Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Musings....

First, I would like to commend the hearty folks of New Orleans for going on with their Mardi Gras celebration today. I know it's still pretty sad down there, with thousands still displaced and little relief in sight, but it's important to keep up spirits. Laissez les bons temps roulez!

Second, I was reading Marianne's blog this morning and her post on Open-Faced Tuna Burgers with Wasabi Mayonnaise 1) made me drool; 2) reminded me of a grilled tuna sandwich I had some years ago. Tuna is a tricky fish to cook, as they get dry and inedible with too much cooking. Even a few minutes can be too much. Don't try cooking tuna steaks on a George Foreman grill. Ever. They become chewy, sinewy-textured slabs in mere seconds, and the fish smell never seems to come out of the grill. Sigh. I'll bet Marianne's tuna burgers are scrumptious.

So to my sandwich story. I was having lunch with two friends at Loco Hombre, a Tex-Mex restaurant near Baltimore's Loyola College. I had had plenty of good meals there before--when I stuck to more traditional items like chiles rellenos and burritos--so never thought a simple sandwich would be such a disaster. A tuna steak on a roll with some sort of sauce (I've forgotten at this point) sounded like a good idea at the time, but I would soon find that I was quite wrong about that. The slab of tuna was cooked well beyond done to a state just shy of petrified. The accompanying sauce, served on the side in one of those tiny folded paper cups that some fast food restaurants use for dispensing ketchup, measured barely a teaspoon, and did nothing to alleviate the moisture issue. I'm not one to send food back to the kitchen; my Dad did it all the time, to my great embarrassment, and I understand how it can possibly put the kitchen further in the weeds than it already is. So I flagged down our waitress and requested some mayo for the sandwich, hoping that the additional external moisture would help somewhat. The waitress came back from the kitchen, empty-handed.

"The chef says the sandwich does not come with mayo."
"I understand that, but it's dry and I would like some mayo." I tried to be nice.

The waitress trooped back to the kitchen and once again returned without my condiment.

"The chef is adamant that the sandwich does not come with mayo."
"I don't care what the chef says, this thing is overcooked and so dry I think I found some sand in it. Either he gives me mayo, or he can eat it himself." I wanted to say "or he can shove it up his ass," but decided to be...well, not exactly nice, but not crude either.

"Let me get you something else then. I'll take the sandwich back."

I ordered a salad topped with rock shrimp. My two companions had already finished eating their meals, but I was hungry, so we waited and I ate. On our way out, the manager took me aside and apologized for the temperamental chef. And that was it. The sandwich was taken off my bill, but the salad wasn't comped. I think I was supposed to accept that the chef was a bit of a loon, and that was ok. But it wasn't ok; the place wasn't busy and his prima-donna attitude about something so insignificant as mayo was ridiculous. It's not as if I asked him to substitute a chicken breast for the tuna and change the roll to an everything bagel, toasted, and hey, could he put some cheese on that too?

We've never been back. I'm sure they're glad I'm not a professional restaurant critic.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

I Crack Myself Up

I was just going through an old blog of mine that hasn't been updated since January 2003 and some of the entries just made me laugh. Here's a good one from September 19, 2002:

"Cuisine." Right.

I hate those commercials that have a gaggle of fashion-victim-type women in yoga suits and perky hairdos, jogging or visiting the museum, declaring their pathetic excuse for dinner the night before:

"Last night I ate two pints of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia, a package of Oreo Double Stufs and a Twinkie."
"I had a whole bag of Fritos, which I dipped in Nutella."
"I had three cherry tomatoes and a piece of radicchio, and a box of Fruit Loops."
"I had a tablespoonful of peanut butter and a package of dry Jell-O."

Then comes the kicker:

"Last night I had slices of tender grilled chicken bathed in garlic Alfredo sauce over penne pasta."

When the rest of the gals look at her with highly annoyed expressions, she confesses it was a Lean Cuisine.

