Saturday, October 14, 2006

Chorizo

One of my favorite seasonings is Mexican chorizo, Supremo brand, to be exact. I saw it at Han Ah Reum in the dairy/fresh noodle/Latino products section and thought I'd give it a try. Unlike Spanish chorizo, the Mexican version is not cured and needs to be cooked before eating. The Supremo brand of chorizo is a dark orange color and strongly flavored with what I believe is achiote/annatto. Both the flavor and aroma are unusual and quite delicious. These days, I always try to have a pack in my freezer. When I need some tangy flavoring to add to a quick pasta dish, for example, I just cut off a link or two and chop it up while still frozen and saute it with onions as the flavor base for my sauce.

Saturday, I thought I'd make up some macaroni and cheese for dinner, as it was cold and it would give me a good reason to turn on the oven. As I dug through the pantry for some flavoring ideas, my eye hit upon a can of Campbell's Condensed Southwest Style Pepper Jack Soup. Now, I'm not a big fan of canned, condensed soups, since homemade is so much more flavorful, so I'm not quite sure how this can made it into the house. But I thought, hell, it's creamy and cheesy, so I'll use it as a substitute for the white sauce. Suddenly we were heading Southwest. Then I remembered the chorizo.

I chopped up half an onion and tossed it in a dry skillet with two chorizo links that had been diced (there's plenty of fat in the chorizo, so no need to add more), put a lid on it, and cooked it down at low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion was soft and the chorizo took on a dark, dry, crumbly appearance. I tossed in a handful of fresh chopped cilantro, stirred well, then took the meat off the heat.

Then I cooked a pound of small shell-shaped pasta to barely al dente. After draining, I put the pasta back on low heat and added the can of soup, about half a can of milk, plus about 6 oz of coarsely chopped sharp white cheddar (we always have a stick of Cracker Barrel on hand). After the cheese melted, I put in the chorizo mixture and stirred it all well, adding 3 chopped green onions, both light and dark parts.

This got poured into a lightly greased 9 x 13 baking dish and topped with some unseasoned breadcrumbs and shredded parmesan cheese. I baked it at 325F for about 45 minutes, long enough for the macaroni to absorb pretty much all of the sauce.

It came out tender and creamy-textured, although there was no sauce, with a crisp crust on both the top and the part touching the baking pan. The soup actually didn't have that familiar Campbell's taste, and was pretty much undetectable as such. But spicy! And the chorizo lent the dish a deep savoriness. Coupled with a salad of baby greens with a salsa vinaigrette, this experimental version of macaroni and cheese hit the spot.

And it allowed me to warm up the house for a bit, too.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Saffron

Yesterday was our sixth wedding anniversary. My husband and I had originally planned to go to Ixia, but encountered yet another issue with their reservationists. I had tried to make a reservation for New Year's Eve last year, and they insisted that they needed not only my credit card number but also my signature. And they wanted me to fax it. I refused, stating all the hundreds of transactions I had made over the years via the phone and Internet did not require a signature, so why should it be necessary now? Anyway, we did not eat there on New Year's Eve. This time around, I did manage to make a successful reservation, only to be called back by a second person and told that the restaurant was closed for a private party and my reservation could not be honored.

That's two strikes.

So we went to Saffron instead. We had been there a few years back, in its first incarnation as an Indian fusion restaurant. The meal was completely forgettable, and the service was poor. Although the place has not changed hands, it has changed chefs, in the form of one Edward Kim, he of the now-closed but well-reviewed Soigné. Ironically, Kim was also the original chef at Ixia.

Saffron now bills itself as "Modern American," but it is strongly Asian fusion, with such elements as yellow curry, sriracha chile, wasabi, wakame, tobiko, miso, and udon noodles on its menu. Reviews have been excellent, so Neal and I decided to give the place another try.

The decor has changed little, but wow, what a menu! I was immediately attracted to the seared foie gras with scallop and duck confit and caramelized pear rum butter reduction. Neal chose the grilled stuffed squid with crab and shrimp mix and orange coconut curry for his appetizer.

