Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Something Fishy Around Here

It's taken me quite a while to get into sushi. My first experience was about fifteen years ago, on my first dinner excursion with a new friend at work. Felicia was a foodie who wanted to share food experiences with me. I made my first pot of gumbo with Felicia and her roommate; they put so many chiles in it, it was too incendiary to taste. We'd also have a semi-regular afternoon tea with homemade scones and lemon curd. Had I not assumed this first sushi adventure was a fluke, I would never have shared another meal with her.

My experience with Japanese food in the past had been limited to cooked items - tempura, tonkatsu, noodle soups, and teppanyaki. As a little girl, I always got a thrill out of those knife-wielding chefs who tossed shrimp at diners and set fires on the grill within a stack of onion rings. Sushi was still pretty alien to me - all I knew is that it was raw, and raw is yucky. My first taste of sushi did nothing to change this thought.

Kawasaki, a fine Japanese restaurant that has been operating on Charles Street in Baltimore for decades now, was where I lost my sushi cherry. Felicia steered me towards a sampler of cooked sushi, as she knew I was not ready for raw fish at that point. My plate contained cooked shrimp draped over rice, a California roll, some inarizushi (stuffed tofu skins), and tomago (omelette over rice). All of it disgusted me. Both the inari and the tomago were sweet, and the nori wrapper on the Cali roll was both chewy and fishy. The pickled ginger was hideous, and watching F stuff pieces of it into her sushi rolls before popping the whole mess into her mouth made me slightly queasy. Then she gave me a piece of raw tuna to taste. I demurred, but she insisted. It was cold and too thick and I felt like I was chewing on my own tongue. I gulped my ice water to help me swallow the offensive matter and vowed never to eat sushi again.

I actually had nightmares about the experience for many years. Seriously.

Not long ago, I decided to give it another shot. Someone had advised me to try the eel, as it was cooked and served in a familiar teriyaki-flavored sauce. I tried, and I liked - very much. A Korean buffet that Neal and I like has a selection of simple sushi rolls and nigiri, and I tasted them at random over a series of visits. Not having to pay extra for them made me feel bold, and if I didn't like something, I could always get rid of the taste with a mouthful of bulgogi.

Now, I occasionally crave sushi. I'm still not so much into the raw stuff, although I will eat it in or on a roll. Neal loves it, suprisingly enough, and always orders a selection of raw nigiri. Me, I'm all into the fancy rolls, and if they have the rice on the outside, and better yet, no nori at all, yum! And I still love the eel nigiri too. And the tamago and inari have grown on me as well, although I don't go out of my way to order them. And I love flying fish roe, but I've hated every other type of caviar I've encountered.

Our favorite sushi restaurant is Yokozuna in Ocean City, Maryland. They are very expensive, and the sushi is small (true Japanese style, I would imagine...tiny and pricey), but the combinations are unique and the fish is always very very fresh. If you go there, make room for dessert - I order the Kahlua chocolate Bundt cake, which they serve heated, a good 4" slab of chocolately evilness, and Neal gets a bowl of green tea ice cream. Good separately, but fabulous together.

Have I gone back to Kawasaki since that fateful tongue-chewing experience? Sure. They make yummy food. And I've even had sushi again.

Monday, October 17, 2005

A Well-stocked Pantry

So I have this idea for a cookbook. The concept: having a well-stocked pantry. With a variety of staple ingredients on hand, one can create myriad dishes. Leftovers are another pantry basic, especially for busy couples who don't have time to cook every day. Yeah, so maybe it's not a completely unique idea, but my book won't lean so heavily on convenience foods as some others.

Today, I'd like to demonstrate a bit how this concept works.

On Sunday morning, I make pumpkin pancakes using half a can of canned pumpkin, plus eggs, milk, and Bisquick (all pantry staples).

On Monday evening, we have pumpkin and leek soup, using the remaining canned pumpkin and fresh leeks, plus a salad.

Tuesday's dinner is a salad and pre-prepared rotisserie chicken from the supermarket.

On Wednesday, we have sauteed salmon fillet (a freezer staple) with pantry staple basmati rice and fresh asparagus.

