Friday, October 20, 2017

Flashback Friday - Ma Po Tofu

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This post originally appeared on on November 9, 2012.

Mr. Minx here. It's been a while since I've reported on one of my weekday dinner adventures, so Ms. Minx thought this would be a good time for me to attempt a recipe she found in Fushia Dunlop's book, Land of Plenty. It's a Sichuan dish called ma po dou fu, or ma po tofu for us uncultured sorts. A spicy concoction using tofu and ground beef, the dish looked like it would fulfill our desires to have something healthy and flavorful. To add to the healthy nature of the dish, we replaced the ground beef with ground chicken.

At this point, I think it is important to bring up an issue that has daunted me since I started preparing our evening meals Monday through Friday. That issue is timing. Minxy takes the bus home from work, and the bus system is notoriously unreliable. Just when I get used to my beloved walking through the door at a certain time for several days in a row, she will unexpectedly be 15 minutes late. Although not necessarily a big deal in the vast scheme of things, it can be lethal for the taste and quality of a stir-fry or pasta dish. Therefore, I've taken to getting as much prep work done as possible before she arrives home, and then starting the final assembly after I've kissed her hello.

When I looked at the recipe for ma po tofu, it was clear there was a lot of quick sauteeing with the overall cooking time amounting to a scant 10 minutes or so. I decided to be clever and do all my chopping and measuring of ingredients first, and then wait to do the actual cooking. Setting about the prep work about a half hour before the expected cooking time, I ran into my first snag. The recipe called for leeks and, as anyone who's cooked leeks knows, they have to be thoroughly washed because they can often be filled with sand. Sometimes I get lucky and the leeks are pretty clean. This was not one of those times. I chopped the leeks into rings and soaked them in a bowl of cold water. Once the sand settled to the bottom of the bowl, I drained the water and washed them again. And again. And again. I had just started, and I was already falling behind.

I started assembling the other ingredients. The recipe called for fermented black beans. After scouring the pantry, I came up empty. Then I remembered that I had purchased a container of Korean fermented black bean paste a while back which I was going to use for some undetermined experimentation at a later date. This seemed like as good a time as any, so I guesstimated how much paste might equal the required quantity of black beans. Another crisis averted.

Next step was to cook the ground chicken. This is when I realized that I hadn't thoroughly defrosted the meat, which had lingered in the freezer waiting for some good use. I decided to start cooking the meat right away and hope for the best. The meat is supposed to be crisped up over a high flame, but a chicken popsicle doesn't exactly crisp up; it stews in its own moisture and becomes a crumbly soup. I tried not to panic. I figured I still had just enough time to cook it. Then I hear the Minx walk through the front door 15 minutes early.

Seeing that I was clearly in the weeds, she jumped in to help, but I could sense her disappointment in my lack of planning. Anyway, we forged ahead. Although the recipe is not exactly complicated, there are several steps, adding each ingredient separately and allowing them to cook for short, but specific amounts of time. Chili bean paste, black bean paste, ground chiles, tofu, and leeks are all added to the meat and cooked for short intervals. Fine if you know what you're doing, but a little crazy for me as I ran back and forth to the cookbook, fumbling with my reading glasses, trying to make sure each step was properly executed.

In the end, the ma po tofu turned out to be a wonderful dinner choice. The tofu, ground meat, and black beans provided sufficient heartiness, while the clean spiciness so prevalent in Sichuan cooking made it seem somehow light. I'm sure the use of ground beef would've given it a more savory flavor, but the ground chicken worked just fine for my palate, and I could feel better that is was less fatty. It's a dish I would like to attempt again when I have more time and properly thawed ground meat.

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Monday, October 16, 2017

Spotlight On - B & O Brasserie

Not sure if anyone knows, but I've been writing a restaurant column for the City Walker App Blog. The purpose of the app itself is to give visitors a local's-eye-view of a city, so they are able to experience it in the same way residents do--on foot. (Not that anyone actually walks anywhere anymore.) The blog offers a bit more detail; I have endeavored to take users on a stroll through the city while pointing out restaurants along the way. In addition to the walking posts, I have been writing others that put certain favorite restaurants of mine in a spotlight. I thought I could share those here with you.

A high school project that required seeking out mythological iconography in architecture is what originally led me to the B & O Railroad Building in downtown Baltimore. This H-shaped Beaux Arts structure features a larger-than-life-sized figure of Mercury, Roman god of many things including commerce, communication, and travelers. He’s holding the caduceus, a short staff wrapped by two serpents and topped with a pair of wings. You’ve seen it before, as it’s commonly used as a symbol for healthcare. Except that’s wrong. The symbol of medicine is actually the Rod of Asclepius, a staff wrapped by a single snake, no wings. But considering the expense of health care in this country, perhaps the symbol of commerce is more apt these days, huh? But I digress. Mercury and his snakes are hanging out with an allegorical figure called Progress of Industry. Allegedly, there is a locomotive up there with them, but it looks to me like Prog is holding a double-dip ice cream cone. Mercury is definitely looking at the cone, as if thinking, “damn, why won’t he share with me?”

