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Olive You!

5 Dec

Another long dry spell, forgive me. I need to be talk about a meal I had back in September (this is how behind I am.)

A dear friend and I attended a screening of Amelie in the park in Little Italy– a great deal of fun despite the freezing winds. Afterwards we were both starved and craving food and warmth; luckily, finding comfort food in this part of town was not going to be difficult. Which to choose though? The decision was daunting.

We were walking up Stockton, clutching at our coats and our grumpy tummies when it happened– I knew I was already in love. It was like catching the gaze of the perfect woman. I was too shy to speak up and say, “that way, I want to go that way!” I locked eyes with her, the object of my affection … my head turned as we kept walking, my little heart weeped. My friend pointed this way and that way– “this place? This place! No, no, thiiiiiis place…”

We turned a corner and I thought I had lost her forever. We walked into another Italian restaurant, but I felt dead inside; it felt as if I had missed my one chance at true love. But! To my delight and my friend’s dismay however, the prices on the menu were just shy of atrocious. We walked out and I doubled back, knowing she’d still be there, waiting for me, windows aglow exuding a come-hither sort of warmth and charm. The sign displayed her name so I may remember it forever: Maria.

Caffe Maria. Her prices won our immediate approval– it was warm, moderately crowded, warmly lit, and the waitstaff was pleasant. We were seated in a nice romantic corner nook and served bread, butter, and this was just… oh my goodness– a whole dish of olives. Olives. It was only recently that I had developed a taste for them, but the combination of the fresh bread, soft flesh, crisp skin, absolutely rich, flavorful butter, and these perfect ovals of savory complexity. It didn’t matter what we were going to order and have for the meal. This appetizer made my night.

Both of us ordered gnocchi; my friend had it with pesto, I had it with pink sauce. There is not much more to say than to describe the gnocchi as divinity. Gnocchi are always described as pillows of potato, and yes, that’s exactly the description that fits. The housemaid gnocchi gets two thumbs up and multiple high fives. Highly, highly recommended.

I’ll visit Maria next time for their seafood, because it’s apparently what they are known for. Maria, Maria. And if that wasn’t enough, there were huge bowls of dessert cookies and Andes mint chocolates circulating the room. Our eyes grew wide and we nibbled and were tempted to stuff our pockets. I chose to take six of the chocolates, only to be devoured on the train ride home, but seriously? A delectable meal, affordable, generous in variety and portions, a beautiful ambience, and what I imagine would be a just-as-reasonable Italian wine list. This is love.

A word on olives. If you’re thinking that olives are a pizza condiment to pick off, oh baby, are you missing out. There are so many many many different kinds of olives. My favorite thing to do with olives though is make a tapenade. A tapenade is defined by the Food Lover’s Companion as a “thick paste [from Provence] made from capers, anchovies, ripe olives, olive oil, lemon juice, [and] seasonings… used as a condiment.” Now I know plenty of people who hate olives, capers, AND anchovies. I used to be one of them. The whole, however, is most definitely more than the sum of its parts. Tapenade is that statement’s culinary testimony.

I have several fantastic recipes of variations, many of which come from a book called Pestos, Tapenades, and Spreads. I am a sauce and spread fanatic, this small little book was just the best thing that can happen to a girl like me.

Then there is Big Small Plates, which also has a tapenade recipe that claims to be the “best ever” that I haven’t tried yet. I’m going to come back with a tapenade that takes the best of both worlds, but for now…

Traditional Tapenade, Take one (modified from Pestos, Tapenades and Spreads)

  • One 10-ounce jar or can pitted kalmata olives, drained and rinsed
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • 2 small garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 4 fresh basil leaves
  • 1 tablespoon capers, drained
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Freshly ground pepper

Put everything in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until a course mixture forms. Makes about a cup.

I eat it on bread, but try to be creative with its application. Enjoy.

Ich liebe dich, Schmidt

5 Oct

It’s been a very long while since I’ve had German food, but I really do love smoky sausages and spicy mustard. I love cheesy, herby egg noodles. I love potatoes.

This is a meal at Schmidt’s, a German restaurant in the city. On the plate is really yummy sauerkraut, a smoked wild boar sausage, sweet and spicy mustard, potato salad, and to accompany the table is a plate of spätzle.

