Thursday, December 20, 2012

Mexican Hot Chocolate Brownies

I don't like brownies.  Really.  I don't see the appeal in them.  Most brownies just taste like chocolate and flour, and I don't mean that in a good way.  I find 99% of brownie recipes to be one note. They are dense, and taste of cake-y chocolate with no real character and after about one bite, they get incredibly dull.  If a dessert requires a cup of coffee, a scoop of ice cream, or whipped cream in order to be good, then it is not a good dessert.  Good desserts should be able to stand on their own.

So it goes without saying that I rarely ever make brownies, yet here I am, posting about a brownie recipe.  I like this recipe so much the first time I made it, I had to make a second batch the next day to be sure that it wasn't a fluke.  This is no mistake: this recipe is gold.

The brownies that this recipe turns out are just sweet enough, but not at all cloying.  You don't need coffee or milk or ice cream to make these good.  In fact, I've eaten them for breakfast.  The espresso in the batter heightens the deep flavor of the dark chocolate, and the cinnamon adds a warm background fragrance.  Best of all are the lingering notes of black pepper and cayenne pepper.  They add just enough heat to makes your tastes buds light up, but it isn't at all overwhelming.  In fact, I find the spiciness rather comforting.  Of course, you can adjust this to your liking.  The first time I made this recipe, I omitted the cayenne pepper but used freshly ground black pepper.  It was delicious.  The second time I used both.  Also delicious.  Seriously, I have no complaints about this recipe.

If you're like me and you don't normally make brownies, I beg you to make an exception in this case.  Or if you the type of person who loves brownies, I highly suggest trying these.  The recipe is very easy to make.  I did this in a food processor for easy clean up, but you can also make this with a standard mixer.

Happy Holidays all!

This pictures speaks for itself.  Make these brownies.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Custard-Filled Corn Bread

A good recipe for both Thanksgiving and Christmas — or really anytime of the year when it's cold outside and you want comfort food — is corn bread.  I love corn bread.  It is filling, sweet, savory, and cornmeal gives the bread a lovely texture that is both crumbly and cake-y.

This cornbread is everything you're looking for. When it comes out of the oven, it has beautifully crispy edges and a soft and delicate crumb.  What sets this apart from other corn bread recipes though is the moist interior... the creamy and luscious custard layer.  When it is cold, from the fridge, the creamy custard layer is like a savory icing, inside of a corn bread cake.  I wish I could describe it better.  I only know that after Thanksgiving, when I went Black Friday shopping with my mom and my sister, I kept thinking about how I wanted to go home and eat this cornbread for lunch.  It's that good.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Lunch at Blue Duck Tavern

Following our engagement, B. and I went to eat with my mother at a restaurant in DC that my parents and I fell in love with a few years back during restaurant week.  Incredibly enough, it has take me four months to write about it.  Such is the life of someone in medical school.  (B. insists that he knows what he is getting into.)

Located in the Park Hyatt Hotel, Blue Duck Tavern is a lovely contemporary style restaurant serving new American cuisine.  Their menu is set up to "recognize the purveyors and artisans who enrich [the] menu with their fresh ingredients," so each course has listed beside it the area from which it came.

Our party of three was promptly seated and we mulled over the choices offer on the menu before finally settling on our selections.  Having eaten there before, my mom and I knew that the main courses were large enough to be more than enough for a full meal; no need for starters or sides.

B. ordered the veal "schnitzel" with mustard spaetzle and mushroom sauce (from Chapel Hill, NC, $20).  It was earthy and full of character, but the kitchen has still managed to keep the veal light.  It had great texture, and we all liked that the layer of breading was just right; not too thick, and not at all greasy.  Both my mom and I felt that it was missing high notes or a fresh acidity that a salad or fresh vegetables might have provided, but B. liked that it was fairly traditional.  My mom and I gave it a 8.5 out of 10.  B. gave it a 9 out of 10.

I ordered the wood oven roasted confit of duck leg served with frisee, a poached egg, and warm bacon vinaigrette (from Grimaud Garms, CA, $20).  The salad was very beautifully dressed.  I am not normally impressed with salads, but this one definitely stood out.  The acidity and body of the vinaigrette was the perfect foil for the duck confit.  I love the sweet, crunchy Kalamata olives and the wobbly, perfectly "saucy" poached egg.  Everything together was lovely.  All the elements worked together, and I gave it a 9 out of 10 overall.  The duck was good, but alone I felt that it was only a 7 out of 10, as it wasn't as moist as I was hoping.

My mom ordered the crispy skin salmon, served with cucumber, hearts of palm, smoked roe, and sorrel cream (from Sitka, AK $23).  The dish truly lived up to its name, as the skin on the salmon was beautifully crispy, while the fish was perfect moist and light.  The sorrel cream, hearts of palm, and cucumber provided a fresh and light spring element to the dish.  We gave it an 8.5 out of 10.

For dessert, we were all approaching fullness, so we decided that among the three of us, we would split two desserts.  Every day there is a "Market Dessert" that is offered on the menu, and this changes with the seasons.  When our waiter described their market dessert for the day, it sounded too good to pass up.