Thursday's dinner is the leftover pumpkin-leek soup, pureed, with added pantry staple spices (cumin, curry powder) and mango chutney to create an Indian flavor.

On Friday, we have chicken biryani made with the leftover basmati rice, leftover rotisserie chicken, leftover asparagus, and pantry staple biryani paste.

No meal took more than 30 minutes to prepare. All were tasty and even exotic, but made with ingredients on-hand or found in the local supermarket. We went to the supermarket on Monday night and bought the leeks, asparagus, and rotisserie chicken, plus any pantry staples that had run out. Many items, such as the chicken and the rice, are extremely versatile, and can be used in many combinations. I could have, for instance, made chicken and rice soup on Friday, using pantry staple chicken stock. Or a chicken chili, with pantry staple canned tomatoes or tomatillos or black beans.

Putting a cookbook together is probably a lot of hard work, but I think my idea is pretty sound and I am willing to give it a try. Do I have any buyers? :)

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Happy Anniversary to Me

Yesterday was our fifth wedding anniversary, so we wanted to dine someplace special. We decided on Pazo, the latest venture by local restaurateur Cindy Wolf.

For my birthday in 2003, we tried out her Charleston. It was meh. After hearing so many wonderful things about the place, we thought we couldn't go wrong. But the staff was so everpresent as to be suffocating, the dining room was too brightly lit, we were too close to the open kitchen that was even more brightly lit, and the food was...ok. I was extremely disappointed with two things in particular: my "salad" of wilted spinach that turned out to be a huge pile of cooked spinach without much else. I was anticipating mostly raw spinach that had been tossed with a warm vinaigrette, but no, this was cooked all the way through. Spinach has an astringent quality to it that comes out at a point about mid-way between wilted and cooked-to-death, and this pile of dark green leafiness was highly astringent. The second thing that turned me off was the extreme gluey quality of the sauces. They tasted fine, but our lips were still prone to sticking together hours after the meal.

Despite that, we tried Ms. Wolf's second restaurant, Petit Louis. We liked it so much we've been back three times. The food is wonderful (apart from the occasional gluey sauce) and the whole francophilic atmosphere is charming.

Now to Pazo. We figured it could be hit or miss for us, but how badly could they screw up the myriad small plates that make up Spanish tapas? No screw ups at all, as far as we could tell. We were a bit overwhelmed by the menu, which offers sixty-nine items in eleven categories (not including a dessert menu, which we did not see), so we wimped out and took advantage of "Pazo's Grand Table for Two," a steal at $49. We received eleven dishes: eggplant dip, whole wheat fougasse, shrimp with garlic & tomato, romaine hearts, grilled swordfish, pinchitos andalucia, slow-cooked lamb, pane di ceci, grilled mushrooms, fresh mahon, and crème catalan. This was washed down with a bottle of Bobal/Tempranillo, Rozaleme (Requeria) 2003. The eggplant dip was pure heaven - smoky roasted eggplant pureed to an ethereally smooth texture and flavored with a touch of cayenne and extra virgin olive oil. The shrimp with garlic and tomato featured small but flavorful shrimp in a highly garlicky sauce, what every "shrimp scampi" aspires to be. The pinchitos were skewered bits of cumin-scented pork with a red pepper aioli and the slow-cooked lamb was as tender as pot roast and served with the worlds most garlicky mashed potatoes drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. The grilled mushrooms were smoky and unusual, redolent of rosemary, and bedded with chopped arugula in a tart lemony dressing. The pane di ceci was a chickpea pancake, cooked in such a hot pan that it had a flavor akin to the Chinese "wok chi," and was topped with a banyuls onion marmelade. Oh, so wonderful, but I must confess that chickpeas hate me and my digestive system both. The creme catalan was our dessert, a lemony custard with a bruleed top, the tangy lemon and the burnt caramel making sweet music together in my mouth.

But enough about the food. Go try it. The prices are shamefully cheap, including those on the extensive wine list (there are bottles listed for $16!). The decor is extremely hip and trendy, dark and clubby with Spanish/Mediterranean influences. It gets noisy, so go early if you want a quiet romantic dinner. If you like noise, go late in the evening, when the first floor lounge is transformed into a dance floor.

