Saturday, June 20, 2015

Zuni Cafe Chicken - an adaptation of the method

I have heard many stories about the Zuni Cafe Chicken: it's the best chicken in the world, it will change your life, you will never think of chicken the same way, etc., etc.  I honestly didn't understand the hype.  I mean, I enjoy chicken, but how amazing can a roast chicken be that it has an almost cult-like following?  Still, since I don't think I'll be traveling to San Francisco anytime soon and the recipe has been shared in the restaurant's cookbook and in the NY Times, I figured I could try it for myself.

Of course, I immediately ran into problems.  The original recipe calls for a small chicken, specifically, one between 2¾ to 3½ pounds.  I looked very hard for one in my grocery store, but the smallest I was able to find was a 4½ pound bird.  That's more than 25% bigger than what the Zuni Cafe recipe calls for.  I did my research, and it seems that the size of the bird is pretty integral to their technique.  A small bird can be roasted at a higher heat because there is a high skin/fat to meat ratio and the meat will also cook through in a shorter period of time.  So you need to do some changes to the recipe if you have a heavy chicken.

As for how things actually turned out?  Well, one of my friends scarfed down his plate in about 5 minutes, if that tells you anything.  In fact, he barely waited for me to finish carving the meat for my plate before he was digging in.  It was understandable though; the delicious smell of the roasting chicken had been permeating through the apartment long before the meal was ready, so we were both salivating.  The skin was blistered and golden; the meat was very moist and succulent; the pan juices were so good, they made me wish I had some bread to mop it all up.  It was a delicious dinner.  I would say this recipe is well worth the trouble.

Some basic tips if you have a large bird:
  1. Season for at least 2 days before serving.  I imagine 3 days would be even better, but I honestly wasn't patient enough to do this; I did 48 hours.
  2. Take a small knife and carefully, from the inside of the bird, slash the chicken breast on each side at its thickest point.
  3. Bring to room temperature before roasting.  This means taking it out of the fridge up to 8 hours in advance.
  4. Preheat your pan in the oven so that it gets really hot.
  5. Open the oven as little as possible.  Your bird needs all the heat it can get.
  6. Roast for about 40-45 minutes before flipping for the first time.  You want to see the top beginning to brown, not just yellow.
  7. Roast for about 20-25 minutes before flipping the second time.  You want to see the top really caramelized.
  8. Decrease your oven temperature down to 400F to finish cooking the bird, for another 10 minutes or more, as needed.  Use a meat thermometer to check for an internal temperature of 165F or stick a paring knife into the thickest part of the breast to see that the juices run clear.
The original recipe also calls for slashing the bird after it is done roasting to allow all the juices to drip out; these are used to make a sauce / gravy that is served alongside the roast chicken.  Now I like gravy as much as the average person, but I am strongly against draining meat of its juices.  So I didn't do this.  You'll have pan juices as it is, I think those are plenty.

One last recommendation?  Roast some vegetables at the same time as you roast your bird.  I particularly like roasted onions and carrots, which I tossed with some garlic and thyme.  The veggies only need to roast for about 35 minutes, given the high temperature.

Zuni Cafe Chicken
adapted from The New York Times

1 chicken, preferably under 4lbs, but if not, refer to my notes about larger birds
4 sprigs fresh thyme (or rosemary or sage if you prefer)
3 cloves of garlic, minced (my addition)
sea salt (about ¾ tsp per pound)

Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry (a wet chicken will spend too much time steaming before it begins to turn golden brown).
Season the chicken 1 to 3 days before serving.  Slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets, then use a fingertip to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Push an herb sprig and some garlic into each of the 4 pockets.  Using about 3/4 teaspoon sea salt per pound of chicken, season the chicken liberally all over with salt and the pepper. Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity and on the backbone. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.
Take the chicken out of the refrigerator at least 2 hours (but no more than 8 hours) before baking so that it comes to room temperature.

When you’re ready to cook the chicken, heat the oven to 475F.
Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle (I used a skillet). Preheat the pan in the oven.
Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan (I actually set mine breast side down, whoops!). The chicken should sizzle.
Place in the center of the oven and watch for it to start sizzling and browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until it does. Depending on your oven and the size of your bird, you may need to adjust the heat to as high as 500 degrees or as low as 450 degrees during roasting to brown the chicken properly. I went up to 500F on my gas oven.  Because my pan is only oven safe up to 500F, I did not continue to raise the temperature, even though I didn't really see browning until about 25 minutes.  According to the Zuni Cafe recipe, the skin should blister (this did not happen for me), but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking, reduce the temperature by 25 degrees.
After about 30 minutes (40 minute if you have a larger bird), turn the bird over; you want to see that the top side has browned and caramelized at least a little.
Roast for another 10 to 25 minutes, depending on size.  (At this point, I began to really see my bird crisping beautifully)
Flip once more to re-crisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes.  
If your bird is large, decrease the oven temperature to 400F and roast for an additional 10-20 minutes. Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of the bird; it should be around 165F.  Or, use a knife to test the deep part of the breast meat; the juices should run clear.
Allow to rest for at least 10 minutes before cutting into it.  This allow the delicious juices to redistribute.  (It also prevents you from burning your tongue.)
You will still have some pan juices, which I high recommend you serve with the chicken so that you can dip your meat, veggies, bread, etc. into it.  Food this good should not be wasted!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Brunch at Feast in NYC

