Thursday, April 26, 2007

Caramel Tofu

Caramel tofu - that sounds like a somewhat unappetizing vegan dessert doesn't it? It's a savory dish, actually, with roots in Vietnamese cooking. I had clipped a recipe for caramel chicken a long time ago. It hung from a fridge magnet for years before I tossed it in a recipe purge, untried. When I spotted the recipe for Panfried Tofu with Asian Caramel Sauce in the April '07 issue of Gourmet, I decided I would actually give this one a chance to dazzle me.

The most intimidating thing about the recipe was making the caramel. A friend of mine ruined a couple of pots making caramel for a cake icing, and I didn't want to end up doing the same. But I have crappy cheap pots, so no harm done if I ruined a couple.

Here's 1/3 cup sugar in a non-stick saucepan over medium-high heat. Note the shiny melty bits at the edges of the pan. I wanted to make sure the sugar was liquifying, so I tilted the pan to slide the unmelted sugar off to one side. Sure enough, after confirming that caramelization was indeed taking place successfully, I stirred the remaining unmelted sugar into the melted part. In a matter of minutes, I had this:


The rest of the sauce was too easy - toss in the aromatics, then the liquid, and thicken with cornstarch. Really very simple. After the caramel turned out so well, I realized that slicing the shallots and enduring the resulting tears was really the hardest part of the recipe. However, I cheated - I only cut up 1.5 large shallots for use in the sauce. Forget the crisp frying! I'm going to stink up my kitchen and waste a bag of shallots to make a garnish? Not when I have a bag of Haldiram's Crisp Fried Onions (rather like Durkee's onions, but more rustic) in my pantry!

I served the tofu with a large salad dressed with a basil vinaigrette, and some steamed rice. (I'd put in a picture, but I've realized that all of my photos look alike, since I always use the same purple plates. Ok, if you insist.)

Was I amazed and dazzled at the remarkable flavors of the Asian caramel sauce? Not really. It wasn't exactly what I expected. It wasn't too sweet, and despite the load of garlic and shallots, not very savory. And notice that the recipe did not call for a major ingredient in Vietnamese cooking - fish sauce (I added some anyway). In addition, it made a ton of sauce...far more than needed for a single block of tofu.

Last night, DH fried up some onions and chicken thighs and added the rest of the caramel sauce. So we ended up eating Caramel Chicken after all.

Panfried Tofu with Asian Caramel Sauce
adapted from Gourmet
1 (14-ounce) block extra-firm tofu, rinsed
1/2 pound shallots (4 to 5 large)
1 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup sugar
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1/2 tablespoon finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons rice vinegar (not seasoned)
1 1/3 cups plus 2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/3 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves
1/3 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves

1. Halve tofu crosswise, then cut lengthwise into fourths to form 8 slices. Put tofu slices between several layers of paper towels to drain, replacing towels as needed, until ready to use.

2. Finely chop enough shallots to measure 1/2 cup and reserve. Cut remaining shallots crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick slices and separate into rings. Heat oil in a 10-inch heavy skillet (preferably cast-iron) over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then fry sliced shallots in 2 batches, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, 1 1/2 to 3 minutes per batch (watch closely, as shallots can burn easily). Quickly transfer shallots as fried with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon oil from skillet and reserve skillet.

3. Make sauce: Cook sugar in a dry 1- to 1 1/2-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, undisturbed, until it melts around edges and begins to turn golden, then continue to cook, stirring, until all of sugar is melted and turns a golden caramel.

Add reserved chopped shallots (use caution; caramel will bubble up and steam vigorously) and cook, stirring, until shallots shrink and are very fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Stir in soy sauce, vinegar, and 1 1/3 cups water and simmer, stirring, until any hardened caramel is dissolved, about 1 minute.

Stir together cornstarch and remaining 2 tablespoons water until smooth, then stir into sauce and simmer, stirring occasionally, 2 minutes. Remove from heat and keep warm, covered.

4. Heat oil remaining in skillet over high heat until hot but not smoking. Meanwhile, blot any excess moisture remaining on tofu with paper towels, then add to hot oil in skillet in 1 layer. Fry tofu, turning over once, until golden and crisp, 7 to 10 minutes total. Transfer to clean paper towels to drain briefly.

Reheat sauce, then serve tofu topped with sauce, basil, mint, and fried shallots.

