Friday, December 23, 2011

Revisiting an old recipe

Rosemary, Pine nut, and Pumpkin Seed Shortbread Cookies

I've written about these cookies before.  In fact, the last time I wrote about them, it was also right before Christmas.  That fact is merely coincidental.  It's not that these are holiday cookies per se, but they are unique in their flavor and texture and I like making them because they are different and delicious.  I came back to this recipe -- making a few changes, of course -- because I had been on the search for the prefect recipe to send to B.

B. is the one who cooks for me.  He is the one who dances with me in the living room.  And he is currently living an ocean away from me.  As part of his Christmas gift, I decided to send him cookies.  This may sound like a simple decision, but in reality, it was one that I agonized over for weeks.  Yes, weeks.  I couldn't send mediocre cookies.  I couldn't send cookies that he'd already tasted before.  And I had to send cookies that would travel well, since even with fast shipping, it was likely to take about 5 days for them to get to him.  

These cookies were winners.

These Rosemary, Pine nut, and Pumpkin Seed Shortbread Cookies are both savory and sweet.  Browned butter and ground, toasted nuts and seeds make the cookies very fragrant.  The rosemary and vanilla add an earthy sweetness.  There is nothing like these cookies.  They are flavorful, incredibly easy to eat, and so different that no one who you serve this to will forget about them.  (It may help that rosemary aids with long-term memory).  And don't worry, despite all the savory sounding ingredients, these cookies can most definitely be served as a dessert item.  They are also great as a gift since they can be easily packaged and they keep for a good amount of time (as do most shortbread cookies, since they aren't particularly moist).

These cookies made it safely to B.'s doorstep last night and now that they have his stamp of approval (and his mother's!), I share the recipe with you.

Merry (early) Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Best Ginger Cookies you'll ever eat in your life

Really.  Stop your searching.  This is it.  These are the best ginger cookies you'll ever eat in your life.

They are spicy, intoxicating, slightly chewy cookies with crispy edges.  They smell delicious and they taste amazing.  They are so good I'm scrapping all the other recipes I've ever tried.  I've made these cookies four times in the past week.  I can't get enough of them.  I have no more left and just thinking about them makes me want to go whip up a batch right now at 3am and bake some just so I can eat some more.  Thank goodness it's the holidays so this kind of behavior isn't deemed too inappropriate.

These cookies are laced with ginger.  They have ground ginger, fresh ginger, and crystallized ginger.  I know most people don't keep the last ingredient in their kitchens commonly, but it is worth it to buy yourself some.  I bought mine on Amazon for a very reasonable price.  The crystallized ginger really adds great warmth to the flavor of the cookies and are an integral part of what makes the cookies spicy in a mellow, round way (not at all overwhelming).  The original recipe doesn't call for browned butter or cinnamon, but I love the depth of flavor the browned butter adds to the cookies and the fragrance and warmth that the cinnamon imparts.  They are perfect for the holidays.  They are just the kind of thing you want to share with family and friends, and they are delicious with a tall glass of milk.

I'm salivating just writing about these.  I think I'm going to have to make another batch.  I think you want to too.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Getting my sugar rush in New York City

I've lived almost all my life about 25 minutes away from DC.  I grew up thinking it was completely normal for an area to have a couple dozen free museums and hundreds of amazing restaurants.  It was so normal to me that I never really ventured much into the city.  Why bother?  It'd always be there when I wanted it.  Sure, when friends and family came to visit, I took them into the capital and showed them around, and sure, my family celebrated many, many birthdays eating out at various places like Central, CityZen, Vidalia, and Hook, but I was never a city girl.

Now, I live about 25 minutes (via train) from New York City.  And the city that never sleeps has somehow seduced me.  I used to get lost here all the time when I would come visit during college.  I would get frustrated by the complicated subway system (don't try to tell me it's simple when there's always rerouting due to construction!) and confused by words like "Midtown" and "borough."
But now I don't walk around staring at my smartphone for directions anymore, and I can actually kind of navigate the subway.  I have my places that I like to go to eat, and the other day someone actually asked me for directions (mistaken for a native, yes!).  Best of all, for the first time ever, I've experienced what Christmas looks like in the Big Apple.  The lights, the tree (frankly, it's a bit overrated), the window displays, the holiday market...

I love the holiday market.  After stumbling upon the one at Union Square the weekend before Thanksgiving, I've now been back three times.  I know there are other markets, but I just can't get enough of this one.  I love the artisan booths, the food stalls, and the farmer's market.  Most of all, I love Wafels and Dinges.  And yes, I did spell that right.
This food stall is also a food truck that you may have seen around the city if you're a native (which I clearly am not).  And they make the most amazing waffles I've ever tasted.  I don't even like waffles.  But these ones?  These ones I love.  As their menu will tell you, their liège wafel with spekuloos spread and whipped cream is the "legendary and glorious victor of the Battle with the Great Flay."  In other words, it won Throwdown with Bobby Flay.  And I can see why.  These chewy waffles are fragrant and fluffy with caramelized edges and they are delicious when eaten with spekuloos spread.  You really can't compare them to any other waffle you've tasted.  These are in a league of their own.

liège wafel with spekuloos spread and strawberries, from Wafels and Dinges

And if there's only one other place you have time to hit up before leaving the city?  I'd recommend the Doughnut Plant.  I've known about this place for years now, and it really is worth the hype.  The first I ever tried the doughnuts, I was visiting the city with my parents for my 17th birthday.  We bought a dozen doughnuts for the four of us, intending on bringing some home, but oh, how foolish we were.  We were completely unprepared for how good those doughnuts would be.  That box did not make it home intact.  Thankfully, I learned my lesson.  The place is still as good today as it was years ago when I first went, and now when I go here to get doughnuts for myself and two of my best friends, the order is for half a dozen doughnuts.  That's right.  Three girls, six doughnuts.  Best sugar high ever.