I know I've said my piece before about brunch, and I am still not the biggest fan of brunching (I just don't see why people want to pay $10+ for bacon/eggs/potatoes/french toast that you could make in your own kitchen at home?), but we all know that about 90% of social activities revolve around either food or drinks.  Since I don't really drink alcohol, I can't also turn down invitations to food-related activities without becoming a hermit, so yes, I occasionally go to brunch.
The other weekend, my upstairs neighbors T. and V., asked us if I wanted to go out to the city for a brunch date.  V. has had Feast on her places to try for a while, so we decided to eat there.  We made a reservation at the last minute (as in, Sunday morning at 11am) and managed to secure a table at 1:30pm for a party of 4.
The restaurant has a Pinterest "rustic chic" feel.  The decor includes large farmhouse style wooden tables with tall stools, metal flower boxes with "country" flower arrangements (the long stemmed whispery plants that look like you could pick them from a field), empty picture frames on the walls, mounted deer head, and of course, mason jars.
Brunch prix fixe is $29pp for a drink, shared bites, and a main dish. Overall, it was an above average meal, though I do think that the service could be improved.

The drinks offered include a mimosa, a bellini, a "beery mary", oj, or bottomless drip coffee.  The orange juice is served in a teeny tiny glass, less than 8oz, and you don't get refills, which I honestly thought was kind of a rip off.  How is bottomless coffee or an alcoholic drink equivalent to one small glass of OJ?  I wish the OJ had been bottomless.
Since it was hot out, we asked for iced coffee, which the waitress said could be an alternative to the drip coffee (which is hot).  Our iced coffees were served in mason jars that were about 60% ice. In the middle of our meal, when my friend and I asked for refills we were told that since the coffee is cold brew, refills are $5.  Excuse me?  That was not what I understood from the word "alternative."  We were a little upset that our waitress had failed to mention that before.  Also, if the coffee is cold brew, why are you serving it with so much ice?  It just seemed like they were really cutting corners to maximize their profits.

The shared bites are listed as a "bakery basket", yogurt parfait, juice shot, and canape. The bakery basket was smaller than I imagined it would be, especially since it wasn't at all a basket.  There were two tiny slices of a baked goods per person (changes daily). We got a sliver of a cinnamon bun and a tiny slice of carrot cake/bread.  The cinnamon bun was soft and sweet, but nothing special.  It actually tasted like something from a pre-made break-and-bake Pillsbury package.  The carrot cake was also moist and sweet, but again, it was nothing extraordinary.  The yogurt parfait was a shot glass of plain yogurt with granola and some diced pears; there was little flavor to the components so this was not particularly good.  The juice shot was cantaloupe and was refreshing.  The canape was bread with ricotta and truffle honey; it was the best part of the "bites."

For the main course, I tried the smoked salmon with red flannel hash and quail eggs.  This was good. The salmon was fresh, well seasoned, and went well with the hash. I also really like the quail eggs. The runny yolks were sweeter than regular egg yolks, and the combination of flavors was good. It was a lot to eat though, and I wasn't able to finish my dish.

N. (V's sister, who tagged along) tried the banana foster french toast. The french toast was light and eggy, and the bananas and chocolate are a classic combination that works well. She enjoyed this, although after eating about half of it, the overwhelming sweetness of the dish was too much for her, and she could eat no more. We all tried it and agreed that while the flavors were good, the plate would have benefited from a salty or savory touch.

T. and V. both ordered the fennel sausage eggs benedict. The sausage in this dish was *incredible*. We were all in love with it. I don't know what combination of spices were use, but we all called it "pho sausage" because it reminded us of the flavors of the Vietnamese beef soup (and two of us in the group are actually Vietnamese). The poached eggs were perfectly cooked with runny yolks and set whites. This was everyone's favorite dish, although we all agreed that after a while, the dish felt very heavy.  I think it would have benefited from a salad, or a touch of freshness or acidity.  The steamed spinach didn't do much to cut the fat and provided no textural element, which would have been appreciated.

