Monday, December 29, 2008

bring your holiday cheer along with a pot of Puttanesca

Lately, I haven't been inspired to write. But I can assure you I have been cooking and eating. I couldn't imagine my world without food, especially homemade food. Actually, in private conversations with other bloggers it's apparent that I am here, behind the screen- reading wonderful posts about food and restaurant reviews, I am just not writing about my own. Partly because my body and mind are still on vacation or wishing it were. We went to visit my parents in New Jersey for Thanksgiving, then here

for a week and if that wasn't all 2 1/2 work days didn't do me any good. And although I sound like I am complaining- I am not- I am just trying my hardest to be a better blogger.

Thankfully a holiday dinner brought me back to my senses and the writing.

I tentatively planned few things for last weekend because I wanted some down time with the husband, the house and our pet fish, Fatty. And boy did we get some downtime.

The only concrete plan was to go to a friend's house for Italian themed dinner on December 25. She made Mushroom and Basil pesto for bruschetta, stuffed Pork tenderloin with Sundried Tomato pesto, cannelini beans-a recipe by Marcella Hazan, Prosciutto and green pea risotto and really good tiramisu too. Her parents brought mixed salad and roasted chicken. My contributions? Broccoli and Cauliflower Gratinate by Lidia, Pasta Puttanesca with homemade fettuccine, slow roasted Brussels sprouts and cranberry salsa with goat cheese for the bruscetta.

Everything tasted great. She agreed the pork was a little overdone, but that didn't matter because everyone was fixated on the risotto. The homemade pasta was a big hit as well. Mind you, she made the pasta dough before I arrived because she's a pro and a great friend. Speaking of homemade pasta, I've made it once before. Since I didn't and still don't have a pasta machine, manual or kitchen aid, I rolled out the dough for Tagliatelle on my counter. It was a process I don't like to talk about but will repeat if I am craving homemade pasta, or buy a pasta machine first.

There are lots and lots of recipes out there for puttanesca. And they all look good. I browsed many for direction and made my own version of the dish.

Pasta Puttanesca

3 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
4-6 anchovy fillets in olive oil
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 28oz can (whole) tomatoes, plus juices
1/4 cup capers
1/2 cup black olives, pitted and chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Fettuccine, spaghetti or any long pasta is good for this recipe. (Homemade pasta is better however dried pasta works as well.)

Bring a pot of water to boil. Add salt to season and then stir in the dried pasta. Cook the pasta following the instructions on the box. For homemade, cook the pasta 5 minutes before the sauce is done. Drop fresh pasta into boiling, salted water and cook for 3-5 minutes.

Heat olive oil in medium-large pan on medium heat. Add garlic and anchovy fillets to the pan. Gently mash the fillets with the back of a rubber spatula or wooden spoon. After couple minutes the anchovies should have melted into the garlic-oil mixture. Stir in red pepper flakes and cook for 2 more minutes. Add tomatoes with juices. (some recipes call for adding capers and olives before the tomatoes- it doesn't matter.) Simmer the tomatoes until the sauce thickens, then stir in the capers and olives with some of their juices and dried oregano. Simmer on low for 10- 15 minutes. Stir in the cooked pasta and cook for 2- 5 more minutes or until the pasta is nicely coated with the sauce. Serve hot or warm.

For the holiday weekend, I tentatively planned to clean the house on Friday, shop on Saturday and study for an upcoming exam on Sunday. Two of three were accomplished, and that's good for me. Most of my house is clean. Saturday, we went to one of the busy malls that's further away and almost always like a zoo. Sadly, I came away with NOTHING. I was disappointed on every front, especially for a dutch oven. I bought one from a housewares stores only to read negative reviews of it online later that night. I returned it the next day. The husband, a deal finder, is keeping his eyes open for the one. At 4pm on Sunday, I started studying for that upcoming exam. As I was browsing through the course syllabus I noticed we don't have class this week; and there went the studying, out the window.

Hope you enjoyed your break. Any plans for NYE? We've got a couple- tentatively speaking. Around here tentative is the word of the month.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

a belated thanks

I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving this year. Ours was filled with time with the family. We left for the shores of New Jersey early morning on Thursday. Why drive so far on the day of? Well because my mom and sister decided we wouldn’t have a traditional meal and instead we would eat homemade Indian food. Both the husband and I are trying to establish our own family traditions, one of which is to make turkey on this day. We weren’t thrilled about the menu however like a dutiful Indian daughter, I trotted home with my husband.

Mind you, I enjoy love Indian food. I will be the first to point out, Indian food runs in my blood and I can't go too long before craving it but this isn’t the time to make roti, curry, rice and daal. It’s one occasion we have to be able to stuff ourselves with mashed potatoes, green beans and pumpkin pie and get fat without guilt.

At work we had a lunch to celebrate the holiday. They would provide the meat and we were asked to bring in a side dish. In matter of seconds I knew I would bring stuffing. I searched the web for an interesting recipe but ended up creating my own. Forewarning this recipe uses boxed ingredients. I prefer to cook from scratch so this is a bit strange, even for me, but I have never made homemade cornbread and that night was certainly not going to be different. It is my goal to make it from scratch one of these days!

My Cornbread Stuffing

3- 4 stale Jiffy cornbread mix muffins or 2 cups pan-baked, crumbled
1/4 cup of stale bread, cubed (I used French baguette)
Olive oil
2 tablespoon butter
1 onion finely diced
2 stalks of celery finely diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup low sodium chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme (fresh can be used but I didn’t have any on hand)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and Black Pepper, freshly cracked

Few days or a day before making the stuffing, follow the instructions on the box to make cornbread. I’ve always used Jiffy so I prefer it however if you like a different brand use that and follow its instructions.

Preheat the oven to 350F degrees

Crumble the cornbread and cube the bread. If the bread is too dry to cut, briefly soak it in water. Finely chop onion, celery (with leaves) and garlic. Add olive oil and butter to a large sauté pan on medium heat. Add the chopped vegetables and sauté until onions are translucent. Season with salt and black pepper. Stir in crumbled cornbread, season with salt and black pepper, again. Once the cornbread is incorporated into the onion mixture, stir in cubed bread and low sodium chicken stock. Season with thyme, lemon juice, salt, and black pepper and mix well.

Transfer the stuffing to a baking pan and bake for 15 minutes or until the liquid has evaporated. Serve warm. Since I brought this to work for lunch, I reheated the stuffing in the microwave. For winging it, this was a success if I must say so myself. I would make one change to the recipe, I would decrease the amount of lemon juice or eliminate it altogether. It added a slight sweetness to the stuffing that I didn't care for, but others didn't mind.

In addition to homemade cranberry sauce, beer and cheese soup, and homemade spice cake, we had fried chicken bought from a local grocery giant. Fried chicken with cranberry sauce and stuffing, anyone?

On the day of giving thanks, we ate a full fledged Indian meal with dishes I can’t remember because I was dreaming about homemade rolls and occupied my time with the kids and the rest of the family. Although we didn’t eat the way we had hoped, we were grateful to be with people we adore, most of the time.

And of course, I thank you, my readers, for coming around to read this blog, even when I've disappeared from the Internets for unknown amounts of time.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Green Gold- Basil Pesto

Every chance I get I use homemade pesto to enliven dishes. especially something like this in dreary cold weather…

Homemade Basil Pesto

Bunch of basil leaves
1/3 of cup of pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup of olive oil
1/3 cup of freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano cheese
Freshly ground black pepper

Pulse basil, pine nuts and garlic cloves in a food processor or blender. While the processor is running, add olive oil in a slow steady stream. Scrape down the sides of the processor. Add Parmesan-Reggiano cheese and black pepper and pulse. The cheese is salty so I do not add salt until the cheese is blended in. Taste. Add salt based on personal preference. Scrape down the sides and blend one last time.

