Thursday, March 30, 2006

Revenge of the Pesto

Remember when Mr. Tart invented a new pesto recipe last fall? I found a new use for it tonight (new to me, that is; I'm sure this combination has been done before). Needing to cook a quick meal before my final deadline for the CD-ROM I'm writing (due tonight! yikes!), I pulled out two individually frozen flounder fillets, slathered them with my hubby's citrus pesto, and baked them at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes. Seemingly sophisticated in taste and appearance, the dish was surprisingly easy, and the rice soaked up the melty pesto juice from the baking sheet. Mmmm!

What are y'all's favorite quickie dinners?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

butter or bacon?

Recently the question has been posed amongst a group of friends: If you had to give up butter or bacon (forever, and with no exceptions) which would you choose?

So, dear readers, what would you pick?

note: with the small sampling I've made on this query, there's a clear gender split. i'm curious to see if it continues.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

mmmm, NY

My recent trip to New York consisted of two primary activities: adoring my lovely new niece Frances and eating. What more can you ask of a trip, really? Frances is adorable, but she doesn’t do much yet, so I’ll just have to tell you about the eating.

The first stop was Brooklyn's The Chip Shop, which I argue makes the best fish and chips in the U.S. (and even though I haven’t made a full survey of chip shops in the states, this is the only good chip shop I’ve found outside of the UK). They are, as the Chip Shop declares, "bloody lovely." The Chip Shop is also famous for deep fried twinkies, snickers and such. But I’ve never tried them. When I eat at the Chip Shop (which is every trip to Brooklyn—sometimes twice) I eat Haddock, chips, mushy peas, and apple blackberry crumble. I tried to convince my brother to try the deep fried Snickers, but he argued that some temptations are better left untasted. He was worried (perhaps rightly so) that one taste of the deep fried sweet and he would be back every week.

The next day we lunched at Le Café Grainne which is—oh, who knows where it is I was just following my brother. This was my sister’s choice, who vividly remembers a previous meal there (at least an earlier incarnation of the place) of chocolat chaud and croque monsieur. She and the brother both had the same meal. I opted for tea (saved my chocolate fix for later) and a goat cheese leek crepe. We began the meal with escargot and ended it with a lemon sugar crepe. It was one of those simple meals that doesn’t assert any pretensions and so becomes lovelier. And the meal lasted longer than necessary over good conversation.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

cottage cooking

Mr. Tart and I spent this past weekend in between Lyons and Estes Park, Colorado, escaping to spend some time by ourselves at the end of my spring break. We went snowshoeing up by Bear Lake on Saturday, but otherwise were blissfully unproductive. As the little half-cottage by the river that we rented had a kitchenette, I prepared many of our meals in advance to save on the costs of eating out. (Though we did stop at--quelle horreur!--MacDonalds on our way down the mountain because we were craving French fries after tromping around in the snow.)

Somehow even simple foods like bagels with cream cheese and salmon taste better in front of a fireplace. Soupe au Pistou (vegetable soup with pesto, courtesy of my new cookbook Barefoot in Paris, a surprise from my Uncle Steve) is perfect on a cold Friday night after a dip in the hot tub. Scrambled eggs with turkey sausage one morning, followed by scrambled eggs with salmon the next. Most of the foods, in fact, did double duty on this trip; the champagne, for example, was romantic when we arrived, but just plain fun in our orange juice the following morning. And as Friday was St. Patrick's Day (and I'm Irish, and we love cheese), I made a point of bringing an aged Irish cheddar to nibble on in between meals and to add to the scrambled eggs.

You can't get too fancy with a hot plate and a toaster, but we didn't need fancy. We had cheese and soup and fish and tea and snow and river sounds, and we were content.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

eating OC: Ramos House and Olamendi's

This weekend, Mark and I went down to San Juan Capistrano for a little rest & relaxation. We toured the mission, walked on the beach, and had some good eats at two of my favorite places. For anyone who's coming down here for the wedding, I highly recommend a day trip to SJC to eat at Ramos House or Olamendi's.