As for the service, we felt a little harried during our meal.  Our waitress kept swooping in to take away plates, sometimes before we were done with our food. I felt like I had to constantly keep my guard up, because if it looked like I wasn't actively eating, she might step in and clear my plate. At one point, she picked up my "shared bites" plate and I had to beg her to wait a moment before she whisked it away so that I could grab my cinnamon bun.  This also meant that as members of our group finished eating, she would come and take away plates, even if other people were still working on their meal.   It was very intrusive and made us feel like we were being rushed to finish.  This didn't really make sense, since we didn't get our food until almost 2pm, and there were no people waiting for tables.  Furthermore, after we were done eating and the table had been cleared, our waitress disappeared and we could not find her for water refills or to get the check.  We ended up sitting at the table for about 30 minutes before we were able to pay the bill and leave.  Though we had enjoyed our food, the experience of our meal was a little marred by the service, which left something to be desired.

102 3rd Ave
New York, NY 10003
Tel. 212-529-8880
Brunch served Sat & Sun 11am-3pm

Friday, May 29, 2015

You say Soy Eggs, I say Tea Eggs

I don't remember when I first tried tea eggs, but I must have been about eight or nine years old.  I remember loving the dark flavor and sipping the savory, vaguely sweet sauce as I ate my egg.  Delicious.

Years later, I still enjoy this treat, and I often look for it when I am in Asian markets.  Although these are sometimes sold as "Soy Eggs", I find that the tea part is really key to flavoring the eggs.  After several not-quite-so-satisfying samples, I decided that it was time for me to make my own.

The recipe is actually very easy, and I'm kicking myself for not making these earlier.  I could have been enjoying this treat on my own years ago!  Honestly the only extra ingredient that I needed to buy was star anise.  Being Asian, I always have soy sauce and black tea on hand, and as someone who cooks, I also always have eggs.  And who doesn't keep sugar in their house?  Aliens, that's who.  So now that we've sorted out our ingredients, let's talk technique.

I started this recipe the same way I make my soft boiled eggs.  Most recipes for tea eggs call for hard boiling the eggs first, but I think that when you hard boil the eggs before you add the flavoring, it's like searing a steak before you salt it.  However, you do need to cook the eggs so that you can crack the shell without raw egg going everywhere, so I compromised and soft boiled my eggs before cracking them.  Feel free to hard boil yours though if it makes your life easier!
After I soft boiled my eggs, I crack them gently all around, and then cooked them again in the soy sauce and tea mixture.  Then I strained out the tea and let the eggs sit for several hours (the longer, the better).  You can see that the eggs in the picture at the top soaked for about 8 hours.  The eggs in the picture below soaked for closer to 24 hours.

Now I'm sure that at this point, you're probably asking me one of two questions:
  1. Why don't I just do the entire cooking process in the tea mixture?  Because grocery store eggs are covered in a thin layer of wax and who-knows-what-else (e.g. bacteria), so I wanted to get rid of that before cooking up a tea mixture that I would later be eating / drinking.
  2. Why don't I just completely peel the eggs and soak them in the tea mixture that way?  Actually, you can absolutely do this.  The only thing is, you won't get a pretty cracked / marbled appearance to your egg, and as we all know, appearance matter.  However, after I snapped these pictures, I actually did peel the eggs completely and let them soak overnight.  They absorbed the flavors beautifully, so if you don't care about aesthetics, this is definitely the way to make delicious tea eggs.
One last comment: you use this recipe to make as many or as few tea eggs as you'd like.  Really, it's all about how many eggs can fit into your pot in one layer (that is the upper limit of how many eggs you should make).  You can store these eggs in the fridge for up to 5 days after making them.  I find that the longer they sit in the tea mixture, the better they get.  After you have eaten all your eggs, you can also reuse the tea mixture.  Just add enough water to mostly cover your eggs.  For every 1 cup of water, add an additional 1-2 teaspoons of soy sauce.

Delicious Tea Eggs Recipe
10 eggs (that's just what fit in my pot)
3 bags of black tea (or 3 tablespoons of loose black tea)
1/4 cup soy sauce (I used Kikkoman)
4-5 pieces of star anise (or 2 whole pieces)
1 teaspoon of sugar (I use raw / turbinado sugar)

To soft boil your eggs: Place them in a pot with just enough tap water to cover them.  Cover the pot with a lid.  Turn on high heat and allow the water to come to a boil.  For me, with a gas stove, this took 7-8 minutes.  As soon as the mixture is at a rolling boil (meaning the most bubbly it's going to get... aka the point when you would normally throw in your pasta), turn off the heat.  Leave the pot alone for 2 minutes.  Do not take it off the stove. Do not touch the lid.  Set a timer and don't touch the pot.
After two minutes, drain the eggs and cover with cold tap water.
Crack the eggs gently using a spoon or your kitchen counter (whatever is convenient).  Remember to be gentle!  These are soft boiled eggs.

To make the tea eggs: Place the soft boiled eggs back into the pot in a single layer.  Add just enough fresh tap water to barely cover the eggs.  Add the tea, soy sauce, star anise, and sugar.  Bring the pot to a boil over medium-high heat (should take about 10-12 minutes).
Once it has started boiling, turn down to low heat.  Remove the tea bags (or strain out the loose tea) and allow the eggs to simmer for roughly 30 minutes.
Turn off the heat.
Tap all the eggs again all over to make sure that they are really cracked.  Allow to soaked for at least 3 hours in the tea/soy mixture.

