Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Eating Las Vegas - Part Two: Day Two

On our second day in Las Vegas, DH and I experienced a couple of the buffets that the city is known for. As we were going on a long bus trip to the Grand Canyon the next day, we didn't want to eat anything too exotic for dinner lest it cause tummy upset and necessitate the frequent use of bus bathrooms. Therefore, we made no dinner reservations.

I had read about Lotus of Siam in Gourmet several years back and had always been curious about the "single best Thai restaurant in North America." We figured it would be safe to try it for lunch, in case a dose of incendiary Thai food didn't sit well with our digestive tracts. (I've never had a problem, but better safe than sorry!)

The restaurant sits in a deserted-looking but sizeable strip mall full of Asian and Latino businesses and restaurants. Despite not looking like a whole lot from the outside, the inside was crowded with patrons. We opted for the buffet, as it seemed the quickest and easiest option. It featured an assortment of stir fries, soups, rice and noodle dishes, plus salad and fresh fruit. Many dishes seemed tame Chinese food clones, but there was also Pad Thai and an incendiary but highly flavorful dish of ground pork (I find it amusing that "pork" in Thai is "moo." Should be "oink," no?) For dessert, I ate my fill of crunchy yet ripe persimmon.

The place was highly efficient, and our water glasses were filled often. The staff is so solicitous that nobody told the doink next to us who asked for chopsticks that the Thai eat with forks, knives, and spoons. I, however, laughed at him.

I wish we had the opportunity to explore their dinner menu, as it featured items I've not seen in our local Thai joints. Perhaps for our next trip to LV.

We were originally going to have dinner at a restaurant in our hotel, Fuzio, but when we got there, it was dark. It seemed odd that it was closed on a Tuesday and we never did find out why. So we wandered over to the Mandalay Bay and perused the restaurants there. Aureole was a bit too pricey for an unplanned meal, as was Rick Moonen's seafood restaurant. We then went back the other way to the Excalibur. There are no restaurants of note in that place, a ticky-tacky replica of a castle with knights and wenches and whatnot running around. It was like all the worst elements of a "Renaissance" Festival (in quotes because those things really have more Medieval elements) rolled into one, with slots. Anyway, we ended up eating at their Roundtable buffet, a bargain $14.49. It really wasn't much better than an Old Country Buffet with the same flavorless mac and cheese and rubber chicken. There was a shrimp dish on the Asian buffet that wasn't too bad, and the prime rib, although tasting re-heated, was fine for what it was. The best thing was the dessert bar, from which I served myself a steaming bowl of apple cobbler topped with soft serve ice cream.

Are there any good casino buffets in Las Vegas? I wouldn't know. I didn't really plan on finding out. One was definitely enough!

Lotus of Siam on Urbanspoon
Buffet (Excalibur) on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Eating Las Vegas - Part One: Day One

Las Vegas is a city filled with food, some fabulous, some not-so-fabulous. On a recent trip there, my husband Neal and I experienced both.

On our first night in town, we had reservations for Border Grill, an outpost of Mary Sue Milliken's and Susan Feniger's (Too Hot Tamales) Santa Monica restaurant. It's located in the Mandalay Bay, and nearly impossible to locate if one enters from the street, as we did. After ordering a margarita and a scotch and soda, Neal and I carefully perused the menu of familiar Mexican foods. For starters, Neal tried the rock shrimp ceviche with jalapeno, mint, red onion, cilantro, and lime. It was delicious, with perfectly-textured pieces of "cooked" shrimp and bites of the onion and herbs. My Caesar salad consisted of several large slabs cut lengthwise from a head of romaine lettuce, with garlic croutons and a tangy-fishy dressing and a dose of grated romano cheese. The dressing was more citrus-y and less garlicky than typical Caesars.

I chose carnitas for my entree, and Neal ordered the marinated skirt steak. His entree was too strongly flavored with cumin for my tastes, and it reminded me of the smelly tourist on the airplane with us that day. The extremely tender steak was accompanied by a roasted corn salad, black beans, and a large flour tortilla. My carnitas failed to measure up to the memory I carry with me of the ones I ate in San Diego 20 years ago. These were good, don't get me wrong, but not posessing quite as much purely unadulturated "porkiness" as the ones of yore. The sides were all delicious - a dollop of guacamole, some cucumber citrus slaw, and an onion relish - and there was also one of those large flour tortillas. The tortillas I found a bit odd - they were really large, and I supposed we were to rip off chunks of it to encase our meat and sauces. That's what we did, anyway. But after a few bites, the tortilla got cold and oddly stiff, and it was a bit greasy too, as if the heating had come in the microwave and then for perhaps a few seconds too long.

