Wednesday, May 20, 2009

More Desserts than Food Again - 5/20/2009

This was a good weekend for eating. Some friends and I started by taking advantage of Restaurant Week at a French restaurant in downtown Durham. It's called Rue Cler. While we waited for our table (some patrons just don't know when to leave), we were treated to a tasting of some Rose champagne (Bugey Cerdon) and pommes frites. As an appetizer, I wanted to try the pate maison, which oddly enough tasted of Romano cheese. We had a 3 course prix fixe selection. I chose a salad with feta and pecans, shrimp with gnocchi and duck breast with potatoes au gratin (one of the best I've had). All were quite delicious in their own way, but the size of each dish was moderated to make up for the 3 courses. The prix fixe portion of the menu was set at $25. For dessert, we split a terrine au chocolat (an oddly delicious cross of a chocolate mousse with a dense chocolate cake) and a banana-caramel crepe. We chatted and had a good time until they kicked us out around 11pm (they didn't really kick us out, but we got the hint from the way they were cleaning up).

Free-standing Lasagna

Here's a dish to feed a small army. It is a free-standing lasagna (aka lasagna pie). Instead of a casserole dish, it's made in a springform pan. There are 6 distinct and alternating layers in this dish: noodles, sauteed carrot and zucchini, sauteed spinach and mushrooms with basil, a ricotta-Parmiggiano mixture, tomato sauce (home-made), and mozzarella cheese. The only real trick is that the noodles are trimmed to fit in the round pan. It is baked for an hour, rested for 15 minutes and then unveiled for all to marvel at. I enjoyed this dish (and I'm continuing to enjoy the leftovers), though next time I would probably try to increase the Italian flavors a bit. But this was definitely an innovative recipe that will satisfy both meat-eaters and vegetarians.

Wine-Poached Pears

I had a Merlot-blackberry sauce, made with vanilla, cinnamon and citrus, left over from a failed recipe, so I decided to use it for poaching pears. Pears are not one of my favorite fruit, but they are growing on me. The gritty nature of the flesh is the least appealing feature, but that's where poaching comes in. It softens the pear and adds some other flavors to distract your mouth. I peeled some medium-sized bosc pears, then poached them in the simmering sauce for about 5 minutes per side, then let them cook to room temperature. The real battle with these pears is making sure they are evenly cooked and colored without beating them up too badly or letting them cook for too long. But in the end, you're left with a sweet treat with full-bodied flavors. I accented mine with Ciao Bella blackberry-Merlot sorbetto (what a coincidence to find that at the store), a cardamom-vanilla whipped cream and a sprig of mint that I'm growing myself.

Berry-Saffron Cookies

I received a sampling of Berry-Saffron Cookies recently that were, simply put, amazing. The story behind them is that they started as a chocolate chip cookie recipe that has evolved to incorporate non-traditional flavors so much that you would scarcely recognize the resemblance to the original recipe. This newer version contains a combination of strawberries (dried, I believe), sesame seeds, dark cocoa powder, turmeric, salt, pepper, and saffron, among some other possible flavors. The reason I liked these cookies so much is they are something you must savor to really enjoy. While eating them, you sharply taste the salt and a bit of pepper, but there's a background chocolatey flavor with hints of berry, meanwhile your entire mouth is filled with a plume of saffron essence. Unlike many other cookies, just eating one of these treats is very satisfying.

Spekkoek Box

What do you do when you have a friend confused by baking? Help them out of course!


One problem with this solution that I did not recognize initially was that the item to be baked is from an Indonesian cake mix. The difference with this cake is that it is made of multiple layers that are sequentially baked on top of one another. The goal is to have lots of even, thin layers (easier said than done). As you may be able to see in the picture, the cake is surrounded by burnt shrapnel. Our end product was a bit of a diamond in the rough. The extended baking burnt a bit of the outside of the cake, so some cosmetic surgery was necessary. What was salvageable was an interesting cake, moist from lots of butter and a touch of rum in the recipe, possessing a flavor like vanilla and some other unidentifiable spices. This cake is undoubtedly better when made from scratch by a professional, but how many Indonesian bakeries are there around here?