Cooks' Notes:
• Sauce can be made 1 day ahead and chilled, uncovered, until completely cooled, then covered. Reheat sauce over moderately low heat, thinning it with additional water if necessary.
• Shallots can be fried 1 day ahead and cooled completely, uncovered, then kept at room temperature in an airtight container lined with paper towels.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

New Sushi

New to us, that is. We needed a new place to satisfy our sushi jones, since the last time we tried to visit the usual place, it seemed to be out of business. That evening, we ate at a Thai/Sushi joint in Cockeysville, and were pretty disappointed. We tried a Thai appetizer platter on which everything was greasy and/or tasteless. (Nothing has come close to our dear departed Bangkok Place yet.) The sushi was over-the-top huge, big honking rolls full of too much stuff and topped with too much spicy mayo. It all seemed fresh, yet it was all pretty much tasteless. A big strikeout.

Yesterday, we ventured into Yamato Sushi, in the Fairgrounds Plaza shopping center, in Timonium. Even at 5:45, several tables were taken, which was a good sign. They had a number of the fancy rolls that DH and I like, as well as a good selection of more standard sushi. A cursory glance at the rest of the menu showed a melange of Asian dishes, Thai, Japanese, and other. But we were there for sushi.

The nigiri sushi we ordered - tuna, salmon, white tuna - was impeccably fresh, with nice large slices of fish and rather small fingers of rice. The five rolls we tried were modestly sized, all fitting in the mouth nicely. Two had a spicy mayo on them. Now, I like the concept of spicy mayo, but in most places, it's a bit too heavy on the spice, with a tart, harsh, hot sauce quality that overwhelms the delicate fish. Yamato uses a very lightly spiced thin mayo sauce that seemed far more appropriate. They also used crunchy elements in many of their rolls, either tempura shrimp or merely crisp tempura batter scraps. And, all of the rolls were inside-out, meaning more rice and less nori, ideal for someone like me whose least-favorite part of sushi is the nori.

We enjoyed everything. The decor was pleasant, the staff friendly, and the sushi delicious. I think it's my new favorite, and I hope that doesn't mean the kiss of death for Yamato Sushi.

Yamato Sushi
51 W Aylesbury Rd
Timonium, MD 21093
(410) 560-0024
Yamato Sushi on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 16, 2007

Short Ribs

So short ribs might not seem like a good choice for a Spring meal, but when the temps are in the 40s and it's a gloomy, rainy, and windy day, they are perfect. I wanted some Asian cuisine this weekend, but with our favorite Korean and Thai restaurants MIA, and the weather being so crappy, we didn't feel like venturing out of the house. I had picked up a couple packages of ribs on our last visit to Wegman's and decided to try out the Korean style short ribs recipe from the March 2007 issue of Gourmet.

They were pretty easy - marinate for 8 or more hours, cook without searing. I only had 4lbs of short ribs, but used the same amount of marinade, which was barely enough. They smelled wonderful while cooking, very much like galbi, and they tasted good too...although not as sweet and garlicky as they should have been. As the recipe was so simple, I'll definitely make it again, although I think I'll go for much more garlic and probably another quarter cup or so of brown sugar. The three cups of water for braising was a bit much as well; perhaps a cup of beef stock paired with a cup of soy would be more flavorful. Or, I might borrow some ingredients from David Chang's recipe.

To accompany the ribs, I made rice (of course). I also whipped up a bit of cucumber pickle (hothouse cucumber, salt, Korean red pepper, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, a pinch of sugar) and a decidely un-Korean side of sliced Brussels sprouts sauteed in olive oil and garnished with orange zest. The cucumbers were hotter than the ones from Purim Oak; the pepper caught in the back of the throat a bit. And we love Brussels sprouts, so we think they go with everything. I would usually sprinkle them with some Golden Whisk Star of Siam oil, but that's on the spicy side and I figured the cucumbers would provide enough of the spice element. But I still wanted something citrusy, hence the grated orange rind.

Korean-Style Short Ribs (from Gourmet March 2007)
Makes 6 to 8 servings.

1/4 cup sesame seeds, toasted and cooled completely
1 bunch scallions, trimmed and finely chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
3 tablespoons gochujang (Korean hot-pepper paste)
1 tablespoon Asian sesame oil
6 lb beef short ribs or flanken
3 cups water
1 (2-inch) piece peeled fresh ginger, smashed

Special equipment: an electric coffee/spice grinder

Grind sesame seeds to a coarse powder in grinder. Reserve 1/4 cup scallion greens, then whisk together remaining scallions, garlic, soy sauce, brown sugar, hot-pepper paste, sesame oil, and 2 tablespoons sesame-seed powder in a large bowl. Reserve remaining sesame-seed powder for serving. Add short ribs to soy sauce mixture, rubbing mixture into them. Transfer ribs to a large sealable plastic bag and seal bag, pressing out excess air. Marinate, chilled, at least 8 hours.

Transfer ribs to a wide 6- to 8-quart heavy pot and add water and ginger. Simmer, tightly covered, until ribs are very tender, about 3 hours.