Look up at those figures and tell me I’m wrong. They’re still hovering above what is now the entranceway to the Kimpton Hotel Monaco at 2 North Charles Street.

Thus ends the architecture and mythology tour for the day.

To the right of the hotel entrance, up a few steps, is the doorway to the B & O American Brasserie, the hotel’s restaurant. But it’s not a typical hotel restaurant in that it’s really really great. (My apologies to hotel restaurants everywhere, but you know that some of you are, shall we say, meh.) Just beyond the front door is the restaurant bar, where you will find the cocktail stylings of multi-award-winning Head Bartender Brendan Dorr and his crew. Honestly, I’ve never been disappointed with any of the drinks Mr Dorr has invented, all complex masterpieces. I am a fan of niche (read: expensive) fragrances, and some of Brendan’s concoctions have reminded me of fine perfumes with their intricate combinations of flavors and scents. I love the Galavanter, made with rye, elderflower liqueur, and dry vermouth, and the Cardamom Daiquiri made with apricot-infused rum and cardamom bitters. Oh, there’s wine and beer too, of course, but the cocktails are too good to pass up.

Before you get too distracted by the drinks, take a look at the restaurant menu. The B & O serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and brunch on the weekends), but dinner is my favorite. The current Executive Chef is Scott Hines, who took over the kitchen when Michael Ransom went back home to Michigan to open his own restaurant, Ima, in Detroit. (I mention this because I feel Chef Ransom is one to watch.) Hines, like Ransom and the chefs before him, is wildly creative but without being weird. Case in point: he makes a gremolata out of marjoram and orange, rather than the usual parsley and lemon--a traditional accompaniment to osso buco, or braised veal shank. He puts this highly aromatic and somewhat offbeat condiment atop a dish of house-made pappardelle with slow-braised veal sugo and shaved Pecorino pepato. The dish--pappardelle with a tomato-and-meat sauce--is familiar and comforting, but it has the added zing of that rustic, peppery, cheese and the somewhat piney-oregano flavor of marjoram...and orange. Pow!

Another dish I really enjoyed recently was the oxtail marmalade. It’s like rillettes (cooked shredded meat preserved with fat and served as a spread for bread) meets bacon jam (bacon cooked down with brown sugar to a thick condiment for spreading on everything). It is beefy and unctuous, especially when eaten with a little of the bone marrow schmaltz that comes on the side (to mimic the fat topping of rillettes). A garnish of peppercress and pickled shallots adds touches of green and acidic flavors to offset the richness of the dish.

I now want to apologize, as I’m probably being a little mean by going into such detail. After all, the menu at the B & O changes a few times a year, and Chef Hines is likely working away on his Spring menu as I’m writing this. Rest assured, however, that it will be full of similar delights using ingredients of the season, and I cannot wait to taste everything on it.

As much as I love the B & O Brasserie, I do have one negative thing to say about it. However, it will not affect you, Dear Walker, because you are smart enough to be on foot. It’s this: if you linger more than a couple of hours at the restaurant or bar, the valet parking charge is enough to cause stomach (and wallet) upset. Better to park on the street somewhere nearby. Or, just walk.

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Friday, October 13, 2017

Flashback Friday - Coconut Curd

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This post originally appeared on on October 17, 2012.

I love lemon curd. And lime curd. Especially if it's homemade. And it's so easy to make, there's really no excuse to buy ready made curd from the store (plus, the jarred stuff just isn't creamy/custardy enough). Basically, any fruit juice can be made into a curd (but I wouldn't try pineapple or papaya, in case their special enzymes do weird things to eggs), so why not coconut milk?

Turns out, it works beautifully. The result is like a jam version of coconut custard pie, terrific on everything from toast to oatmeal, but perfect eaten directly from a spoon.

Coconut Curd

4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup coconut milk (or one 5.5oz can)
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces

Whisk together egg yolks and sugar until combined. Place in a saucepan and stir in the coconut milk. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until mixture is thick enough to coat a wooden spoon, about eight minutes. Remove pan from the heat and whisk in the butter, one piece at a time, until each piece is completely absorbed.

Store in a covered jar. Eat within 2 weeks.
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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Bacon Jam at Power Plant Live!

Baltimore-area Bacon lovers should love Bacon Jam, a festival featuring gourmet bacon and pork dishes from local vendors (like Clark Burger and Towson Hot Bagels) plus live music from regional jam bands. (See what they did there?)

Tickets range from $10 (admission to the event) to $60 (a VIP package that includes early admission, a BBQ buffet, unlimited Bacon Bloody Marys and mimosas from 12-1pm, a t-shirt, and vouchers for sampling two bacon dishes and two bacon cocktails), but if you use the promo code BACONJAM5, you can save $5! A portion of the proceeds benefits Volunteering Untapped, Power Plant Live's nonprofit partner.

Tickets for the November 11 event can be purchased via Ticketfly:

Check out the event page on Facebook, and the Power Plant Live! web site for more details.

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