Raspberry Cream Cheese Coffee Cake

I'm turning into a baking fiend. Someone in my lab mentioned celebrating something and I was all over it like a fat kid on a box of Ho-hos. I made this beauty of a coffee cake, flavored with raspberry and cream cheese. You start by making a crumb with flour, butter and sugar, saving some on the side. To most of the crumb, you add baking powder, baking soda, salt, sour cream, egg, and almond extract. This mixture is spread into a springform pan as the base of the coffee cake. On top of this is spread a mixture of cream cheese, sugar and egg. About half of a jar of raspberry jam is placed on top of the cream cheese mixture (I pretty much just marbled mine a bit), then this is all topped with slivered almonds and the reserved crumbs. This is all baked for about 55 minutes until it is golden brown on top (no real way of testing it for doneness without just cutting into it). My cake layer was a little dry, but the cream cheese and jam helped to alleviate this problem. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, especially evident from the way it was gone within some hours of it being put out. I'll chock this one up in the win column.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

CSA - 5/12/2009

Mystery Box

What's in the box (and bag)? The question that has plagued game show contestants for decades (including the most recent incarnation of Deal or No Deal) will now be part of my weekly schedule until September. This box comes from my local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). The idea is you find a CSA farmer sometime during winter (i.e. before produce starts growing), pay them a decent sum up front and they will provide you with weekly set of fruits and veggies for 20-25 weeks. Depending on the farm, you can also get flowers or fresh herbs in the mix as well. The farm I chose (in part because they had shares left this late into the season), is Britt Farms. They responded to my e-mail very quickly and, upon meeting them today, they were very friendly folk. Here's what I got for my first week:

The Box Revealed

Going from left to right in the picture, you can see cabbage, broccoli, unknown lettuce, real green onions, red potatoes, strawberries, red romaine lettuce, fresh peas, and green romaine lettuce. They even threw in some extra strawberries in with the pint I chose. Plus, these strawberries are more red and beautiful than the ones you buy at the grocery store. The only downside I see with all this (other than having too many veggies to eat) is that the produce comes from a farm, so there is some dirt to be washed off of most of the lettuces and potatoes. Maybe now I finally have to get me a salad spinner...

For anyone in the Triangle area, all this week a few dozen restaurants are offering special menus for a discount. Lunch is $15 and dinner is $25, for which you get to choose an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. This can be quite a deal for going to a restaurant you've been wanting to try but have not felt like dropping $20 on the entree alone. Here's the website for more details.

Friday, May 8, 2009

This Week in Cooking - 5/9/2009

Last post of the night, and it's a long one. Last weekend, I went temporarily insane and thought I would need all of this food to get me through the week. So I made this all in the course of 9 hours split over two days.


I brought back soup for lunch this week with mulligatawny, a spiced Indian soup. It is made with many different spices (garam masala, cumin, tumeric, etc.), chicken broth, lentils, chicken, celery, carrot, and cilantro. While I'm sure Indian people may make this dish much better, my version came out decently enough for satisfying lunches all week long.

Beer-Can Chicken

I've wanted to shove a can of beer up a chicken's patoot for quite a while. Supposedly, using a can of beer inside of a whole chicken as it cooks helps to preserve moisture and tenderness in the meat. I was going to fire up the grill for the first time this year to make this, but it was raining, so I settled for the oven. After marinating the chicken in garlic, herbs and olive oil, I propped the chicken atop the beer can, then put it in the oven. Towards the end of the cooking, I glazed the chicken with apple jelly mixed with lemon juice. The chicken did come out pretty well, though it does look like it has a tan line problem...

Pan-Fried Smashed Potatoes

As a side dish for the chicken, I made these pan-fried smashed potatoes. After boiling the potatoes until almost tender, you mash them partway, then pan-fry them in oil with salt and pepper. After cooking through, you top with shredded parmesan cheese. The great part about this side is that you get to have a boiled potato with a crispy shell and nice, salty cheese on top.

Wine-Marinated Mahi-Mahi

I haven't had fish in a while, so I made this dish. I marinated some mahi-mahi fillets in a combination of white wine, olive oil, salt, pepper, bay leaves, and thyme for about an hour. Then I simply sauteed the fish in the marinade until it was done (flaked with a fork). The meaty mahi held up well to the cooking, and the marinade had a nice combination of flavors.