By the time dessert rolled around, I was stuffed. I can't tell you what Neal ordered, as I've forgotten and nothing on the Web site menu looks familiar. I succumbed to a scoop of very tart lime sorbet, which really put me over the top.

Staggering back to our hotel, the Luxor, we discovered we could have quite easily traveled indoors from our casino to the restaurant via overstreet walkways. Duh. Well, now we knew to try that method of getting from one casino to the other for the rest of our trip.

 Border Grill (Mandalay Bay) on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Thanksgiving Soup

Before I tell you about my trip to Vegas and my dining experiences there (stay tuned for a future post!), I need to rant a bit about Rachael Ray.

Now, this uber-perky, whiney-voiced, no-talent, knows-little-or-nothing about cooking chick is probably a millionaire several times over now, and for what reason? Because she found a gimmick. But aren't there people out there who want to make a flavorful meal in a short amount of time? I've complained about her eggplant pasta sauce before - bland doesn't begin to describe the taste before heavy doctoring. Well, tonight, my husband decided to try her "Orange You Glad it's Thanksgiving" soup recipe - butternut squash and orange juice, with carrots and onion. After following the recipe to the letter (except for substituting canned pumpkin for the called-for frozen butternut squash puree; same thing), he ended up with an Orioles-orange soup that tasted just like...canned pumpkin. Only after adding a goodly amount of salt and pepper, doubling the amount of orange juice, and judicious seasoning with garlic, onion powder, and cumin, did it begin to taste like something. The cumin brought out the orange, and the much-needed salt brought out all of the flavors.

To gild the lily, we topped each serving with freshly grated orange rind and a dollop of goat cheese. I'm thinking it would also be wonderful with a garnish of crisply fried bacon or pancetta bits, pumpernickel croutons, and a snippage of parsley or cilantro. Serve with a nice arugula salad - now, that's tasty! We'll call it "Orange You Glad You Know How To Cook Better Than Rachael Ray?"

I'm thinking there's money to be had in a series of cookbooks based on The Cake Doctor, but "doctoring" up RR's recipes instead.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Radical Radishes

Most of us think of radishes as garnishes or something to brighten up the crudite tray. But have you ever eaten cooked radishes?

After my birthday party last Saturday, I had a huge bag of leftover crudites. I snacked on several of the radishes at work during the week, but there were still a good amount left by Thursday. I made a vague comment to my husband about cooking them somehow, and he ran with it. Last night we had sauteed radishes and onions as a side dish for leftover pork tenderloin. They were kickass! Tender and juicy, with a taste not unlike turnips, but without that metallic-y dirt taste. Yum! He had used the lone radish recipe from Joy of Cooking, but I got the idea that they could be used in more radical recipes.

Perhaps if one substituted the chicken stock and salt with a little soy sauce and added a bit of minced Chinese sausage, it would taste like one of my favorite dim sum dishes, turnip cakes? Or how about any of these recipes:
Cooked Radishes with Brown Sugar and Dill
Creamed Black Radishes
Sauteed Radishes
Scroll down to find Radishes with Pasta and Radish Greens

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.

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

Pazo on Urbanspoon


Monday, October 03, 2005


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
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!

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Yeah, I Know...

...I don't post here nearly often enough. But I'm on a diet and, meh, there's only so much food I allow myself to eat. I'm doing well though - 7 lbs down in September.

My DH has been really good about making lighter dinners, after I complained about the festival of carbs that we usually have (tons of pasta, potatoes, and rice, not nearly enough vegetables). He likes to make soup, so we're living on a liquid diet of sorts. Last night we had a gumbo-ish soup, that was delish, but today I wanted some solid food. Hell, I wanted a cheeseburger. But we had salad instead. A huge plate of greens and thinly sliced carrot, dressed with a nice vinaigrette, and topped with a big mound of tuna salad flavored with cilantro and some southwest-type seasoning that I made up for wedding favors. (Yes, I do know that my wedding was five years ago, and that spices lose their flavor over time, but I did pay good money for this stuff, and there's still plenty of it. I think it's growing, actually.) Quite tasty!

But I still want a cheeseburger. Sigh. Time to hit the exercise bike.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Summer Rolls, and the Livin' is Easy....

Ok, so my rolls didn't look this good....

We had an approximation of Vietnamese summer rolls for dinner tonight. Despite being more than halfway through September, and summer officially over this week, the weather is still hot and humid, with no real relief in sight. We had most of the ingredients on hand already (I like to keep rice paper and rice vermicelli in the pantry) and it seemed like a perfect antidote to the heat.

