around the room. Though he couldn't dance a lick, he always kept me laughing.

After a few weeks, he invited me on a weekend date to a play at the Old Globe. Stones in My Pocket was sold out, so he bought tickets to The Seagull. The plan was to go to dinner beforehand at the then very-new Parallel 33. Somehow before I got to his house, I managed to get a run in my black tights. When I showed it to him, embarrassed, he said "Maybe we'll get a discount because my date looks like a French whore."

It went downhill from there.

We headed off to Parallel 33. It turned out that he had been to the restaurant for lunch but not for dinner, and didn't realize we would need reservations. We couldn't get a table, so we ate perched on the ridiculously slippery stools at the bar. To make matters worse, I hated the dish I ordered, and I was just getting over a cold. After drinking red wine with dinner, I could hardly breathe.

When the bill arrived, he astonished me by turning to me and saying "Since I got the play tickets, why don't you get dinner?" I remember excusing myself to go to the bathroom and cursing him in the mirror. Who the heck did he think he was?? I hadn't wanted to see that damned play in the first place!

On the way back, he suggested that we park the car at his house and walk to the theater. I told him I couldn't walk that far in the shoes I was wearing, so he dropped me off in front of the theater. As I stood in front of the theater, it started to drizzle. When the lights flashed and the bell rang, I wondered if he had just decided to ditch me there. (To be fair, I was being a bit of a brat.) He finally came jogging up - having walked all the way from his apartment. The play itself was excruciating.
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On the long walk back, he started to ask me about the ad. Whether I was dating anybody else, whether I wanted to date anybody else, how many people I had met, how many people I planned to meet. I remember telling him not to worry about it. When we finally reached my car, he went to give me a kiss and I gave him my cheek.

On Monday, he called and said three simple words. "Well that sucked." I'm not sure exactly how or why, but the spell of the terrible date was broken. Doubtless, it had something to do with the fact that he had the chutzpah to acknowledge it. He asked me if he I wanted him to continue to come to the dance lessons with me, and I said yes.

We continued to have fun goofing off at the dance lessons, and a couple of weeks later, we had a much more successful second date. This time I chose the venue - dinner at the bar at Roppongi and the Festival of Animation in La Jolla. We had a great time, and capped the night off with a real, actual kiss.

What really sealed the deal though, was the dinner he cooked for me later that week. He made his special Chicken Cordon Bleu, stuffed with bleu cheese, pancetta and asparagus - served with salad and wine. Before dinner, there were wasabi peas and cold beer. But what I remember most is what he made for dessert. He baked chocolate chip cookies from scratch. While I watched, right there in the kitchen.

The recipe came straight off of the bag - but it was so much fun to watch him get out the little bags of flour and sugar he had bought just for the occasion and go through the various steps - knowing he was doing it all for me. The time it took to bake them was just the right interlude between dinner and dessert, and we ate them warm and gooey, with melting vanilla Haagen Dazs.

After dinner, as I lounged on his sofa - eating cookies and sipping Bailey's Irish Cream on the rocks - I asked him, "Is this what life with you is like?"

Lucky for me, it is.

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Here's a little Valentine's twist on the traditional recipe. Make them for someone you love - preferably while they watch!

Heart-Shaped Chocolate Chip Cookies

3 1/8 cups organic all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
3 sticks of organic butter, softened
1 1/8 cup granulated sugar
1 1/8 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 organic eggs
16 oz 60% Ghirardelli Chocolate Chips
1 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 375 degrees

Whisk flour and baking soda together in a small bowl.

Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, salt and vanilla in large mixer bowl. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Gradually beat in flour mixture, then stir in chips and nuts.

Spread into greased half sheet pan, and bake in preheated 375-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until light golden brown. Cool in pan on wire rack.

When cool, cut out heart shapes with a 2 inch cookie cutter. Trim with a paring knife, if necessary.

Eat scraps.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Last Minute Valentine's Guide

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Here's a tip guys - even if a girl says she doesn't care about Valentine's Day, even if she talks about how commercial it is, or says it doesn't really mean anything - she will still be thrilled if you do something to make it special. You will be rewarded. Perhaps handsomely. With that in mind, I have put together a little last minute guide - for all you people (not just guys!) who have waited til the last minute. Hopefully this will make your life a little easier, and a little more fun in the coming few days!

Dining Out Locally:
Can't get a reservation at Mr. A's? Try these options:

Burgers and Beer - Sink into a red vinyl booth at the Longhorn in Mission Gorge and enjoy an ice cold Budweiser with a juicy cheese burger and onion rings. Load up on the banana peppers on the condiment tray, and don't miss the John Wayne room!