Almond-Garlic Pasta

Looking for a pasta dish with a sauce that's not tomato-, pesto- or cheese-based? Then try almonds. The sauce for this pasta is made by processing blanched almonds with some garlic and salt, then cooking it until it thickened in a pan. Peas and toasted almonds round out the flavors of this very innovative pasta dish.

Stir-Fried Edamame

Another good option to change up the routine is to use edamame, evidenced by these next two dishes. You can often find edamame in the frozen food section of the grocery store. After blanching the frozen soybeans, stir-fry them with soy sauce, oyster sauce, garlic, jalapeno, and pepper. This creates a delightful and flavorful side dish that will complement many different types of food. Think of them as lima beans except better.

Grilled Chicken with Edamame Skordalia

Lastly in this montage of culinary wonder is this dish: grilled chicken with edamame skordalia. I'm not entirely sure as to what a skordalia actually is, but in this case, you process edamame with some water, salt, pepper, and parmesan. It is almost like mashed potatoes except more flavorful and better for you. Pairing it with this grilled chicken created a very satisfying dinner dish. And that's all the food I thought I would eat in a week. The only way I could possibly eat all of this would be if I was training to be a sumo wrestler.

A Sweet Interlude - 5/8/2009

Amidst all of this cooking, there was definitely time for some sweet treats.

Congo Bars

Very briefly, since I refuse to give away the recipe, are congo bars, to which I may have made mention in previous posts. My version of these chocolate chip cookie bars came out decently chewy, especially since I undercooked them by about 5 minutes.

Orange Jell-o

Another simple family recipe makes a tasty and relatively healthy dessert. Adding canned pineapple and sliced bananas to orange Jell-o is satisfying on most nights. A dollop of Cool Whip really makes it, though.

Coconut Rice Pudding

A not so healthy dessert is rice pudding. I've been searching high and low over the years for a good recipe and I finally have one. Too bad it involves three cans of coconut milk. But the pudding comes out creamy, the rice is tender but not mushy and the coconut (both cooked and toasted) make the flavor of the vanilla bean hit home.
GF PB-CC Cookies

Mothers' Day is this weekend and here is the sneak peak at what I sent my mom (hopefully she won't see this until she's already eaten some). My mom cannot eat gluten products, so I do my best to find recipes for treats for her to enjoy that she would normally not be able to eat. This recipe straight out of Southern Living uses only peanut butter, chocolate chips, vanilla, egg, and baking soda. And yet the cookies form a dough easily and look like normal chocolate chip cookies. Plus peanut butter always makes things better. So if you're looking for a tasty gluten-free treat or just want to forgo the flour, try these easy cookies.

Tokyo Banana

A member of my lab brought in this international treat called Tokyo Banana. It's a bit like a banana-shaped twinkie with banana-flavored filling. I love Japanese treats because they are usually decent in quality and very innovative. Even better are the descriptions on the packaging: "People gather to TOKYO from here and there with memories of their home. And then, Tokyo gets everyone's home town."

Tokyo Banana Cross-section

Greekfest - 5/8/2009

I had a strong desire for some Greek flavors last week, so here's what I managed to come up with:

Greek Baked Shrimp

I have to admit that I made this dish twice. The first time, I made it and set it out to cool before putting it in the fridge. Then I left town for a day and a half. When I came home, I was not willing to chance a week of intestinal problems just to eat some seafood, so I threw out the first version and remade it later in the week. This may appear to be a normal dish combining shrimp, tomato and feta, but it is not. You saute some garlic and onion, then add cinnamon and allspice. Cook the tomatoes in this mixture, add the shrimp, bake it all in a casserole dish with some feta on top, and serve sprinkled with dill. This combination probably would be pretty decent normally, but the cinnamon and allspice really make the flavors pop. The tang of the feta seems to go through phases of accord and combat with the spices on your tongue, but it's all in the realm of good flavors.