Have you ever tasted a Lean Cuisine? Well, let me tell you that the word "Cuisine" applies more to dog food than to that crap. By comparison, the other gals' meals seem much more appetizing. Somehow the manufacturers of this product not only have figured out how to produce a meal with fewer calories but also with less flavor. The "grilled" chicken is as grilled as a Burger King Whopper - the flavoring is pure duPont. No self-respecting grill, not even a George Foreman, would cause something so nasty to merge from the tender embrace of its flames (or its non-stick grill-like ridges). Somehow, all frozen dinner meats taste like pre-masticated gym socks (with or without the "grill" flavor) and tomato sauce becomes an abomination when in the control of Stouffer's. Consider that many frozen "diet" meals consist of pasta with a red sauce - gummy overcooked noodles with a thin, acidy, off-tasting (like bad ice cubes) sauce. Now how hard is it exactly to open a box of pasta and toss some in boiling water, drain when al dente, and combine with a jar of Barilla? Of course, I would prefer homemade red sauce, but I understand that might be a bit time consuming for the average Jo(e). Chopped raw plum tomatoes, or tiny sweet cherry tomatoes, halved, and tossed on hot pasta with a bit of extra virgin olive oil and S&P'd to taste, would be a great fresh alternative to jarred sauce. But I digress.

I must confess that there was one Lean Cuisine that tasted good - meat and spinach cannelloni with white sauce. The meat was a mix of ground beef and pork, I believe, and the white sauce was remarkably like a bechamel that was even allowed to brown a bit on the top. This was one of the first dinners that Lean Cuisine produced, back before they realized that diet-conscious consumers were more motivated by the "less than 300 calories" claim than by a need for any flavor of any kind. So of course they stopped making this particular cannelloni but have continued to produce the red-sauced, "cheese"-filled kind.

So what did I have for dinner last night? How about fusilli pasta in home-made Thai basil pesto with fresh backfin crabmeat and grated Parmesan cheese (and not from a green cylinder, silly!) with a mixed field greens salad dressed with raspberry vinegar and extra virgin olive oil? Cooking the pasta took about 10 minutes longer than heating up a Lean Cuisine, but the taste rewards far surpassed the work involved.

------------------------------------------

And here's a post from a few days earlier, with criticism of my favorite cook (that's sarcasm, folks!), Rachael Ray....

Busy Busy

Kate came to pick me up at noon and we headed out to Han Ah Rheum, a Korean grocery store in western Baltimore county. I was amazed by the produce section which stocked both Asian and Western veggies and fruits. I bought a bunch of Thai basil and a cherimoya, but didn't want to go too crazy, as I was spending the night at Kate's. She picked some veggies for dinner, and we continued our tour. The market was much like Uwajimaya, in that there were Western staples alongside the more exotic items like shrimp paste and rice stick noodles. The frozen food aisle was chock-full of dumplings and other yummies that I wouldn't be able to fit in my already-full freezer at home, and the snack aisle served up several different kinds of Pocky, as well as other interesting candies and cookies. Neal and I will definitely have to make a trip here in the future.

After Han Ah Rheum, Kate and I ordered some take-away ribs from Bill Bateman's. After lunch, we grabbed some Japanese candy and good old-fashioned American M&Ms and went to the movies. "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" was a big fat hit with us - it's so nice to see a movie that has no tragedy, no violence, no evil villains out to conquer the world. It was funny and tender and highly enjoyable.

Back at Kate's, we rustled up some dinner - pasta with roasted eggplant and tomato sauce, arugula salad, and crostini. The recipe for the sauce came from Rachel Ray's 30-minute Meals. Now that chick annoys me; she has a grating speaking voice and she thinks she is just too cute for words. Anyway, the sauce was a nice idea, but the recipe wasn't well executed. She called for roasting an eggplant in the oven for 15 minutes. Uh, well, that's hardly roasting. It was still raw in 15. Forty-five is more like it. Pureed in the food processor with garlic and parsley and salt, part of it became a spread for the crostini (as recommended in the recipe). I thought it was a bit bland, so doctored it up with sugar, fresh basil, pine nuts, and balsamic vinegar. The rest of the eggplant was mixed with a can of tomatoes and heated. Again, it was a bit bland, so it received more of the basil, a healthier dose of salt and pepper, the balsamic vinegar, and sugar. The spread went on toasted French bread slices and the sauce on bellflower pasta. The arugula salad was nothing more than fresh greens dressed with lemon juice and olive oil - fantastic. When it was all said and done, the dinner was pretty tasty, especially when chased with glasses of Moscato.

We watched FoodTV and ate helpings of Ghirardelli chocolate walnut brownies topped with Ben & Jerry's pistachio ice cream. It really should have been Wavy Gravy, but those idiots at B&Js retired the flavor. Big mistake, as it was one of the best flavors of ice cream ever invented - at least in my (and Kate's) not-so-humble opinion!