I stopped buying store-bought long time ago because it’s easy to prepare and doesn’t have hard-to-pronounce ingredients. Basil is a seasonal herb so I make few cups during its peak harvest in the Summer and freeze it for year around use. Few ways to enjoy it is as a dip with toasted bread, a pasta sauce, with extra drizzle of olive oil it’s good for salad dressing and my favorite is to layer it on brie and bake it in the oven for eight minutes. Brie’s melty, ooey-gooey goodness pairs perfectly with the pesto.

Monday, November 24, 2008

fulfilled my sushi fix, for now

(this is an unplanned joint review with Liz, but having her as a personal friend that's likely to happen)

The ladies and I planned a sushi and movie night because Beluga offers half off sushi on Wednesday nights. In my opinion Beluga has all things we foodies/food lovers look for: great food, service, price and atmosphere. We only ordered from their half off sushi menu so this review does not reflect the rest of the menu. Out of many options, we ordered some unique rolls like Red Roll, Crazy Roll, Jade Roll. Most of the rolls tasted fantastic however couple missed the mark for me. For instance, the Jade Roll was made of an orange substance wrapped with rice, pickles and something else. And after eating the Jade Roll I learned I love sushi and I love pickles, I just don’t love them together. The fish tasted reasonably fresh and the rolls were well wrapped- a sign of an experienced sushi chef. For drinks we started with a bottle of Pinot Blanc (or Gris) from Oregon and it was refreshing. It was a delicious wine as an aperitif but unfortunately its sweetness competed with sushi’s flavors. Later on, I tried a drink with Lychee. Growing up in India, Lychees were common so when I see it on a menu or in a drink I get it. This mixed drink was deliciously strong.

The service was wonderful; from the time we entered until the time we left we were at the staff’s beck and call. Our server was even nice enough to refill our wine glasses and informed us gratuity was included in the bill. The roll prices vary from $5 to $20 each; so on half off night, we came away with a bargain. Beluga’s ambiance is fashionably contemporary. It has multiple rooms and each room has unusual color schemes and interior.

And the movie we were supposed to see after dinner? didn’t happen. Instead we stayed for drinks at the bar, where I tried the lychee drink. The bartender was a fabulous Polish man that we adored. He had the personality of a bartender without the fluff, fun and lively.

Beluga’s sushi ranks fair (on a “the best” to “don’t bother” scale) compared to my other two favorite sushi places, Jo An and Dancing Wasabi. However for a fun night with friends Beluga outranks them all. We’re already planning to go back for drinks, half off sushi and the Polish bartender.

Liz also wrote an in-depth review of the night at Beluga. And she’s got pictures too!

Friday, November 21, 2008

The bigger hit, Frittata

Along with the baked eggs, I served frittata at brunch. It’s an Italian omelet that’s started on the stove and finished in the oven. It is very time and ingredient friendly. The idea of preparing a frittata for the ladies originated the weekend before when I made one with smoked salmon, cream cheese and dill playing up on bagels, lox and cream cheese combination.

Green and Red Frittata

4 fresh eggs, whisked
1 tablespoon homemade basil pesto
1 medium (homegrown) tomato, diced
Olive oil
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
1/4 bunch of swiss chard, torn into small pieces
small handful of freshly grated parmesan cheese
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Preheat oven on broil

Whisk 4 eggs in a bowl. Stir basil pesto, diced tomato, salt, and freshly cracked pepper into the eggs.

Heat olive oil in a 10 inch non stick, oven safe frying pan on medium low heat. (Many non sticks come with rubber handles- I wrap aluminum foil around the handle couple times and it works!) Add minced garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add swiss chard, or any other greens, to the pan and stir until it wilts. Remove the swiss chard and garlic from the pan. Pour the egg mixture into the empty pan. Cook few minutes until the edges are firm and they releases from the pan. Sprinkle parmesan cheese when the edges have set and the top is runny. Remove the pan from the stove and broil in the oven for 5 minutes, or until the top is set. Cut in pizza slice shape and serve hot or warm.

The swiss chard and tomatoes added a pungent and tart flavor while the pesto gave it a unique taste. It’s one of those dishes that is easy to prepare and has a huge wow factor too.

Since the frittata was gone before I could take pictures, here's something else that's as colorful.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Reviewing Allure- not the magazine, the restaurant

We bought a gift certificate for Allure from months ago. And I didn’t even recall having it until the husband suggested we go there for dinner on date night. We made reservations for first seating dinner menu which includes first course, main course and dessert. The catch was we had to be seated by 6pm. To save room for an early dinner we ate a light lunch and did laps around Ikea for couple hours.

Allure is tucked away in a small strip mall amongst a comedy club, Thai, and Indian restaurants. While walking up to the entrance, we could smell the aromas of the Thai kitchen. Once seated, we noticed it was still rather empty with an exception of one table of 5. Perhaps 6pm is too early for the general public to dine out on a Saturday. The atmosphere is modern chic with dim lights and candlelit dining area. The red draping over the ceiling lights in the main dining room is a sophisticated and romantic touch.

We started with drinks, he ordered a Brooklyn Pilser and I ordered the Pinot Blanc from Oregon. The manager returned with my Pinot Blanc and a Brooklyn Lager, instead of the Pilsner an overlook by the manager who did not take our drink orders, our server did. He was nice enough to take it back in exchange for the Pilsner. I liked my wine because it was light, smooth, and paired perfectly with my first and main course. The husband enjoyed his beer very much; so much so that he drank it really fast and had a buzz. Leave it up to the husband to get buzzed at a sophisticated restaurant.

From the prix fixe menu, we chose from two salads, four entrees and two desserts. I chose Caesar salad and he picked the house salad with bacon and fennel. We both agreed the salads were made to perfection. The caesar dressing tasted homemade but I couldn’t tell for sure.

For main, I ordered arctic char with miso and he chose pork tenderloin with potato gnocchi. I was tempted to order crab cakes but decided against it because I am too fussy about my crab cakes after having eaten fresh Maryland Crabcakes. I can’t recall the fourth option but I believe it was a vegetarian pasta dish. My arctic char came with half head of romaine halved lengthwise with mushrooms in miso broth. The fish’s skin was broiled, deliciously crispy. Before Saturday night I had never eaten an arctic char before (I know, a tragedy for a foodie but I didn’t know about this fish until culinary school and let’s be honest Cincinnati isn’t known for its fresh seafood). This is a total speculation due to lack of expertise with arctic char but I am pretty sure I was served Salmon. It tasted like Salmon, looked pink like Salmon and was flaky like Salmon when it’s done well. The fish didn’t have the oomph I am always looking for but it was still very good. The husband’s pork tenderloin was to die for. We’re rookie pork eaters so we don’t know signs of good and bad pork but we’re sure this was good pork cooked flawlessly. The gnocchi was cooked in a brown butter sauce.

For dessert we both picked crème brûlée because we aren’t fans of strawberry ice cream. When our dinner plates were taken away at approximately 6:50, we anticipated going to the 7:30 show at the nearest movie theater. At 7:10, our dessert had still not arrived. Understandably, the restaurant became a lot busier after 6:45. Once our server brought out the dessert, we enjoyed the first few bites thoroughly; however after the 4th bite it was too much for me, as in overly sweet. I’ve had good crème brûlées and I’ve had bad ones and I would rate Allure’s as middle of the road crème brûlée.

It felt like Allure was short staffed (and maybe they were) but there were number of people walking around checking on tables. They had a hostess that seated us and everyone else, two servers for the main dining room, a manager and couple extras that brought out food and refilled waters when servers were occupied. With all the help the service was still questionable. Multiple people were asking the same questions about the menu and/or drinks. For instance, after the table next to us was seated, our server approached them with the evening’s specials and a drink order. Few minutes later, another individual approached the same table with the same information and a drink order. Thankfully we didn’t get repeat questions from multiple servers, actually our server was very nice and friendly. We were, however, puzzled by the long wait in between the main course and dessert. The food was decent as was the ambiance. It’s a restaurant the husband and I wouldn’t mind trying again, however like Julie we believe there are far too many restaurants on our “to try list” that take precedence over returning to Allure.

And the movie, we missed the 7:30 show and saw Quantum of Solace instead. If you, your male partner or friends are in the mood to see action, bond action- see this movie. Otherwise I'd recommend an original film. The husband was thrilled to see the bond movie and sometimes that's all that matters on a date night.