Summer Rolls
6 Round rice paper sheets
2 bunches rice vermicelli, cooked to package directions, drained and cooled
Handful of cilantro, chopped
Handful of fresh basil leaves
Handful of fresh mint
Handful of baby spinach
Handful of broccoli slaw, or, shredded carrots
24 medium shrimp, cooked
Hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons finely crushed peanuts

Shallow pan of warm water

Place a paper towel on your work surface. Place one rice paper sheet into the warm water and allow to soften. When soft, spread out onto towel. Place four shrimp in a line down the center of the wrapper, but not going to the edges. Top with approximately 1/4 cup noodles, plus a some of each of the herbs and veggies. Squirt a line of Hoisin on it all, and sprinkle on some peanuts.

Fold top and bottom edges of rice paper over filling, then roll the wrapper closed, like a burrito. Place seam side down on a plate. Repeat with remaining ingredients.

Slice rolls in half; serve with a dipping sauce of your choice (Hoisin, Thai- or Vietnamese-style peanut sauce, or something like A Taste of Thai Sweet Red Chili Sauce. (No affiliation, that's just what we happened to use tonight. If you check out that site, make sure to look at the recipes...most look really tasty!)

Serves 2-6, depending on appetite, and whether it's a main dish or appetizer.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

I Propose a Gjetost

What the heck is gjetost? I'm pretty sure I remember seeing it sold in Miles Kimball catalogs when I was a kid, and I thought it was some sort of novelty item...Sponge Bob Squarecheese, if you will. Well, it is a bit novel, outside of Norway that is. Gjetost is a cheese made by boiling the leftover whey of cow's and goat's milk until the lactose caramelizes, producing the cheese's Malibu Barbie-tan color. Yes, this cheese is sweet, and has a pliable texture rather like fudge. It also has a pronounced "goaty" flavor, which of course is not at all unpleasant (unless one doesn't like goat's cheese). Gjetost is very much like a solid version of goat's milk caramel, or cajeta (major yum!)

So why am I writing about gjetost? Well, I sent my DH out to buy some goat's cheese for a salad, telling him make sure the cheese was somewhat firm. Not being a goat connaisseur (yet), he bought two kinds, one of which was gjetost...because it felt firm. Not what I was looking for, but what the hell - we'll try it.

Last night's dinner consisted of soupe a l'oignon, sans crouton (DH doesn't like the roof-of-mouth skin-ripping burn of traditional meltycheese bread topping) and an array of cheeses that had been collecting in our fridge, one of which was the red-wrapped cube of Ski Queen.

I tentatively cut off a thin sliver, not quite knowing what to expect, but anticipating the sweetness. It's...interesting...somewhat of an acquired taste, as it doesn't seem to belong on a cheese plate at all. It competed with the vinaigrette on the salad and with the soup. I can see how the Norwegians eat it for breakfast, on bread or crispbread. It would probably work very well with an accompaniment of sliced apples or pears. And looky - I found actual recipes on the 'net. If you try any of them, do let me know.

Eggplant and Gjetost Strudel
Dyresteg (Roast Venison with Goat Cheese Sauce)
Norwegian Baked Apples
Cheese Apple Cups
Norwegian Meatballs

Monday, September 12, 2005

But Do You Want to Attract Flies?

As the old adage goes, "You can attract more flies with honey than vinegar." But does one really want to attract flies?

Vinegar is an important flavor component that adds depth and balance to foods. This past weekend, I prepared a few dishes that showcased my collection of the tart flavorings: marinated asparagus with Trader Joe's Orange Muscat Champagne Vinegar; Asian pasta salad with rice wine vinegar; and Golden Whisk Earl Grey Vinaigre de T was used in the dressing for a chopped salad. I also have the now-ubiquitous balsamic vinegar, plus bottles of red wine, sherry, vanilla, cherry, and Golden Whisk Smokey Lap-Souchang Chinese Tea vinegars on hand.

What does one do with myriad flavored vinegars? Make myriad tasty foodstuffs, that's what! The most obvious use is in salad dressings. If using a tasty vinegar, it's possible to skimp on the olive oil and make a really low-fat dressing.

Basic Flavorful Low-Fat Vinaigrette

1 tsp Dijon mustard (but heck, you can use Gulden's if it's all you have on hand!)
1 tsp honey
2-3 tsp flavored vinegar (raspberry, vanilla, fig, cherry, etc.)
salt and pepper

Whisk ingredients together with a fork. Slowly drizzle in some nice olive oil - maybe a tablespoon or so - whisking all the time until the dressing coalesces. Taste it and add more honey or salt to taste. Ok, if you think it needs more oil, by all means, add whatever amount you want.

This tastes great over mesclun with sliced pears, walnut pieces, and maybe some crumbled bleu cheese. Or make the dressing with balsamic vinegar and put sliced strawberries in the salad. Yum!