Seoul Food


When I was a teenager, my father suggested that he, my brother, and I wander into a Korean restaurant in Towson to check it out. Dad liked to scope out restaurant menus, even if he didn't actually plan on dining in a place. I can't remember the original name, but it's now called Purim Oak (I always thought the "purim" part made it sound like a place that would have Jewish-Korean fusion cuisine.) I can't recall if Dad had eaten Korean food before, but neither David nor I had. We loved Chinese; how different could it be? Very. We ordered either kalbi or bulgogi, and I remember hating it. It was sweet and spicy and garlicky, and those flavors just didn't work for my then-unsophisticated palate.

I spent the next dozen or so years thinking that I despised Korean food.

I'm lucky that I'm married to a man with an adventurous palate. He was willing to try Korean. I thought enough years had passed since my unpleasant experience, so one warm weekend evening we ventured to Purim Oak. We lucked out - it was buffet night, so we could try numerous dishes at the same time. I had no idea what anything was, although I recognized the kimchi and vowed to keep it at arm's length. (The mere thought of the fermented cabbage takes me back to my "big sister" in high school, who apparently ate the stuff for breakfast every day. Phew.) After trying a little of this and a little of that, plus a generous portion of sushi (that helped me get over my aversion to raw fish somewhat), I discovered that I was enjoying myself.

We've paid many visits to that buffet since then, and have ordered off the menu as well. One of my favorite dishes is dolsot bibimbop; I love the crunchy browned rice that forms at the bottom of the hot stone bowl and would be quite content with an entire meal of that. On our last trip, Neal decided he would order the bibimbop so I went for something completely different. One of the buffet items was usually a soup with crumbled tofu and bits of ground pork in a spicy red broth, and I always made sure to have at least one helping of it every time. Looking over the menu, I had a hard time deciding which dish this was, so consulted the waitress who suggested doen jang chigue, a stew of tofu and pork in a spicy broth flavored with soy bean paste. The tofu came in slabs, not crumbled, and the pork was in pieces, but the flavor was the same. And the picture above is exactly what it looked like.

There was a pleasant heat to the dish, but it wasn't too spicy. The waitress came to check on me repeatedly; I assume she was expecting my head to explode. "Not too spicy?" she asked at one point. "No, it's just a little spicy," I said, holding my thumb and index finger about a quarter inch apart to demonstrate just how little. She looked dubious. Maybe only wimps eat at Purim Oak, but I don't find much there that's really spicy. None of the panchan pickles, despite the obvious red pepper content, are not. The gochujang doesn't seem hot either. :::shrug::: As long as it tastes good and I can still taste it, the heat matters not.

Purim Oak is the only Korean restaurant I've ever been to. I assume there are others around, but we're creatures of habit. Especially since Moxley's is around the corner, for dessert!

What other Korean dishes are recommended for me to try?

Purim Oak on Urbanspoon
Image borrowed from Wikipedia and apparently placed there by ZenKimchi.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Holey Molé!

I was intrigued by a chocolate bar the other day, Hachez 77% cacao with strawberry and pepper. I thought it might be filled with a peppery strawberry jam-like substance; in actuality, the dark chocolate was studded with bits of strawberry and green peppercorns, an unlikely but oddly compatible combination.

And why shouldn't it work? Chocolate tastes amazing with a little spice and it works well with heat too. Take the Oaxacan dish of molé Colorado, or molé rojo, one of seven traditional sauces of the region. Molés can have fifteen and even twenty ingredients including garlic, tomatoes, stale bread or tortillas, sesame seeds, almonds, spices such as cinnamon and cloves, and of course, chiles. Some versions of molé rojo even include chocolate.

My first encounter with molé was a home-made version, prepared by a customer of the jewelry store in which I used to work. She loved to cook and although she wasn't of Mexican descent, she enjoyed the toasting and grinding and slow-cooking of traditional molé making. After waxing rhapsodic one afternoon, she promised to bring me some the next time she prepared her molé Colorado. A few weeks later, she brought me a container with hunks of turkey meat smothered in a dark rich sauce and wrapped in flour tortillas. It was heavenly. The sauce was complex and elegant, yet rustic, and had a definite chocolate flavor to temper the chile kick.

Not being one to go through the rigamarole of making molé from scratch, I prefer to opt for jarred versions. I tried the Dona Maria brand once, and it was far too hot for my tastebuds. A powdered version, purchased in New Mexico, also didn't make the grade. Last night, I decided to finally crack open a jar of Trader Joe's molé rojo. I tasted it with the tip of a spoon, and it was grainy and spicy and obviously chocolately, with a bit of heat. Stirring a few tablespoons of it into some chicken stock, I also noticed that it was quite oily, and the dark brown oil separated from the rest of the lighter brown mixture, making for an unappealing look in the pan. After simmering some chicken thighs in the sauce for thirty minutes, the separation was really beginning to bother me, so I skimmed off all of the oil. (We don't need to eat all of that fat anyway.) The resulting sauce was too pale to be molé rojo, so I added a handful of semisweet chocolate chips and stirred it well. The color became a beautiful burnished brown and the sweetness of the chips only brought out the rest of the flavors.