Adventurous Vegetarian - Spread in North Park - a hip little place in an up and coming neighborhood. Also within walking distance of Heaven Sent Desserts, which might be worth another try.

Old-School Elegance - Dobson's downtown - it's so much more fun if you sit at the bar. Try the Mussel Bisque.

Get a Room - the Fontainbleau Room at the Westgate, JSix at the Solamar, the Grant Grill at the Grant Hotel, or 910 at the Colonial Hotel. Some of these may even deliver the food to your room. I know from experience that 910 will.

Love Him (or Her) Long Time - Red Pearl Kitchen - where the food is wok-fired, and the desserts are always Happy Endings.

Or, if none of these tickle your fancy - try your luck on Open Table

Chocolate - What Could Be Better?

Locally, we have Chuao Chocolate (the Abuela Hot Chocolate is heavenly!)

Favorites from further afield include:

L.A. Burdick - recently praised in the Feb, 2007 issue of Vogue by Jeffrey Steingarten.

Daniel Chocolates from Vancouver.

Recchiuti Confections in San Francisco.

On the mail order front - we have the beautiful creations of Chocolate Deities and one of my favorite brands - Amedei (from Amazon) - though it might be a bit tight for shipping by the time you read this.

In my opinion though - the most romantic thing you can do for someone is cook for them. A simple three course meal at home can do wonders. (Check back for a story about my own experience with this!)

For recipes some of my favorite cookbooks are Sunday Suppers at Lucques, the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, or Jamie's Dinners - or head to Epicurious or Chow for ideas. Just make sure you avoid anything you would have to sweat over for too long, or might make you fall asleep too soon!

If that is beyond you or you just don't have time - Waters Catering is offering a Valentine's takeout menu, and I think Whole Foods is as well. You could also put together a lovely takeout meal on your own at either Whole Foods or Bristol Farms.

We will be dining at Jayne's Gastropub , for their first night of dinner service.

XOXO - Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Red Velvet Cupcakes with Sprinkles Cream Cheese Frosting

Red Velvet Cupcakes
I must confess, I am fascinated by Sprinkles cupcakes. I've always been a sucker for cupcakes, even before they were trendy, and I just love those little dots they put on top. Not to mention the fact that they have twenty some-odd flavors. I know I'll probably be be disappointed when I finally try one, but they sure do look like fun. It looks like they just opened a shop in Corona Del Mar, and they also have shops planned in several other locations, so I guess I'll get my chance pretty soon.

Meanwhile, they have started selling their cake mixes in Williams Sonoma stores and through their website. Like everything else Sprinkles, they come in cool packaging - these nifty heavy duty cardboard tubes. But still, it's just cake mix, right? For $14.00? And it only makes one dozen cupcakes? It does include the cool little dots, but I still just couldn't do it. I wanted two dozen cupcakes (for an office bake sale) and I wasn't going to pay thirty dollars for cake mix alone, then have to buy the rest of the ingredients and bake them too. I may be a sucker, but I'm not crazy.

I've had red velvet cupcakes in mind for a while, and thought that would be the perfect thing for the bake sale, it being close to Valentine's Day and all. I found many different formulas on the internet for making the recipe from scratch - but I had two boxes of Duncan Hines Butter Recipe cake mix in the cabinet for making Sock it To Me Cake (normally I'm a scratch kind of girl, but it's a family favorite.)  The Sprinkles mix gave me the idea to use one - so I did a little research on the internet and set to work.

Red velvet cake is essentially a very moist, lightly chocolate flavored cake, dyed red with an obscene amount of red food coloring. Exactly how obscene was not made clear to me until I started on this recipe. It takes a LOT of food coloring. I used paste color, diluted with a little water, and mixed it with the cocoa to help it blend into the batter. Even so, my cakes did not come out as red as most you will see. It was good enough for me, but if you want them darker - just keep adding more dye.
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This cake seems to be experiencing a surge in popularity lately, to the point where it's downright trendy. I'm not sure why, but I like the explanation in the Wikipedia article - that the groom's cake in the movie "Steel Magnolias" was a red velvet cake in the shape of an armadillo. I didn't realize it was a Southern recipe, but it makes sense - it's kind of got that flair to it. The Wikipedia article also mentions that the interaction of the non-alkaline cocoa with the buttermilk helps produce the reddish brown color, so it would be best to avoid using "dutched" cocoa in this recipe. I used Scharffenberger, and it seemed to work pretty well.