Note: You should store these cooked eggs in the refrigerator, in the tea mixture.  They will keep for at least 5 days.  I eat these eggs cold, straight from the fridge.  You can remove the eggs about 30 minutes before serving if you prefer them room temperature.

An extra tea liquid will keep in the fridge for about 2 weeks.  It can be reused to make more batches of tea eggs.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Creme Brulee French Toast - my new favorite

This is it.  You've found it: the only thing you'll want to eat for breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dessert for now on.  I mean, who doesn't like French toast?  Now add on the textural component of a crunchy caramelized crust and this dish is irresistible.

I made this crème brûlée French toast (aka The Best French Toast Ever) for the first time when I had some girlfriends coming over for brunch.  I've never actually hosted a brunch before, so I wanted something that was easy, but also really delicious.  Step in New York Times.  A few months ago when I was browsing their food section, I stumbled across this recipe, which I immediately printed out.

The New York Times recipe was for oven baked French toast with a brown sugar caramelized crust.  I typically make my French toast in a skillet (as I assume most people do) and it ends up being very annoying because you can't make French toast and eat it at the same time.  This obviously makes serving breakfast or brunch to other people somewhat difficult if you're trying to do a big batch.  The idea of baking French toast is not unheard of, but it was the caramel that really sold me.

Now, of course, if you  know me, you know that I never follow any recipes, so I had to make some edits.
First of all, the original recipe calls for challah bread.  I don't know about you, but I never have challah bread just sitting around at home.  I also don't know if my regular grocery store sells it all the time.  But I do know that they sell croissants.  In fact, in the "clearance" section of the bakery, where they place items that are close to expiration, there is almost always a container of croissants, which are perfect for making French toast (especially since French toast is best made with bread that is slightly stale).  I also find that croissants make much more attractive French toast and their texture is perfect for absorbing the "custard mixture" while still retaining some wonderful pastry flakiness.
Secondly, I didn't soak my French toast overnight.  To me, this is overkill since I prefer my French toast "crunchier" or "flakier."  Feel free to soak yours though, if you're partial to the bread pudding texture.  I only did a quick dip into the egg mixture and that was enough.
Third, the original recipe had a ridiculous amount of liquid: 6 eggs and 3 cups of liquid.  Too much milk, too much cream, and way too many eggs.  What for?  You just end up throwing away most of it!  It's wasteful!  So I seriously cut back on the liquids.  I wanted to use every single drop.  I also didn't use cream, since this is already a pretty indulgent dish; we don't really need that extra fat content.
Lastly, and most importantly, I wanted the sugar to truly become caramel; I didn't just want wet sugar.  So I actually place the baking sheet with the brown sugar in the oven first, so that the sugar starts to melt and caramelize, and then I put the French toast slices on top to bake.

The result was stupendous.  The croissants were flaky on top, crunchy with on the bottom from the caramelized sugar, and luxuriously decadent in the middle.  Served with some bacon (which can be baked in the oven at the same time!) and some berries, this is a great way to entertain any breakfast guests... or, just you and your partner!

Crème Brûlée French Toast  aka 
The Best French Toast Ever
3/4 cup pack dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons salted butter, cut into small pieces
4 croissants  (alternatively, use 8 one-inch thick slices of challah bread)
2 large eggs
1 cup milk (I use non-fat)
2 tablespoons dark rum  (optional, if you're serving this to children)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
generous dash of kosher salt
pinch of cinnamon (optional)
pinch of nutmeg (optional)

1.  Cut the croissants in half like you're about to make a sandwich.

2.  Spread the brown sugar evenly over a 9x13 baking pan and add the piece of salted butter on top.

3.  Preheat the oven to 350F.  Put the baking pans with the sugar mixture into the oven on the middle rack.  This will start to cook the sugar while you prepare the rest of your ingredients.
*The whole process of making the "custard" and dipping the slices should take you less than 5 minutes.  If it takes you longer than that, don't put your tray into the oven until later; you don't want the sugar to burn.

4.  In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, rum, vanilla, salt, nutmeg, and cinnamon.  

5.  Dip each slice of croissant / bread into the custard mix, making sure to coat both sides evenly.  Make a pile of dipped slices on a plate.

6.  Once all of the slices have been dipped, take the baking pan out of the oven.  The brown sugar and butter should be melted and bubbling hot.

7.  Arrange the croissant / bread slices onto the baking tray, on top of the caramelized sugar.  I placed the cut-sides of  my croissants face-down (in the picture above, the slices were flipped, after they finished baking).