I googled Arctic Char after coming home and learned this fish is a cousin of Salmon. Its taste is a cross between Trout and Salmon. I’ve had trout before and I am still pretty sure I was served Salmon, a tasty Salmon at best.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

don't bother

The most pretentious place I’ve ever been to, even after having lived in DC.

We went there after brew hopping in the city. The server was rude, the food okay and the prices steep. Most of the people around us were wearing suits and brooches so maybe it wasn’t a restaurant we should have stepped foot in in the first place, but regardless.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

impromptu lunch- updated

I am looking for suggestions for today's lunch. A coworker is taking couple of us out and I can't decide. My only requests are it be a locally, independently owned restaurant, reasonably priced, >$10/lunch and has good parking because she hates parallel parking. Imagine all those wonderful places she hasn’t tried because they had parallel parking.

Something along the lines of courtyard on the main; I've already been to courtyard so I want to try something else.


We ended up at Washington Platform on Elm Street. I didn't know they served lunch or else I would have tried them a lot sooner. The coworker that drove recommended it. While it has a relaxed, bar feel to it, the service and food is anything but that. I ordered a mandarin chicken salad, the other individuals chose Elm Street Club and Court Street Club with fries. The presentation of my salad was of a Chef's salad with sliced tomatoes and cucumbers on one side, olives on the other and the chicken salad piled high on top of lettuce. The chicken salad was crunchy, sweet and meaty all at once; it was really good, different but good. The twist on theirs was the finely chopped walnuts and small diced mandarins. I expected a mixed salad with slices of mandarin oranges but this was much better. Our server was fantastic- she refilled our waters on que and was very friendly. I tried a fry and didn't care for them because they had a bad after taste, somewhat like the fries from a fast food joint. However the coworker that ordered them liked and raved about them. They also enjoyed their clubs. Washington Platform wasn't on my radar for lunch but now that I know they have good service and great food, I'll stop by for a quick meal.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Brunch for the Ladies

I hosted a brunch for a group of my friends catered by me. It was my first time "catering" and hopefully one of many learning experiences for the future in food business. I have few ideas on how I want to serve food and in what capacity. One of which includes catering private parties of 4- 12 people. Another is opening a food truck, one woman show, serving slow food fast. That sounds contradictory but its roots are vaguely based on the slow food movement. My take on it includes creating food from locally and seasonally grown ingredients and serving the breakfast and lunch crowd that have limited time. Personal chef for few families is another concept that has crossed my mind. As you can see I have not honed down the concept of my dream business, yet.

For brunch everyone choose from baked eggs and frittata. With that they were served fresh fruit, farm raised pork bacon or sausage and homemade bread. Most chose baked eggs and one picked frittata. I think they all secretly wanted both. I used Mark Bittman’s recipe and video as a guide.

Baked Eggs with Ham, Swiss Chard and Tomatoes

8 tomato slices
Smoked boneless ham steaks, cubed
swiss chard leaves torn from the stalks
8 eggs
salt & pepper
8 ramekins

Lightly brown the cubed ham in a non stick skillet on medium heat; stir occasionally so the ham doesn’t brown too much on one side. Allow time to cool.

The recipe (actually all baked eggs recipes) calls for basic ramekins for baking. And instead, I used small bowls for a fancier presentation. a bad mistake.

In each individual ramekin, layer with a slice of tomato, freshly cracked black pepper, few (be generous) pieces of ham and couple swiss chard leaves. Salt isn’t necessary because ham is salty and will flavor the veggies. Crack two eggs per serving and finish with salt and pepper. The recipe says to bake it for 15 minutes in the oven. I baked mine for 20 minutes. When I served the eggs, couple people said the eggs were still runny, possibly raw. Initially when everyone sat down to eat, they had homemade bread and butter, fruits, bacon and sausage in front of them. When the eggs went back in the oven for 20 more minutes people continued to munch on the pork products and homemade bread and butter. As a general rule of human behavior, I learned if you sit people down to eat, they will be hungry.

The friends thought eggs tasted great even after 40 minutes of baking. I personally think they were overdone; a few looked like they were scrambled while others’ looked like they were hard boiled eggs with a dry yolk. I was disappointed in the outcome and the time disparity.

We speculated that it could be an array of things. Instead of using fancy curved bowls, I ought to stick to ramekins. Because the ramekins are flatter, the eggs would cook evenly. Another mistake was using uncooked swiss chard which released its water while baking and required a longer baking time as opposed to cooked or sautéed. I did not butter the bowls and that’s an important step I must remember. Although it didn’t affect the overall outcome, the butter will definitely keep the eggs from sticking.

The homemade bread and butter got a lot of action while the eggs were in the oven. Liz offered to bring fruit for the brunch, and she also came with homemade, oh so damn good, butter. Read all about it here. Thanks Liz. And the homemade bread was a no knead bread recipe that was easy and delicious, if I must say so myself. If I say it’s easy, it’s easy. I am not a baker by any means but this tasted fantastic for someone that hates measuring.

This catered brunch was a test for me to prepare food successfully and on time. I am mostly satisfied with the outcome. The baked eggs were a learning opportunity, while the frittata was a hit –recipe to follow. It reinforced my passion for food and the potential for future endeavors. More importantly, I appreciate my friends that volunteered to be guinea pigs for the experiment and being kind enough to give high marks on the baked eggs even with the mishaps. I hope you continue to sign up for future experiments!

For the blog readers, I want to hear from you- have you successfully made baked eggs? Any tips or suggestions?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Snooze later...

If you find yourself in Denver, you must try one of their top rated breakfast/brunch joints, Snooze. It’s off the beaten path, sort of, and the husband and I discovered, it’s really off the beaten path when you’re walking from 16th street to 22nd in pouring rain. Regardless, we made it, just in time. When we arrived it was about 10:30 am on a Friday, and the place was packed with couple people ahead of us in line. I saw couple open bar seats and asked to be seated there because we wanted to sit down and we were starving.

The feel of the restaurant is fun- serving coffee and hot chocolate in bright yellow mugs, eclectic and retro in their round, metallic tables and chairs. I read on their site they try to be as environmentally conscious as possible; they buy from local vendors, recycle, and use non toxic chemical products. Bonus!

Once seated, the bartender/server was very kind and a great conversationalist. Right off the bat, he asked where we were from and why we were visiting Denver (I bet the knapsacks, tennis shoes, camera hung around our necks and the map of the city gave it away).

For drinks, I ordered a hot chocolate and the husband chose the house brew. The hot chocolate came with cinnamon sprinkled on top (no thank you on whipped cream) and I enjoyed it as I generally do when I am drenched and cold. It was good but nothing to write home about. The husband appreciated the strong coffee.

Onto brunch; we agreed to order two different things to share. I ordered Huevos Rancheros (I have a weakness for good Mexican food- may it be breakfast, lunch, or dinner) and he ordered Florentine’s Eggs. And even with the busy rush, the food arrived promptly. Mine came with three tortillas, black beans, melted cheese, huevos and pico de gallo. The huevos were done my way, over easy; when poked, the yolk run downs the rest of the beans and tortillas. I could taste the garlic and onion flavor in the beans. I added a tad bit of hot sauce for a kick. Other than my disappointment in pre bought tortillas instead of homemade, huevos tasted great.

The Florentine came with poached eggs on a bed of spinach, roasted poblanos and tomatoes with homemade cheese hollandaise and a side of hash browns. Sadly, the husband wasn’t as pleased with his meal as I was. I strongly believe that’s an isolated incident of him looking for a hot and spicy dish (ahhh huevos rancheros comes to mind) and instead he got a simple, mild dish. The cheese hollandaise was a hit for me. I shared my huevos in exchange for the Florentine so it worked out for both of us.

By the time we were done, the line was out the door. 10:30 on a Friday morning was the perfect time for us to grab a bite to eat, enjoy a cup of hot chocolate and coffee, read the local paper, westword, and wait for the rain to taper off- all at Snooze. These people have it figured out on serving great food in a reasonable time while also keeping the space green and customer friendly.