clockwise from top right: vanilla bean glaze with strawberry jelly, banana nut, blueberry,
peanut butter glaze with strawberry filling, Valrhona  chocolate, coconut cream
The yeasted doughnuts are my favorite, being so light and fluffy.  They have a great texture to them--just the right amount of bite and chew--and the flavors are fantastic.  My personal favorite is the take on a PB+J sandwich.  The yeast doughnuts are filled with fruit jam made from scratch and then they are topped with a delicious peanut butter glaze and peanuts.  Heavenly.  The coconut creme doughnut is also a revelation.  I wasn't so sure about ordering it the last time I went, but the guy behind the counter convinced me, and so I tried it and boy, am I glad I did.  The Doughnut Plant is great at getting flavors spot on.  None of that artificial stuff.  I'm not normally a coconut person because I don't like coconut flavoring, but real coconut is delicious.  And that's what I got from that doughnut.  Doughnut Plant does not disappoint.
Doughtnut Plant's peanut butter glazed, blackberry jam filled yeast doughnut.  Yum!

Doughnut Plant
379 Grand St (between Essex St & Norfolk St)
New York, NY 10002
Tel. 212-505-3700
open Tues-Sun 6:30 am till they sell out (normally around 5-6pm)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Two Types of Gingerbread Cookies

As I mentioned in my previous post, The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap has been bringing dozens of cookies to bloggers across the nation for the past couple weeks.  I thought about baking my popular oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, or maybe my caramel scented chocolate chip cookies, but I've already posted both of those recipes, and according to the rules, this recipe had to be an unposted one.  I also wanted the cookies to have a holiday feel to them, something to snack on with a cup of milk in hand, while wrapping presents (you know, if you're the type to wrap presents early).  So I went with a quick and easy gingerbread recipe that requires no wasted time rolling and cutting shapes.  In fact, if you don't want to, you don't even have to chill the dough.  It has just enough ginger to be lightly spicy, but is well balanced by cinnamon, all spice, and cloves, and gets just enough of a little kick from some black pepper.  The recipe for these gingerbread cookies makes about 40, which is just perfect, since one batch was enough to mail a dozen to three random food bloggers.  Olivia over at Love, Life, and Pictures was one of the recipients, and she took this gorgeous picture of the gingerbread cookies I sent her.

If you're looking for a more adult, more dark and spicy cookie, this second recipe is for a more mature crowd.  They are laced with real ginger and rum.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Food Blogger Cookies Swap

I've been blogging about food for a while now, but I've never really gotten involved in any major food blogger projects.  No Daring Baker, no Weekend Herb Blogging, no nothing.  But this year I stumbled upon The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap.  The idea behind this project was essentially a giant secret Santa but the only gift you could give/receive were cookies.  Sound like fun?  I think so.

Each participant was given the name of three other food bloggers and then the giver's job was to bake 3 dozen cookies and send a dozen to each receiver.  And in turn, the giver would later receive three different boxes of a dozen cookies each from other bloggers.  Now that the cookie swap part is done, on Monday, all the participants will be posting their cookie recipes on their blogs.

I received my first package on Monday, some caramel scotch bars from Table Talk and Walk.  Today I got two packages.  The first was some egg nog cookies — their flavor was spot on! — from West Coast Girl East Coast Life.  The second package contained some of the best cookies I've ever received: ginger snap cookies makes with three different kinds of ginger, made by Nora (I'm including her name, since there are two bloggers who post to that site).  With this cookie swap, I can say that there really is no better feeling in the world than receiving a package and knowing that there are baked goodies inside with your name written all over them.

In a few days I will post the recipe for the gingerbread cookies that I baked and sent out.  In the meantime, here are some enticing pictures.

Caramel-Scotch Bars
Eggnog cookies

Ginger snap cookies made with three kinds of ginger... yum!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Baked Egg Breakfast Souffle

With the holidays coming up, an important recipe to have on hand is always a good, fast breakfast item.  As popular as pancakes are for family breakfasts and brunches, I rarely go with them because they should be eaten hot and often the cook ends up staying by the skillet turning out food for everyone and waiting to eat last.  A better recipe is one that allows everyone to eat together and doesn't require the cook to wake up an extra 30 minutes earlier than the rest of the family.  I've used this recipe for several years now, loving it for the fact that it is fast and easy to make and yet seems fancy enough to impress everyone at the table.

These baked egg breakfast souffles are light, airy, and almost ethereal in quality while the yolk provides just the right amount of substance.  Filling without being heavy, this recipe is my absolute favorite for family breakfasts.  We ate it this Thanksgiving morning -- the first meal the whole family had had together since the beginning of August -- and we've had it Christmas morning too, but this works as a great recipe for impressing any visiting guests who have stayed over.

This baked egg souffle takes no more than 5 minutes to throw together and then the oven does all the cooking for you.  Ten minutes later -- just enough time to wash up and change from your pjs into real clothes -- and breakfast is served!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Chocolate Soufflé Cupcakes

I believe in all things in moderation.  Chocolate is great, but I don't want to be overwhelmed by it.  Sweet is nice, but I like a little bitter.  Crumbly can be comforting, but moist is good too.  These fluffy chocolate soufflé cupcakes with crackly tops and moist interiors are the Goldilocks of desserts.

If you look at the recipe, it is essentially a baked chocolate mousse.  Now who could say no to that?  The cupcake is moist and chocolate-y, like a flourless chocolate cake, but it also puffs up in the oven and rises like a soufflé.  This recipe basically combines the best of all our favorite chocolate desserts.  It is to die for.

The coffee notes complement the darkness of the chocolate perfectly and the little dark cloud of sweetness is delicious when paired with some raspberries or slice of Bartlett pear.  I baked this with rum marinated plums tucked inside and the acidity and tartness of the plums and the warm earthiness of the rum was just what was called for on a chilly fall day.