The sauerkraut, “sour cabbage”, had whole peppercorns which added a lovely kick. The sausage was masterfully grilled, hearty, explosive with savory flavor. The mustards were tangy and wonderful; the spicy one went straight for my nose, the sweet one sat happily on my tongue and were great compliments to the sausage. The potato salad was one of the best I’ve ever had– they topped the boiled red potatoes with chives. I love chives! Little bursts of lots of fresh, oniony goodness. I can’t believe I’ve never thought of that before.

Spätzle is a type of soft egg noodle native to Germany and Austria; the word literally translates to “little sparrow”, which I thought was cute. It was just the ultimate comfort: pan-crispy on the outside, chewy and soft on the inside, seasoned with parsley and melded together with cheese. Beautiful.

This was the exact meal that turned me onto German cuisine, and I’ll be going back for more!


I heart brunch

4 Oct

I don’t care what people say: I like brunch. I think brunch was destined for late weekend mornings, especially late Sunday mornings, be it with a significant other or a significant mother. Sure it’s girly, sure restaurants serve breakfast foods “you can totally make at home”, but brunch also can have menu items that are entirely unique to itself. Sometimes those fun omelets with the tortilla strips and chipotle sauce only come on the weekend menu. I’ve never seen potato latkes with a poached egg and asparagus be served on a Wednesday morning. No no, these beauties are exclusive to le week-end.

Here is mouth-watering image I have to share with you:

That’s right. Those are sliced almonds on my french toast. Brunch rocks. Tangerine, one of my favorite restaurants in the city, serves almond french toast. I absolutely adore french toast, but if executed poorly it can be quite the soggy mess. Not only was this french toast crisp on its own, it had the texture of sliced almonds to complement it. The nuttiness provided a nice balance to the sweetness of the syrup and powdered sugar (dissolved in the picture). Absolutely scrumptious.

Have you ever moaned at a meal?

6 Jul

I need to learn to trust people’s suggestions more seriously. When I’m told something is really scary, extremely funny, or incredibly delicious, I have to learn to believe it. There are so many things that I have ended up experiencing weeks or months later because I was too stubborn and reluctant to believe them sooner. Who knows the countless things I may have been missing out on! It took me ages to discover Eddie Izzard, watch Yojimbo, eat Armenian food…

It took my sister two weeks to convince me to go to this Peruvian restaurant with her. Two weeks that I will never, EVER GET BACK.

Lomo saltado. Lomo saltado. LOMO SALTADO! I need a tall, dark and delicious Latino man to whisper it in your ear, with the accent and Enrique’s breathiness. Lomo saltado. Oh, baby!!! I have never been more excited about a meal at a restaurant. Mario made my mouth explode and my heart melt. I could have died after that first plate of lomo saltado and have been content with my life– it was just that good. I wish Mario’s Peruvian wasn’t all the way in Los Angeles…

It’s the only Peruvian food I’ve had, but it’s enough to convince me that the country is full of culinary wonders that I must experience and make my own. Lomo saltado is a dish made with tender beef strips, tomatoes, red onions, cilantro and french fries. FRENCH FRIES IN THE SAUTE. How brilliant is that? I was so skeptical at first, reading the menu, cringing at the thought of FRENCH FRIES IN THE SAUTE. They’ll be soggy and disgusting, I thought. But no. They were the perfect vessels for the amazing marinade and still retained some of their classic french fry crunch. I don’t know how they managed.

I also had a really hard time placing what it was that gave the dish this really distinct, addictive umami taste. Every single bite was as interesting and compelling as the first one. I kept flailing my arms and moaning audibly and loudly wondering what went in the dish. My sister kept shushing me because people started looking over. But have you ever had that experience with food where you just can’t help the noise that emerges from you? Noises similar to the ones of sex, but are clearly because of what’s happening between you and the food? Lomo saltado gave me my best foodgasm yet. That’s right. It’s just that good.

I never would have guessed, knowing little of Peruvian history, that there is Chinese influence in the cuisine– soy sauce! The combination of soy sauce, cumin and cinnamon was responsible for the incredible taste of the meat, was the essence absorbed into the fries.

Along with lomo saltado, there was this spicy green sauce it a squeezy bottle that was just such a gorgeous green. Very spicy in a refreshing, very green and brisk way. I want to call it aji, like the peppers it’s made with, but I can’t be sure if that’s its name. So freaking tasty.