Even though we went there weeks after the Democratic National Convention the hype from the convention lingered in the air, and something tells me Snooze, Denver and the United States of America are all happy with the outcome of this presidential race.

Monday, November 03, 2008

as fresh as it gets…

Few months back, a friend suggested I take her place in the local farm’s meat CSA program. She was pregnant and the thought of eating half of a hog or 22 chickens was making her nauseous. understandably.

For those of you that aren’t familiar, CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It’s the idea of sustaining local farms and vendors and supporting environmentally conscious views.

Initially when I first read about CSA’s I came across Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Intrigued by the concept I found Valerie and the Cincinnati Locavore group she created on yahoo which really made me want to join a vegetable CSA. After contacting local farms I quickly realized vegetable CSAs are much more popular than I expected, here in Cincinnati; none of the farms had space in their vegetable program. I left the idea alone until the pregnant friend approached me for the meat CSA. And I thought I would much rather eat chickens that lived a healthy, free range life than chickens that are locked up in their tiny cages for their short lives, slaughtered and then travel 500+ miles to get to my local grocery store. And same for those pigs and sheeps. baaaaaa. After speaking with the husband and a close friend, we all agreed to join.

Our chore at the farm is to feed the chickens, hogs, sheep (we get our meat from these animals), the farm horses and the dogs. We would essentially be these animals’ food and water providers for the times we sign up to feed them. When we started (half way into the program’s cycle) we had first hand experience with the eggs before we even had our share of the meat. For each chore period we work, we get half dozen eggs.

As you can see, the chickens lay colorful eggs.

The husband made me a simple omelet from the eggs we’d picked the night before. The recipe includes 3 eggs, diced onions, halved pear tomatoes (grown by a close friend), chopped green onions, green chili pepper (as little or as much as you want based on your heat preference), salt and pepper. Mix everything together. Add oil to a small skillet on medium low heat, then add the egg mixture and cook couple minutes on one side. Neither of us are much fans of flipping our omelets but if you are, go head. I am sure your partner, friend or pet will enjoy watching you splatter everything outside the skillet. The key to a good omelet is to cook low and slow. If cooked on high, the moisture cooks out from the eggs and you end up with dried, rubbery omelet.

This is one of my favorite ways to enjoy the eggs from the farm because it brings out their freshness and light taste. Once you eat farm fresh eggs, you'll never eat store bought eggs.

Notice how yellow the omelet is; that's not an accident. I read that the locked-up-in-cage, corn and yellow-dye eating chickens lay eggs that have pale yellow yolks while the grass fed, free range chickens lay bright orange eggs. I am also tickled about picking eggs one night and eating them for breakfast the next as opposed to eating eggs that have been sitting in the grocery stores for weeks.

Although we all had our doubts and weren’t sure if we would be able to eat the meat from the chickens we fed and bacon from the hogs we watered, so far the freshly laid eggs have worked out quite pleasantly.

And to that I say Thank You for getting pregnant, friend!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

3, 2, 1 and we're back

Is anyone out there?

It's been a while but the vacation from blogging has been nice. I have been engulfed in culinary school classes, work, golf, gym and cooking. Yes, cooking, eating and eating out, maybe a little too much. And if that wasn’t enough, this summer has been full of long distance travels for weddings. Beginning in May, we went to Richmond, Virginia for a friend's wedding (the bride and groom listen to the priests while anxiously waiting for the "curtain" to drop) then it was off to Lake Tahoe in June for a cousin's wedding and we’re finishing the summer of weddings with a trip to Denver in September. I’ve loved all of it, especially spending time with family and friends since I don’t get to see them often. Since these trips are for the brides, the grooms, rehearsals, and free liquor, the husband and I agreed to take a short vacation to the beach, just us. Until the family asked to come along…. And now we have 9 people headed to Myrtle Beach for long weekend equipped with board games, beach towels, bathing suits, sun screen, and Asian dumplings.

I now also know the reasons for abandoning my blog and blogging for short periods. When I am exhausted and need some time off, instead of giving up the rockstar lifestyle, Liberal Foodie- the blog is the unfortunate victim. Basically, I disappear for couple months and then return with stories about food, travels and everything in between. For now, I am back. I think. If you've visited before, this is nothing new. Please bear with me.

Onto the food; especially the dumplings that are going to Myrtle Beach in a few weeks. I’ve never bought a pack of dumpling wrappers because I was intimidated by the entire process. On July 4th weekend, I tasted flavorful, asian-y, pan fried vegetarian dumplings from Trader Joe’s. After eating a few, I convinced myself to try making them at home.

At the Chinese Asian Market (CAM), I bought a pack of dumpling wrappers, firm tofu, napa cabbage, carrots, green onions and few other ingredients. I googled recipes and one that stood out was Alton Brown’s Vegetarian Steamed Dumplings.

This is his recipe with my adjustments in bold.

1/2 pound firm tofu
1/2 cup coarsely grated carrots,
1/2 cup shredded Napa cabbage- I used 1 whole napa cabbage
2 tablespoons finely chopped red pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced- his recipe did not include garlic however since I live my life for the taste of garlic, I included it.
2 tablespoons finely chopped scallions
2 teaspoons finely minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 egg, lightly beaten- I omitted the egg
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Bowl of water, plus additional water for steamer
35 to 40 small wonton wrappers
Non-stick vegetable spray, for the steamer
1 tablespoon Vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F.

Cut the tofu in half horizontally and lay between layers of paper towels. Place on a plate, top with another plate, and place a weight on top (a 14-ounce can of vegetables works well). Let stand 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, cut the tofu into 1/4-inch cubes and place in a large mixing bowl.

To make my life easy, I used a shredder on my cuisinart for the veggies. Hand chopping is certainly acceptable. First mince garlic and ginger in the shredder, then carrots, and finally napa cabbage. Scallions are easier to handle when cut by a knife, otherwise they make a big gooey mess in the shredder. In a large bowl, combine the cubed tofu with carrots, cabbage, red pepper, scallions, ginger, garlic cilantro, soy sauce, hoisin, sesame oil, salt, and pepper. Lightly stir to combine.

A deviation from the recipe is to cook the mixture before filling the dumplings. In a large pan on medium-hot heat, add a tablespoon of vegetable oil. When the oil is wavy, add the mixture. If it begins to smoke, turn down the heat. Cooking is my personal preference for these because it par cooks tofu, cabbage and carrots and releases garlic and ginger’s flavors. Allow the mixture to cool before shaping the dumplings.

To form the dumplings, remove 1 wonton wrapper from the package, covering the others with a damp cloth. Brush the edges of the wrapper lightly with water. Place 1/2 rounded teaspoon of the tofu mixture in the center of the wrapper. Shape as desired. My favorite, and the easiest, shape is to fold opposite sides together to form a triangle, press and seal. Be sure to gently press out excess air. For a fancier look, bring the two sides of the triangle base together, dab with water and press. Be sure to do this carefully so the wrapper does not tear. Haalo at Cook Almost anything at least Once has a magnificient picture (and recipe) of the finished product. Thank you!

Set on a sheet pan and cover with a damp cloth. Repeat procedure until all of the filling is gone. I recommend freezing the dumplings in the sheet pan before steaming. This keeps them from sticking together.

Using a steaming apparatus of your choice, bring 1/4 to 1/2-inch of water to a simmer over medium heat. Add enough water to a saucepot with a steam basket and bring the water to a rolling boil. The dumplings should not ever come in contact with the water. Spray the steamer's surface lightly with the non-stick vegetable spray to prevent sticking. Place as many dumplings as will fit into a steamer, without touching each other. Cover and steam until done. I can't remember how long for the frozen ones because I anxiously opened the lid 4 times. Taste one. Cover and steam 10- 12 minutes over medium heat. Remove the dumplings from the steamer to a heatproof platter and place in oven to keep warm. Repeat until desired number of dumplings are steamed. Serve hot or warm.

Frozen dumplings are good for up to 3-6 months.