The portion of foie was more than ample. Atop an unruly pile of tender duck confit and pieces of scallop sat a crescent of foie about 3/4" of an inch thick and about 3" long. As I tried a bite, I noticed another chunk of foie almost as large as the first, hidden in the tangle of duck meat. The foie was seared so it was crisp on the outside and meltingly rare in the center. The confit was stellar - moist and chunky full of flavor. The scallops were completely unnecessary, and added nothing to the dish, but were tasty nonetheless. And the sauce was just rich brownness. I detected some bits of dried fruit here and there, but not an actual fruitiness, and unfortunately, no rum.

Neal was unsure about his dish. It was a lightly grilled whole squid, stuffed with a mixture of pureed shrimp and crab, and topped with a sweet curry sauce that didn't taste much of curry at all. Perhaps is was more a Thai style curry than Indian? Anyway, I think the squid was slightly undercooked, as it had that somewhat squeaky, unyielding texture that is also present in raw squid sushi. The crab flavor was very strong, but I thought the dish had a nice balance of flavors, overall.

I just wish both appetizers had been served hot, rather than room temperature.

For our entrees, I stayed with the duck and scallop theme, choosing the sauteed diver sea scallops, truffle, porcini and duck confit risotto, with porcini reduction balsamic syrup. Neal was lured by the grilled new zealand rack of lamb, sauteed butternut squash gnocchi, with pan braised savoy cabbage, and onion confit pomegranate demiglace.

Several large and browned scallops surrounded a mound of brown risotto. There was a dark brown sauce drizzled around the edges of the plate. Despite the unrelenting brownness (hello? how about a token vegetable, just for color?), the scallops were perfectly cooked, and the risotto was amazing. The rice was cooked al dente, yet the concoction was unctuously creamy. There was a generous amount of confit mixed into the rice, and the whole thing was flavored with truffle. The balsamic drizzle also seemed to have finely minced bits of truffle in it. I would say that the dish was somewhat decadent. Again, the scallops were unnecessary. I would have been happy with a big bowl of the risotto alone.

Neal's entree contained three cumin-crusted double chops arranged over the braised cabbage and the ethereally light gnocchi. I didn't get to taste the cabbage, confit, or demiglace, but the way he polished his serving off, I'd say it was probably very tasty. Despite the cabbage, Neal's dinner was also overwhelmingly brown. In fact, the only color on the table had been the orange curry sauce on his squid. Perhaps the kitchen needs to work on making their dishes more visually appealing.

We washed down our meal with a bottle of 2005 Fleur Pinot Noir, a very light and smooth red that went very well with all of the food.

We had to try Saffron's desserts, despite having two boxes of Jacques Torres chocolates at home. The menu was limited to the ubiquitous creme brulée, flourless chocolate cake, vanilla ice cream, a banana spring roll, and a mascarpone "pot de creme" cheesecake. We went with the latter two.

The banana spring roll was a long cylinder of brownness, cut on a diagonal. The crisp fried wrapper simply contained banana, and the whole thing was drizzled with homemade caramel sauce. I thought I detected a slight taste of curry powder, which was interesting. A small scoop of vanilla ice cream would have been a welcome touch.

The cheesecake was entirely too sweet. A cup-sized ramekin was packed with the cheese mixture and topped with more of that caramel sauce - definitely sweetness overkill. A portion half that size with a side of fresh berries drizzled in a balsamic syrup would have made for a more balanced flavor profile.

While Saffron did not have the perfection that I expected from Edward Kim, the flavors were fine and the quality of the food was high. They just need a little work on temperature, color, and dessert.

Oh, and an open kitchen in a restaurant that small isn't the best idea. The restaurant was hazy with cooking oil, and our clothes reeked when we left the place. The lighting is also a bit harsh, and I did not appreciate the fluorescent track spotlight hitting me in the face for the entire meal.

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