I've written about Ramos House here before; it has a vibe very similar to Lucile's in Ft. Collins. See?

On the weekends, they serve a prix fixe brunch; you choose a starter, a drink, and an entree.

I love the fact that the menu quoted Tom Waits lyrics for no particular reason. I'll eat at any place that shows some love for Tom Waits:

Here's my bloody mary, a salad in and of itself. It was great -- almost more like a spiked, drinkable-consistency gazpacho.

Here's Mark digging into his hush puppies:

And here's my blueberry coffee cake:

I forgot to take photos of our entrees, unfortunately. Mark had mac n' cheese with smoked vegetables, and I realized after I ordered that I had the same thing I had last time: crab hash with scrambled eggs.

After much, much walking around San Juan Capistrano and then up and down the beach, in order to justify more eating, we had dinner that night at Olamendi's, a Mexican place off the PCH. Mark had a vegetarian burrito; I had enchiladas poblanas (chicken enchiladas smothered in mole). The food is great, but the atmosphere is even better.

The decor is delightfully chaotic -- there are Dia de los Muertos skeletons all over the place, like these:
We were seated directly under this crucifix:

A couple glimpses of the ceiling:

more crucifixes:

Oddly enough, the first time we ate here, we were seated at the Richard Nixon table. Apparently he was a fan of the place back when he lived in San Clemente. Who knew?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

rum pretty much everywhere

Last Saturday, spurred mostly by my craving for a mojito, we hosted a dinner party with a Cuban theme. (Melissa, I wish we'd taken a picture of our dirty-dishes aftermath, because our kitchen was truly a disaster zone. Yours looked downright orderly compared to the monster we created.) Here I am, long before the guests arrived, um, "testing" the mojito proportions. Yeah, that's it.

(That glass of wine in the background? Also mine, I'm afraid.)

I made black beans with coconut rice and fried plantains--to the black beans, I added a healthy dose of smoked paprika (I love it, love it, love it) since I wasn't adding bacon, so it would still have that smoky character. Funny how it starts out so colorful:

and ends up like this:

Here's the slow-cooked, marinated-for-two-days Cuban pork:

and the empanadas:

the coconut & rum flan:

and the rum cake, which one guest suspected was actually making her tipsy (it is indeed pretty well soaked in rum syrup):

the whole spread:

Monday, March 13, 2006

burnt bird sauce; or, yet another lavender disaster

Mr. Tart has to go out of town again this week, so I wanted to fix him an especially nice dinner since he'll be eating hotel and conference food for the next few days. As the nearest grocery store had cornish hens on sale, I decided to try out a recipe for lavender and thyme roasted poussins. Those herbs inspired me to plan an entirely French meal, so I also made my favorite salade au chevre chaud, roasted some asparagus,and tried Cooks Illustrated's most recent chocolate mousse recipe.

Here's what I do for the goat cheese salad: top baguette slices with rounds of goat cheese and broil them. Make a vinaigrette with one part flavored vinegar, 1.5 parts olive oil, 1.5 parts canola oil, a finely chopped shallot, and a little dollop of French mustard, plus salt and pepper. Spread out baby greens on a plate (not in a bowl) and be generous with the vinaigrette. Place the still-warm chevre croutons on top of the greens. Eat with knife and fork, cutting the croutons into pieces, swirling them around in the sauce, and spearing some greens for a crunchy, melty, fresh-tasting bite. (I've seen this type of salad done elaborately in France, with all sorts of other veggies thrown in, but I prefer it just with the greens.)

The mousse was delicious--and Mr. Tart approved, doing his Chocolate Mousse Apreciation Dance at the table. I don't know that CI's recipe was significantly better than the one I use normally, though. Theirs has more chocolate, no butter, and brandy instead of vanilla, but it calls for so much whipped cream that it turns out looking vaguely anemic.

The roasted cornish hens, however, caused problems.