8.  Bake at 350F for 20-25 minutes or until the tops are golden brown.

9.  Serve while hot, with the caramelized brown sugar side up.  Goes well with berries, sliced peaches, and bacon.

10.  Bask in the glory of crème brûlée French toast.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Tasty n Alder Brunch in Portland

One of the most interesting things I read when I was researching restaurants is that Portland is apparently "the city for brunch."  Living near New York City, I always thought that brunch was a NYC thing, but a New York brunch tends to be overpriced and much more focused on alcohol than I'd like (endless mimosas aren't such a good deal when you only drink one glass).  I like Portland's brunch style much more.

The Cast Iron Frittata

My friend G. - who, by my standards, is a Portland expert, given her three years living there - suggested that we eat at Tasty n Alder.  When I checked her suggestion on Yelp (because, let's be honest, I trust my friends, but I'm also a little bit of a Yelp fiend), it was strongly back by positive reviews, and she's been living here for three years, so I saw no reason not to go.
It was Easter Sunday the day we decided to eat here, so G gamely went to the restaurant first to put our names on the list while I stayed at her apartment getting ready (I have to look my finest while I third-wheel my dear friends, right?).
Our group of 3 (G, her fiance D, and myself) were added to the list at around 12:30ish.  We were told the wait would be about one hour.  We ended up killing some time at the coffeeshop across the street, where we all got our morning dose of caffeine.  We got a text that our table was ready a little after 1:30pm.  Having not eaten yet all morning, I was ready to dig into some food!
We ordered the Cast Iron Frittata, the Fried Egg and Cheddar Biscuit with fried chicken, the Bim Bop Bacon and Eggs, and the Whole Toad.
I was hoping for some table snacks while we waited... free muffins? free bread? my stomach was growling.  But alas, nothing.  However, the wait wasn't too long.

The Fried Egg and Cheddar Biscuit was the first dish to arrive. For any non-cheese eaters like myself, this dish can easily be made without cheese, since they just put a slice of cheddar on the biscuit. Unfortunately, I didn't realize this at the time (the name of the dish is kind of misleading), so I didn't eat any of the dish. My friends seems to enjoy it though. The chicken is a thin breaded breast. The egg had a nice runny yolk, and the biscuit came out steaming hot.  Also, my apologies, but we were all so hungry when the dish arrived, I forgot to take a picture.

Bim Bop Bacon and Eggs
Next, came the Cast Iron Frittata (pictured above). This had nettles, roasted asparagus, caramelized onions, and salsa verde.  The combination was stellar.  We requested the cheese on the side (I believe it's supposed to be fontina), and it came in a cute little ceramic bowl so that my cheese-loving friends were able to sprinkle their frittata with as much cheese as they desired.  The frittata had great texture.  It was fluffy, absolutely delicious, and very satisfying. This was actually my favorite dish of the meal.

Then we had the Bim Bop Bacon and Eggs. This come out in a hot stone bowl (like the Korean dish bibimbap). Everything is stirred up, so you get soft bacon, runny eggs, and crispy rice all mixed up. So tasty. Also very filling. It's bigger than it looks!  This dish almost, almost beat the Cast Iron Frittata on the delicious-ness scale, but I'm not a big fan of spicy kimchi, which was almost mixed in with the rice.  I will say that the soft cooked bacon was a discovery.  I normally am a thick-cut crispy bacon girl, but this dish definitely warmed me up to soft bacon.  It wasn't gooey, and it was definitely cooked, but it was... moist?  That's a terrible word to use to convey something delicious, but what I want you to understand is that it was very enjoyable.

Finally, the last dish to come to the table was The Whole Toad. This is a baked egg bread pudding, which comes with even more bread. Carbs on carbs.  No problemo.  Except... is there cheese in this bread pudding?  I don't know, but I wasn't particularly fond of this dish.  There was a slight sourness or tartness to the egg pudding, and the ratio of eggs to bread leaned more heavily on the latter, while I had been hoping it would be the other way around (more eggs than bread).

As a drink, I ordered The Driver's Seat which is a non-alcoholic drink with earl grey syrup, mint, and lime juice. Sadly I didn't get any hints of earl grey, as the lime was very overpowering.  But the drink was refreshing and did go well with brunch.  My friends both ordered orange juice, which is freshly squeezed, but comes in a tiny glass (maybe 6oz?), so it's a little overpriced.

We considered ordering a sweet dish, but after these four plates came out, we were so stuffed, we called it quits. Next time though, that Griddled Banana Walnut Bread will be mine!  The table next to us ordered it and it looked and smelled delicious.
Over all, we had great service in a very comfortable environment. I'd happily come back again.

Tasty n Alder
580 SW 12th Ave
Portland, OR 97205

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Ken's Artisan Bakery and Portland

If there's anything you surely must know about me, it's that I am a dessert person.  Above all else (except, maybe, sleep), I love sweets.
So when I started looking up places to eat in Portland and I heard about Ken's Artisan Bakery and the croissants, macarons, and other pastries that come out of their ovens, I knew that I had to go.
In fact, on my first day in Portland, this was the first place I went to start my morning.  It was a great decision.  Friendly service, yummy pastries, good food, and reasonable prices.  I had no complaints!