We enjoyed our chicken molé with cilantro rice and buttered sweet corn, and a salad of orange segments and heart of palm on a bed of arugula with a Meyer lemon/pomegranate molasses vinaigrette. Lucky for me, there was chicken and sauce left over, and I will be enjoying it for lunch today (rather than a cheese sandwich).

While looking for information on Trader Joe's molé rojo, I found that it was recalled in May of 2005 because it did not adhere to TJ's standards. It's currently off the market, meaning if you haven't had the chance to try it, you probably never will. A shame, as it's tasty stuff.

An interesting and thorough article on molés can be found here.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Cheese Sandwich Day

Personally, I've never heard of a Cheese Sandwich blog, but apparently Food & Wine columnist Pete Wells has. He's raised a mild stink in the food blog world, but I don't think he's saying anything truly negative. His biggest criticism seems to be, "Listen up, bloggers: Nobody cares what you had for lunch today!" I agree. If you really don't have anything interesting to say, then why bother telling the world? Of course, my readership may think I am as boring as hell. (I don't get any comments here, so that's probably a truism.) On the other hand, this is my blog, and if I want to tell you about my lunch, I can. You have the choice of reading, or not. I do try to avoid the trap of posting the contents of my lunch bag just so I can say I posted something. (My lunch today, for the curious, has yet to be determined. I may forego dining this afternoon. Breakfast was a bagel from Wegman's, with butter. Dinner depends on the culinary whims of my spouse.)

Lots of bloggers, however, felt Wells' comments were a personal assault. Indeed, he did pull out random quotes from food bloggers, some of whom recognized themselves. So in league with my foodie compatriots, I blow raspberries (mmmm...raspberries!) at Wells and say that while all bloggers' blogs are not of uniformly high-quality, all deserve a little respect for putting oneself out there.

Being a new food blogger, I have yet to feel out what I really want this blog to be about. Should I use it to test out portions of the cookbook I am writing/plan to write/hope to get off my lazy ass and actually work on? Should I use it for restaurant reviews (I've always wanted to be a professional reviewer)? Should I post lots of recipes, or few recipes? So I've done a little of all of the above, I think. Does this make me a Cheese Sandwich blogger? I certainly do enjoy a good cheese sandwich. Just last night, as a matter of fact, I had.....

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Valentine's Day in Louisiana

No, we didn't go to Louisiana, the state, but Louisiana, the restaurant. Neal and I have eaten there on several occasions and have favorite menu items. We hadn't been there in a couple of years and thought it might be a nice place to go for Valentine's Day.

It's hard enough to park in Fells Point on a given night, but impossible on a holiday, especially with snow on the ground. Thank heavens for valet parking, even if it did cost $5, paid in advance to a man who conveniently forgot at the end of the evening and tried to charge us again when he returned our car. Hello! You can give me your tip back now, sir.

Louisiana is an oddly-shaped restaurant. It appears deceptively wide from the front, but one must squeeze past the angled hostess desk and the patrons at the bar to get to the dining rooms. We were led past the empty original dining room into a new space beyond. There was at least a 15 degree temperature change between the inner dining room and the back room, and when I mentioned the chill to the hostess, she said, "oh well, I suppose it will warm up eventually!" She could have at least lied and said, "I'll go turn up the heat," to appease me. Instead, she merely pissed me off.

The new rooms still smelled of paint and stain and indeed were not quite finished, as the ceiling above us boasted raw wood and poorly painted areas. We were seated in the farthest back corner, behind a grand piano. Coupled with the frigid air it was Siberia, indeed.

At seating, the hostess presented us with a printed paper prix fixe menu--$75 for four courses. Patrons should be warned about prix fixe menus when they call for reservations, in my opinion. As I glanced through the selections, I was pleased to note that two of my favorites were available: the crab bisque and the shrimp and grits. But I was dismayed to find that no matter how I added up the courses in my head, there was no way that the food would cost $75 on a regular non-holiday evening. We did not receive a wine list, so I comforted myself by thinking that there would be a wine pairing for each course.