Although I gave up being a vegetarian a year after college, I've never gotten to the point where I enjoy handling meat, particularly meat that resembles the animal it came from. Frankly, the little cornish hen carcasses grossed me out, particularly when I had to gently separate the skin from the meat and smear butter underneath it. On the other hand, I enjoyed making the compound butter in my mortar and pestle, crushing fresh thyme (yes, it's surviving this Colorado winter in my garden!), lavender flowers, and lemon zest. It certainly smelled good and really did remind me of Provence.

Not ten minutes after the little sweet-smelling birds went into the oven (at 475 degrees), though, did our smoke detector go off: the lemon juice had slid off the outside of the skins and scorched on the bottom of the baking dish. I swapped it out for a fresh baking dish and continued roasting. After two more bouts of yowling from the smoke detector--and a house full of floral birdy smoke--I turned the oven down to 400. Eventually the melted herb butter and the juices from the meat were thick enough on the bottom of the pan to not burn any more.

Now I had to guess how long to cook it, since I had changed the oven temperature, so I kept stabbing the birds with a meat thermometer until they were safely cooked. The next step required deglazing the pan with Sauternes--we used a Riesling because that's all the white we had--and then reducing this sauce. The sauce, in my opinion, was kinda nasty. I tried doctoring it up--adding a little sugar to counteract the bitterness from the lemon juice and the reduced wine, adding water, adding a slurry of cornstarch to thicken it, adding cream--but but this resulted in an equally nasty sauce (just more of it now, and thicker).

So the meal was not inedible, but it didn't quite transport us to Provence, and certainly wasn't worth spending all afternoon in the kitchen. At least it didn't turn out quite so badly as my previous lavender attempt. We have a pile of dirty pans (not as monumental as Melissa's, granted, but still daunting); but at least there are four chocolate mousses left! I bet Ed will dance for me again tonight.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

the seamier side of food porn

Yesterday was supposed to be a "do nothing" day, but that quickly became hosting a dinner party for seven (and it wasn't even a dinner party with my friends, but those of the new man). Instead of doing nothing (which I'm making up for with extreme laziness today) I cleaned my house, went shopping, and cooked a big dinner. The menu:

*Baguette, cheese, and french olives.

*A salad of baby greens and tomatoes that we bought from Chad, the farmer's market guy who keeps a greenhouse in the winter.

*Spinach ricotta gnocchi with tomato cream sauce.

*Flourless chocolate cake (which W. made) with raspberry sauce and creme anglaise (which I made)

I failed to take pictures of the meal, but I did take a picture of all of the dishes we used (the often overlooked costs of cooking). These are all of the dishes we washed last night:

And yet, the sink is still full of dirty dishes (which will stay there until W. comes back from skiing and washes them, as promised):

Despite the gritty reality of throwing dinner parties, I like the luxury they afford the next day: a tiny slice of chocolate cake before breakfast, a swirl of raspberry sauce and cream in my daily oatmeal.

Oh, and W. reminded me that he did take one picture of the group:

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

cheese and dreams, revisited

Back in September, I posted something about the British Cheese Board trying to debunk the notion that eating cheese before bed causes nightmares (dreams, yes; nightmares, no).

I'm not sure what this longstanding urban legend is ultimately rooted in, but oh, the things I learn reading Metafilter. Apparently it was around at least as far back as the turn of the 20th century, when comic artist Winsor McKay was creating a series of very trippy comic strips about a guy who always feels so bad after he ate that rarebit.

(Welsh rarebit = cheese on toast.)

I just ate an olive stuffed with blue cheese, and I'm about to go to bed. I'll let you know tomorrow if I have any dreams about a street rolling up like a hamster wheel or giant asparagus destroying my home. (I did have a cool one recently about a house that was an indoor swimming pool -- you could swim through the hallways from room to room -- and superimposed on the floor of the pool was a 3-D topographical map of the ocean floor. That one *must* have been a cheese dream.)