The Market Dessert of the day was a peach and rosemary tart served with vanilla creme fraiche and candied rosemary ($9).  The roasted peaches sat on a dense olive oil cake (I wouldn't call it a tart, as it was more sponge-y than crumbly).  It was a very creative dessert.  The candied rosemary was very interesting, though I think had the kitchen fried the rosemary, it would have been more fragrant and effective.  We loved the combination of the creme fraiche, peach puree, olive oil cake, and roasted peaches together.  It was a very satisfying dessert.  We gave it an 8.5 out of 10.

The other dessert we ordered was the milk chocolate banana s'mores ($9).  This was rich in flavor but light and playful.  I absolutely loved the brûléed mashmallow and the thin banana chip.  The graham cracker crumbs went well with the milk chocolate.  I do not know quite how to describe the milk chocolate part, except that it was like a cross between a panna cotta and a pot de creme.  It was silky, creamy, and light.  We gave it an 8 out of 10.

In the end, we were very satisfied and full, and as usual, we had perfect service throughout the meal.  I highly recommend this restaurant to anyone in the area.

Blue Duck Tavern
1201 24th Street NW
Washington, DC 20037
Tel. (202) 419-6755

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Thanksgiving Spread

I've truly been slacking on posting lately, but this was the Thanksgiving spread this year at the D. family house.  It was just the four of us -- my sweet B. did not join us this year because our long distance relationship means we need to spread out our visits evenly, and I was only just in Paris in September and I will be returning for Christmas -- but as usual, my mother, my sister, and I worked all day in the kitchen to make a delicious spread.

There was maple link sausage, chestnut, mushroom, onion, sage, and thyme stuffing, which was every bit was delicious as it sounds.  There was also garlic soup, thickened with parmigiano reggiano and served with fresh croutons.  We repeated the kale chips recipe from last year, and we added Molly Wizenberg's recipe for custard-filled corn bread to our list of favorites.  As always, the star of the meal was my mother's rosemary Cornish game hens, stuffed with a mixture of sticky rice, corn, water chestnuts, lap xuong (Chinese sausage), and caramelized onions.  We drank Moscato d'Asti, a very light sparkling white wine, and for dessert, I made a dark chocolate, caramel, and coffee tart with a sable crust.  

After that Thanksgiving meal there was a family movie, Black Friday shopping, and a lovely dinner at Restaurant Eve to celebrate my dad's belated birthday.  More pictures, recipes, and a review to follow.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Making Caramel

You know why there haven't been recipes lately?  Because this is what I ate for dinner tonight.

And this is what I ate for dinner the other night.

I sautéed up some zucchini in a pan with garlic, cracked an egg, and then threw some rice in at a last minute.  I didn't even get a plate; I ate straight from the skillet.  That's what medical school and living alone is like.

I'm not saying I eat badly, it's just that this is hardly blogging material.  I do, however, have some pictures of caramel making, for all those who might be intimidated by the process, as I used to be.  Sorry, but there are no photos of the finished product because at the end of the process it's hard to stir, add butter, and add milk, and also take pictures at the same time.

I've been making salted caramel sauce a lot lately, mostly to eat with apples.  Apples are in season now, and grocery store apples get tiring to eat, but it's an easy and inexpensive fruit to buy, so I eat a lot of apples.  To make this less dull, I now spread caramel sauce on them.  This makes it a lot less healthy, but oh well.  You win some, you lose some.

It's very simple to make a dry caramel.  Just throw sugar into a pot and let it melt and start to cook.  Stir occasionally (for people who are paranoid: it doesn't matter how often you stir).  Once it has reached your desired level of caramelization, turn off the heat, add in a little bit of salt, a tab of butter, and some warm cream or milk.  Now you have caramel sauce perfect for ice cream, apples, coffee, etc.  If your caramel seizes up, just heat it on low heat for a little while.  Store in a glass jar in the fridge.  It'll keep for about a week.

You can also turn this caramel sauce into a delicious buttercream frosting, to decorate any cakes or cupcakes of your making, the recipe for which can be found here or here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day Chocolate Cupcakes with Salted Caramel Frosting

My fiancé once pointed out to me that although I love to cook, I have nearly no savory recipes on my blog; instead, I tend to write exclusively about sweet recipes for baked goods.  The reason for this is mostly that when I cook, I don't use recipes.

For example, I made a Vietnamese-style duck soup (mi vit tiem) the other night with dried lily bud flowers (kim cham), Chinese dried apples (tao tau), ginger, and orange peel.  It was the perfect thing for the cold weather we're having here in New Jersey.  But I couldn't tell you how much water was in it or how much soy sauce I put in the broth or how much ginger I used.  I just know that I tasted along the way and the end product was delicious.  Also, I made the soup with duck bones and I seriously doubt that you, my dear readers, keep Asian marinated duck bones in your fridge that are just waiting to be made into a delicious stock.  In fact, 90% of the ingredients that went into that soup are things that I'm willing to bet no one who isn't Vietnamese keeps in their kitchen.  In fact, my own mother, who knows how much I love this soup, doesn't always keep all the ingredients for it on hand.  Long story short, the point it, I do make savory foods.  I just don't know how to write about them, since I don't have recipes for a lot of what I make.