Transfer ribs to a platter using tongs and keep warm, covered with foil. Skim fat from sauce and pour sauce through a sieve lined with a dampened paper towel into a bowl, then discard solids. Serve ribs with sauce in shallow bowls and sprinkle with reserved scallion greens and remaining sesame-seed powder.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Dining and Sniffing in New York City - Part 3

On Sunday morning, after Andree grabbed a cup of coffee at the hotel, we headed out for a day of perfume boutiques. And food. Breakfast was at Bond No. 9, a niche perfumer who creates scents based on New York. We had little bites of scrambled eggs with chives and tiny croissants. There were also little muffins and fruit available, along with coffee, tea, and orange juice. We ate quickly, standing up, so we could get on with the business of sniffing the many wonderful Bond fragrances (we each bought some).

Lunch was at Country Cafe, a tiny restaurant on Thompson Street, and directly across the street from another stop on our sniffing tour, L'Artisan Parfumeur. Lunch was broken into two seatings, because of the high attendance and the size of the restaurant. Personally, I think the place was entirely too small. And...they were unprepared for us. When Andree and I arrived at 1:15, fifteen minutes late, they still were trying to get rid of their non-Sniffapalooza customers, whom they had allowed to come in for breakfast and were not leaving in time. They should have closed the restaurant for the event. We eventually were let in out of the cold and allowed to sit while we waited for the staff to get their act together. Famished, we could have eaten the place settings, but thankfully were presented with a rather large bread basket overflowing with French bread, cornbread, lemon pound cake, and heart-shaped cookie-like pastries. The four of us at our table demolished the bread in about 15 minutes.

After another wait, we got menus - ones that were somewhat different from the menu we had been sent in advance by the Karens. I had my heart set on the merguez (spicy lamb sausage) and frites, and it was nowhere to be found. Instead, I ordered eggs Benedict with ham, a mimosa, and hot tea. Andree got the omelette. One of our dining companions, S., ordered 3 poached eggs, and our fourth, another S., had the Benedict as well.

Our first seating luncheon was supposed to be over at 2:30, instead, we ran well over. We didn't get our food until about 2, and it was gobbled post haste. Although I would have preferred a crispier English muffin and smaller ham slices (the large rectangles buried the muffin and engulfed the plate, making the egg look Lilliputian by comparison), the eggs were perfectly poached, with runny yolks and firm whites. I hate slimy whites, and there was nary a slimy bit to be found. The hollandaise sauce was dolloped on gently and didn't drown the dish, another plus. The eggs were joined by a small pile of baby greens in a balsamic vinaigrette, and breakfast potatoes that were still a little too firm for my tastes. Andree, a reformed egg-hater, enjoyed her omelette immensely, and the other two ladies seemed happy as well. Amazing how a good bread basket can make people happy. We could have been very disgruntled by the wait, but we ended up feeling quite content by our meal.

Our last weekend meal in NY. Back to home-cooking for both of us!

Country Café on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Dining and Sniffing in New York City - Part 2

Our first stop after Seppi's was the Japanese department store Takashimaya where we found a spread of cupcakes from Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery and glasses of sweet tea and water. I believe we were offered their full selection of goodies, at least as far as I could tell - many were missing by the time we made our way to the table!

Sunshine: Yellow cake with vanilla buttercream
Bob: Yellow cake with chocolate almond buttercream
Ooey Gooey: Chocolate cake with chocolate almond buttercream
Sexy Red Velvet: Red velvet cake with “The Moose”
Sassy Red Velvet: Red Velvet cake with chocolate almond buttercream
Black & White...Just Right: Chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream
Pistachio: Pistachio cake with “The Moose”
Pumpkin: Pumpkin cake with cream cheese icing
Lemon Yummy: Lemon cake with lemon buttercream
Coconut: Coconut cake with meringue

I had a pistachio cupcake - because I can't resist green things! The cake was light and fluffy, and the icing was beyond decadent. "The Moose" is a satin buttercream that is extremely unctuous and fluffy at the same time. I really wanted to be a complete pig and have an Ooey Gooey as well, especially after seeing a fellow Sniffa roll his eyes in ecstacy, but I behaved myself.

The crowd at Tak proved to be a bit too much for Andree and I, so we left and cooled our heels at an Irish pub until it was time for our last department store of the day, Saks.

Back at the hotel, we decided we were hungry (hey, we did a lot of walking!) so took a cab to the West Village. Bleecker and 7th, to be exact. We didn't wander far before Andree spotted the Gandhi Cafe and asked if we could eat there. I know she doesn't get much Indian food on Maryland's Eastern Shore, so I agreed. It was nearly 8pm, and the tiny restaurant was packed. Lucky for us, there was one table available. I was pleasantly surprised how cheap the place was, and hoped the food would be good. And it was.

