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. 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, 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!