Lomo saltado

This is a modified recipe from A Taste of Peru.

Ingredients

Potato Fries
• 2 pounds russet potatoes
• Salt
• Vegetable oil for deep frying, about 1 quart

Beef Stir Fry
• 2 pounds beef tenderloin.
• 3 teaspoons ground cumin
• a pinch of cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
• 2 tablespoons brown sugar
• Canola or vegetable oil for stir frying
• 1 tablespoon minced garlic
• 1-2 thai red chiles, seeded and finely minced
• salt
• 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
• 2 medium red onions, halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise ½ inch thick
• 1 ½ pounds plum tomatoes halved, seeded and cut into sixths
• 3 peruvian yellow hot peppers (ajies), seeded and finely sliced (reserve 1 for garnish)
• 1/4 cup soy sauce
• 6 tablespoons freshly chopped cilantro

Instructions

Peel the potatoes. To prevent darkening, immerse peeled potatoes in a bowl of cold water until ready to cut. Cut potatoes into ½ inch strips. Return strips to cold water.

Meanwhile chop all your ingredients for your beef stir-fry.

Slice the meat into ¼ inch thick and cut into ½ inch wide strips. In a large bowl, toss the beef with pepper, cinnamon, cumin, 1 tablespoon brown sugar and half of the soy sauce.

Heat enough oil to cover the base of a large pan or wok and , over medium heat, saute garlic and thai or fresno chile for two minutes. Raise the heat to high heat and working in batches, add beef strips and stir fry until browned, about two minutes per batch. Season with salt. Transfer the beef along with pan juice , garlic and chile to a bowl. Reserve.

Add a little more oil to the pan or wok if necessary and stir fry onion, until barely soft, about one minute. Season with salt and pepper. Add a few drops of vinegar and continue stir-frying until it has evaporated, about another minute. The onion should still have some bite. Remove onion from the pan, set aside and repeat procedure with tomato.

Meanwhile in a heavy deep , straight-sided pot , heat oil to 375 F . To prevent splattering, pat potatoes dry. Using a spoon, carefully add potato strips, a few at a time, to hot oil. Fry for five to six minutes or till crisp and golden brown, turning once.

Using a slotted spoon, carefully remove potatoes from hot oil. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt. Keep potatoes warm in a 300 F oven while frying remaining potatoes and continue the beef stir-fry.

Return beef, onion and tomato to the pan. Add 2 peruvian ajies, the rest of the soy sauce and brown sugar and cook for ½ minute. Add 2 tablespoon of the chopped cilantro and the potato fries and toss gently. Transfer to a warmed platter, garnish with the rest of the cilantro, the reserved aji and serve immediately, accompanied with white rice.

Serves 6.

Ají sauce

The sauce is normally made with aji chiles, but I’ve done it with jalapeños.

Ingredients

1/2 cup coarsely chopped seeded jalapeño chiles (about 4 large)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped green onions (about 2 large)
1/3 cup coarsely chopped sweet onion
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 head of lettuce, torn into pieces (romaine)
1 garlic clove chopped
2 tablespoons lime juice
1/4 cup mayonnaise
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

Combine the chiles, green onions, sweet onion, cilantro, lettuce and garlic in the food processor. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the lime juice and mayonnaise, and blend into somewhat smooth. Transfer to a small bowl and stir in salt, pepper, and add more lime juice to taste.

Serve with crusty bread or brioche rolls.


Comfort Foods Part 2

11 Jun

So I’ve been wrapped up in life and neglecting my poor blog here, but I’m jumping right back in.

Airports are exhausting, whether the flight is for an hour or eighteen. The whole process–checking in your bags, getting on the plane, getting off the plane, finding your stuff–makes for an obnoxious and excruciating ordeal. Especially security. My anxiety peaks, my palms cold and sweaty, and I’m missing the sweater and shoes they’ve made me take off. Worried over having left a liquid in my bag, just waiting for the personnel to find something threatening that had been planted, waiting to be carried away and placed in a cold room, again without my sweater and shoes, socks little protection from the icy floor, angry men barging into the room, their fists pounding on the desk before me, barking at me to tell them what in the hell the clear stuff is in the small bottle, and my usual nervous, stuttering, sputtering self making myself out to look so guilty… “It was p-p-planted, I swear!”