After making these beauties, I plan on keeping my freezer stocked with wrappers and premade frozen dumplings.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Asparagus + Cherry Tomatoes + Garlic + Pasta = the best damn spring pasta dish

One day this weekend, I ate a huge lunch therefore wanted a light dinner. However light is a relative term in my house; what I call light is appetizer portion for the husband and his light is a full course dinner for me. Browsing through the fridge, I noticed the asparagus on the verge of going bad so it had to be something with asparagus. I contemplated making mashed potatoes, roasted asparagus and roast chicken- not a light meal by any means but I wanted roasted asparagus, bad. Then I had an a-ha moment, a light meal with roasted asparagus? PASTA, of course! One pot pasta dishes are a go-to, easy dinners that I make when attempting to use last of my vegetables. They’re a favorite around here too! For this dish I got creative- roasted vegetables with pasta and a light butter sauce.

As an alternative, I roasted asparagus with cherry tomatoes and garlic. Roasted asparagus or any vegetable really, surprisingly taste nothing like their boiled or steamed counterparts. The oven transforms it into a nutty, aromatic and refreshing goodness. This was my first time making it and I am hooked; I liked it so much I munched on it while waiting for pasta to finish cooking.

And then there was the garlic. For those that don’t like it, garlic is like diamond in the rough. (You liked that, didn’t you?) Raw or sautéed garlic is strong and has a sharp bite therefore it isn’t appreciated by everyone. (shame on you!) So why the metaphor? Roasting heightens garlic’s sweetness and smooth flavor so you’ll fall head over heels for it. more or less. It’s a great addition to pasta dishes, mashed potatoes, and can be mixed into dips like hummus and baba ganoush. (if you look closely, there's a clove amongst the pasta.)

Pasta with Asparagus, cherry tomatoes and garlic

1 bunch of Asparagus spears
1/2 pound Cherry Tomatoes
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
good olive oil
sea salt

1/4 package of any long pasta- spaghetti, fettuccine, or linguine will do
4 tbsp Butter, divided
1 tsp Red pepper flakes
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Sea salt, to taste
Slivered Almonds, optional (I like them for the crunchy texture)

Preheat oven to 400F degrees. Snap off the woody ends off of the asparagus spears. Add asparagus, tomatoes and garlic to a sheet pan. Drizzle with olive oil and sea salt and combine to coat.

Roast the vegetables in the oven for 12-15 minutes, depending on your oven. Meanwhile cook the pasta in large pot of boiling water until al dente.

After taking the vegetables out of the oven, allow to cool. Using kitchen shears, cut asparagus in half or thirds. Melt 1 tbsp of butter in a medium pan on low heat. Mash garlic with fork and add to the pan with melted butter, cook for 30 seconds, then add cherry tomatoes and asparagus. Drain pasta and add it immediately to the pan with garlic and vegetables. Add additional 2 tbsp of butter, red pepper flakes, sea salt and grated parmesan. Combine and cook until everything comes together, about 3 minutes. Finally, add last of the butter and mix. Serve warm and if using, sprinkle on slivered almonds.

This was a light meal for me, yet substantial for the husband. a perfect combination.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Nada, tome dos (take two)

This week, the book club was at Nada. For some it was the first time and for others it was second or third. Like the last time the food and experience was wonderful. Additionally, the service was fabulous. And I mean that in more ways than one. Rick, our server, was eager to answer all food questions and had superb drinks suggestions.

We started off with chips, guacamole and salsa. Both the guacamole and chips were spot on; the chips were warm and freshly salted. Some shared a ceviche, a light appetizer. It was shrimp and scallops marinated in citrus juice and tomatoes. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but one woman thought it didn’t compare to the one she had in Spain.

The drinks were strong and flavorful. My recommended drink was a tad sweet but still very good. Unfortunately I can’t remember any of the names but if you order anything from the drink menu, you won’t be disappointed.

When everyone’s dinner arrived there was a variety of tacos on the table; vegetarian, mahi mahi, and chicken. I got vegetarian tacos which had sautéed portabella mushrooms topped with beans, rice and chihuahua cheese. The combination of mushrooms and toppings tasted great. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in the flour tortillas, again. For me, not only does flour tortilla take away from the authentic taste but it also makes the tacos rubbery because of gluten. Regardless of my personal demands, the ladies raved about their tacos. There was one concern raised for fried mahi mahi tacos; traditionally fish is grilled and at Nada the fish is dipped in a batter and fried. Since I like all things fried, I didn’t mind that when I ordered them during my last visit. Liz was the only person that did not order tacos; instead she got a pork green chile cazuela. And she raved about it after the first bite. Now, I know I said I wouldn’t eat pork after the roast, but I couldn’t resist a bite. It was very good, indeed. I have a feeling there will be many exceptions to the rule in the future. (Don’t judge me, how well did you keep your weight loss goal from January? okay.) We finished dinner with a caramel flan, key lime cheesecake and warm chocolate torte (in lieu of Emma’s birthday). All were decadent; my personal favorite was the torte because of the banana foster gelato from Madison’s. Speaking of Madison’s, Amy’s table did a show about their gelato on CET. And now I really have a craving for it.

Overall, it was a great evening for book club, dinner, and a birthday celebration. As I previously said, Nada’s a hip place for drinks and appetizers or a full fledged dinner. After greeting us, Rick stated “for those that haven’t been here, this is a contemporary Mexican restaurant with twist on some traditional dishes.” That sentence perfectly describes Nada.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Nectar for Brunch

Couple weekends ago, some friends and I went to Nectar for brunch. Here's Liz's review on the place when we were there.

I agree with Liz’s review; the food was great but service and ambiance needs improvement.

I ordered a vegetarian asparagus frittata. It came with potatoes and fruit. Because I am always crazy for potatoes, I was happy they were one of the sides. The frittata was perfectly done and so were the potatoes. It's easy to over-cook a frittata if left in the oven too long, which causes it to become very dry. I've even had an undercooked frittata and that wasn't a pleasant experience. However at Nectar, they perfected the frittata. In addition to being done right, it had plenty of asparagus for the texture and flavor. We all also shared a French toast. I usually don’t opt to get French toast on my own but when Emma suggested sharing, I agreed. After the first bite, I was a little disappointed I didn’t order it on my own. The frittata was savoury and tasty while the French toast was sweet and heavenly.

Even though most of us were happy with our dishes, I was surprised by their limited brunch options. Since Nectar is one of the few restaurants that sources most of their food locally, I expected more vegetarian friendly dishes, or at least poultry dishes.

I will revisit Nectar for the food, and maybe by then the service is improved. And if they’re up for it, Liz, the other ladies and I can go back together.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Maker's Mark

As mentioned, here's my story about our trip.

On Saturday, April 5, American Culinary Federation (ACF) hosted a regional conference in downtown Cincinnati that included food demons, competitions, and seminars. All culinary professionals attending the ACF conference were invited to Maker's Mark Distillery. Early Saturday morning, other culinary students and I drove to Loretto, KY early morning to prepare for the roast.

After a 4 hour ride that should have taken 2 1/2 hours, we were finally greeted by the smokey smells of the roast. The pigs were dropped in the pit late Friday night.

After the whiskey rub- couple bottles for each pig.

Barrel Warehouse, where the whiskey "sleeps." The two warehouses hold 19,000- 25,000 barrels.

Inside the guest house- it had an historic feel to it. The carpet in the foyer was god awful ugly, turquoise with flowers- which proved both the carpet and the house had been around for a long time.

View of the large tent that sat 400+ people in the "backyard"

The Band

Presentation. The pictures aren't great but the food smelled delicious and the pigs tasted moist and tender. (When my parents owned a Subway sandwich shop, I briefly ate the processed bacon. Though really good, this roast is probably my last time eating pork.)

The pros setting up

Everyone's here. Let's eat.

Circus Cook's pants and shoes. My feet are saying, "I am tired, get me out of these."

our hot ride. really. The ride was was much better on the way back because some (not me) came away with few bottles of the good stuff and shared with the rest of us.

Even though I don't have pictures of all the food, it was all really good. The bread pudding was to die for.