I do, however, have a lovely recipe for a chocolate cupcake with salted caramel frosting.  And I promise you, this salted caramel frosting is a breeze to make.  This caramel never fails, never cracks, never breaks... it is perfect.  You don't even need to keep your eye on it the entire time you're making it.  I've probably made it close to a dozen times in the past two months and it's never gone wrong.

I made these cupcakes to eat as my friends and I watch the election results, and I'm hoping they will be celebratory cupcakes.  Of course, since it'll probably be too late for you to make these in the spirit of the election, they also work well as birthday treats.

This recipe makes 36-42 cupcakes, or two 10-inch layers, or three 8-inch layers (if you're the cake making type).  You can also mix this combination up and bake 12 cupcakes and two 8-inch layers, or so on.

The cupcakes are the perfect level of chocolate-y.  They are flavorful, with a moist and delicate crumb, and the salted caramel frosting is the perfect ooomph to elevate everything to perfection.  Unlike other cupcakes, these don't taste like brownies.  By that, I mean they aren't overwhelming fudge-y in a way that makes you feel sick after three bites.  And the combination of vanilla, coffee, and rum in this recipe makes this all just irresistible.

I recommend making these cupcakes a day in advance.  Frost them and then keep them in a covered container in the fridge.  The flavors seem to just get better on the second day.  The chocolate is more intense and the nuances of vanilla and coffee seem to meld in a very lovely way.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dinner at the Salon at Per Se

I have wanted to eat at Per Se for quite a while now.  Per Se opened in 2004 as the little sister to Chef Thomas Keller's famous California restaurant, The French Laundry.  Located in the Upper West Side of New York City, Per Se serves its diners thoughtfully conceived dishes with elegant presentation while they look out across Central Park.  As Sam Sifton wrote in his review in The New York Times, "[t]he restaurant more handsomely rewards the companionship of those who love one another as much as they do pleasure and indulgence."

The menu at Per Se changes daily, although some standards remain.  The restaurant serves small, focused dishes that are made to be a tasting experience.  Typically, meals at Per Se are prix fixe, with the standard ten course tasting menu set at $295 (service included).  Reservations can be made up to one month in advance.

For those who don't have the time to dial and re-dial desperately a month before their desired dinner date and who perhaps don't want to invest in at ten course meal, Per Se also offers the option of dining in the salon.  The salon does not require a reservation and you really don't need to make one -- it seems that few people know about or decide to take this option available for dining.  The menu in the salon is a la carte and includes dishes from the tasting menu.  This was the option that B. and I chose for the occasion of our post-engagement celebration.

We simply walked in and asked to be seated in the salon, where we were offered a choice of seating in elegant armchairs with a coffee table or at a high glass bar with tall stools.  I chose the high glass bar because the lighting was better in that area and I am always thinking about how my food will look.  Also, I thought it would be more comfortable to have a table at the proper height, rather than bending down to a coffee table to eat.  I was hoping there might be a place I might put my purse other than on the table we were eating at or on the floor, so when I asked our waiter, he very kindly brought over a small wooden table for my purse.  I also forgot to bring something to write on, so I requested paper and a pen, which he also provided, no questions asked.  This was just the beginning of a night of excellent and attentive service.

To start our meal, we were given two small Gruyere cheese gougeres.  These little balls (on the right) were light and fluffy.  That one bite was so perfect in its warm depth of flavor that it had me both satisfied and craving a hundred more.
Each of us was also given a salmon cornet with a sesame tuile and sweet red onion creme fraiche.  This cold amuse bouche contrasted nicely with the warm gougeres and the sesame tuile provided the perfect crunch.  It was great how such a small bite could offer textural contrasts as well as acidity, fat, and creaminess.  Both of these little bites were a great start to what would be a delicious meal.

Then out came the bread basket, which had (starting from left to right) three little pretzel rolls, three sourdough boules, and three French baguettes.  We were also given butter from Loire Valley and two types of salt - a grey sea salt and a pink Hawaiian salt.  We tried everything.  My favorite was the little French baguettes as the crust had the perfect amount of crisp bite to it while the inside was light and airy.  The other bread options were also fantastic.  I think between the two of us, B. and I managed to eat almost everything in the bread basket.

For my meal, I chose the "Terrine" of Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras ($40) which was served with Macerated Blackberries, Celery Branch "Ribbons," Black Walnut Coulis, Toasted Oats and Tellicherry Peppercorn "Aigre-Doux."  In a lovely linen napkin, I was also given a fresh brioche roll, which was warm and salted; a piece of this was like eating air.  Each time I finished my brioche, I was given a new one in a fresh linen.  Our waiter brought me four in total and I ate them so quickly sometimes I had to wait a bit between for a new one to come out.  I've read from other diners that if you take a while to eat the brioche, they bring you out a fresh warm one, even if you haven't finished the one on your plate; this, however, was not a problem for me.
The foie gras was very good.  It truly melted in the mouth and the entire dish was very well executed.  I didn't have a single complaint, except that I could have continued eating another entire plate of this, rich though it might be.  The plate was designed as a wonderful experience, so that a bite of the foie gras with the celery branch was different from a bite with the toast oats, and a bite with everything together was a symphony of flavors.  This was a 9.5 out of 10.  To pair with this, I ordered a glass of white wine, a sweet Sauternes, 2001 ($45).