Ok, you say, what else can I put all of these weird vinegars into? Well, have you ever cooked something that's just, well, flat? Add a tiny bit of vinegar to perk it up! I made a recipe out of one of Rachel Ray's 30-Minute Meals books (An aside: I don't get her popularity. She's got a voice like she snacks on coarse sandpaper, and the few recipes of hers that I've tried are extremely bland. And those cheap travel shows make her seem like...well, a cheapskate) an eggplant sauce for pasta. It tasted like...nothing. So I added a tablespoonful of balsamic vinegar, some honey, and SALT, and it was quite yummy.

Other ideas: use a little balsamic vinegar to perk up a bland tomato sauce. Macerate some orange and grapefruit slices in a little bit of fruity vinegar, add chopped red onion, and either fresh basil or fresh cilantro, and use it as a cool salsa-like topping for red snapper or tilapia.

Speaking of salsa, here's one of my favorite salsa recipes. The cocoa seems weird, but it adds an unusual smoky flavor.

Chocolate Salsa

1 32-oz can chopped tomatoes (with no additional seasoning, drained, juice reserved
1 tblsp balsamic vinegar
1 tblsp cocoa powder
1 tblsp red chile powder (not chili powder)
1 tsp sugar
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1/2 cup green chiles (canned, not jalapenos)
salt and fresh lime juice, to taste

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Let sit for 30 minutes to allow flavors to develop. Yummy on just about everything.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Pasta Possession

I don't know what possessed me, on a warm summer day, to turn on the oven and bake a lasagne. I like to create new dishes out of leftovers, and wanted to make use of the three meatballs and sauce from the delicious spaghetti my DH made earlier in the week. I had not made lasagne in a long time and figured it was a good idea now. I completely forgot how long it took to prep this particular pasta dish...thankfully I had most of the meat and sauce part taken care of already. But still....

I used the pre-cooked pasta sheets, for ease of prep and sanity's sake. These require more liquid than the type of pasta one must cook, so I had to make more sauce. This entailed sauteeing onions, garlic, and mushrooms, adding leftover wine (can you imagine such a thing as leftover wine?) and tomato paste, fresh basil, and water. The extra liquid makes this type of lasagne sometimes soggy, so I didn't over do it. Instead, after assembly, I refrigerated it for a few hours to allow the pasta to start softening.

By the time I had it all together and washed all of the bowls, spatulas, spoons, measuring cups, and other paraphernalia, I was pooped.

The fruits of my labor. It was tasty, but my all-time favorite lasagne recipe is still the one on the San Giorgio lasagne noodle box.

I figured since I had the oven on, I'd make dessert too...a nice baked, non-raw-peach, Kathy-friendly dish I call:

Peach Crisp

3 large ripe or nearly-ripe peaches, sliced
1 tblsp sugar
ground ginger

2/3 cup flour
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 stick very cold butter

sliced almonds or other nuts, optional

Place peaches in an 8 x 8 baking dish. Sprinkle with sugar, cinnamon, and ginger, and toss to coat. Cover and set aside.

Place the brown sugar and flour into a bowl. Cut the butter into tiny pieces and rub it through the flour/sugar mixture with your fingers until it's the texture of coarse crumbs and a handful squeezed will stick together. Break up clumps, cover, and refrigerate until ready to use.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350. Pour crumb mixture over peaches and top with nuts. Bake for 30 minutes or until bubbly and brown. Serve warm with vanilla or butter pecan ice cream.

Serves 4-6.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Tempting, Tasty Tofu

Last night I tried something different and made a vegetarian meal for supper - Thai Red Curry Risotto, Asian Broccoli Slaw, and Peanut-encrusted Tofu "Faux Gras." I knew I wanted to make a leg of lamb today, and our protein options were otherwise limited. We had steamed crabs yet again on Friday (yummy!) so I didn't want to make seafood. Then I remembered the box of tofu that was hanging around in the fridge for a while. The sell-by date said September 30th, so I knew it was still safe. But what to do with it?

In the meantime, I got this risotto idea. I wanted to make something Asian-influenced for my starch-needing husband, and went hunting through my collection of foodstuffs. I found half a box of arborio rice in the pantry, a jar of red curry paste in the fridge, and an ample stash of Kaffir lime leaves in the freezer. Since I had landed in Thailand, I decided that the thing to do with the tofu would be to marinate it and then give it a roll in crushed peanuts. The slaw, bagged broccoli slaw simply dressed with rice wine vinegar, toasted sesame oil, and sugar, would make a refreshing and crunchy side dish.

Peanut-Encrusted Tofu "Faux Gras"

1 tablespoon peanut butter (I used Jif)
2 tablespoons lite soy sauce
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 cup unsalted roasted peanuts, crushed
2 tablespoons unflavored dry bread crumbs

1 box extra firm fresh tofu (not the aseptically packaged stuff)
oil for frying

Slice tofu into approximately 3/4" pieces; fit in one layer in shallow pan. Mix marinade ingredients (you may need to put in the microwave for a few seconds to melt the peanut butter and make the honey liquidy) and pour over tofu. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours; more is better.