And when storing these, if you refrigerate them and then come back to them later when they are chilled, they truly do melt-in-your-mouth.  These cupcakes are rich, complex, and  intensely satisfying.  They don't take all that long to make and they are bound to impress any company, so if you need to fix a chocolate craving, here is the Goldilocks of the chocolate world.  These chocolate soufflé cupcakes are just right.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Whole Poached Chicken & Homemade Stock

We had snow this past Saturday.  And I don't mean little flurries for five minutes, I mean a record-breaking 5.2 inches of accumulation, resulting in suspended train service, downed trees, and loss of power in some areas.  Yes, it is still October.  I slept under two sheets, a duvet cover, a coverlet, and a comforter with the heat on.  I was also wearing two shirts, pajama bottoms, and running socks.  It was cold.  Thank goodness I had this in my fridge to keep me warm.

It may not look like the most glamorous thing in the world, but this whole poached chicken in homemade stock is hands down the easiest and best comfort food I've ever had.  With less than 5 minutes of prep work and about 20 minutes of cooking, you can get an amazing broth that is out of this world and some of the moistest, velvetiest (apparently that is a word) chicken you've ever tasted.  And can I say again how easy this is?

I know I write a food blog, but here's a deep dark secret: until I made this, I'd never cooked a whole chicken before.  I know, it's a basic kitchen skill that most people who spend as much time as I do in the kitchen should have mastered a long time ago.  But I never did.  I had many excuses: I always worried about undercooking the chicken, I don't have a meat thermometer (I actually don't own any kitchen thermometers), I don't like white meat, so on.  But even with all these excuses, I knew I would had to get around to it someday.

I joke with my family and friends that every time I try a new recipe I am adding to my "dowry," as my future husband will benefit from whatever kitchen skills I've acquired over time.  It may sound a little strange, but sometimes I do work on building my recipe base with the thought that someday I will have to use my knowledge to feed someone else, someone who may not be as content as I am with eating poached eggs and arugula salads all the time.  Thus, I figure knowing how to cook an entire chicken is a fairly important skill.  (So is knowing how to properly cook a steak, but that's for another day.  [Though, for the record, I have made steak before and it was delicious, but steak is one of those things that, much as I love it, I can't justify making it for myself, and I'd much rather have someone else make it for me.])

People say roasting a chicken is easy but I find that the white meat when it is cooked that way gets to tiresome.  I can't make myself eat it.  And now that I'm cooking for one, I don't want to make something that I won't enjoy.  So instead of roasting, I found a recipe for poaching a chicken, which sounded so good I had to try it.  All the ingredients are fairly standard, and I was blown away by the simplicity of the recipe.

I spent no more than 30 minutes in the kitchen, then I turned off my stove, left my apartment, went to the lab for 4 hours, and came home to a perfectly cooked chicken.  I thought that kind of thing only happened in movies!  And this one pot recipe that gives you two amazing products at the end: some delicious chicken stock and a succulent poached chicken, which can be used in other dishes.  Think sandwiches, salad, risotto.... endless possibilities!

And best of all?  It really is the most moist and velvety meat I've ever tasted.  And the stock is amazing.  I wasn't too sold on it when I tasted it before dropping the chicken in, but the extra time at the end of the poaching makes all the difference.  Now I can't get enough of it.  It's delicious, comforting, and just the right thing for this season.  It's the perfect rainy day food.  And the perfect snowy day food.  It's also great if you're starting to feel sick or taking care of someone sick.  You know what?  It's great for any day.  The stock and the chicken make the perfect comfort food.  So if you're feeling a little down this week, here is what the doctor (okay, medical student) ordered.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Plum Clafoutis

There are two things I almost never say no to: making dessert and eating dessert.  And there was a point last week when I desperately needed to do both.  I was stressed, tired, and having a craving for something sweet.  I also had some beautiful plums from the farmer's market that were perhaps a little too ripe on the counter that I needed to do something with.

Of course, I had to bake something.

But I was busy.  I had no time to make a cake or complicated dessert that involved multiple steps and a lot of time creaming butter or adding ingredients one at a time.  I needed to make something simple.  Something that would satisfy me.  Something that would allow the flavor of my beautiful plums to shine.  And something that would be just as delicious straight from the oven as it would be after some time on the counter or in the fridge.

It was clear what I needed to make: clafoutis.

Clafoutis is an eggy, creamy, smooth almost-custard, not-quite-flan, traditional French dessert.  It's the kind of thing grandmothers make for their grandchildren, the kind of thing you can serve at a dinner party to guests, and the kind of go-to recipe you want for cold or rainy days when you want your kitchen to smell like heaven.  It is a breeze to make and it satisfies a sweet tooth without being too much (even if you decide to go for that second piece when you really know you shouldn't).  I've been having a love affair with clafoutis.

It's a breeze to make, it requires no special ingredients, and the recipe is easily tweaked to fit personal preferences.  Really, there is no reason not to make clafoutis.  Even if you're a new baker, you shouldn't be intimidated; this recipe is very forgiving if you make mistakes!

I happen to like my clafoutis with a fairly high cream-to-milk ratio, but don't let this throw you off.  If you don't have much cream on hand, you can still make clafoutis!  I just happen to keep heavy cream in my fridge for my coffee in the morning (this may sound unhealthy, but I like the richness it provides).  But for those who don't want to buy heavy cream or who are more health conscious, you can see my note below in the recipe.
And I personally love the aroma of rum in my baked goods and I adore how the flavor melds with baked fruit and vanilla, but if you don't have rum handy, you can easily replace it with another liquor (something with an appropriate flavor, such as brandy) or you can leave it out entirely.  If you don't like cinnamon, you can omit it.  I actually forgot to add vanilla once, and the flavor of the rum and plums was so wonderful, you couldn't even tell something was missing.