For his meal, B. ordered the Herb Roasted Thomas Farm's Squab ($36) with Garden State Sweet Corn, Poached Bing Cherries, Braised Swiss Chard and "Sauce Périgourdine."  This was incredible.  It definitely had a wow factor.  The squab was cooked to the perfect pinkness and the corn, Bing cherries (pitted, but left whole), and Swiss chard all married together beautifully.  Again, this was a 9.5 out of 10.  To pair with this, B. had glass of an Italian Brunello ($55), for which I forgot to mark the year.  He liked this, as he enjoys more oak-y wines, and it went well with his dish.

I really appreciated that even though we were ordering by the glass, the servers still came and poured us a taste to sample first, to make sure we liked what we were ordering, before they filled our glasses.  They also let us keep our bread basket even after our main courses were cleared, since we enjoyed munching on the bread so much.  There was no feeling of being rushed.

For dessert, we decided on the creme brulee with ginger snap cookies ($20).  This was served with red verjus gelee.  There was a very nice layer of caramelized sugar on top, which cracked gorgeously under the tapping of my spoon.  My favorite part though was the soft and fragrant ginger cookies, which I could have happily had a plate of one their own, maybe with a glass of milk.  The verjus gelee was a nice touch and the creme brulee was very good, but I felt like it was missing a wow factor.  B. and I both agreed that this was not the best creme brulee either of us had ever eaten.  We gave it an 8 out of 10.

After dessert, we were bought a 3 tiered mignardises tray.  There was white verjus and red current pate de fruits which were sour and flavorful, white chocolates filled with sesame and mango which were very dense and rich (though I didn't get a strong sense of the mango flavor), and almond nougat with raspberries which was sweet and sticky.

To take home, we were also given two little packets of raspberry shortbreads to have for breakfast the next day.  They were very good with coffee; sweet and sandy in a lovely way, the only thing they needed was a very light sprinkle of salt to elevate their flavors.

Overall, Per Se was an excellent experience with wonderful service.  All of the wait staff were friendly and kind, and it was not at all over imposing.  They were attentive, without overdoing it.  I would be happy to return and to sample more of the menu.  B. and I even joked about having our wedding reception at Per Se.
Of course, the meal comes with a hefty price tag -- even higher if you commit to the full tasting menu -- but you are paying for an experience, and what a wonderful experience it was.

Per Se
10 Columbus Circle at 60th St.
Time Warner Center - 4th floor
New York, NY 10019
Tel. 212-823-9335

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Lunch at Mesa Grill & big news

This year Summer Restaurant Week in NYC was July 16th to August 10th.  I read over the list of participating restaurants and immediately knew I wanted to eat at Iron Chef Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill.  Mesa Grill's Restaurant Week menu looked very good, and so I made a reservation for me and my boyfriend, B. to have lunch last Friday.  I went to work that morning and he ran some errands in the city and we met up at the restaurant for our reservation at 1:30pm.  We were seated promptly by the window and after we ordered, we got a lovely basket of jalapeno cornbread and white bread with salted whipped butter.  Both breads were very good, though the white bread was more satisfying and sturdy, as the cornbread fell apart very quickly as we ate it.

I also ordered a cactus pear margarita with tequila, lime juice, cactus pear juice, and a lovely salted rim.  It was a very bright pink, a color which matched it strong flavor profile.  It was more sour than expected, but I did enjoy it.

Our meal was three courses, prix fixe, for $24.07.

My man, the soup, and the drink
To start, B. ordered the Fresh Tomato Tortilla Soup with Avocado and Queso.  The soup (pictured above, also with the margarita) was warm, spicy, and smooth.  It had a nice kick to it when you swallowed, but the heat wasn't overwhelming on the palate.  The tortilla strips offered some great texture along with the melt-in-the-mouth avocado.  The queso was not at all overwhelming, which I appreciated, since I don't really like cheese.  The dish was very well executed.

I started my meal with the Spicy Salmon Tartare with Crisp Hominy Cake, Piquillo Pesto and Cilantro Vinaigrette.  This was delicious.  The cold salmon with the hot hominy cake contrasted each other perfectly, and the pesto and vinaigrette combined to highlight the flavor of the fish.  I adored the textures and flavors of the dish.  I wouldn't hesitate to order this again.  It was a strong 9 out of 10.

For his main course, B. ordered the Sixteen Spice Chicken Skewers with Mint, Butter Lettuce, Pickled Red Onions and Mesa Barbecue Sauce.  The chicken was incredibly moist, tender, and flavorful.  It was not powerfully spicy, which I appreciated.  The pickled onions were a nice accompaniment and I liked that the bbq sauce was served on the side.  Another very well executed dish, we gave this an 8 out of 10.

For my main course, I ordered the Wild Striped Bass with Roasted Corn Sauce, Jalapeno Pesto and Charred Corn-Tomato Salsa.  The fish was perfectly cooked, flaky and moist.  I cannot say how much I adored the pesto, salsa, and corn sauce.  It was an absolute symphony of flavors that worked very well with the fish.  Bobby Flay has a way of skillfully combining numerous flavors and elements without overwhelming or drowning the main component.  I was wow-ed by each bite I took.  A strong 9.5 out of 10.