Overall this trip was an experience. After arriving, all the students were given their responsibilities. Another student and I shucked 400 corns, others set up tables, chairs and tents or prepared salads. When the guests arrived, we were in charge of the buffet lines. Sadly, none of us cooked or learned a thing about the secrets of southern style macaroni and cheese, techniques for a good roast or bread pudding.

I am thankful to our chef and the culinary school for giving us this opportunity. Would I do it again? maybe.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sung Korean Bistro

Korean food called my name late last year, here in this Midwestern city, of all the places in the world. We went to a small place on the other side of the river. There we sat on the floor, traditional style, and enjoyed everything we ate; pancakes, grilled meats, bulgogi, spicy-hot foods, japchae (sweet potato noodles with vegetables), all the banchans (side dishes) and of course the kimchi. It was love at first bite.

For my last birthday (I promise there aren’t anymore) dinner I made reservations to go to Sung Korean Bistro with friends and the husband. It recently opened in downtown. Evidently, Sung is owned by a previous owner of the other restaurant.

Upon entering, we were greeted by big smiles and warm hellos. The host even offered to hang up my coat (yes coat- it was a very cold March evening; isn’t it supposed to be Spring weather in late March?). Nice gesture because it’s not often that hosts offer to hang up coats and jackets. The place was deserted at 7pm on Saturday evening; startling for a downtown restaurant. Not minding that, I asked our server for suggestions on sake. He recommended the highly favored, well of wisdom. I am not a fan of sake but after the first sip I was satisfied with his recommendation. We ordered goonmandu, vegetarian dumplings, and yachae pajun, vegetarian pancakes, for appetizers. Both were good; the dumplings arrived first and were crispy on the outside and filled with lots of small peices of tofu on the inside. For dinner, I ordered jab chae (sometimes spelled japchae), sweet potato noodles with vegetables and chicken. Others ordered dolsot bibimbab, bulgogi, and dak bulgogi. While the food presentations were inviting, the taste wasn’t. My japchae was over sauced and short on vegetables. The sauce on the noodles was tad sweet and over spiced with black pepper. I was lucky to find couple pieces of carrots and maybe couple threads of cabbage. I thought my homemade japchae from February’s cooking club tasted much better than Sung’s.

picture courtesy of Dean

Maybe I am biased because it was labor of love for my own food but I truly found theirs overpowering. I had a bite of the dolsot bibimbab; it was good. Everyone else said their food was decent but nothing to rave home about. One of the banchans was kimchi- pickled cabbage, spicy and tangy at the same time, very well prepared. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in their quantity of banchans. At the other place, we were offered 8 banchans and at Sung we got 4 petite portions.

I don’t care for tea, unless it’s Indian tea with milk- chai, therefore passed on the dessert, green tea ice cream. The friends ordered the ice cream and thought it tasted like frozen green tea which I think is the purpose of green tea ice cream.

The ambiance and service at Sung Korean Bistro are spectacular and fit the downtown standards. The food however did not meet the high expectations we all had from our previous experience. It has the potential to improve and serve authentic Korean dishes. However I am not sure if they will because the atmosphere is furnished for a trendy crowd and the food is catered to a public that prefers Americanized version of Korean food. Like Nada, it meets the criteria for a chic restaurant but it lacks in the authenticity of food. I don’t generally compare restaurants but I wondered, if Sung’s owner previously had stake in the other place, why didn’t the recipes and taste of the food carry over to the new place? As a general rule of thumb, I’ll give Sung a second chance.

On a different note
To celebrate this milestone birthday with everyone I hosted a party at Plum Street Café. It’s a teeny weenie dive bar on Plum Street, adjacent to the Convention center and next to the Poison Room. I’ve been to many bars around here; some fun and some dreary but I whole-heartedly believe Plum Street Café is one of those fun places to hang out after work or on a Saturday night. In addition to hosting a party, I wanted to raise money for a local charity therefore asked Mike, the owner of Plum Street Café, to discount drinks for my guests. Mike agreed to the discount deal only for those that donate money. On that cold Saturday night in March, we ate dinner at Sung Korean Bistro, met some friends at the Plum Street Café, had a fabulous time and raised lots of money for The Women’s Connection. I was a very happy girl on this day.

I wanted to do it big for this day and I did. I am happy to say this is the last birthday post of the year. Thank you, my dear readers, for listening to me.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Spring is in the air

We took advantage of the nice weather last week by grilling outside for the first time this season. I marinated chicken breasts in Jerk seasoning from Herbs & Spice and Everything Nice at Findlay Market. I love their staff; they’re always helpful in explaining tastes and flavors of herbs and spices new-to-me. On my last visit, a young gentleman introduced me to the jerk seasoning. I’ve had Jerk Chicken at restaurants but I’ve never cooked with it in my own kitchen. After he finished listing the ingredients in the seasoning, the husband bought some for grilling. Ingredients that I remember are allspice, garlic and cayenne- the important ones.

We even had pineapple so it made for a perfect Jamaican themed dinner.

As you can see, I doused the chicken with the seasoning. Although the chicken was tender and aromatic, the flavors didn’t shine through really well. I think the missing component was salt. I didn’t add it for marinating because I couldn’t remember if it was one of the ingredients in the mix. Next time I’ll definitely include it to marinate chicken or vegetables.
I am ecstatic flowers are blooming, the temperatures are in the 60s and 70s and the days are longer. Welcome Spring- I hope you're here to stay. (please don't remind me about Sunday night's freezing temperatures)

Have you grilled yet? If so, what have you made?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

It's Breakfast Thyme

Some people adore Saturday/Sunday breakfasts; I am not one of those people. On weekends I prefer to sleep in late, 10- 11am late. (Friday and Saturday are generally late-nighters.) If I have to wake up early, I am useless in the kitchen. My imagination is sluggish around that time so I reach for simple foods, if anything at all. Skipping breakfast is a terrible thing, I know, roll your eyes all you want, I happen to have different priorities than others. If at best, I serve a mean bowl of milk and cereal and for the lucky ones an omelet, toast and coffee. I am much better at creating dishes for lunch and dinner, probably because I have creativity, variety, and versatility on my side.

Saturday was a hectic day. Other culinary students and I volunteered for a pig roast at Makers Mark that day. We met in downtown for American Culinary Federation meeting at 8am (!), drove 4 hours (really it’s supposed to take us 2 1/2 hours but our bus driver got lost) and prepped food for the pig roast for 400+ attendees. We all had a fabulous time, obviously since food and whiskey were involved. We arrived home much later than expected, 3am (!)

The next morning I woke up to a hungry husband and an upset stomach of my own. I remembered one of Ina’s herbed baked eggs recipe. At the time of watching the show I thought if making breakfast food in the morning means breaking couple eggs, adding them to a gratin dish with heated milk or cream and butter with herbs, I can handle it. Thanks Ina for convincing me of the baked eggs' simplicity and lack of need of imagination in the morning. As you can see from the name change, I followed her recipe loosely.

Thyme Baked Eggs

1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan
6 large eggs
3 tablespoons milk, divided
2 tablespoon unsalted butter, divided
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the broiler for few minutes and place the oven rack 6 inches below the heat.

Crack 6 eggs carefully in a 3 separate bowls, 2 per bowl. In another bowl, combine fresh thyme and parmesan and set aside. Using 1/2 tablespoon of butter, grease the three gratin/flan dishes. Divide 1 tablespoon of milk amongst three dishes and add 1/2 tbsp of butter to each dish. Place the three dishes on a baking sheet and under the broiler for couple minutes, until the liquid is bubbly. Remove the baking sheet from the oven, pour (two) cracked eggs to each dish, add equal parts of the thyme and parmesan mixture to all three, sprinkle with salt and freshly cracked pepper. Carefully place the baking sheet under the broiler for 4- 6 minutes, until the egg whites set. Do not over broil otherwise the eggs will burn; eggs continue to cook after removing the dishes from the oven.

The eggs will continue to cook after you take them out of the oven. Allow to set before serving.