I walked in at around 10ish on a Friday morning, and many of the tables were taken. I took that as a good sign. I lingered near the cash register for a while, debating what to drink and what goodies to try. I apologized for not being able to make up my mind, but the man behind the counter was really patient with me.  I ended up ordering an Oregon croissant, a blood orange macaron, and a cafe latte (as per the suggestion of the man behind the counter).

I settled down at one of the empty tables I managed to snag to enjoy my breakfast. The coffee wasn't that strong and wasn't that hot, so I didn't really enjoy it much, but that might also be because lattes aren't normally my thing and this place obviously isn't a coffeeshop. On to the sweet stuff!
The Oregon croissant has marionberries baked into the flakey pastry, and its flecked with sugar crystals, which add a nice combination of soft tartness and sweet crunch. I polished this off quickly, and I liked it so much, I ended up coming back to the bakery before I left the city to buy two more to keep me company on my travels home. The croissant is the perfect breakfast since it isn't too sweet.

The blood orange macaron I ordered was also delicious. The candied kumquat on top added a perfect little bit of acidity to offset the sweetness, and the texture of both the macaron itself and the filling were perfect.

I also decided to eat lunch here with my friend G, who lives in the city.  We both went with their lunch deal, which is either a half soup or half salad with a half sandwich combo.  G. went with salad and sandwich while I went with soup and sandwich.  For a mere $8, I had an egg salad sandwich and white bean soup. Both were delicious. The soup was warm, hearty, and perfectly seasoned. It was great for a drizzly day. The egg salad sandwich was well balanced - egg wasn't chopped too small, there wasn't an overwhelming amount of mayo, and there was just a slight bite from the mustard. The bread they used was sturdy but not heavy, and I liked their plating with the edible violet.
If I lived in the area, I think this would be my go-to spot for sweets and lazy day lunches.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies

Sometimes, I get really carried away with cravings for specific foods.  Prime example: chocolate chip cookies.  Who doesn't like chocolate chip cookies?  And I know that everyone always talks about the "best" chocolate chip cookie, whether it best the New York Time's best chocolate chip cookie recipe, of the "world's best" chocolate chip cookie recipe, or maybe some famous chef's version of the best chocolate chip cookie recipe.  But for me, this one is it.
It's taken some tweaking and some little edits here and there, but this is now my constant go-to recipe, my version of "the best chocolate chip cookies."

A lot of the measurements are by weight, and seriously if you don't have a digital scale, stop reading this sentence right now and go get one.  Okay, are we all good?  Because digital scales will change the way you bake.  First of all, measuring your ingredients by weight is far more accurate and allows for more precision in baking.  One hundred grams of flour will always be one hundred grams.  But one cup of flour on one day might be more than the next day, depending on how well sifted the flour is.  So please, use a digital scale.  Also, less things to wash!  Just place a bowl on your scale, zero it, add one ingredient, zero it, add your next ingredient, and so one.  Easy peasy.

Now about the actual recipe: it has molasses and brown sugar which makes it chewy, it has just enough depth from whole wheat flour (although you can ditch this if you want and just use the all purpose), it has just enough salt, and these cookies taste delicious even when you bake them the same day that you make the dough.  I stopped believing that was true of cookies for a while.  I was making batches and batches of cookies, baking half immediately and half on the next day and all the recipes I tested did not taste as good if you didn't chill the dough.  This recipe though?  These cookies are delicious.  And, these cookies taste good hot.  Because honestly, I've found that most cookies don't taste good hot.  Most cookies are way better after you've let them cool.  These babies are tasty all the time.  Basically, I'm repeating myself over and over again.  This recipe is wonderful and these cookies are delightful.

More importantly, I've included in the recipe below, all of the notes that I put into my recipe when sending it to my sister who has previously messed up break-and-bake chocolate chip cookies.  If you follow all my notes in the recipe, you will be golden.  You will look like a pro.  So be kind to yourself and your loved one: make these.  Bake these.  Eat these.  You will find happiness.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Brunch at The 420 Smokehouse

When I was growing up, my parents occasionally took us up to Montreal to visit some close family friends.  We fell in love with Schwartz's, a Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen that serves this smoked meat that is to die for.
While planning this Canada trip, I knew that a drive to Montreal would be a bit far, but I hoped to find something similar in Toronto.  I looked for restaurants and delis that serve smoked meat and after some searching, came upon The 420 Smokehouse, a restaurant which actually smokes all of their own meat, and which had received rather good Yelp reviews.  I immediately sent the menu out to my friends, all of whom quickly approved of it, and we decided to make it our first meal stop in Toronto.