And then it just turns out to be a small bottle of facial toner lacking a plastic baggy.

So I get off the plane and expect to run into the arms of my teary-eyed parents, but they were no where to be found. I called and called and figured I had been forgotten when my phone finally rings. I find out they’re on the other side of the monstrous, concrete, circular maze that is LAX. So I enunciate as best I can which terminal I am in to two non-English speaking, hard-of-hearing elderly Koreans that I am at the Tom Bradley International terminal and that my airline is “Buh-jin” (Virgin, as pronounced in Korean).

Forty five minutes later, we’re in the car with my elderly, hard-of-hearing, semi-senile father insisting on driving. My mother says that every time she gets in a car with him behind the wheel, she tells herself that she’s lived long enough, that if she dies today, at least she saw it coming. She’s full of bright humor. The two of us, my mother and I, are clinging to our seats as he alternates between speeding on local streets and forgetting to accelerate at green lights… or forgetting to keep his foot on the gas at all. She said she’d prefer this potential death to the cancer she’s fighting, that it would definitely be “more suspenseful”.

But they want to treat me to a nice Korean dinner, and since my mother doesn’t have all that much energy to cook after the long walk, they decide to take me out. And here is what I ordered:

Barbecued short ribs (galbi) with a spicy, soft tofu stew with all the trimmings. A vision of comfort, perfect after a treacherous day of travel.

Korean barbecue is so delightfully sweet, tender and tangy. Sweet, rich, balanced, enveloping, awe-inspiring, eye-sparkingly good. It is the ultimate food for me, the stuff that makes my heart melt with nostalgia and love. I grew up being stuffed with beef on a regular basis as a child–not chicken, never pork, a decent amount of fish, my mother did even know people ate lambs, and no–I’ve never eaten a dog.

The meat is tenderized by some restaurants and households with kiwi. Something about its acidity breaks the protein down, and its flavor imparts a complex, tangy sweetness that is unique and characteristic of good Korean barbecue. My mother says it makes the meat too mushy if used in excess though, so it’s best to proceed with caution.

Then there’s the spicy tofu stew. Perfect for a cold day, the spicy soup contrasts so nicely with the extra soft tofu that melts in your mouth. There are peppers, onions, garlic, green onions, sometimes zucchini, often times seafood like whole small shrimps, clams. The seafood adds a layer of umami to the vegetarian version, but both are spectacular.

Rice with a few peas sprinkled on top for color and a splash of veggie sweet is super nice, very Korean. Kimchi in the background, our national pickle, storming the U.S. and captivating health nuts globally. It took so long for me to like kimchi, years upon years, well into my late teens, but now I find myself craving it with a nice piping hot bowl of white rice. And there are so many types of it too.

So here’s the recipe for Bulgogi, literally “fire beef”, which uses the same flavorings as the short ribs. The recipe is modified from a book called A Korean Mother’s Cooking Notes, by Chang Sun-Young.

Ingredients

1 pound beef
1 kiwi, blended in a food processor or mashed
Marinade
4 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons brown sugar, plus more for coating
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons wine
1 tablespoon sesame oil
3 tablespoons chopped green onions
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
1 teaspoon pepper
1. Cut the beef about 1/4 inch thick if it is tenderloin. If sirloin, cut about 1/8 thick.
2. Place a layer of beef in a bowl, put down some sauce, a pinch of brown sugar, a bit of kiwi, and rub it all into both sides. Continue with the rest of the beef.
3. Marinate for up to 24 hours, covered, in the fridge. I’ve started grilling as early as 4 hours, but it is nice to have the meat sit and soak for a while.
4. Grill, broil, or sauté the beef in batches. Don’t crowd the pan, if that’s what you’re using. It’s often what I use because I don’t have a grill. Since thin, it does not take all too long to cook through.
Enjoy! Comment with questions:)

Castro’s Cupcake

24 Apr

I visited a friend in the Mission for lunch and cooking for an evening event, but as soon as I got to his apartment, he declared that we had to visit some place before errand running and lunch eating. I was hungry and frustrated, rubbing my temples futilely trying to rid myself of a headache; I was in no mood for surprises. He drove madly around the city raving about these cupcakes. He was craving cupcakes. Cupcakes are not lunch, I told him. These cupcakes are worth the ridiculous detour, he told me.

