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...