When ready to cook, mix crushed peanuts and bread crumbs on a plate. Remove tofu slices from marinade and gently coat each with crumb mixture.

Heat a large skillet and add approximately 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. When the oil is very hot, add the tofu in one layer and put a lid on the pan. Cook for 2-3 minutes until browned, then gently flip and brown the other side. Don't worry if the peanuts get black - it doesn't taste burnt.

I squeezed a bit of Hoisin sauce over the tofu once it was plated, but that wasn't even necessary. The tofu was very flavorful and had a tender, curdy, texture very much like properly cooked foie gras.

The risotto recipe was a bit complicated. I'll post it if I make it again.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Weekend Part Un - Crabby Patties

Shouldn't crabby patties be crab cakes? Where do they keep the cows - on underwater ranches? And how do they keep the buns from getting soggy?

I had my share of crustaceans this past weekend. I only get to eat steamed crabs once a summer, usually as part of my husband's birthday celebration and courtesy of my Mother-in-law. I boycotted them for a few years, since Maryland crabs are becoming scarce, but last year I was back at them. Why let all the other bastards enjoy them? Clearly my not eating them wasn't preventing mallets from smashing down all over the state.

This year's batch came from a little place in Dundalk whose name I cannot divulge (because I do not know it). It is a place that mercifully steams only in Old Bay, not rock salt or any other lip-burning overly-salinated local crab spice. There were three dozen of the succulent beauties, larges, plus corn on the cob (the usual insipid tiny-kerneled sweet white corn that Marylanders seem to like for no good raason. Whatever happened to corn that tastes like CORN?), chicken fingers, and hush puppies made by my enterprising Brother-in-law, who bought a Fry Daddy just for the occasion. And beer. Gotta have beer with crabs, hon! Something light and refreshing. No, not Bud - that's horse piss. We opted for Coronas this year.

Were it not for the filling - and addictive - hush puppies, I probably could have done better than seven crabs. They were meaty and sweet, gently kissed with cayenne and celery seed. Picking gets tiring after a while, as does the relentless barrage of protein. But it is oh so good.

Bloated and smelling like low tide, we returned home to watch the Ravens lose their second pre-season game. Thankfully this produced no nausea; crab sick can be pretty horrendous.

There were leftover crabs and Neal and I picked the meat from six of them to take home. I knew we had a restaurant reservation (more on that later) for Sunday evening, and Monday we would most likely be eating out as well, so I decided to use the extra crab meat for breakfast. Originally intending to make an omelette, when I saw that there was well over a cup of meat, I made crab cakes instead.

1 cup freshly-picked blue crab meat
6 Keebler Club crackers, bashed into bits
1/2 teaspoon Old Bay
1 healthy tablespoon mayonnaise (an oxymoron!), preferably Kewpie (a Japanese brand)
Fresh snippage of parsley and chives from the kitchen porch garden

Mix together, form into 4 small cakes.
Heat about a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a medium skillet. When hot, add the crab cakes and cover. When browned on the bottom side, gently flip them and brown the other side.

Serve with buttered toast and thick slices of home-grown tomato, plus coffee and orange juice. You'll never go back to pancakes!

Weekend Part Deux - Taste Restaurant

Sunday's dinner was at Taste, a moderately new restaurant in Belvedere Square. Housed in a former Hess shoe store, the multi-level eatery displays a chic decor that belies its fairly traditional New American menu.

Dinner starts out with a basket of cut-up bread pieces (odd, that) and little dishes of a nice sundried tomato olive oil and an assortment of olives. I'd like the bread to be heartier, and to be cut in regulation slices, rather than floppy strips. After perusing the menu, my husband and I both decided on specials, the "chicken a la Taste" for him, and the horseradish-encrusted filet for me.

For starters, he had their version of shrimp and grits, and I went with the goat cheese salad. The shrimp and grits was rather Italianate in flavors - tons of parmesan cheese in the grits made them rather risotto-like in texture, and bits of proscuitto lent their salty bite to the large shrimp. It was nothing like my favorite version of this classic, that of Louisiana restaurant in Fells Point, but it was a tasty change. My goat cheese salad comprised a generous portion of baby greens, lightly cooked red onion, and "sweet spiced pecans" - pecans that seem to have been dipped in a seasoned egg white mixture and baked. They had a meringue-like quality about them, softly crunchy, but not too sweet. This combo was tossed with a balsamic vinaigrette and topped by two breaded rounds of fried goat cheese that oozed onto the greens when cut with a fork.