This plum clafoutis is delicious served warm or cold.  I can actually never resist digging into it as soon as it comes out of the oven, golden, puffed up, and pipping hot.  A slightly burned tongued is a small price to pay for the instant gratification of the silky, creamy, slightly tart but simultaneously sweet taste of a clafoutis that has just finished baking.  And when this clafoutis cools, its nuances are somehow revealed and you can better appreciate the subtle notes, the beautiful way the rum melds with the vanilla to complement the earthier, muted jam tones of the plum.  With its simple elegance, this clafoutis is not just any dessert, and it satisfies a craving much deeper than just a desire for something sweet.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What I've been eating

With my study schedule here at medical school, I haven't had time to cook much lately.  Because I knew earlier in the year that these days would come, I stocked up my freezer with plenty of food for days when cooking wouldn't be an option.  I have spicy butternut squash soup, basil and pine nut pesto, some crusty French bread, and goat curry from home (one of my absolute favorite cold weather foods).  But sometimes I don't even have the time to put together a warm meal; either I didn't think ahead to defrost the food I want to eat, or I have no rice or pasta in the fridge to eat and I'm too hungry to take the time to cook some.  In those moments, I am incredibly grateful for the abundance of fresh fruit I have access to.

Every Tuesday where I live there is a farmer's market.  Not only are they a source of great fresh everyday produce, like garlic, potatoes, basil (rooted!), onions, and zucchini, but they also carry some amazing out-of-ordinary products  at incredibly affordable prices, such as organic California Brown Turkey figs, local Concord grapes, Flavor Heart pluots, and gorgeous Georgia Muscadine grapes.  I had never actually tasted fresh Concord grapes before living next to this market, but the vendors are incredibly friendly about answering questions and allowing customers to sample.  Once I tasted one, I was hooked.  I've been buying them every single week since then.  The Muscadine grapes were also a discovery.  They look like small plums or very large grapes, and they burst with a flavor that is akin to lychee and Muscat grapes.  As for the pluots, if you haven't heard of them yet, they are hybrids that combine the best qualities of an apricot with those of a plum.  The Flavor Heart variety is one of my favorites, partially because it really does have a distinctive heart shape to it, and because its deep purple skin contrasts so beautifully with its pale golden flesh.

With such beautiful produce, it isn't hard to throw together a simple meal in little or no time.  Being so fresh, these fruits need no coaxing to shine in all their glory; they are delicious as they are.  I eat the figs with clover honey and plain yogurt as an afternoon snack.

The rooted basil I bought two or three weeks ago from the market is now thriving on my window sill.  I take some of its leaves and roughly chop them and mix them with a beautiful yellow heirloom tomato I bought to make a simple salad, dressed with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and grapeseed oil.

For a quick lunch today, I washed a bunch of organic roquette (arugula).  I became addicted to this spicy green while I was in Paris this summer, and now that I've found it at the markets here, I indulge myself by buying some almost every week.  It goes well with chicken, fish, pork, bread and butter... honestly, I can't think of many savory things it wouldn't accompany well.  But since today was farmer's market day, I had an abundance of fruit, and so I made a salad with with the Concord grapes, local end-of-season peaches, and Flavor Heart pluots.  A little balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and black pepper and my lunch was served.

I haven't just been on a raw foot diet though.  As beautiful as the produce is, I am at heart a baker, and I couldn't resist the call to make something sweet with the plums I had on hand.  Because I didn't have the time to make an elaborate cake or tart, I went with a classic: clafoutis.  I won't be sharing the recipe here yet because I want to take the time to dedicate a real post to it, but here is a teaser of what is to come.  It may seem a little bit homely, but trust me, this plum clafoutis is the perfect thing for a night in, curled up on the couch with a book.  (Unfortunately for me, that book is a USMLE Step 1 Question Bank)

Monday, September 19, 2011

He cooks for me

I met someone who works with me in the kitchen.  He cooks the chicken and cuts the celery.  I cook the okra and cut the figs.  He caramelizes the onions, I assemble the salad.  I bake the ribs and the rosemary potatoes in the oven, he makes the ratatouille.  I met someone who accepts my micromanaging, who is patient with me, who listens to me be bossy, and who cares to execute everything just the way I want it.

I met someone who lets me sleep in on a Saturday morning while he gets up and cooks for almost three hours by himself in my kitchen while I lay dreaming.  I met someone who wakes me up with the smell of chicken and paella for brunch, who offers me crepes in the morning, and who makes me salmon carpaccio with smoked salmon because he knows I'm not a big fan of raw fish.  I met someone who cooks for me.

I have found a partner.
He offers me a bite of his nectarine; he tries a piece of my pear.  We make cheesecake.  He crushes the graham crackers into crumbs; I mix together the butter and the sugar.  He beats the cream cheese and the heavy cream; I pat the crusts into the buttered muffin tins.  He combines the sugar, salt and vanilla; I pour the batter into the tins.  We wait for the cheesecake to finish baking.  We set the table together, we eat together, we laugh together.  We clear the table and we both declare that it is our turn to wash the dishes.  If I get to the sponge first, he wraps his arms around me and then puts away the food.  If he gets to the sink before I do, I kiss his cheek and wipe down the counters.  I have never known such sweet balance.

I met someone.  And he cooks for me.

I have always said that food is love – that phrase is repeated throughout this blog – but it wasn't until recently that I discovered what it was like to be loved in this way.  Though I often cook for other people, I had never really had someone cook for me.  I had never had someone take care of me like that.  And I know it sounds simple, but it is powerful beyond words.  He cooks for me.  I met someone who took the time to make me food, to nourish me, to feed me.  And when he had to go, he left me with ratatouille, with paella, with sea salt caramels, and with cupcakes, so although he can't be here now, in a way he is still present, he is still taking care of me.  There could not be anything more intimate.

Food is love.  And I have never been loved like this.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Hard Day's Work

It's been over a month since I last wrote here.  It hasn't been because I have been away from the kitchen -- I've actually been in the kitchen almost every day cooking -- but I just haven't had the time to write.  They aren't kidding when they say medical school keeps you busy.  I come home from lecture and my brain aches. It's like going to the gym and working out intensely for four hours straight, except instead of my muscles, it's my cerebral cortex.