For dessert, I ordered the Caramel Chocolate Pudding with Malted Whipped Cream.  I can't turn down anything with caramel and chocolate in it, and I am glad I ordered this.  It was light, silky smooth, and delicious.  The caramel flavor complimented the dark chocolate wonderfully, and the malted whipped cream was a great topping.  An 8.5 out of 10.

The other dessert we ate was the Vanilla Bean Custard with Summer Berry Salad.  This was incredible.  By this point of the meal, we were both so full, but we didn't want to stop.  The dessert was just too good not to eat.  It was ethereal, delicate, and melted in the mouth in the most heavenly way imaginable.  I honestly could not imagine a way that this dessert could have been improved.  It was a 10 out of 10.

Our overall experience was Mesa Grill was wonderful.  There was great service, wonderful food, and a lovely atmosphere.

Afterwards I was in such a food coma, I wanted to just curl up with my boyfriend on a couch and nap, but he told me he wanted to meet up with his friend and former co-worker, so we headed out to Central Park.  My stomach was full of food and I was sleepy, so I walked with my eyes half closed while we ambled down a beautiful path lined with benches and trees.  B. asked me if I wanted to sit down on a bench for a moment, and I foolishly said no, because I was so tired, I was afraid if I sat down I would never get up again.  Thankfully, I gave in after a moment and settled down next to him.

He took my hand and there, on a bench in Central Park, everything changed.

When he asked me the question, I told him, "You know what my answer is."  I said yes.  He slid the ring on my finger, I forgot about everything else in world, and we kissed.  There had been a band playing by us and they stopped to look at the couple that had just gotten engaged.
I wish I could tell you how happy I am, how sweet this day was, and how blissfully in love we are, but it is all more than words can say.  I have never known love like this.  I have never known joy like this.  I have never known a man like this.  And so, I am engaged.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Three Good Years & Paella

Today marks the three year anniversary of this blog.  When it started, I had no idea this little project would ever become what it is now.  It was honestly just an impulse that I went with one summer day when I was working as a intern.  I had a desk job with a lot of free time, and I had recently had a birthday lunch with my cousin at a restaurant in DC.  I started writing an email to my parents and my sister about the meal, and then, on a whim, I decided to make it into a blog post.  I didn't even have an introduction.
The first year honestly was a very slow one.  I didn't write much, and when I did, I don't think anyone was really reading.  Then I went to France for the summer and prolifically published about the places that I ate at while on vacation.  My parents showed the link to various friends and family and before I knew it, I had an audience.
I am still learning how to write and trying to figure out the rules of the blogging world, but it is incredibly rewarding whenever I check on my Stats page (that's right, non-bloggers; I get a report of how many people are reading, what links and google search bring them here, what posts are being read, what countries readers are from... it's amazing) and I see that someone has tweeted about a post I wrote or someone has pinned a picture that I took onto Pinterest.  It is also wonderful to have those around me support me in this.
One of the strongest supporters of my food blogging is my boyfriend.  He understands how important this is to me, even though it has nothing to do with my career path, and he stands by as I take 30 pictures of a plate of food before letting him eat it and he smiles at my note-taking when we go out to dinner (even when we're with his friends).  But best of all, because I've been too swamped with work to write or cook anything to mark this three year anniversary, B. sweetly stepped in and wrote a special guest post.


For this special occasion today, I wanted to share a family recipe we do for family reunions, Sunday lunch and big occasions: Paëlla.
Europe is an exciting mix of culture and history and as a French-Catalan-Algerian, this Paëlla is a great example of how to present a traditional dish with your own influences, inspiration and techniques.  Originally, it was a poor man’s dish made out of leftovers but after many generations, it became a tradition and an equivalent of a feast.

What you’ll need for 6-8 people:

- 500g medium-grain rice
- 2 onions
- 1L chicken / vegetable stock
- 2 bell peppers (preferably red & green)
- 2 tomatoes
- 250g of calamari
- 4 pieces of chicken (usually drumsticks)
- 4 rabbit hind legs (optional)
- 200g chorizo
- 12 Spanish mussels
- 1 cup of cooked regular mussels
- 6 langoustines (Scampi)
- 350g shrimp
- 1 cup of peas
- 1 cup of white wine
- Armagnac / Cognac
- 3-4 pinches of saffron
- olive oil
- salt and pepper

You will need a big pan. I used a traditional 15-inches paella pan, but any large pan is good. Everything will be cooked in the same pan one step at a time, no need to wash it in between steps. We want to keep all the flavors from each step.

1- Heat the stock in a separate pan, chop the onions, wash the Spanish mussels, and rinse the calamari rings. Slice the chorizo and remove the “skin." Peel, seed, and dice the tomatoes. Peel, seed, and slice the bell peppers. Peel the shrimp, remove the heads and tails (note: don’t do this with the langoustines!).  Once your stock is hot, set aside about ½ cup and add the the saffron to "marinate" this stock.

2- Add enough olive oil for 3-4 turns around the pan. Sautee one-third of the chopped onions in the pan (don’t use all of your onions; the rest will be used later) with the Spanish mussels on medium-high for about 5-7 minutes. Once the mussels are ready, remove them from the pan and set them aside on a plate. Make sure every mussel is open, otherwise let it cook a little bit longer.