The "Chicken a la Taste" was one of the oddball Tex-Mex dishes sometimes featured at the restaurant - a chicken breast topped with a black bean and corn mixture, served on saffron rice. The chicken was nicely tender but still juicy, the beans and corn mildly spiced, and the somewhat medicinal quality of saffron made the dish like a deconstructed Mexican paella. My husband ate every drop. My 5oz filet was medium-rare and fork tender, and served on an unctuous mound of garlicky Yukon gold potatoes, with some zucchini and broccolini on the side. The horseradish did not so much encrust the filet as top it. It had a grated texture so I assume it was from a fresh root, but surprisingly it did not offer any of the expected nose-clearing qualities as the raw version. It was good nonetheless. With our meal we drank a 2002 Iron Horse Pinot Noir that had a nice cherry nose.

My husband ordered the dessert that intrigued me most - apple fritters with vanilla bean ice cream and homemade caramel sauce. Two tempura-battered and fried rings of apple flanked a large scoop of ice cream and luxuriated in a drizzle of the very excellent caramel. My German chocolate mousse was so-so - a wine glass layered parfait-style with chocolate "mousse," coconut-flavored whipped cream, and topped with toasted pecans and coconut. The "mousse" is in quotes, as I believe it to have been stiffly whipped cream with melted chocolate added, rather a light ganache than the classic egg-enriched and smoother-textured mousse. The flavor was nicely chocolatey, but a bit monotonous, despite the other ingredients which merely added a bit of crunch.

Taste isn't perfect, but the food is reasonably priced and pretty darn good. It's a nice upscale neighborhood restaurant, and we do plan to eat there again in the future. There's an open kitchen on the bottom level, and I'll probably request to be seated there next time.

Something else I recommend - use Open Table for your restaurant reservations! It's a nationwide service, many top restaurants use it to handle all of their reservations, and using the Web interface is a snap. Plus, the more reservations you make and keep, the more points you earn towards a gift certificate to use in a participating restaurant. Mmmm...free food!

Taste on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Peachy Keen

The slices of peach cascaded over the top of the miniature angel food cake crowned with a cloud of whipped cream. The fruits were crisp-tender, sweet, tasting of summer.

I stared at the dessert in front of me. I haven't eaten a fresh peach in 23 years. That was about when I developed an allergy to peaches and other members of the Rosaceae family that includes plums, apricots, and cherries. My Dad often got bushels of farm fresh peaches in the summers, and my brother and I feasted on bowls brimming with the juicy fruits. It must have led to an overdose on my part and a sudden intolerance for the family of fruit I loved most.

I have found that peaches that have received some sort of heat treatment are safe for me to eat; this includes canned peaches and peach pie, peach cobbler, peach ice cream. But nothing matches the sheer pleasure of biting into a ripe fruit and having the juice drip down your chin, of eating so many fresh cherries your lips and gums are stained a red-purple, of savoring the clean fresh taste of a black plum eaten out of hand. Fear of anaphylaxis has prevented me from partaking in these joys of summer. My brother has a severe allergy to peanuts and I've seen him swell to Frankensteinian proportions after accidental ingestion. I am not sure how severe my allergy is, and I don't want to find out.

I discovered fresh mango is a decent substitute for peaches, at least visually and texturally, but it's not quite the same.

But last night, with those peaches in front of me, I decided to take the plunge. Our host for the evening was driving me to the brink of insanity with his usual routine of funny voices, inappropriate comments, and general manic nonsense, while his always-calm wife blithely chattered through dinner as if her husband weren't a tad on the loony side. Maybe I wanted to end it all right there. I first announced to the table that I was allergic to peaches, then took a forkful.

I chewed, I swallowed. Nothing happened. Our hostess looked at me in horror as I continued to eat. "I have an Epi-Pen in the house, if you need it," she offered helpfully. But I didn't get that familiar skin-tightening feeling until I finished the last morsel. My mouth didn't itch, and my eyes didn't feel tight, just the skin around my temples and around my eyes. I took two Benadryl, just in case. After all the hyper-manic chatter, I would probably need a sleep aide to calm myself before bed anyway. We left an hour or so later, with me nodding off in the car during the 40-minute ride home (Neal, of course, was driving).

I rose today, exhausted but still quite alive. I survived peaches. Will I try them again anytime soon? Maybe. But I'm not a risk-taker. I lived without them for two decades, and I can probably live without them for two more, but it's nice to know that fresh summertime fruit doesn't have to be merely a happy memory for me.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Celebrity Chefs

As a foodie, I am pleased that chefs can now become celebrities. Why should actors with nice abs but negligible talent and whorish heiresses get all of the limelight?