After a hard day of work, many people I know like to come home and do something mindless, like watch TV, or for the younger generation, get on Facebook.  But after I have a day of lectures, when I come home tired, I go to the kitchen.  I open the fridge, I check what I have, and I pull out some pots.  And then I cook.  Sometimes it's just caramelizing onions and sautée-ing some sliced squash.  Sometimes it's making pesto.  Sometimes it's blanching cherry tomatoes in a pot, combining them with marinated peaches and plums, and making jam.

That's exactly what I did today.  I had actually intended to make some peach/plum jam last night, since I had some beautifully ripe fruit on hand that I wanted to preserve for when peaches and plums go out of season, but I just didn't quite get around to it.  I peeled and cut the peaches, I cut the plums, I added sugar, salt, a little bit of orange juice, and cinnamon (I didn't add any pectin since plums naturally have enough pectin to made a jam "gel" up).  Then I put the mixture in the fridge and forgot about it, since I didn't feel like I had the time to stand over a pot and stir.  I also didn't think I had any jam jars.  And I had a lot of studying to do.

But between last night and tonight I slowly ate away at some of the uncooked "jam" -- which really is just a fruit salad if you think about it -- picking away at the bigger pieces of peaches which were sweet and cinnamon-y, with a slight hint of orange and plum.  Delicious.  Today when I got home from class, there was still a portion of macerated fruit left, but not quite enough to put in the effort of making jam.  I wasn't sure what to do with my half-made concoction.  That was when I stumbled upon the cherry tomatoes I had bought at the farmer's market.

For the past three weeks I've been consistently buying these beautiful orange cherry tomatoes at the farmer's market outside my apartment and they have been amazing.  They taste like sunshine and summer.  I love them.  But this week's tomatoes were slightly disappointing.  Some were a little soft, some were quite acidic, and they just weren't the kind of tomatoes I wanted to eat raw as a snack (which I why I had bought them).  But they would be perfect in a jam.

So I took out my pairing knife and set to work lightly scoring the cherry tomatoes I had before blanching them quickly in boiling water.  Then I peeled them, the little tomatoes slipping easily out of their skins to join their new friends, the peaches and plums.  When I was done, I added some sugar and salt and a little bit more cinnamon, and then I turned on the heat.  I left the cherry tomatoes whole, just letting whichever ones burst from the heat give the jam texture.  In less than 20 minutes, over medium heat with a little bit of stirring, some tasting, and a lot of love, I had my jam.

The dark skin of the plums made the mixture a beautiful deep red color, like wine, and the plums and cinnamon rounded out the flavor of the tomatoes beautifully.  It was just what I needed after a long day, and I couldn't help but have of the jam immediately, spread in a thin layer on a good piece of bread (a baguette actually, also from the farmer's market).

In order to keep this and enjoy it for a while though, I sterilized the one extra glass jar and lid I had with some boiling water, pouring the hot water directly into and letting it heat the glass thoroughly before I poured out the water and added my jam.  Jar sealed and refrigerated, and presto!  Summer is preserved.  Such is the beauty of cooking.  After a hard day's work, there is nothing better than the magic that is time in the kitchen.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Dinner at Co Co Sala

For my birthday, my friends I. and G. came down from New Jersey to spend the weekend with me, and as we were spending the day in DC (invariably visiting Georgetown Cupcake and walking around in a diabetic coma afterwards), we decided to eat dinner at Co Co Sala.  I had actually gone here before for dessert and drinks with I., but we'd never done dinner.

We called for a reservation for 3 at around 2pm, since it was a last minute decision, and the only time we were able to get was at 6pm.  This was of course on Saturday, but still, be mindful that reservations should be made ahead of time, especially if you want to eat and get drinks at a later time, like 7:30 or 8pm, since that's when Co Co Sala gets crowded.

Because we were pretty full, we ordered mostly small plates, since the focus was on the dessert and drinks, as it should be when you go to a place that is called the Chocolate Room.  Below is a brief review of what we ate and drank.

This blue cheese pear and walnut salad ($8) included caramelized walnuts, arugula, cranberries, and balsamic vinaigrette.  It was a decent sized portion and very well executed.

This beef tenderloin ($28) with meyer angus and a gruyere and crushed cocoa bean crust was served with a shiraz reduction, asparagus (green and white), and a roasted garlic and goat cheese potato puree.  The puree was fascinating.  It had a very unique texture and we had actually forgotten what the menu said, and couldn't quite put our finger on what the taste was.  It was very light on the cheese factor.  I actually enjoyed it quite a bit, and you (loyal readers, at least) know how I feel about cheese (nyet, thanks)

These scallops ($12), were a "bite."  This is a concept that Co Co Sala has that is essentially equivalent to the Spanish concept of tapas.  Thus, this plate was just two pan-seared, cocoa nib crusted scallops with a maple citrus glaze.  The scallops were served with a celery root puree and a lotus chip.  It was very good.

This wild mushroom and roasted tomato risotto ($12) with seasonal mushrooms and parmesan risotto was cooked in a tomato broth and served with basil foam, and thus was completely vegetarian.  Good, although a bit on the salty side.

This dessert was the Co Co Grown Up ($14).  On the far right/top was a milk chocolate peanut butter gelato, which was rich but heavenly.  There was a chocolate mini co co. cupcake and then the most amazing bananas foster I've ever had in my entire life.  As I told my friends after tasting this, there is a god, and he works as the pastry chef at Co Co Sala.  The rum sauce with the bananas foster was to die for.  I could bathe in it.  There was also a malted shooter (alcoholic) with a chocolate "straw."  I thought it was actually a straw and tried to drink through it, like a fool, but it is not hollow.  An amazing dessert.  To be ordered again.

This dessert was to split among two people: churros with chocolate pudding dipping sauce.  The churros were light, airy and had the perfect amount of cinnamon sugar.  They also tasted amazing when dipped into the chocolate pudding sauce.  A perfectly executed dessert.

Of course, you can't go to Co Co Sala and not order a drink.  It doesn't matter if it's alcoholic or not.  You simply must order a drink.  We ended up trying four of their cocktails and one non-alcoholic drinks.