Monday, March 06, 2006

a Cuban dinner

This weekend, we're having people over for a big' ol Cuban-themed dinner. Why Cuban? Frankly, because I want a mojito. (I was craving one and was planning this even before your post about the cucumber mojito, Sarah, but now I really REALLY want a mojito.) The tentative menu: Lechon asado (mojo-marinated roast pork), empanadas, gazpacho, coconut rice with black beans and fried plantains, tres leches cake and, of course, the mojitos. yum!

Oh, the other (not food-related) thing about our day in L.A. that I forgot to mention: We went to a great comics exhibit at MOCA. The postwar part of the exhibit was at the gallery we went to; another one somewhere else in the city has comics from the first half of the 20th century. This one went from artists like Will Eisner and Jack Kirby, who sort of established the narrative language of comics; to R. Crumb, who threw out the big mythic themes and did comics about the mundane; to the layered, self-referential work of Art Spiegelman, the guy who won a Pulitzer for "Maus." (That was an unwieldy sentence. I'm sorry.) I bought a copy of his "In The Shadow of No Towers," which I can't wait to read. Oh, oh, and Chris Ware, whose stuff I love, was in the exhibit too. If you're new to contemporary comics/graphic novels and want a good introduction to what's being done right now, look for this.

Then Mark and I went to get our engagement photos taken (included in the wedding package, so why not, we figured). I had this great non-sequitur conversation with my mother on the phone afterward:

Mom: What are you up to today?
Me: We just got done with the photos, so now we're going to go get some dinner.
Mom: I hope you didn't wear a scarf. Did you wear a scarf in the pictures?
Me: Excuse me?
Mom: People will think that's strange.
Me: Uh, I didn't, but you know, it's kind of cold at the beach this time of year. I saw a lot of people wearing scarves today.
Mom: People here don't understand your scarves.

coconut mashed sweet potatoes

I never thought I'd say this, but I learned a great trick for sweet potatoes from a vegan restaurant we ate at Saturday night. I like vegetarian food -- I tend to go meatless a lot of the time, and probably would even if Mark weren't a vegetarian -- but I am deeply suspicious of vegan cuisine. Seriously, who can voluntarily deny the joys of dairy? Not I. Right or wrong, I tend to think of vegan cooking as a series of dour, humorless compromises for the real thing. But I had a pretty good meal Saturday night. I think it was good because it didn't try to be a vegan version of something else.

Anyway, we met some friends for dinner at Real Food Daily in Santa Monica. I ordered one of the specials: pecan-and-cornmeal-crusted tempeh with black bean sauce and mango salsa, garlicky green beans, and coconut mashed sweet potatoes. It was all very tasty, but for me, the sweet potatoes were the star.

In fact, I tried to replicate it today and I think I came fairly close. Try this sometime -- it's delicious. I baked and mashed some sweet potatoes and then skimmed the cream off the top of a can of coconut milk and added that (plus a little salt and pepper) until the taste and texture was what I wanted. Don't shake the can -- just add the creamy part that rises to the top. That way, you get the right amount of coconut flavor without adding too much liquid and making the potatoes too runny. I also grated some orange zest and added that. (A little goes farther than you'd think.)

Saturday, March 04, 2006

mojitos with vegetables, fish with watermelon

Apparently most of the foodies in the country think of Denver as a "cow town" where all you can eat is steak. Although some of Denver's (and Boulder's) chefs and restaurants are getting good press in some cooking and travel magazines, and Colorado offers quite a few food, wine, food and wine, beer, and beer and food festivals, people outside of the area still scoff at the idea of fine dining in Denver.

Well, Denver's not going to take it anymore. Last year it established a program called "Denver Restaurant Week" (in February, which is supposedly the lowest-revenue month for restaurants) where some of the foofiest, fanciest, chic-est, and best-reviewed places offer a 3-course prix fixe dinner for two for $52.80 (since it's the mile-high city, natch). This promotion is deservedly attracting a lot of attention out-of-state.