Most of the from-scratch formulas use a lot of shortening or butter, buttermilk, a couple of tablespoons of cocoa, a WHOLE BOTTLE of red food coloring, and a little bit of baking soda and vinegar, mixed together and then added to the batter. I figured that the cake mix had all of the dry ingredients I would need, so I just added the cocoa and food coloring, the buttermilk, a little oil, and a little vinegar and vanilla extract.

The cakes were chocolatey and tangy from the buttermilk, and had a really good moist texture - but I thought I could still detect just a little of that "cake mix" flavor. I had actually intended to do a batch from scratch last night for comparison - but I just didn't get around to it. It will be interesting to see how those turn out, and whether the shortcut of using the mix actually saves much time. I might also have to go ahead and spring for one of those tubes, just to round out the comparisons. It's a much more legitimate expenditure if it's for research purposes, right?
Red Velvet Cupcakes
Though I didn't use their mix, I did use the Sprinkles recipe for cream cheese frosting. I had to add a little more powdered sugar to get mine stiff enough (my butter and cream cheese were really soft) so I've reflected that here. This is only supposed to make enough for one dozen cupcakes, but I managed to frost almost two dozen with it. I thought it was plenty, but if you want that look of big mounds of frosting, or if you plan to pipe it on - you might want to double the recipe!

"Shortcut" Red Velvet Cupcakes with Sprinkles Cream Cheese Frosting

for the cakes:
2 heaping tablespoons cocoa (I used Scharffenberger)
1/4 -1/2 tsp paste red food coloring, or 1 teaspoon of liquid (1 Tablespoon if you want a REALLY red cake)
1/4 cup boiling water
1 package Duncan Hines Butter Recipe Cake Mix
3/4 stick butter (6 Tbsp) very soft
1/2 cup of buttermilk
1/4 cup canola oil
3 eggs
1 tsp white vinegar
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350

Prepare two 12 cup muffin tins with paper liners (I used these - found 'em at Peoples)

Add the food coloring to your boiling water, and pour over the cocoa - stir to make a paste.

Cream the butter, oil, eggs, buttermilk, vinegar, vanilla and cake mix together in a standing mixture with the whisk attachment. Add the cocoa mixture and beat on medium high speed for four minutes - until fluffy and creamy.

Fill cups just over 3/4 of the way full, about 1/2 inch from the top. Bake about 20 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.

Sprinkles Cream Cheese Frosting Recipe
8 oz of cream cheese, very soft
4 oz of butter, very soft
1/8 tsp salt
4 cups of powdered sugar, sifted
1 tsp of vanilla extract

Beat the cream cheese and butter with the salt until light and fluffy. Gradually add the powdered sugar, and the vanilla - beat until smooth and creamy. Dollop onto the cupcakes with a small offset spatula and spread by pushing from the center out to the edges.

Makes 24 standard size cupcakes.

South Beach-ish Apple Walnut Muffins

Even though I can't bring myself to actually go on the diet itself, I am enjoying cooking from the South Beach cookbooks. I have the regular one, the quick and easy one, and the entertaining book. With nary an exception, the recipes I've tried have all been tasty, and I've learned a few good tricks from them. (The crabcakes and the chicken parmesan are particularly good!)
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One of my favorite recipes is for these muffins, made with whole grain flour and just a little fat and sugar. They are loaded with chunks of apple and walnuts, which keep them nice and moist and add a little texture. The recipe actually calls for sugar substitute, but I just can't bring myself to bake with Splenda, especially when the recipe calls for so little sugar. The book says these are supposed to be an "occasional part of your phase 3 breakfast." There are other muffin recipes in the book for phase 1 and 2, but these are as far as I plan to go, at least for now. They're best on the day they are made, but they freeze fairly well too - I microwave them, wrapped in a paper towel, for 45 seconds of so - and enjoy them with a schmear of Trader Joes Organic Apricot-Orange spread.
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Apple Walnut Muffins
adapted from The South Beach Diet Cookbook, by Arthur Agatson, MD

3/4 cup of whole grain pastry flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour (or either can be substituted for the other)
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup buttermilk
3 Tbsp canola oil
2 Tbsp packed dark brown sugar
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 egg, beaten
1/2 medium apple, cored, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 400
Coat a 12 cup nonstick muffin pan with cooking spray, or line with paper liners.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger and salt. In a large bowl, combine the buttermilk, oil, brown sugar, sugar and egg. Stir in the flour mixture just until combined, and stir in the apples and walnuts. Do not overmix.

Fill the muffin cups about 2/3 full, and bake for about 12 minutes, until a pick inserted in one comes out clean. Cool on a rack for five minutes, and remove to a rack to cool completely. ( I recently learned somewhere else that if you don't take muffins that are in paper cups out of the trays to cool, the paper cups will detach from the muffins (or cupcakes) because of the steam buildup. I haven't had that happen to me, but thought it was kind of interesting.

