Sunday, December 09, 2007
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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)
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
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.
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.
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 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
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
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 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.
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! )
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!