Fage Greek Yogurt

One of my favorite Greek dishes is the gyro, but who has the time to process lamb and other meats with spices, form it into a cylindrical mold and slowly roast it on a spit? It's probably better that I have a day job, otherwise I might give that a try. For those of us who don't have that kind of time all the time, nature has given unto us the rotisserie chicken. Shredded chicken meat is not only healthy, but an easy addition to this meal. The base of the gyro, instead of a pita, is naan, the classic Indian flatbread. It is brushed with olive oil and garlic, then broiled just a bit. The tzatziki sauce is made with Greek yogurt (my favorite brand is pictured above), with some shredded Kirby cucumbers, salt, pepper, fresh garlic, and lemon juice. On top of this is the chicken, a mixture of grape tomatoes, sliced red onion and lemon juice, then some shredded iceberg lettuce. While this may all prove to be quite a mouthful, it packs a huge flavor punch. If you want a good Greek fix without having to venture to a local pseudo-Greek eatery (where you may expect disappointment unless you live near a Greek mecca), give this recipe a try.

Chicken Gyros

Restaurant Round-up - 5/8/2009

No need to worry. Just because I have not posted in a couple weeks does not mean I'm not eating. In fact, I cooked so much last weekend that I ran out of time and energy to post it all. So I will be marathon posting my eating experiences tonight. Firstly, I want to talk about the food I didn't make.

Punchy's Chili Dog

While tooling around in Charlotte looking for a late dinner, Jessica and I happened across this place called Punchy's Diner. The main draw of the restaurant was that it looked like an old timey diner. It seems the owners may also own the auto parts store nearby (also named Punchy's), which makes them credible to prepare my food in my book. Inside the diner, they had a couple of old cars on display along with all of the usual diner paraphernalia. I could not resist getting this chili dog. For most places, chili dogs are a simple equation: hot dog + chili + bun. This restaurant chose to give the chili dog a North Carolinian flavor by topping it with cole slaw. The creamy deliciousness of the cole slaw helped to cool the chili, but also let the meaty chili pair with the hot dog. And steak fries are always a welcome side item.

Swedish Meatballs

New to Charlotte is an Ikea store. If you are in need of reasonably priced furniture or accessories or just want to get inspired, you should definitely stop by your local Ikea. Take as long as you want in the store, because they have a small cafeteria for all of your dietary needs. Now, Sweden may not be top of your list for your next international foodie adventure (we all have them, right?), but the food at Ikea is pretty good. My first choice was an obvious one: Swedish meatballs. The meatballs are served with some mashed potatoes and slathered with a light gravy, all of which forms a plate of tasty wonder on its own, but they added some lingonberry (I think) jam on the side. Like cranberry sauce with turkey, this jelly added a bit of sweetness to the savory meat.

Ikea Drinks

To wash down our plate of pre-dinner, we drank from these juice boxes. I preferred the chrysanthemum drink to the lingonberry one (the latter tasted a little like grape juice). A nicely nostalgic way to rehydrate for more shopping.

Beef Brisket Casserole

Now to revisit a previously posted restaurant: No. 1 Panda. The first time we ate at this restaurant, we had a good time and I took ok pictures with my phone. This time was even better and I remembered my camera. I will admit, the service is still not optimum, but the food and the friendliness of the family working there more than make up for this. Two friends and I split three entrees that ended up coming out successively instead of all at once. This may have actually been better for us as communal eaters. First to be served was a beef brisket "casserole." Casserole in this context means a Chinese hot-pot beef stew. The beef and mixed veggies came out simmering in one of the most flavorful beef sauces I've ever had. This is my new favorite way to eat brisket. There's no way to describe all of the levels of flavor packed into this dish, so you'll just have to try it yourself.

Seafood Medley

The middle dish was a seafood medley. Clams, calamari, fish, and probably some other parts were combined in a light but delectable sauce that was perfect for table-wide picking. You can't lose with fresh seafood cooked just right.

Crispy Duck

Last but not least is crispy duck. I was expecting more Peking-style duck, but this one had a sturdy breading on the outside (sturdy enough for the duck to be fried whole and then cleanly chopped into pieces). Warning: this is the dish that took the longest to prepare, so buyer beware. At first, I thought the breading was salty, but then I came to realize that the duck meat itself may have been brined beforehand. The salty crispiness made me covet each piece a bit more, almost like Gollum from Lord of the Rings. I don't get to eat duck that often, but when I do I make sure to get it somewhere that knows what they're doing.