All cocktails are $13.  We ordered a Fetish, which has fresh strawberries juice/pulp, chocolate-infused vodka, and strawberry foam, and is served with a chocolate dipped berry (pictured behind the churros).  It tastes like candy.  It was my favorite drink of the night, and possibly my favorite drink ever (though chocolate martinis made at Quad at Princeton rank pretty highly) because you can barely taste the alcohol.  The drink itself also tasted very much like a chocolate dipped strawberry, and who doesn't like chocolate dipped strawberries?
We also tried the Co Cojito, with chocolate infused vodka, fresh mint & limes, and dark chocolate flakes (picture above, on the left).  It was good, but you could definitely taste the alcohol.  I'm not sure the mint and lime flavor was very prominent.  The chocolate flavor seemed to overwhelm them both.
The “Mmm” Malted Milk Martini (pictured above on right) featured Svedka Vanilla, Bailey’s, and Malted Chocolate and was very good.  Of course, my definition of a very good cocktail is one that is sweet and doesn't taste like alcohol.  I know, I'm a girl.  But it was complex, creamy, and yet light and easy to drink.
Lastly, we ordered the Blue Bliss (not pictured) which has Stoli Blueberry, Basil Infused Syrup, Fresh Lemonade, and Fresh Basil.  It is a refreshing summer cocktail, but it does taste like, well, alcohol.  A nice, light palate cleanser at the end of a meal though.

We also ordered the hot Salted Caramel Co Co ($6) at the start of our meal.  This delicious drink (pictured above, center) is served with a house-made marshmallow which meals deliciously into the hot cocoa.  The drink is the perfect combination of chocolate, caramel, and salt.  The caramel flavor is prominent, but balanced by the salt and roundness of the chocolate.  I could order this again and again.  Actually, I did order this previously, and I. and I had discussed coming back just to drink it again.  Turns out we did just that.

The entire experience of eating at Co Co. Sala is very relaxing.  It is not actually a restaurant, so if you eat a meal, it is more of a lounge experience, but you can eat and order at the bar or get a table among the booths/couches.  It is a perfect place for a classy date or for a dinner among friends, and is conveniently close to the Spy Museum and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  With its consistency, delicious drinks, and well executed and creative dishes, I am sure that Co Co. Sala will remain on my short list of restaurants in D.C. that I love to frequent.

Co Co. Sala
929 F Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20004
Tel. 202.347.4265
Overall rating for the price: 9 out of 10

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Different Way of Thinking

I don't pack like a normal person.  I'm moving into my new apartment in 12 days and I've begun the process of packing, but unlike most people who pack things like clothes and books, I have been focusing on packing kitchen ware.  I had been gathering my pots and pans, my hand held mixer, my measuring cups and spoons; I have collected up important things like my black truffle salt, my cinnamon, my vanilla sugar, my powdered ginger, my olive oil, my Maggi seasoning sauce.  I have packed my Tom Douglass cookbook (the only one I would ever pack with me on a move since it's the only cookbook I would actually cook from; the others are just for pleasure reading.  And yes, I pleasure read cookbooks), my coarse demerara sugar, my cocoa powder.  These things to me are as important as cardigans and fall boots to other people.
I am leaving for medical school and yet saved on my bookmarks bar is a link to a French Culinary Institute's class on pastry techniques and the International Culinary Center's class on homemade pasta.  I looked at both because they are only a train ride and a subway ride away from my apartment.  I am a crazy fool.  I am not sure if I will be able to make time for this blog once August rolls around, but I will never be able to stop considering good food and good cooking an important part of my life.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Lunch at Michel (a guest review)

I have never done this before, but because of my own slacking off in terms of posting (which I justify as reasonable since I'm not sure I will be continuing this blog in August once medical school starts), I am publishing a guest post here.  This review is actually written and photographed by my hilarious older sister.  She wrote it a while back and emailed it to me, but for some reason I never read it (Sorry, L., I love you!) until today.  And it had me laughing out loud.  I've already reviewed this restaurant, but this is another perspective, on different dishes.  So here it is: my sister's debut as a restaurant critic.

Our parents had to cancel their trip to Madrid this April due to our grandfather’s declining health. To make up for missing Madrid, my father had made reservations for my mother and him at the relatively new restaurant Michel, located at the Tysons Corner Ritz-Carlton. Unfortunately, my mother had to schedule a last minute transatlantic flight to take care of her parents a couple days after returning from Paris. My father then selected me as his second choice lunch date. Normally I’d feel a little offended about being someone’s back up choice, but in this case I happily agreed as quickly as I could, giving him no time to reconsider.

Michel is owned by the same French chef of the acclaimed restaurant Citronelle in Georgetown. He also owns Central Michel Richard, one of my favorite restaurants in DC (and a dining establishment I can afford to eat at without needing to sell an organ). Central has a special place in my heart because I’ve spent numerous milestone events here. My family took me here for my 21st birthday, I watched the results of the 2008 election here, and I have celebrated numerous anniversaries with Central’s famous Kit Kat chocolate bar. I actually took an ex-boyfriend who’s idea of fine dining (until he met me) was Outback Steakhouse and Olive Garden to Central. Clearly, this boy desperately needed an eye-opening dining experience. Our meal changed him from thinking bloomin onions was an acceptable appetizer and brought him over to the dark side of steak tartare, pate, and goat cheese.

Back to Michel. The restaurant is located in the exact same space as the late Maestro, on lobby floor in the Ritz. The modern décor makes the dining room seem spacious and colorful, and the large wine cases remind me of the design at Central. There is a large exhibition kitchen, and we were seated at a table right in front of it.

Our waitress brought us over the menu and we mulled over the choices. My dad decided to go with the three  course lunch special for $21 (Chicken Soup with Herb Ravioli, Salmon with Green Lentils, fruit mousse) which is pretty much highway robbery since his entrée ordered a la carte would cost $22. I decided to just order the Beef Bourguignon with Egg Noodles.