But Mr. Tart and I don't really care what out-of-staters think about fine dining in Denver: we just wanted to try some of these restaurants and get out of there without spending three digits! Last year, Cynde and Todd joined us at Red Square, a Russian restaurant, for Restaurant Week. It was good, but my favorite part was the flavored vodkas, not the food. (Black currant! Garlic!) (Cynde went on to make her own infused flavored vodka--ginger, "fall spice," rhubarb, and more.)

This year Restaurant Week offered a huge selection of participating restaurants, so the decision was tough. Fortunately they all publish their special menu ahead of time so we were able to immediately eliminate the ones only serving meat that I don't eat or stuff made with bananas. We ended up at Zengo, a Japanese-Mexican fusion place that we had walked past before and admired.

Here's what we had:
--a cucumber mojito (voted Denver's best cocktail by a local magazine), which I liked, but I still prefer my mojitos without vegetables

--red wine called Roogle which Mr. Tart loved

--lobster & shrimp potstickers in a fruity sauce (this wasn't on the prix fixe menu, but they looked so good we ordered them off the regular menu), which were very good because of the the huge chunks of seafood inside--no ground meat mixed with breadcrumbs here)

--"Arepas de Pollo" appetizer with extremely thinly sliced pulled chicken, avocado, and crema fresca on a garlicky bready cracker thing with a hint of polenta (can you tell that the description of the latter didn't come straight from the menu?), delicious, but unfortunately there were only three of them.

--Spicy salmon tempura roll with yuzu, which was fun and hearty

--Pulled pork shoulder with black bean puree and "won bok slaw" on top (this was Mr. Tart's entree, and he was extremely impressed)

--Wok-seared rare tuna over rice vermicelli with tomatillo, grilled watermelon pico de gallo, and a yuzu vinaigrette. This dish was my favorite--the tuna was lucious. And I loved the watermelon--it provided the perfect counterpoint for the little chunks of hot peppers. It had never occured to me to grill tiny watermelon pieces and put them on fish, but we want to try it ourselves now!

--Dessert consisted of three profiteroles (cream puffs) apiece, each one filled with a different type of ice cream with a surprising crunch: vanilla sesame brittle, chocolate pistachio brittle, and cinnamon pepita brittle. The sauce on top was caramel, cardamom, and piloncillo. Biting into each profiterole was like opening a birthday present with something unexpected inside, something I never knew existed but wanted as soon as I saw it!

I brought the menu home so I could look up some of the words so we'd know what we ate. According to epicurious, yuzu is "a sour Japanese citrus fruit, which is used almost exclusively for its aromatic rind. The rind of the yuzu (which is about the size of a tangerine) has an aroma that's distinct from lemons and limes or any other Western citrus fruit. Yuzu rind is used as a garnish or small slivers are added to various dishes to enhance their flavor." Honestly, I don't know if I detected anything citrus in the salmon roll, but the tuna vinaigrette sure was tasty! I still haven't figured out what "piloncillo" is, though.

So it was a remarkable dinner, and what we especially liked about the prix fixe menu was that we both ended up with dishes that we probably wouldn't have ordered off the regular menu. (I don't think I've ever seen Mr. Tart order pork in a restaurant, for example.) We felt very adventurous, loved the combinations of flavors, and will probably go back. No wonder so many upscale restaurants want to participate in Denver Restaurant Week!

a plethora of pulchritudinous periodicals promoting peas, pizza, and persimmons

So now that I'm a public library volunteer, I'm on the distribution list for announcements like the magazine sale: bundles of a year's worth of all the magazines the library subscribes to are available for $2. I was there early Thursday morning (and then again this morning, discovering that they replenish the stock as bundles are purchased) to take advantage of the best selection. Even though they're five years old, for less than a quarter per magazine, it's worth it. So now I have about sixty cooking and gardening magazines to peruse at my leisure and clip to my delight and satisfaction! Over the past few days, I picked up the following 2001 issues: Cooks Illustrated, Herb Companion, Organic Gardening, Vegetarian Times, Food and Wine, and Gourmet. (Oh, okay, I bought the Oprah magazine too, 'cause she rocks.) Don't ask me when I'll read them all.