We arrived on a Saturday at around 11:30am, ready for our first meal of the day.  It was myself, B., and our two friends.  We easily found street parking and headed inside, to the empty restaurant.  I was a little surprised that there was no one else there, but our server was friendly, and we picked a cozy table near the window.
We started our meal with some spiked drinks, all of which are 6.50 CAD each.  We tried the Ski Jump, which is hot chocolate with Peppermint Schnapps and Frangelico.  Unfortunately, we were told that they were out of Frangelico, so we had it with just peppermint.  It was okay, but very sweet. We also tried the Spanish coffee (with Kahlua and Brandy) and the Irish coffee (with Irish whiskey and Irish Mist).  Both were strong, and were topped with a generous serving of whipped cream and shavings of chocolate.

One of my friends ordered the Breakfast Burger (12 CAD), which is a 4 oz. beef patty with bacon, cheddar cheese, a fried egg, and homefries.   He enjoyed it, and actually couldn't even finish all of it.

I ordered the smoked chicken and waffles (12 CAD), which was not very impressive.  The plate had two large waffles and two pieces of breaded chicken breast.  The serving was large, but the chicken was rather dry and uninspired.  I was also a bit disappointed that it was all white meat, as I was hoping for some dark meat (though this may be a little bit my fault, since I didn't ask).

B. ordered the 420 Breakfast which includes 2 eggs any style (he had them poached), with
bacon, lightly smoked sausage, home fries, and toast (11 CAD). The eggs came out a big soft for him, but everything else was fine.
My other friend ordered the smoked meat poutine (large, for $15). This was okay overall. The smoked meat was delicious, but everyone felt that there was a distinct lack of cheese, and the fries seemed to have been tossed in gravy a while before serving, since they were not very crispy.  There also wasn't as much gravy as we were hoping there would be. The little bits of smoked in the poutine were so good though, I asked if I could order a plate of this alone. Our waiter asked the kitchen and then told me that a plate would be $8, which was fine by me. It was delicious. Fatty, full bodied smokey flavor that just melted in the mouth. Perfection. This was the best part of the meal.

Our overall brunch experience was just average, but the smoked meat was delicious. I probably would only come back for the meat, but I don't think I'd do brunch here again.  Maybe we should have come for the lunch and tried the sandwiches and entrees.  Oh well.  On to the next meal!

*Other things to note: Service is a bit slow, but friendly.  They do have free Wi-Fi. The bathroom is clean.

The 420 Smokehouse
420 Parliament Street
Toronto, ON M5A 3A1

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Ice Wine Tasting and Niagara-on-the-Lake

If there's one thing that sets me apart from most people my age, it is that I don't like alcohol.  I mean, I'm not Puritan and I have no real aversion to a nice mixed drink, but most of the time, I just prefer not to ingest any ethanol.  This is in part because I am Asian, and therefore get the "Asian glow" in which my cheeks turn shades of pink, and also in part because alcohol just makes me sleepy.

The one exception to my standard alcohol avoidance though is ice wine.  I first tried this one Thanksgiving with my family.  My parents would occasionally share a glass of red wine with dinner, but they rarely drank sweet wine when I was growing up, and this particular wine was a discovery for me.  It was a dessert wine, but with a nice balance of tartness, and a very pleasant almost caramelized honey taste.  The rest of my family was equally fond of it, and so we dabbled in sweet wines.  I tasted Niagara Falls ice wine from Jackson Triggs, and my parents went to the Niagara Ice Wine Festival one winter and raved about it to my sister and I.  When I had time this winter, I finally decided that it was time for me to take a trip up north and have my first ever winery experience.  I went with B. and two close friends of ours who had never tried ice wine before.

We went up to Niagara Falls, spent the night there, and then drove out the next day to the ice wineries.  We used the Peller Wine Country Touring passes, which are sold for $20 online, as part of the our wine tasting experience.  This pass allows you to visit Trius Winery at Hillebrand, Wine Country Vinters, Thirty Bench, and Peller Estates.  We actually didn't buy our passes, but received the vouchers for free with our hotel stay (The Ramada at Niagara), so it was a fantastic deal for us.

Trius Winery at Hillebrand
1249 Niagara Stone Road
Niagara On the Lake, ON L0S 1J0 Canada

This was our first stop of the day, at 12pm on Friday.  The touring pass allows you to go on a general tour of the winery.  We had a very unenthusiastic female guide, but we still enjoyed the tour. You get to see a lot of the wine making machines and apparatuses and explore a larger portion of the cellars than you do at any other winery. After the tour, they have (included) a structured tasting of a white wine, a red wine, and an ice wine. The white wine and red wine were fairly average, and the Vidal ice wine was my least favorite ice wine that I've ever tried (and I've enjoyed many ice wines, from Inniskillin and Jackson Triggs to various ice wines from Austria and Germany).  It had a strange metallic taste that was rather off putting.