The bread was warm, light as air (this obviously changed as soon as I glopped a pound of their soft butter on it) with an impossibly crunchy crust. I munched on the bread as my dad sipped (by sipped I mean gulped) on his soup. The Chicken Soup with Herb Ravioli was perfect for such a dreary, cold day. It was a tad salty, but very flavorful nonetheless. The herb ravioli was delicious and had a hint of oregano.  The mini croutons that they threw in the soup were a nice surprise.

Then came the main courses. My dad approved of his Salmon with Green Lentils. The salmon tasted fresh. I actually liked that the waitress asked my dad how well done he wanted his salmon (being presented with overdone fish at a restaurant is such a disappointment), and it indeed was cooked perfectly like he ordered. The lentils were also cooked perfectly (not at all mushy!) and were a nice accompaniment to the the fish.

I really enjoyed the Beef Bourguignon with Egg Noodles. The cubed meat was tender and seasoned well.  The noodles weren’t drenched in sauce, and the sweet pearl onions added another dimension to the dish. The portions were generous, and my dad ended up having to help me finish (although the bread I consumed as a side to obscene amount of butter I was inhaling may have factored into this).

Then, it was time for dessert!!!! My dad had the fruit mousse (pineapple, mango and coconut). I debated between the chocolate bar which I have had three times already, and trying something new.  I always agonize over dessert when I’ve enjoyed my meal thus far, because the idea of finishing with a mediocre dessert as the final note seems heart-breaking to me.

The waitress patiently explained every dessert to me, and I finally ended up ordering the Pot de Crème. It was a rich vanilla crème, with a caramel on top, along with crunchy chocolate mini balls and came with two lightly caramelized cracker things. It was delicious.  The vanilla crème had the consistency of flan, and aromatic without being overpowering. The crunchy chocolate balls added an extra punch of flavor and texture to the creamy mix of vanilla and caramel. My dad’s mousse was light and fruity without tasting artificial. I might be biased towards chocolate, but I preferred my calorically decadent dessert a bit more.

My father claimed that the one complaint he had conerning the desserts were that they were too rich for lunchtime. At first I vehemently disagreed, but an hour later as I fought an overwhelming food coma, I could see his point. Returning to work was difficult. After such a delicious meal, it seemed almost insulting to return to my desk and work on protocols.

Overall, my dad and I both gave Michel a B+. A solidly delicious meal, but not a knockout.

1700 Tysons Blvd
McLean, VA 22102
Tel. 703-506-4300

Thursday, June 30, 2011

When in France... Make Crêpes

My hiatus in posting recipes and reviews is fairly inexcusable, especially since I have three reviews backlogged just waiting to be published, but to make it up for you I have a recipe for something everybody likes: crêpes.

Crêpes, for those of you who don't know, are a large, very thin French pancakes made with a very liquidy batter.  They can be dusted with sugar and then lightly spritzed with rum or lemon juice, or they can be served with nutella or jam, or they can be filled with bananas, whipped cream, nuts, and such.  They are also sometimes served flambé, with Grand Marnier.  The possibilities are endless.

I have always preferred my crêpes simple.  I like them cooked to a nice golden color and served with sugar and rum.  I recently went to dinner at a restaurant here in Paris which only served crêpes, and the savory options were extensive and delicious.  It may sound odd, but my  crêpe had hamburger meat and was served with a fried egg on top.  Yummy!

I can't say when I ate my first crêpe, but I'm sure I was very young, since my grandparents live in France and I have been coming here for years to visit them.  This summer I find myself in Paris again, somehow at the same time as my older cousins.  Ironically, of all the cousins, only one of them is Parisienne and she now lives in Saigon, Vietnam.  The other two are from the Bordeaux region of France (famous for its wines) and have moved to Paris for work.  We got together the other night for raclette, wine, and crêpes.  This recipe for crêpes is my cousin's; I had actually never made crêpes before from scratch.

The recipe itself is very simple, likely stuff you already have in your kitchen, and once you made one or two crêpes, you get the hang of things pretty quickly and they start looking nicer and nicer.  Be warned though: these are best when eaten warm.  So have your company ready to eat them, or take a break between cooking every one or two crepes so that you can enjoy them while they're fresh.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Lemon Bars

I've been in a funk for a while and for some reason I just haven't felt the same about cooking, baking, or posting.  Which is very odd for me.  Cooking and baking are usually my go-to activities, especially when I have a fully stocked kitchen and great seasonal ingredients.  Which I do have right now.

But I just haven't really felt that wonderful feeling of happiness I normally associate with cooking.  I made pork belly today with king oyster mushrooms and onions and while it was good, I felt no real satisfaction in making it.  I also made a strawberry rhubarb crumble.  It was my first time cooking with rhubarb.  And no real excitement.  It was good, but I don't feel compelled to share it with you.

Instead, I offer you lemon bars.  I made these a few days ago because we happened to have a lot of limes in the house.  And, yes, I made my lemon bars with limes.  So really, I suppose, they should be called lime bars, but that just doesn't have the same ring to it that the name "lemon bars" does.  So lemon bars.

This recipe has been a long time family favorite.  My parents are crazy about them and I've made them as gifts for family friends many times.  They were also the defining baked good of one of my relationships.  It's funny; I have certain recipes that I inextricably associate with people.  My oatmeal chocolate chip cookies will always make me think of Josh.  My apple tart cake always reminds me of my dad.  These lemon bars always make me think of E.

When we first started dating, E. came over fairly often and to my surprise, he sometimes rummaged my kitchen and fridge.  I had never had anyone just come over and open my fridge before, so it startled me quite a bit that he did it so naturally, but I was blinded by my infatuation.  On our third or fourth "date" (I put that word in parentheses because he was just coming over to watch movies), he discovered a container of lemon bars on the counter.  Of course, he was interested in trying them.  So, we sat down in the living room with the container and we snacked on them while smiling at each other and half-watching something on the TV.  And then, the inevitable happened.  The taste of lemon bars was in both of our mouths when we kissed, and when we pulled back from the kiss, E. told me with a smile that that was the best tasting kiss he'd ever had.  I thought it was one of the sweetest things I'd ever been told.  I've baked him these lemon bars several times since then, and I am still reminded of that summer when I think of this recipe.