Despite the trend in Hollywood, any old cook with a pretty face shouldn't become a Celebrity Chef. I believe a chef should be the equivalent of a culinary Picasso - well-versed in many techniques and styles, but perhaps perferring one or two over all others. An Artist. The celebrity should be worth oohing and ahhing over. He or she should be the creator of masterpieces that everyone strives to own - or to be able to replicate oneself.

Unfortunately, like in Hollywood, some Chefs are now famous for merely being famous. Take Emeril, for example. I'm sure he was a fine chef in his day, back when he still worked in a restaurant kitchen. Now, he comically fumbles his way around a set, preparing recipes created, prepped, and all-but-completed by Food Network staff. Half the things that come out of his mouth are either pronounced incorrectly or are just plain wrong. And the slop he dishes out is ludicrous. But he still has his adoring fans. Go figure.

I've eaten in three of his restaurants. One was very good, one was pretty good, and one, his flagship, sucked. Message to Mr. Lagasse: just because you're a big star now, you still need to remember that consistency is important. Your name is over the door, so don't blame your chefs and line cooks for the completely oversalted mess we ate. Have you heard of quality control?

Bobby Flay is another celebrity chef who is a tad overexposed. But hey - I think the man still takes cooking seriously. I've eaten at Mesa Grill, and it was one of the best restaurant meals I've had in my life. And watching him cook on Iron Chef America makes me drool. He turns out some seriously yummy-looking stuff in that frantic hour. I'm curious to try out his new restaurant venture, Bar Americain. Mario Batali is another chef who I'd let cook for me anytime. The pasta tasting menu at Babbo was magnificent.

Then there's the sad story of Rocco DiSpirito. Young, handsome, and talented, he thought he could rocket to superstardom via a reality show. The cruel reality was that it portrayed him to be a egotistical, lazy, lying, prick. Not only did his restaurant Rocco fail miserably, but he also got ousted from the highly-acclaimed Union Pacific (it was a mutual decision...riiighhht...) which closed abruptly soon after. Despite receiving a James Beard award for his cookbook, Flavor, the man is a laughingstock. Tony Bourdain, another celebrity chef perhaps more famous for his writings than his cooking, made a particularly nasty jab at him on the debut episode of his new Travel Channel show, No Reservations (a must-see). Poor Rocco now has to peddle his Mama's meatballs on QVC to make a buck.

So where am I going with my rant here? Well, let me tell you. I have a design client who is a local chef. He once owned restaurants, and got some acclaim. He's now still in the business, still calling himself chef, but I'm not feeling any foodlove from the guy. Perhaps he's been doing church supper-style catering for so long, he forgot how to cook? His collection of recipes seem to have been lifted directly out of a 60s copy of Betty Crocker - crab imperial, salmon in "champagne sauce" - there's no life in them, no spark, nothing new. And the one dish I've tasted that he prepared, chicken pieces in a sauce with pineapple chunks, tasted of dishwashing liquid, and wouldn't have been out of place at the Old Country Buffet. The funny thing is, he still thinks he's got what it takes to be a celebrity chef. Ok, so the guy was handsome in his youth, and had done some modeling. But even the Hollywood vapid wouldn't be impressed by his repertoire.

Baltimore is becoming a town full of interesting restaurants, thanks to chefs like Cindy Wolf (although I must comment here that she reduces her stocks a bit too much...cow bones become glue eventually, and sticky lips are not pleasant) and restaurateurs like Steve DeCastro. Let's continue to aim high, shall we? But lets not let sheer celebrity get in the way of talent.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Dim Sum

I love to eat. I love to cook. I think about food all the time. No, I obsess over it. What's for breakfast? What's for lunch? What's for dinner? These are questions that are running through my mind at most times of the day. I talk about food on my knitting blog. I even started a food-related thread on a TV show forum that I frequent. One of my favorite Web sites is egullet.com, and I must admit that Steven Shaw (a.k.a. "Fat Guy") is one of my heros. I figured it was high time that I start my own food blog.

Welcome to Minxeats.

Dim Sum
My first installment on the world of food starts in China. More precisely, in Hong Kong: Jesse Wong's Hong Kong, a Chinese restaurant in the hectic burg of Columbia, Maryland. Today Neal and I set out for only our second dim sum experience without the accompaniment of native Chinese speakers.

I've been eating dim sum (Chinese for "a little bit of heart") since I was in my mid-20s. Back then the only place to find dim sum was a now-forgotten restaurant in glamorous and exciting Glen Burnie, MD. There, dim sum consisted mainly of an assortment of dumplings stuffed with various things, mostly shrimp and pork. There were few other delicacies to speak of, but what they had was fried, and fried is good. Right?