He went on to say that he hates cupcakes and thinks they’re pointless, but before I could defend them, he says that this place makes unbelievable ones. To-die-for ones. Given my condition and the cupcake shop trend of recent years, I was somewhat skeptical, but I decided not to object to the short walk from where we parked.

A very cute/chic, very pink shop came into view as we rounded the corner of Scott and Chestnut: Kara’s Cupcakes. I didn’t realize as I walked through the door that there was no going back.

Kara’s Cupcakes is extremely popular. They make all of their cupcakes by hand every day throughout the day with local, organic, sustainable ingredients. The store itself and their methods are as green as can be. Admirable and awesome, no?

And then there is the cupcake.


Making a decision, again, was difficult. My friend chose the Chocolate Velvet for himself and Passion Fruit for his papa. I finally decided on Kara’s Karrot because I am (one of the few of my friends that is) a big fan of carrot cake, and who the hell can resist a good cream cheese frosting, really?

The level of excitement spiked at the sight of the narrow pink box. I felt my headache dissipating and giving way to a rumbling, hedonistic voice that commanded me to tear open the box immediately and lunge for the first cupcake I saw.

The chocolate one looked almost too intense, but Friend insisted that we share all of them. I’m not the biggest fan of buttercream, but you must believe me when I tell you that bite changed my mind entirely. It was the lightest buttercream I had ever tasted, yet just as described in the menu, “velvety, bittersweet” and supremely chocolatey. The cake itself was a delectably moist chocolate pillow, not too sweet, not even too cakey.

The passion fruit had a very nicely balanced fruit flavor to the cake, and the filling came as a surprise: a very light, mildy tart, just sweet enough passion fruit custard. I found myself loving it in spite of my initial hesitation.

The sweet vanilla: classic. The particularly nice thing about this one is that earthy colored E indicates that the proceeds of this flavor go to “Save the Bay” to celebrate Earth Day. The thought made the cupcake even more delicious.

My favorite turned out to my personal choice, a great choice– Kara’s Karrot. The cream cheese frosting was so very soft, and the cake itself was mildly spiced and had true bits of carrot that added earthy sweetness and loads of texture. Blew. My. Mind.

Needless to say, I’ve been converted. Needless to say, I’m going back.

Blessed Offering

23 Apr

I had a nice chat about sandwiches and employment with the counter help and experienced a life changingly delicious brunch and today at the Musical Offering, a pleasant cafe and record shop right by the university. I surprised myself when I found the courage to ask what’s good on the menu. (Lately, I’ve been in such a way that my words are stripped and my thoughts are blank, in most situation. Half-hearted jokes met with awkward laughter, comments met with painful silences… devastation.) She was more than happy to share her ideas on which of the hot sandwiches would be a good fit for my hunger level and preference for amounts of cheese. It was a difficult decision, but with the resolve that I would return before the menu changed, I chose the Hot Chicken on Focaccia, a hearty meal to set the pace for the rest of the day.

I did a double take and moaned to myself at the free samples of chocolate chip cookie sitting at the counter. The square of cookie melted happily as soon as it hit my tongue. It was delightfully soft with a slightly crispy edge and therefore irresistible. The server smiled at my reaction and told me they had just come out of the oven. I pointed to the cookie jar with a grin, without a word, and tipped her generously.

Normally I would object to small chocolate chips, but it made for an even distribution of a lot of chocolate in each bite.

The tea… oh the tea. A jasmine green served in a plain glass tea cup– gorgeous! The cup was fragrant, deeply soothing, and nostalgic. It was the same scent that floats through my window on a breezy summer day. I’m not exaggerating for the sake of sellable prose either. The pot of tea was just that pleasant, down to the very last, very bitter drop.

The meal was so balanced and spot on, especially when it came to texture (huge selling point). There was just the right amount of slightly chewy melted provolone, perfectly seasoned and cooked chicken breast, warm tomatoes softened by heat, and a garlic aioli that brought it all together. The focaccia was phenomenal all on its own. It was crispy yet soft, herb studded, and toasted in such a way that made me ooh. Taste, check. Temperature, check. Texture, triple check. Simple, comforting, with a touch of elegance: this was my kind of meal.

The description alone will be enough to recreate the sandwich, though the whole experience is something I would go back to the cafe for again and again. Classical music, good service, delicious menu items. It all made for lifted spirits and a wonderful day.

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