As I said before, I normally use limes for this recipe.  Limes are generally cheaper than lemons at the market, and no one can really tell the difference anyway. Also, one lime typically yields more juice than one lemon, so it is an economical choice.  But, if you feel the need to be "authentic," the recipe works with lemons just as well as it does with limes.

This standard recipe one 8x13 pan, but I normally find that that simply isn't enough to satiate my family and friends, so I make the recipe slightly bigger and make an 8x13 pan and an 8x8 pan so there is a lot to go around.  The bars keep well in an air tight container at room temperature.  They keep even longer in the fridge.  And when I say "even longer" I mean almost two weeks, if you're a hoarder, like myself.

These lemon bars are delicious when served with blueberries, strawberries, or peaches.  Of course, they are also great alone.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Lunch at Michel

This is the first time that I've ever let weeks slide by in my posting.  I've normally tried to keep the space between my posts be no more than six days, but this summer has been rather up and down and while I have not had a lack of things to post about, I just have not had the energy nor the will to post.  But yesterday I went out to lunch at Michel, a relatively new restaurant in the DC area, and I feel like I need to share this review with you.  Michel is located in the Ritz Carlton.  It is another one of Michel Richard's restaurants (the Michel Richard of Citronelle and Central).

Michel offers a changing three course menu for $21 which is called the "Lunch with Benefits," as part of the profits goes to a cause.  This week's cause was cystic fibrosis.  Two choices were offered for the appetizer, two for the main course, and three for dessert.  We also ordered a la carte off the main lunch menu.

One of the appetizers offered with the prix fixe menu is a vichyssoise, or a thick soup made of leeks, potatoes, and onions.  Michel's vichyssoise was served with potato crisps (also known as potato chips).  It was interesting, as it had an acid note to it that I have never tasted before in a vichyssoise, but it was not unpleasant.  The crisps provided a nice textual element to the creamy, smooth soup.  Overall it was a 8.5 out of 10.

The other appetizer offered as part of the prix fixe menu was the tuna tartare nicoise.  This was a salad with green beans, red onion, and hard boiled eggs, among other elements.  I thought the tuna was a little thickly cut and could have been more elegantly presented.  It was a 6.5 out of 10, which is pretty average.

An appetizer ordered a la carte was the cheese puffs (also called gougères, $8).  These were a little too heavy.  We’ve had Michel Richard’s gougères before (at Central), and they were lighter and fluffier.  These ones tasted fine, but weren’t the airy puffs we’d had before.  We gave them a 7 out of 10.

Diver scallops with couscous paella was one of the main courses offered with the prix fixe menu.  This dish featured two scallops on top a bed of Israeli couscous.  The scallops were sweet, and nicely cooked.  The paella was not as spicy as a tradition paella, but did include squid, mussels, and sausage.  It was an 8.5 out of 10, good but not amazing.

The other main course offered with the prix fixe menu was a croque monsieur.  This was fairly banal.  Not only was the plating boring—just a half sandwich with some green leaves, and I even had to re-plate it a bit because it was done with absolutely no attention to detail—but the sandwich itself was nothing special.  We had hoped that Michel Richard might put some fun spin on it (like Inn at Little Washington does with mac and cheese), but instead it was just a grilled ham and cheese sandwich on some decent bread.  Worse yet, the salad was not fresh.  Not only were the greens wilted, but they were bruised and aged so much that some were almost black in color.  My mom called over one of the waiters and showed him the salad.  He very quickly brought it back to the kitchen and she was given a new salad on a new plate.  Unfortunately, this salad was not properly dressed and was very plain in taste.  I have to say, I expected much better of a Michel Richard restaurant.  We gave this a 6.5 out of 10.

One entree we ordered a la carte off the lunch menu was red snapper with pipérade and garlic parsley sauce.  This was served with some great roasted red pepper.  It was a full bodied dish, well executed, with some beautifully cooked fish.  Not a wow, but very good.  An 8.5 out of 10.

The second entree we ordered a la carte was flat iron steak with shallot sauce and french fries.  This was executed well, with some very great crispy french fries.  A solid dish, we gave it a 8.5 out of 10.

One of the desserts offered as part of the prix fixe menu was a chocolate bar.  This was a little too sweet, and the sweetness was not balanced properly by salt.  The milk chocolate bar did have some texture due to a hazelnut crunch layer, but it was unimpressive.  I do not think we finished it.  The pistachio wafer was beautiful and impressively thin, but it did not offer much in terms of taste.  We gave this a 6.5 out of 10.

The other dessert offered as part of the prix fixe menu was a vanilla pot de creme (the item as listed on the menu has no accent marks).  This was very sweet, and almost overwhelmed by the layer of caramel on top.  The caramel had no sophistication to it; it was like something you would buy in a squeeze bottle at a grocery store.  The thin pale wafers served with it were likewise unimpressive and lacking in flavor.  This dessert was a 6 out of 10.

In the end, when the bill was brought out, our waiter told us that we were compensated for my mother’s meal, meaning that a total of $21 was subtracted from our bill as a result of the wilted and bruised greens.  This was a very generous move on the part of the restaurant, as only one part of her three course meal had been a disappointment, but it did not move us in terms of our opinion of Michel.  Overall, the experience was very average.  There are too many good places in DC for us to return to this one, which is sad, given that my dad had previously eaten at this restaurant with my sister and they had both enjoyed the meal very much.  I suppose it is hit or miss?  But that is not acceptable when you’re serving the foodie crowds of the DC metropolitan area.

1700 Tysons Blvd
McLean, VA 22102
Tel. 703-506-4300
Overall rating for the price: 7 out of 10