There was not. We did get a complimentary glass of champagne, as it was also the restaurant's sixth anniversary. The bubbly was sweet and thick, a bit like a muscat, with nice honeyed tones and some yeastiness. A nice change from the thin, vinegary offering that "complimentary" champagne is so often. Anyway, Neal and I decided that we didn't need additional wine and made the champagne last through the meal. I wanted to guzzle it at first, because it did momentarily warm me a bit.

To the food: I chose the crab bisque, shrimp and grits, and scallops with lobster hash. Neal had the house salad, shrimp and grits, and the grouper with potato croquette.

The bisque--in which a crab or three has been allowed to paddle through a vat of heavy cream--topped with snowy lumps of crab meat, was barely warm, but still as delicious as ever. Neal's salad had a nice basil flavor, possibly from pesto in the vinaigrette.

Louisiana's shrimp and grits is one of my all-time favorite restaurant dishes, consisting of plump grilled shrimp coated with mild and flavorful blackening seasoning, arranged on a pile of nicely grainy grits and surrounded by a moat of corn emulsion. Am I wrong, or did a serving usually have three shrimp? Four even? On this night, there were only two, but they were delicious. The corn emulsion wasn't quite as...corny...as usual, but still quite delectable. And the grits were lumpy and cheesy and mmmmmm good.

On to the entrees. I didn't really notice that the scallops also had blackening seasoning on them because I was blinded by the word "lobster" in the description. Four plump scallops were arranged around an unruly pile of hash, the hash comprising tiny brunoise of potato with bell peppers and other vegetables and small chunks of claw and knuckle meat. The sauce around the dish was a bit too much like the corn emulsion and the bisque - a whole lot of heavy cream with delicate flavors. Ordinarily, I would get the soup and shrimp dishes and eschew an entree completely, but this night I had no choice. In retrospect, I should have ordered the filet, as I could have very easily doggie bagged it for use in a future supper. As it was, I finished the four scallops and the lobster chunks and left quite a bit of the saucy hash behind.

Neal said his grouper, topped with more of that rich cream sauce and a scattering of crawfish tails, was fine. I thought it was hideously overcooked. He says grouper is like swordfish and is supposed to be firm; I don't think fish should require a knife to cut. But I've never ordered grouper before and it's quite possible (although I doubt it) that I am wrong. The accompanying potato croquette was as big as a baseball and fluffy and tender inside. It reminded me of a coddie, in a way.

Dessert, mercifully, was small. We had no choice on this course and received one plate with a triangle of chocolate cake topped with chocolate mousse and chocolate ganache alongside a creampuff filled with pink whipped cream and topped with finely diced fruit such as mango and kiwi and the sweetest pomegranate seeds I've ever tasted. Weak coffee accompanied dessert.

The meal was a lot spottier than it should have been for the unwarranted expense, and the service also had its ups and downs. As the evening progressed and the restaurant was filled, our waitress was increasingly harried. The piano player arrived and drowned out our conversation. Our busboy removed ALL of our silverware and our bread plates after the second course, but refilled our water glasses seemingly after every sip. And it never did get warmer. But the flavors were true and familiar, albeit too unctuous, and we will, no doubt, patronize Louisiana again.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Aloo Bhindi

The early part of one of DH's current novels-in-progress is set in India, so I've been helping him out by finding books on the Raj period and cooking Indian food. Tonight we had pork tenderloins marinated in Patak's Sweet and Smoky Marinade, with Aloo Bhindi, or potatoes with okra. I love okra! Yes, I am weird.

Aloo Bhindi a la Minx
3 red potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/4" thick slices
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup frozen sliced okra
2 tsp olive oil
1/2 tsp whole mustard seeds
1/2 tsp whole coriander seeds
1/2 tsp whole cumin seeds
fenugreek powder
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tblsp chopped cilantro

In a large sauté pan over medium heat, cook the onion in olive oil until translucent. Stir in the mustard, cumin, and coriander seeds, and a pinch of salt. The seeds should start to pop in the hot oil. Add the potatoes, in one layer, and the garlic, stirring to coat the potatoes with the oil, onion, and spices. Add the okra. Lower the heat to the smallest flame possible and cover. Let cook about 45 minutes. Uncover and add a sprinkling of fenugreek powder (approximately 1/4 tsp or less), a generous dose of fresh ground pepper, and more salt, to taste. Raise the heat and stir potato mixture until it starts to sizzle and get crusty. Garnish with cilantro.

Serves 2 - 4
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