Many years later, I befriended LaRaine, born in Hong Kong but raised in the U.S. She still prefers Chinese food over all, and she introduced me to good dim sum, at a place in Wheaton, where the Asian population is much higher. At Good Fortune, I had snails in black bean sauce for the very first time, eaten with toothpicks in order to pick the tiny morsels out of their small shells. She would also order steamed spare ribs and chicken feet, both of which were fatty and bony and, in my opinion, too much trouble. The dim sum here was otherwise heavy on dumplings, but all were delicious, and I was always astonished at the amount of food three of us could put away in one sitting. (The average price per plate is $3.00; once our bill came to $60. You do the math.)

We later found a even better place with a great variety of goodies but even farther away from home, in Gaithersburg. New Fortune is huge, noisy, and delectable. They have platters of meats (roast duck) and vegetables (Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce), as well as the usual dumplings and body parts. There was even a dessert cart full of shiny, jiggly, gelatin-based, super-sweet sweets in garish colors. The best time to go is for Chinese New Year, when they feature a raucously loud Lion dance and martial arts demos.

Over the years, I've developed a list of favorites, items that are "must-haves" on trips to the local dim sum palace.

  • Shrimp crepes, cheung fun are number one on my list - slippery, pure-white tubes of glutinous-textured noodle filled with large shrimp and topped with a sweet soy sauce.
  • Sticky Rice in Lotus Leaf - sticky rice filled with dried shrimps and chinese sausage, wrapped in aromatic lotus leaves. The taste is slightly medicinal, slightly fishy, very comfort food.
  • Hom Sui Gok - deep-fried, football-shaped, slightly sweetened glutinous rice flour balls with a wonderfully chewy texture, encasing a filling of ground pork, green onion, and minced shrimp.
  • Pork Humbow - a baked or steamed bun filled with chopped bbq pork. I prefer the baked ones, as a steamed one that has been sitting around for too long takes on the texture of damp terrycloth dishtowels.
  • Turnip Cakes - grated cooked turnips pressed into square cakes with dried shrimp and Chinese sausage, fried until crisp on portable grills
  • Fried whole (head-on) shrimp with ginger and scallions - Crisp. Hot. Delicious! I take the heads off but eat the legs and shell and sometimes the tail too.

Here are a few photos from today's dim sum adventure. Click on them to see more detail!

The place was full when we got there, and we got seated in what must be the wastelands of Jesse Wong's despite being directly in front of the kitchen door. After mugging a few of the cart ladies, here's what we started out with. The "Jade Dumplings" were filled with shrimp pieces and had a distinctive cilantro flavor. The chow mein was what I assume to be "real" chow mein - skinny fried noodles with bits of scallions and bean sprouts. Very plain but very tasty. The Soy Sauce Chicken was, as all meats are at dim sum, served cold. The meat was very tender and had a slight flavor of five spice powder. The scallion dumplings had a doughy wrapper and were filled with chopped green onions. They get sizzled on the same little portable grill as turnip cakes.

By the time the cart with the shrimp comes around, they are pretty cold, but I managed to snag a plate hot from the fryer. These were heavenly! The shells were crisp and the meat perfectly cooked. They were slightly salty and a tad garlicky. My plate soon became a dumping ground for discarded shrimp heads and tails. Neal tried one with the head still on, proclaimed it "mushy and fishier." Mmmm! Shrimp brains! I'm not particularly fond of their little black eyeballs staring at me accusingly.

So much food (we got offered congee--a rice gruel-- tripe, several varieties of tofu skins, stuffed tofu and eggplant, myriad other dumplings, beef, jellyfish, and chicken feet) but where the heck were the shrimp crepes?? I spotted a guy come out of the kitchen with the telltale bottle of sweet soy on a tray with stacks of covered plates and managed to flag him down. Here they are - my all-time favorite dim sum yummy! Neal doesn't like them, it's a textural thing, so I got them all to myself.

I made sure to take this pic especially for my pal Fara, who lives in the wilderness of South Carolina and has no access to dim sum. This is sticky rice in lotus leaf, unwrapped to show off the rice. I did take another pic with the filling exposed, but Neal and I both decided that it wasn't at all appetizing. It was probably the cylindrical pink bit of Chinese sausage that stuck out of the rice.... :)

We usually skip dessert, although sometimes I'll give in to the mango pudding (almond flavored milky gelatin dessert served with mango bits and topped with canned fruit cocktail). Today, however, we tried the fruit tartlets. I had never seen a Western-style dessert here in the past, but there they were, three of them, each about 1 1/2" across. Tiny tart shells filled with a spoonful of pastry cream and topped with kiwi, half a strawberry, and a blackberry. Yum. Sorry - we ate them before I thought to take out the camera again.

Were we not going to the Mall afterwards, we would have ordered more food and then taken home a doggie bag. As it was, we ate just about everything on the table, except the condiment caddy. No, we have no plans to eat dinner tonight.

I hope you enjoyed this brief tour. Please leave a comment!