Toast with Avocado
2 slices of bread
1 avocado, sliced
sea salt

While the eggs are in the oven, cut avocado lengthwise. Rotate two halves to detach from each other. Remove the seed with a knife. Make slits in each half of the avocado for long slices. Scoop out the flesh with a large spoon.

After the eggs are done, toast wheat bread in the broiler for 30 seconds.

Spread sliced avocado on toasted bread, sprinkle with sea salt and serve with baked eggs.

Changes to the recipe. I used milk to make my baked eggs because I did not have cream on hand. Although it tasted good, I plan to make it again with cream. I am sure with the 40% fat in cream, it’ll give the eggs a rich taste. Let me know if you try it with cream before I do. And next time I’ll also add garlic because everything is much better with it.

Because Thyme was the predominant flavor in this dish, I am submitting my recipe for Thyme Baked Eggs to Weekend Herb Blogging hosted by Jai and Bee over at jugalbandi.

And on a much serious note, Thyme is slowly but surely gaining momentum in my favorite herb list; however Cilantro isn’t going to give in easily so it’ll be a tough fight.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Granola, slang for Liberal- ha

For the past year, really 6 months, I have been eating oats in the morning. I attempt to eat it daily but haven’t surpassed the once a week threshold. When oats are cooked with water or milk they look gooey, taste bland and have a pretty crappy after taste. Sometimes it’s so painful I close my eyes and pinch my nose and finish the bowl at work (forcefully). It’s a ritual; I am sure coworkers wonder if I am making myself eat dirt. Even though bad looks and taste are generally grounds for strike out in my book, I won’t eliminate oats because they have an abundance of nutrients and offer health benefits for the body.

After reading Molly’s post about homemade granola, I wanted to make a batch for our household. Granola is the basic all-encompassing health food that can be eaten in place of morning cereal or afternoon snack. It consists mostly of oats, dried fruits and nuts. Oats come in multiple forms: groats, rolled and instant. For people short on time, instant suffice but I personally prefer rolled oats, also known as old fashioned oats. Granola is almost always made with rolled oats. When I read homemade, I quickly jumped on the band wagon.

I searched high and low for a good recipe and found one I liked. Most recipes called for either sunflower seeds, shredded coconut or both. I never have sunflower seeds in my pantry so decided against adding those. I wanted to add coconut but didn't because the husband threatened to not eat the granola if it had coconut. And that's when I almost hit him with a wooden spoon. I used the Slashfood recipe as a guide, cut their recipe in half and combined ideas from various sources to make my own. Don’t be surprised.

Granola (Adapted mostly from Slashfood)

1 cups rolled oats (not instant)
1/2 cup toasted almonds
1/8 cup sesame seeds
1/8 cup toasted wheat germ
1 tbsp Flax seed
1/4 cup dried fruit, I used dates
1/8 cup cooking oil
1/4 cup honey

Heat oven to 300F degrees. Toast almonds in a heavy sheet pan for 6 minutes. In a large bowl, mix the oats, sesame seeds, wheat germ, and flax seeds. Add toasted almonds. If you have a 1/8 measuring cup, use it to measure oil-I didn’t so I used a 1/4 cup and poured oil until it was half full. It’s important to add oil first because it keeps honey from sticking to the cup. Measure honey and add to the bowl with oats (twice if you’re using a 1/8 cup). Mix everything well enough so the oats and grains have a coating of oil and honey. Pour the mixture in a heavy sheet pan. Bake for 30 minutes with a wooden spoon. Stir everything half way through the cooking process. When finished baking, add dates (or dried fruit of your liking) and combine. It is important to stir gently when it’s warm to avoid breaking the mixture and large clumps.

So you ask, why isn’t there a picture of this fabulous granola? There isn’t a picture because I did not stir half way through the baking as clearly stated in the recipe. And if that wasn't enough I read the temperature 300F as 400F. damn those numbers screwing with my head. When turning on the oven, I cranked up the heat to 400F so when it was done we had few burnt pieces. Fortunately it wasn’t all burnt so I rescued everything else. This goes back to my earlier point about being a professional baker. Not happening.

Regardless of my own stupidity, the granola was scrumptious the next morning. It wasn’t too sweet and just a little scorched. Even with a slight burnt taste, we finished it in a week. This weekend I’ll make another (bigger) batch with the oven on at 300F.

I must say I am happy to have found a recipe that will replace my disturbing oat-eating morning routine. I am a permanent convert.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

What do you want for your birthday? Nada

My team asked about my birthday lunch and the only restaurant I wanted to try was Nada. It opened in late 2007 and has been on everyone’s charts since opening day. From my knowledge Nada took Bella’s place. A coworker called to make reservations for 10 and before she hung up she was told we would get a private room for the birthday party. A private room for me? oooooh, that’s exciting.

On Friday, I was so excited to go to lunch I almost didn’t get any work done. Yes I am that bad when it comes to food. The restaurant is conveniently located in the heart of town so street parking’s hard to find; if you find a spot, you’re lucky. We parked in one of the underground garages which set us back 7 dollars for 1.5 hours. Not bad.

After being greeted, we were told our party would sit upstairs in the back room. We walked up the funky, curvy stairs and headed to the private room. As we walked pass long and curvy red couches I was in awe of Nada’s contemporary chic interior. It plays up the bright color theme with reds, yellows and oranges. For a Mexican restaurant, they’ve transformed the space to resemble a hot spot for hip happy hour goers and diners.

The lunch menu is limited compared to the dinner menu, obviously, and consists mostly of tacos and sandwiches. I got Mahi Mahi tacos and my companions ordered grilled chicken tacos or Nada sliders. If any of you are familiar with White Castle, you know sliders are infamous with the fast-food joint. I won’t disgust you with the origins of the name. Tacos are served with a side of beans and rice and sliders are served with sweet potato fries. I read reviews about the Jalapeno Macaroni and Cheese so I ordered an extra side along with rice and beans. Gluttonous, I know.

My Mahi Mahi tacos had bright flavors. The fish was dipped in a batter, fried and stuffed in flour tortillas between guacamole and pico de gallo. With a sprinkling of lime juice the tacos came alive. As a lover of Mexican food, I would have preferred corn tortillas for my tacos as opposed to the flour tortillas. I am glad I ordered a side of macaroni and cheese. The top was crunchy from the broiler and the pasta was not overcooked. Additionally, the cheese and jalapenos added a spicy creamy kick to the traditional favorite. I didn’t care for the rice and beans because they weren’t flavored properly. There wasn’t enough of anything- cumin, coriander, chili powder or salt. Others that got sliders raved about the meat, they said it was tender and juicy. I stole couple sweet potato fries, for good reason. They were flavorful, not overcooked or greasy which is easy to do with shoestring fries. After stuffing ourselves, dessert wasn't an option for anyone.

Our server did an excellent job serving and staying on top of everything, especially with the 10 of us. And we're a colorful bunch. We were all a little surprised with the bill; we thought the portions were small for the price. However, combination of good food, service, food presentation and ambiance give Nada a prominent place in the mix. If you’re in search of an upscale modern Mexican restaurant, Nada fits the bill. I certainly plan to go back for happy hour, a formal sit down dinner, or even the macaroni and cheese. While it is a great restaurant to visit once in a while, I prefer the holes in the wall, mostly Spanish speaking joints that serve authentic food- the no frills spots that satisfy my Mexican food fix, inexpensively.

Monday, March 31, 2008

It’s Soba time

Sundays are either eventful when I am cooking up a storm or lethargic as I am glued to the TV or web surfing. Yesterday was a busy Sunday. I started the day with my breakfast of champions, homemade granola (recipe coming soon) and milk, revised my shopping list and headed out on a shopping spree. I started at Trader Joe’s, which was busy but still manageable. Sometimes it's so crammed I get fed up and leave half way into my grocery shopping. I used to love going in there to browse and I am sad they found my little gem. Damn the TJ’s PR people! After getting most things, I headed to another grocer. There I bought pineapple, avocado, Cape Cod chips (the kettle cooked kind)- for Tuna Noodle casserole, carrots and soba noodles.