Each muffin has about 150 calories, 8 grams of fat, and 18 grams of carbohydrates.

P.S. - I had the privilege of enjoying lunch today with Angie from Crazy Salad at Mama Testa in Hillcrest. The food was good, and so was the company. It is clear that Angie is very passionate and knowledgeable about the local food scene, and I really enjoyed meeting her!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A New Yorker's View of the Food Blogging World

Do you remember that old poster of the New Yorker's View of the US? The one that showed the Midwest as a flat empty plain punctuated by a few landmarks, like Vegas and the Rocky Mountains? Well if the article in today's New York times is any indication, it would appear to be an accurate portrayal. The front page of the Sunday Styles features a prominent article about food blogging, which in typical myopic New York fashion, omits any mention of the fact that food bloggers exist outside of the City of New York. I guess I can understand, since there are sooooo many food bloggers out there - but they mention only a few of the many prominent blogs in New York, and don't even nod to the possibility that readers in other cities might want to find food bloggers who write about their cities as well.

The slightly snarky tone of the article also reflects the undercurrent of jealousy evident in most mainstream press coverage of blogging world. The other evidence of this jealousy is the fact that most mainstream press outlets are starting their own blogs. The San Diego Union Tribune (aka has two blogs, a dining out blog, and a nightlife blog - called Side Dish and Velvet Rope, respectively, and The NY Times itself has several blogs put out by Frank Bruni, Michael Pollan and Eric Asimov. Even Gourmet is into the act, with blogs on Epicurious.It seems a bit silly, if you ask me, not to mention duplicative, considering they provide ordinary press coverage of the same subjects, but the mainstream press (particularly newspapers) are desperate to increase their readership and ad revenues. The future of the press is on the internet, not on paper, and the writing is on the wall. (An image of Burt Reynolds in "Boogie Nights" flashes through my mind.)

On my sidebar, I have a list of the San Diego food blogs that I admire - and a few from LA and OC. I recently updated my blog roll to add some newer blogs that I like, and take some out that I simply stopped reading - not because they weren't good, but just because things change. I wish I had the time to search for well-written restaurant blogs in other major cities, so that I could recommend them to others who are looking for good writing about food in their home town. If you know of a good food blog about restaurants in your city - or heck, if you write a good food blog about restaurants in your city - please leave a comment and toot that horn! Especially if you live outside of NY, LA or San Francisco. I will figure out some way to get the best "reader recommended" blogs onto the sidebar!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Greek Lentil Soup

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If there was a photography contest for "Food Photo Most Resembling The Surface of a Distant Planet" - surely this one would win. It's a picture of the lentil soup I made a couple of weeks ago, just after all of the ingredients were added to the pot. The purply color is from the dark lentils - strange, isn't it?

Not to fear though, after simmering, it looked like this:
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The recipe is adapted from the Gourmet cookbook's recipe for Curried Lentil Soup with Tomato and Spinach. I set out to make the recipe in the book - but it turned out the ginger I bought was spoiled, and I couldn't find my curry powder, so instead I seasoned the soup with some dried oregano and fresh thyme I had on hand.

What I had in mind was the lentil soup from the Athens Market. What I made wasn't quite as good, but it was pretty close. I always think soups are better when they sit for a little while, so we froze some, ate some the next night for dinner, and packed the rest with us to eat in front of the fire at our favorite little Julian getaway - Big Cat Cabin.  It was just the thing for a chilly winter night.
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Greek Lentil Soup
adapted from the Gourmet Cookbook

1/4 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 cup roughly chopped carrot
2 garlic cloves
1 tsp dried oregano
1 bay leaf
1 Tbsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 cup lentils (I used the small dark ones)
2 1/2 cups organic chicken or vegetable broth
2 1/2 cups water
1 cup chopped drained canned tomatoes
lemon wedges
salt and pepper

Cook the onion in oil over medium low heat until lightly browned. Add garlic and carrot cook for one minute. Add seasonings and cook, stirring, for thirty seconds. Add lentils, stock, tomatoes and water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until lentils are tender, about 30 minutes for green lentils, 45 minutes for black caviar lentils.

Season to taste with salt and pepper and the lemon juice.

To make the curried lentil soup, add 2 tsp finely grated ginger to the garlic, and season with one tablespoon of curry powder and one teaspoon of ground cumin, instead of the oregano, bay leaf and thyme. Add the tomatoes at the end of the cooking, and 2 cups of coarsely chopped spinach, and cook until the spinach wilts. I bet this would be good served with a dollop of plain yogurt and chopped cilantro!