I was a little disappointed by the tasting, although my friends enjoy the structure of it and the tips that our guide had for how to taste and judge a wine as well as what to do for wine pairings.
 After we finished our tour, we walked through their shop.  They do have a wine tasting "bar" where you can pay to taste certain wines.
 It was $7 to taste a selection of any 3 wines from their menu.  This seemed like a fantastic deal for the ice wines, so we tried a sparkling wine, a Riesling ice wine, and a Cabernet franc ice wine (and I kept saying "we" because we paid for and shared one tasting among the four of us friends).  My friends were partial to the Cabernet Franc.  It was my first time trying a red ice wine, and I didn't enjoy it as much as the Riesling.  The Riesling ice wine actually ended up being my favorite wine that I tasted at all the wineries, so we came back that night at the end of our day of touring to buy a bottle for ourselves.
If you do a tasting and then buy a bottle, the cost of the tasting ($7) goes towards the cost of your bottle, which was nice.  This means you essentially get to do the tasting for free!

Peller Estates 
290 John Street E
Niagara On the Lake, ON L0S 1J0 Canada

The tour that was available with our wine pass was the "3 Generations of Wine Making" which includes a tasting of a white, a red, and a Vidal ice wine. They also have grape juice available for any children (or designated drivers!) on the tour.  We arrived shortly before the tour at 1:30pm (on Friday).
Ben was our tour guide and we loved him.  He was funny and knowledgeable.  We started the tour with a brief history of the Peller Estates, then we went outside, saw the vines, and learned a little bit about the Niagara wine country.  Afterwards, we went back inside and had a structured wine tasting in the cellars.  Because I am not particularly fond of dry wines, I opted to try to grape juices instead of the white wine and the red wine.  The juices, which are actually made from the same grape as the wine, were very pleasant to drink.  The Vidal ice wine here was also quiet enjoyable - much better than the Vidal at Trius - but it did not match up to the Riesling I tried at Trius.
Note that there is a very nice restaurant at this winery at which you can enjoy lunch or dinner.  We actually had a reservation here for dinner and returned later at night for a wonderful dining experience.

Wine Country Vinters
27 Queen St
Niagara-on-the-Lake ON L0S 1J0 Canada

While this is not a winery, we had a very pleasant experience with the wine tasting here. The area has a very nice small town feel, and we found street parking easily. We arrived at the wine shop a little after 6pm. There was a very friendly woman who helped us with our tasting. She was very sweet and welcoming and we enjoyed easy banter with her.  She told us that the standard tasting is 3 wines: the Wayne Gretsky white, red, and another wine that I forget. My two friends enjoyed the Wayne Gretsky wines, although B. asked for something a little more oaky and bolder, more in the style of Bordeaux wines. She took out a Thirty Bench red for him to try that he very much enjoyed.  Our friends also tried this as their third wine as well. I am not a big red/white wine drinker, so I asked if I could have a tasting of just one or two ice wines instead (since ice wine was not originally included, and ice wine is more expensive than regular wine). She very kindly accommodated me and allowed me to try the Wayne Gretsky Vidal ice wine as well as a Cabernet franc ice wine. Both were very good.  She was also very generous with her pours. She did not push us to buy anything, although my friends did buy two bottles. I would happily come back here again!

Thirty Bench Winery
4281 Mountainview Rd
Lincoln, ON L0R 1B0 Canada

This winery was a little bit far from the other vineyards, but was on the way to Toronto, and so we decided there was no harm in stopping here briefly Saturday morning.  They do not have any ice wine, but they have a large menu of reds and whites available for tasting, as well as a few rose wines.  Our touring pass allowed each person to sample three wines of their choosing.  Between the four of us, we managed to sample most of the wine menu.  B. was particularly fond of the "Steel Post" white wine, which is surprising, as he is typically a red wine drinker, partial to "oaky" French wines.
The grounds are simple, but rustically beautiful. They have plenty of picnic tables for sitting outside in the summer.  The parking lot is gravel and mud so be prepared in the bad weather; our shoes got pretty messy just during the short walk from the car to the winery entrance!
Also, as a note for parents with kids: they do have a small table with coloring books and picture books. They do not have juices available for kids to drink.

We had a good experience with the wine touring pass, however, because I wanted to drink more ice wine, we also added two other wineries to our tour of the Niagara-on-the-Lake region.  The first was Pillitteri (1696 Niagara Stone Road), which offers free public wine tours.  We arrived shortly before their 3pm tour.  The tour doesn't allow you to see much of their grounds, but they do show you some pictures on the wall and the wine cellar.  Overall, we thought it was fairly boring.  Afterwards, there is a structured wine tasting of three of their basic wines, but we thought it was a rather below average experience.  You can pay $2 to taste ice wine, but the line for this was so long, that we did not think it was worth it.
We also went to Colaneri Estate (348 Concession 6 Rd), which offers tastings anytime from 11am to 5:15pm.  They charge $5 for 5 wines (red or white) and $5 for a tasting of ice wine.  The fees are waved if you purchase.  Thought we did try their Riesling and Cabernet France ice wines, we did not end up purchasing anything here.