An odd combination of things, right? I used Soba and carrots for dinner that night. I love carbohydrates and when they come in a form of Japanese noodles, I love them even more. I usually make soba noodles one way, stir fried with vegetables, the only way I like them. When I recently visited a friend, she served soba noodles in a soup; it was gingery and tasty. After that meal I decided I like the noodles as a main dish, with vegetables better than in a soup.

Last night’s dinner was quick and simple. Protein can be added for a heartier version.

Soba Noodles with your favorite vegetables and protein, optional

6 ounce dried Soba Noodles
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 onion sliced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 inch ginger, minced
2 tbsp Soy sauce
1 tbsp Rice wine, Mirin
1 tsp Sesame oil
Red chili flakes
1 carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
6 ounce fresh spinach or 4 ounce frozen spinach, defrosted
Sesame seeds, toasted

Cook noodles according to package directions. Bring a pot of water to boil. Add noodles and let the water come to rolling boil. Once the water comes to a rolling boil, turn down heat and simmer 2-3 minutes. Reserve some cooked noodle liquid, drain and rinse with cold water.

While waiting for water to boil, sauté onions in vegetable oil for 2-3 minutes in a medium pan, until onions have a brownish color on them. Add garlic and ginger and cook 30 – 60 seconds. (If using, this is the time to add extra-firm tofu or chicken breast. For chicken, add to the pan, and add enough broth to cover half of the chicken in liquid. Cover and cook until chicken is almost done.) Add soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil and red chili flakes and cook for 1 minute. Add carrots and spinach to the pan and mix. Finally, add cooked noodles and stir everything together. If it’s too dry, add the reserved liquid. Season with toasted sesame seeds and serve warm. Contrary to popular belief, soba noodles can be served warm.

Other vegetables that make a great apperance in this dish are eggplant, bok choy, shitake mushrooms, and broccoli.

Friday, March 28, 2008

one of many Birthday Celebrations…..

I recently had a birthday that I was ecstatic about. I celebrated multiple times because it was a milestone year. (And you'll hear about all the festivities in upcoming posts.) The first celebration was for March babies at work. After much deliberation we agreed to head to Courtyard Café on Main Street in Over the Rhine. This is one of those places that I didn’t know about until recently. Courtyard on the Main, as some like to call it, has been mentioned more often than I can remember as a great place to grab lunch or drinks, by coworkers and even a fellow blogger, Veggie Option.

It is a low key bar and a casual place for lunch. They have high tables, booths and bar seating for patrons. On the day we went, it wasn’t too busy. There were couple booths taken and few bar patrons watching a Xavier game. Our server brought us waters and asked for our drink order; I stuck to the usual, water, no ice with lemon. There are variety of options for food which include wings, burgers, sandwiches, salads and wraps. One coworker raved about their wings so after a quick glance at the menu, we all agreed to share a basket of wings. And instead of garlic or hot and spicy sauce, we ordered the sweet barbeque sauce. unfortunately. One person doesn’t like garlic or can't tolerate hot food. what? While it was entertaining to chat and gossip, we were all starving when the food arrived, 30- 40 minutes after we placed our order. At one point a coworker jokingly wondered out loud if the cook went to a farm to buy the chicken, plucked the feathers, cut the meat and then fried the wings. After we got the wings and potato wedges, we were all happy campers. Both the wings with the sweet barbeque sauce, and fries tasted delicious. The wings had a crispy outer layer and the meat was moist. The wedges were golden brown, crispy on the outside and done well on the inside. Most importantly, the food tasted as if it was freshly prepared before serving as opposed to being reheated. My coworker’s speculation of the cook going to the farm for a fresh chicken might be true. The server even brought multiple blue cheeses for individual dipping, a nice thought.

During lunch, the atmosphere is relaxed and the noise level is low. Our server was a mid thirties hippie guy that provided good service. I was a little disappointed in the slow food service but I believe it could be one isolated incident. (I don’t mind restaurants that take time to prepare food, it shows the cook and company are cooking from scratch. It’s the short lunch hour limitation that makes it difficult to enjoy slow food.) I liked both the food and service so much so that I plan to return for a meal, maybe even a glass of beer. Next time I’ll venture into the wraps and sandwich part of the menu.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Irish Lamb Stew

On Saturday, I almost convinced the husband to go to Ikea with me. Mind you, this Ikea opened for the first time last Wednesday. He knew the lines would be out the waazoo and wasn’t keen on going but I managed to drag him out of the house anyway. My secret weapon? The Village Grille. Village grille is an Indian- Pakistani restaurant that makes the best goat-biryani in town. There I go again, ga-ga over goat and lamb meat; I don’t know what's gotten into me, I have been on a huge meat eating kick these days. We’d eaten at Village before for dinner, and learned of their lunch buffet through friends. This was our opportunity to eat a big lunch and then work off our lunch, right, wander around Ikea.

Lunch was good, as expected. Some of the items on the buffet were tandooori chicken, goat paaya, chicken biryani, and goat curry. I didn’t care for the white, plain, rice or chole but everything else was good. The service was fantastic, even for a buffet. The server filled our waters and removed plates without missing a beat. Even though it’s far, Village Grille is worth the drive for goat biryani or almost any other meat dish.

After finishing lunch, we took a detour to a Halal Market nearby. Halal is similar to Jewish’s kosher foods. Muslims are expected to follow rules of the Islamic laws on halal foods. An unspoken Indian belief is if it’s halal, it’s fresh. I remember when we lived in India, my family preferred to go to the halal shops over the Indian ones because they practiced good faith and sold freshly cut meats. Sometimes they even slaughtered the meat in front of you… and that’s when I stopped going to butcher shops. The halal market had dried beans, lentils, grape leaves for dolmas, natural (!) mango and passion fruit juice and other Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Asian products. In addition to lamb meat, we bought goat meat, dried garbanzo beans and some other things.

As for wandering through Ikea, it didn’t happen. The husband was so fed up with long lines in the car that we drove past the big store to head home. He was practical; if we have to wait 15-20+ minutes in the car, imagine how bad it would be inside? I understood. I’ll give the modern retail store 6 months before the lines and hype dwindle down.

To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, I invited close friends for dinner, made classic Irish lamb stew using lamb from the halal shop, and drank enough beer to call it a good day.

Irish Lamb Stew, adapted from two Bon Appétit recipes

1 tbsp Butter
3 tbsp Vegetable oil
1/4 cup Flour
1 tsp Salt
1 tsp Black pepper
2 1/2 lbs lamb shoulder with bones, cubed

2 medium Onions, diced
2 Carrots, peeled and diced
3 medium Potatoes, peeled and diced
3 Garlic cloves, minced
2 cups Chicken Broth
1 bottle dark beer
1 tbsp Fresh thyme
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste

Melt butter and vegetable oil on medium high heat in large heavy-bottomed pan. Liberally season flour with salt and pepper. Dredge lamb in the flour and shake off the excess. Brown the meat on all sides in batches.

Medium dice onions, carrots and potatoes. Add onions, browned meat, garlic, chicken broth, dark beer, salt and pepper to the crockpot. Cook on low for 5 hours. I cooked mine for 9 because it was a working day. Carrots and potatoes take an hour to cook so it’s best to add them in the last hour of the cooking. Due to my faulty time management skills, I added carrots and potatoes 30 minutes before serving. Of course, they weren’t done so I pressured cooked them before serving. Add fresh thyme 30 minutes before serving.

Not only was this a fantastic recipe for St. Patrick’s Day, this is a fantastic crockpot recipe- perfect for this month’s Weekend Cookbook Challenge. Lis, over at La Mia Cucina is hosting this month’s event. The requirement: cook a dish in crockpot, pressure cooker or dutch oven and follow a recipe from a cookbook. I interpret cookbooks as books in print, magazines and online recipes. Thanks Bon Appétit for posting the recipes online, otherwise I’d be in trouble!

I am pooped from the meat eating binge. Due to the high meat consumption my body’s ready for a detox. Off I go to the Indian grocer for my vegetarian favorites - okra, bottle gourd and baby eggplants. mmmmm