 3- Caramelize the calamari in the pan. Add onion if needed. Don’t cook the calamari completely here because they will cook longer at the end.  Remove them when they have a nice golden color (about 5 minutes) and set them aside on another plate.

4- Add a bit more onion and olive oil and cook the langoustines for 5-7 minutes. Get the Armagnac (or Cognac) ready to flambé. When the langoustines are almost done, pour the Armagnac on them, and use a match to set it on fire (be careful not to burn down the kitchen...)

5- Add the rest of onions (should be roughly ⅓ of the original amount) with the chicken, rabbit and bell peppers. Sautee for about 5 minutes, stir and add the tomatoes. Simmer on medium and add the peas and chorizo. The chorizo and the tomatoes should release their juice; don’t remove it.  Remove the chorizo before it is cooked completely as it will be cooked again at the very end.

6- While the meat is cooking, prep the Spanish mussels on the half-shell. This is mainly for presentation.

7 - When the meat is ready, take it out of the pan and put it on a plate on top of the stock pot (which should be on medium-low heat) to keep it warm (pretty much like a water bath)

8- Add the shrimp to the pan and put back the calamari with the cooked mussels (not the Spanish mussels!). On medium heat, add your rice evenly in the pan. Stir gently, then spread the rice to cover as much surface as possible. If you “stack” the rice, it won’t be cooked properly. Pour in the stock with the saffron and some of the regular stock to cover everything. Let this simmer and little by little pour in more stock as it reduces. The rice takes 20-25 min to cook.
In Catalonia, people like their rice to crack a little bit under the teeth (think al dente but cook it to your personal preference). After 15 minutes, put the chorizo back in.

9- When the paella is ready, put the chicken, the rabbit, the scampi on top of the rice. Add the Spanish mussels around the edge of the pan. Put the pan in a preheated oven at a low temperature between 85°F-140°F until your guests arrive to make sure everything will be warm when served.

Optional: Arrange slices of lemon on top before serving. You can also top with sprigs of parsley.

We finished our meal with a crêpe with red fruits and homemade chantilly... but that is a different story, for another day.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Kitchen Tricks & What I've been up to

Summer is always busier than I think it will be.  There are always farmer's markets I wish I had the time to visit, recipes I wish I had the ingredients and patience to try, people I mean to meet up with, and chores I ought to be taking care of.

I have a basil plant I've been caring for and, to my absolute glee and excitement, it has been thriving on my window sill.  The farmer's market across the street from me in back in full swing.  In a little bit over a week, my sweet B. will be flying back here to visit.

I have had friends come visit me and explore some fun restaurants and spots in the city.  Navigating New York feels so much more comfortable to me now than it did four years ago when I first ventured there by myself.  I've slowly crossed places off my Must Visit" list.  I have been meaning to share my experiences here, but I simply haven't had the time.

Yesterday was my birthday and one of my oldest friends came up to celebrate with me.  When I was thirteen, he was my first boyfriend; he held my hand, walked me home from the bus stop, and listened to my stories.  We grew up together.  Now, all these years later, he still is my best friend.  He understands my crazy side, my weird side, and my foodie side.

For my birthday, he woke up at 6am and drove over 300 miles to visit me.  He washed my dishes, let me practice eliciting reflexes on him by hitting him repeatedly with my reflex hammer, and then took me out to the city where he treat me to three delicious desserts, one after the other.  I've always believed that dessert is the best part of eating out.  Dessert before dinner is wonderful.  Three desserts of my choice in the middle of the day?  Now there's a good day.

Top left: honey lavender gelato and Turkish fig gelato.
Bottom left: various doughnuts from The Doughnut Plant, including rose, creme brulee, and lavender.
Right: brioche donut filled with nutella

Sometimes it's the simplest things that means the most.

And since this is a blog about food, I thought I might clumsily transition into a few simple tricks to use in the kitchen.  These little tricks and tips are things I've learned from years of cooking and baking in the kitchen and from watching my mom and dad.  I hope this makes up for the lack of recipes and reviews.

  1.  Bake with rum.  Or bourbon.  They both add a very nice fragrance to baked cakes and such.  Just pour a splash into your favorite recipe (cakes, pie fillings, bread pudding, banana bread)

  2.  Add salt.  Seriously.  Even to the sweet stuff.  Add a pinch to hot chocolate, a dash to a fruit smoothie.  Remember salt especially when baking.  But also remember to taste.  A little bit goes a long way.

  3.  Cook with a bit of sugar.  This is especially true with meat and spicy food.  Making ribs or chicken?  Add a teaspoon of sugar to the rub/marinade.  Sprinkle a bit into your beef stew.  You'll be amazed at how sugar can round out your flavors.  This is especially true with homemade tomato sauce.  A little bit of brown sugar works wonders.

  4.  Don't have brown sugar on hand?  Use molasses and white sugar.  Depending on whether you want to make dark or light brown sugar, combine one cup of granulated white sugar which either 1 or 2 tablespoons or unsulfured molasses.