Pazo
1425 Aliceanna St
Baltimore, MD 21231
(410) 534-7296

Pazo on Urbanspoon

Pazo

Monday, October 03, 2005

Spicy!

Sriracha hot sauce, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways....

The first time I tried Sriracha, it nearly blew my head off. It was at a Japanese stir-fry joint in the local mall, where clear plastic squeezy bottles of the red stuff were available for those who liked their food a bit less-tame than the usual. I was still working on building my tolerance to chiles, and a li'l dab just about did me in.

These days, I'll put it on a hotdog or hamburger, and squirt it into soups or chili. There's always a green-capped bottle of it in the fridge. The taste is hot pickled chile pepper (think pureed hoagie spread rather than pickled jalapenos) with a mega-dose of garlic. Yum!

One of my favorite dishes to make that features Sriracha is a bouillabaisse of sorts. I had eaten it several years ago at a local restaurant called Ixia. That chef has since left and took his recipe with him, so I had to make it up from my taste memory. A tomato-based seafood stew, seasoned with sriracha, this dish can be made as spicy or as mild as you like. I made this last night for dinner and added chopped steamed bok choy to the broth just before serving.

Sriracha Chile Bouillabaisse

1 medium onion, finely diced
1 32-oz can diced tomatoes in juice (without seasonings)
2 bottles of clam juice plus 2 cups of water
or
2 Knorr fish bouillon cubes plus 4 cups of water
1 tblsp honey
Sriracha chile sauce
1/2 lb large shrimp, shelled and deveined
1/2 lb large scallops
4 fillets mild white-fleshed fish (red snapper, tilapia, halibut are all good)
flour for dredging
olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

In a dutch oven or heavy soup pot, heat olive oil and sautee onion until transluscent. Add tomatoes, clam juice or bouillon cubes, and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add honey. Cover and let broth simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, to allow flavors to meld. Add sriracha to taste (if you don't like a lot of heat, start with a tablespoon, otherwise add a tablespoon or more) and salt and pepper, if needed.

Dredge fish fillets in a bit of flour that has been seasoned with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Heat olive oil in a saute pan and add shrimp and scallops. Cook until done. Remove seafood from pan. Add more olive oil, if necessary, and brown fish fillets on both sides. Ideally, the flesh should be cooked through and the skin, if there is any, should be nicely crispy.

To serve:
Divide shrimp and scallops between four large deep bowls. Ladle over tomato/sriracha broth. Top all with a fish fillet. Sprinkle with chopped parsley or cilantro, if desired. Serve with toasted French bread to mop up the juices.

Serves 4

Sunday, October 02, 2005

I Love Fall!

Fall is my favorite time of year, and Fall means pumpkins. Orange has never been my favorite color, but I am very fond of the heavy-skinned and lobed members of the family cucurbits (thus pumpkins are cousins of cucumbers...also watermelons). They make festive decorations, singly or in groups, and the sight of them always reminds me that the long hot summer is finally over.

Pumpkins play a part in my pantry all year long; there's always at least one can of solid-pack pumpkin and jars of pumpkin butter lurking. Apart from the standard pumpkin pie, I like to make pumpkin soup and pumpkin pancakes. In fact, the latter is what we had for breakfast this morning.

Pumpkin Pancakes
2 cups reduced-fat Bisquick (or substitute your favorite pancake mix or home recipe)
1 1/4 cup milk
2 large eggs
1 cup solid-pack pumpkin
1 tsp ground cinnamon
dash ground cloves
dash ground cinnamon
freshly grated nutmeg

Mix ingredients thoroughly. Ladle onto a hot, greased griddle by quarter-cupfuls. Cook until bubbly on top, then flip, cooking until nicely browned on both sides. Serve with real maple syrup and butter.

I am not a huge fan of Bisquick, having eaten it for most of my life. It turns out dry, flannely, syrup-sucking pancakes, and does marginally better for waffles and the like. But I have found that adding an extra egg, plus a moist ingredient, such as pumpkin or applesauce, goes a long way in making the product taste...well...delicious!
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