We started off with eggplant pakoras and a mixed tandori grill of lamb, chicken, and shrimp. Andree had an extremely tomatoey chicken tikka masala for her entree, and I chose mushroom saag (or shag, as it was spelled on the menu). These were accompanied by an extremely hot and fluffy naan. The mushrooms in the saag were of the small button variety, and it almost seemed to me that they were canned. Maybe not, but they looked that way. Tasted fine though. And the tomatoeyness of the tikka masala sauce was borderline Campbell's soup, but not quite. We ate it all. The pakoras and chicken appetizer were the tastiest items, and the naan was superlative.

Our check came to a grand total of $31 and change. The prix fixe at Seppi's was $30 each. Not bad, either way.

For dessert (not that we needed any) we went to my favorite NY bakery, Rocco's, just down the block on Bleecker. We shared a rhum baba stuffed with cannoli filling and bought some cookies to take back to our husbands. All in all a delicious day.

Next time: Eggs-cellent.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Dining and Sniffing in New York City - Part 1

The first actual NY meal of the day came at lunch. The lovely ladies who organize the Sniffapalooza event, collectively known as "The Karens," had reserved Seppi's, a French restaurant in Le Parker Meridien hotel. For $30, we got a choice of artichoke-onion soup or a green salad with apple and goat cheese; grilled chicken or hanger steak with spinach and potatoes gratin, or pasta primavera; and either a molten chocolate cake or a fruit salad. Non-alcoholic beverages were also included.

Our group packed the dark and cozy restaurant, decorated with lots of posters and a black-painted pressed-tin ceiling. Andree and both chose the salad, steak, and fruit. The salad was a mix of baby greens, topped with a slice of apple which in turn was topped with a medallion of goat cheese. The dressing was a tangy mustardy vinaigrette, applied with a moderate hand.

We asked for our steak to be medium, but it was more medium-rare. That's fine too - as long as it's not cold and bloody inside, I'll eat it. The steak shared the plate with a very generous hunk of potatoes gratin and a rather skimpy portion of perfectly cooked spinach. I would have preferred less potatoes and more spinach, but that's probably a petty quibble. It was all very tasty. The steak was nicely chewy, with good beefy flavor. The potatoes were decadently rich and tender, and the spinach was well seasoned, without that astringent quality that often mars undercooked sauteed spinach.

The fruit salad was the usual unimaginative combination of grapes, strawberries, cantaloupe and honeydew melon, and pineapple, but served in a puddle of citrus juices. I would have gone for the chocolate cake, which looked tantalizing, but I knew we'd have cupcakes waiting for us at the next stop.

Speaking of time. :)

Monday, April 02, 2007

Dining and Sniffing in New York City - Part 0

I just got back from a weekend trip to NY during which I spent my time sniffing perfume and eating. (Often at the same time.) The primary reason for the trip was an event for perfume aficionados called Sniffapalooza - two days of sensory overload.

My friend Andree and I were taking the train into the City, so would miss the planned breakfast at Bergdorf Goodman. To make up for that, I concocted some mighty yummy "carrot" muffins. I use the quotes because the muffins didn't have all that much carrot in them. I had purchased a bag of pre-shredded carrots, but when I went to use them, I found they had become slimy and tossed the lot of them. Alas, all I had left in the fridge was about 8 of those mini carrots, and I needed a cup and a half total. What to do? Fortunately, we had several apples in the crisper, so I peeled and shredded one of those. For extra flavor, I stirred in some grated orange peel. And finally, to gild the lily, I filled them with a cream cheese mixture. What's carrot cake without cream cheese frosting?

Cream cheese-filled Fruity Muffins

1 1/2 cup flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp cardamom

3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 stick butter, melted and cooled

1/2 cup shredded carrots
1 cup shredded apple (peeled)
1/2 cup dried cherries, soaked in warm water or something more alcoholic, if you prefer
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
grated zest of one orange

4 oz softened cream cheese
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 350.

Sift together dry ingredients; set aside. Beat the eggs and the sugar together until light. Blend in the the melted butter until well combined. Add the carrots, apple, drained cherries, walnuts, and orange peel. Stir in the dry ingredients but do not overmix.

In a separate bowl, combine the ingredients for the filling.

Grease a large 6- or standard 12-muffin pan. Fill the cups about 3/4 of the way, then add a dollop of cream cheese filling. Bake large muffins for about 40 minutes, and regular ones for about 30. They should turn a nice deep brown, and a cake tester should come out clean.

Next: Actual NY dining