  5.  Don't have buttermilk on hand?  Use milk and lemon/lime juice.  To make one cup, use a scant milk (whole fat is best, but skim work as well) plus the juice from one-quarter of a lime or lemon.  Let this sit at room temperature for about 10 minutes.  Presto!  Instant buttermilk.

  6.  Have lemons, limes, or oranges on hand?  Wash them thoroughly and then zest them and freeze the zest.  Citrus zest is a great way to add flavor to baked goods, salad dressings, and even drinks!  Citrus zest will keep in the freezer in an airtight container for about 2-3months.

  7.  Using vegetables for soup?  Caramelize them first in a pan with some butter; it really brings out their flavors.

  8.  The easiest way to add flavor to something you're baking when you don't have vanilla on hand or you want something to have a little kick of caramel flavor but you don't want to make caramel?  Brown the butter.  Does the recipe not have butter?  Toast the flour.  All it takes is a hot pan and some attentive eyes.

  9.  My absolute favorite baking trick that's also good for your electric bill and the environment?  I turn my oven off about 5 minutes early.  That's right, when my baking is just about done, I turn off the oven and leave the pan in the oven.  Normally I let my baked goods (or even meat, like ribs or chicken) sit in the oven, which is still hot, for about 10 minutes.  Then when everything is perfectly cooked, I smile inwardly about the electricity I just saved.  Also, if you're like me and you're the type of person who normally keeps cookie dough on hand, after baking a chicken or using the oven for some other reason, if you just just turned off an oven that was at about 350-375F, you can pop in a tray of cookies and have them done in about 30-35 minutes while the oven cools (for a recipe that normally bake in 10-15 minutes with the oven on).  How great is that?  Of course, this will vary from oven to oven and with different recipes, but it is a very efficient way of using the heat from the oven that otherwise is just wasted.  You can also toss a garlic head in a ramekin with some olive oil, cover it with foil, and put that in the oven to get some nice oven-roasted garlic in half an hour.

That's all the tips I can think of for now.  I wish I had one more to round out the number to 10, but instead, I leave you with one more dessert.  Life is sweet.

Warm chocolate bread pudding with vanilla sauce

Monday, June 25, 2012

Roasted Vegetable Salad

I love this cold roasted vegetable salad.  I mentioned this in a previous post, but just to say it again: I think this is one of the best things to eat during the summer.  You get all the concentrated flavor of the vegetables from roasting/grilling, but serving this chilled helps fight off the summer heat.  The flavors are also a firework symphony.  This is vibrant, bright, and fun.  You have sweetness, earthiness, creaminess (avocado), mellow warmth, bright acidity (lime juice in the dressing), umami (also from the dressing)... Really, do I need to say more?  This salad goes on the must-make list.

You'll need: 1 medium-sized eggplant, 1-2 ripe tomatoes, 2-3 bell peppers, and 1 ripe avocado.  I like to use red, yellow, and orange bell peppers for the colors they add, but green would work just as well.  If you like the flavor of garlic, you can also throw in 3 cloves of garlic.
  1. Slice the eggplant into medallions about a finger's-width in thickness.  Brush the medallions with olive oil on both sides
  2. Slice the bell peppers into matchsticks.  Toss with olive oil.  
  3. Score the tomatoes on the bottom with an X.
  4. Toss the garlic cloves in a healthy dose of olive oil (optional).
  5. Arrange the eggplant, bell peppers, tomatoes, an garlic cloves onto a baking sheet.  Bake at 350F for 30 minutes.  Flip the eggplant medallions and toss the bell peppers around a bit and then turn off the oven leaving the vegetables inside for another 20 minutes.
Alternatively, you can grill the eggplant and bell peppers.  You can also roast the tomatoes over the grill by scoring them on the bottom and wrapping them in aluminum foil.


After the vegetables have been roasted and cooled, peel the skin off of the tomatoes and garlic cloves (if using).  Slice the eggplant into matchsticks like the bell pepper.  Chop the garlic clove and the tomatoes.  Dice up the avocado (without the skin, obviously).  Combine all the vegetables into a large bowl/container.

Up till this point, this probably sounded like a very boring/normal recipe.  But this part is the most important part: the dressing.

I make a salad dressing out of lime juice that is my go-to for all salads.  It works wonders on romaine, spinach, etc.  Juice one lime (I can often get about 2-3 tablespoons).  Add enough sugar to cut the acid.  I think I probably use 3 tablespoons, if not more, but taste it as you go.  You don't want it to be sweet, but you also don't want to make the oh so sour! face when you try it.  Then I add 3-4 good dashes of Maggi seasoning sauce, maybe a scant quarter teaspoon.  This stuff is the magic ingredient.  I know many people may not keep this in their kitchens, but honestly, it is amazing.  I add this to omelets and fried rice.  I use it to marinate chicken and ribs.  When I was growing up, sometimes for dinner all I wanted was Maggi sauce on white rice.  It is somewhat like soy sauce, except... bolder in taste.  And it isn't actually made from soy.  I really can't describe it any better.  Just go buy it.  You can probably find it in your local grocery store (it is a Nestle brand of seasoning).

Adjust the dressing to your taste.  It should be a good balance of sweet, sour, salty, and umami.  I probably use 4-5 tablespoons of this to dress the vegetable salad.  Toss/stir and then allow the salad to chill in the fridge for at least an hour.  Often, I wait 4-5 hours before serving.  (In a plastic container with a lid, this will keep in the fridge for about 5 days, if it lasts that long.)

The end result is a roasted vegetable salad that is cold, refreshing, and vibrant.  The lime brings a bright flavor that compliments the earthy, warm flavors of the eggplant and bell peppers, while the roasted tomato has a soft acidity to it that works well with the avocado's creaminess.  All of the flavors harmonize with the umami, sweet, sour, and slightly salty dressing.  This salad can be a meal in and of itself, but it also works great as a side to steak, grill chicken, ribs, pork chops, you name it.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

My Short List of Recipes for the Summer

Now that it is officially Midsummer's Day, I feel like I can share with you my short list of my favorite recipes for the summer.  Personally, I think the best summer recipes are ones that are light, refreshing, and generally served cool or cold, like carpaccios or fruit salads.  Summer is also the time for grilling and for eating popsicles.

No, this isn't a popsicle, but my popsicles
didn't photograph beautifully and they
tasted too good so I stopped taking
pictures and ate them instead.  So here is a
yogurt and honey parfait. Almost the same thing,
just not frozen.
Let's talk about the popsicles first.  I am a big fan of frozen treats.  I like ice cream, gelato, and sorbets.  (I even enjoy eating frozen peas, but that's probably not universally considered a "frozen treat," so we don't have to focus on that.)  I really enjoy reading recipes on making ice cream or sorbets at home, but I don't have an ice cream maker and I don't think it would be a good idea for me to invest in one simply because I don't want to give myself diabetes.  That said, the idea of making my own ice cream at home is still fun.
Unfortunately, without an ice cream machine you'll have a hard time getting the dreamy, light, and creamy texture of store bought ice cream, but you can get something close to it.  So what is summer recipe #1?  Frozen yogurt and honey popsicles.  These are deliciously easy to make.
  1. Get some store bought plain yogurt (normally I buy mine in 32oz plastic containers).  Open it, stir it, close the lid and come back in a few hours, or better yet a day.  The yogurt will probably have separated a little bit, so that there is some water on the top.  Carefully pour that off.  You can do this a few times, or you can move on to the next step.
  2. Pour in some honey.  I normally do about 1 teaspoon for every quarter-cup of yogurt.  Blend the yogurt and honey with a hand held mixer, or some vigorous whisking.
  3. Pour the yogurt into little plastic/paper cups.  You can add some chopped up peaches or cherries if you'd like.
  4. Put a plastic spoon into the middle (this will work as the popsicle stick).  I find that the best popsicle molds are actually individual yogurt cups (e.g. Activia) which have been washed and saved.
  5. Freeze for 4-6 hours, depending on the size of the popsicles you are making.  To remove the popsicles from the mold, just quickly run some hot water around the outside of the mold.

Another favorite recipe of mine is roasted eggplant, tomato, bell pepper, and avocado salad.  You grill/roast the vegetables (everything except for the avocado), and then you serve the salad chilled with a deliciously easy dressing.  I eat this salad as a full meal, but it also tastes great with chicken, steak, ribs, you name it.  I also love that you can prep the ingredients in one day, make the salad another day, and eat it two days later and everything still tastes amazing.

My third favorite summer recipe is my mom's zucchini "carpaccio" with avocado, shrimp, and pistachio (recipe and pictures coming soon!).  This recipe just thinned sliced zucchini and avocado dressed with lime juice and olive oil.  Add some grilled/sauteed shrimp and some crushed pistachios, and you have a beautiful harmony or flavors that'll quickly become your go-to summer lunch, especially since this recipe tastes better after some time "marinating" in the lime juice and olive oil.

I have other favorites that include lightly sauteed sweet corn, potato blinis with salmon, and a melon/cantaloupe salad that I've already written about, but we've got the whole summer ahead of us.  For now let's just enjoy the peaches, nectarines, and cherries that the farmer's markets have given us.  There's plenty of time for sharing recipes.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Best Banana Bread You'll Ever Taste

This is the stuff, my friends.  Look at it.  Moist, dark, full of flavor.  Well, you can't tell the last thing just by looking at the picture, but I assure you it is true.  This banana bread has rum, dark chocolatecaramelized sugar, and deep vanilla and warm spice tones.  What more could you ask for?
It is delicious sliced cold with a glass of milk for breakfast.  It tastes good fresh out of the oven, and it tastes even better on the second day, once the flavors have really melded together in the fridge.  This is breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, dessert... heck, you can have this for dinner.

One-quarter cup of rum and one full tablespoon of vanilla extract go towards making this the most flavorful banana bread I've ever eaten.  The salt also rounds out the flavor of the banana and the dark chocolate chips that are studded throughout the bread elevate this to the status of heavenly.

The first time I made this recipe I actually forgot to count how many cups of flour I had put into the batter so I wasn't sure if it was 2 cups or 3 cups.  The batter seemed liquidy in the pan, but when it finished baking, it had a lovely bread-pudding texture that I absolutely adored.  The second time I made this, I actually used the right amount of flour and I got a true banana bread.  I actually prefer the bread-pudding results, but it's a personal preference thing, so both ratios are included below.