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Cuisine to Invoke a Perfect Weekend

 
 

After getting off work 30 minutes early yesterday afternoon, I raced back to my apartment, grabbed my car, and sped down (and at times, crawled down) I-5 south.  I rarely visit my boyfriend in Tacoma for the weekend, but because of his local Easter Sunday gigs, we decided it would be best to stay in his neck of the woods for a few days.  With a warm and sunny forecast to get me pumped for the weekend, I blasted my favorite Glee singles from my car stereo, belting them out at full volume.

courtesy of: http://www.boulderdowntown.com

Tacoma is not the most desirable place in the universe, but it has its allure at times.  There’s not much to do,, so I spend most of my time reading, happy houring at 208 Garfield and Farelli’s, or enjoying the great outdoors in Bresemann Forest.  But my favorite thing to do while I’m there is to spend time in the kitchen.  Ryan’s kitchen is rather primitive compared to mine.  There are no electric mixers, no fancy pans or utensils, and only the most basic of cooking and baking ingredients.  This forces me to not only get creative in the kitchen, but to also use very simple preparations and flavors.  It’s a welcomed challenge that almost always brings a satisfying result.

On my way over to Tacoma, I called Ryan to ask him what we should do for dinner.  In true guy form, he said steak and potatoes.  He added that I should get “something green,” since he knows I’m all about getting my daily servings of vegetables.  At QFC, I found New York bone-in top sirloin for ridiculously cheap at about $6.  I then grabbed a few sweet potatoes ($.99/lb.), and a bunch of organic broccoli (my favorite), for an unreal $.99.  I had originally bought a bottle of cheap merlot, but after a few glasses, I found my well-hidden stash of wine my parents had brought over from Eastern Washington. 

 Ryan, my friend Dylan and I cracked open a bottle of Robert Karl, made by the Gunselman family in Spokane.  We sipped the delicious blend and enjoyed the last few minutes of sun while our sweet potatoes baked.  Ryan worked his grill magic with the steaks, and I finished steaming the broccoli on the stove. 

Ryan and Dylan

As the sun set behind the neighbor’s house, we sat outside at our rickety picnic table and enjoyed the very simple and cheap, yet divine meal we had prepared.  After dinner, the weather quickly returned to chilly temperatures, and our brief glimpse of the joys of summer faded away.  But it’s just around the corner.  Until summer is here in full swing, we will have to keep invoking it like we always do in the Northwest:  through the heavy reliance on outdoor grills and fleece jackets.

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Monsoon: A Wedding of Asian Flavor

My review of Seattle Restaurant Week went out with a storm at Monsoon.  Tucked away at the far reaches of Capitol Hill, away from the sarcastic facial hair and unisex skinny jeans of the Pike/Pine corridor, you might not have ever heard of it.  Have no fear; I am bringing the experience to you!  But don’t take my word for it.  Get in your car, your silly moped (for all you Seattle hipsters), or hoof it up to 19th and Roy and taste this crazy good food for yourself.

When you go, make sure you don’t accidentally pass it.  The restaurant sign is rather understated (just like the ambiance and the food), and it only has about 15 tables.  While the Seattle standard of minimalistic décor usually leaves me feeling cold, the warm wood tones and romantic candlelight made me feel right at home at Monsoon.  After fifteen minutes of taking in my surroundings, I even started to feel like it was sexy (or maybe it was the tattooed couple next to me who had their hands and lips all over each other).

I usually don’t comment on my wine selections, but I have to comment on the great glass of j. laurens cremant de Limoux ($10) I enjoyed with dinner.  This lovely champagne was uncommonly balanced between syrupy sweet and puckering tart.  The bubbles weren’t overpowering me with the constant urge to snort them up.  And, just like my server assured me, it went with everything I ate.

My first course was the barbecued Carlton Farms pork spare ribs with ginger, hoisin, and five spice.  I’m a sucker for ribs (pardon the expression), and when they are on a menu, you know that’s what I’m getting.  Needless to say, I’ve had my share of ribs.  I was expecting three or four delicate ribs to be brought out, but I had enough to share from the pile of about eight ribs that were set in front of me.  I was glad for the extra chances to indulge.  The meat was incredibly tender and abundant on the bone, tasting more like a baby back rib.  The sauce was refreshing, and not overpoweringly smoky or sweet like some other Asian-style ribs I’ve tried.

After much indecision, I chose the sautéed white prawns with lemongrass, spicy yellow curry, roasted peanuts, and ngo om.  The prawns were mild and sweet, while the generous pool of sauce made a wonderful, warm combination of lemongrass and coconut milk.  I kept finding myself laying down fresh beds of jasmine rice on my plate just to have a chance to eat more sauce!  After my spare rib feast, I had to take some of my shrimp home with me.  I’ll be having the leftovers with plenty of rice to sop up all the sauce I can possibly scrape out of the box.

To finish off, I had the coconut crème caramel.  The appearance and consistency was halfway between flan and crème brulée.  The coconut flavors were more of an essence, as the eggs, cream, and vanilla already held their own.  The slight bitterness of the thin caramel sauce helped to balance out the richness of every savored bite.

Overall, Monsoon is a Seattle gem.  The understated yet impeccable Asian dishes let the flavors of the proteins and the spices stand on their own.  Even though the excitement (and credit card bills) of Seattle Restaurant Week are now over, I will definitely be heading back to Monsoon soon to share my new-found treasure with others.

10 Kitchen Products You Don’t Need

I’m amazed sometimes when I go to other people’s places see all the kitchen gadgets they have.  Do they ever really use them?  Are you single-handedly prepping for your city’s berry festival with your strawberry huller?  Do you host a melon ball soirée on a monthly basis?  But alas, these gadgets and others are still tucked away deep in the bowels of kitchen drawers, taking up space and killing hard-earned dollars.  Here is my list of the top ten most commonly bought kitchen gadgets that you really don’t need, and how to do without them.

Items 1-5 on my list have to do with knife skills.  If you cook with any regularity, you should get yourself a quality pair of knives and learn some blade proficiency.  I can say with entire confidence that the best culinary purchase I have ever made was my set of Four Star Henkels.  Scope the sales, sign up for a in-store credit card with your purchase, and buddy up with the sales associate who is making commission off the sale, and you might be able to score yourself a set of high quality knives at deep discount.

Once you have your knives, you don’t have to go to Le Cordon Bleu to learn how to wield them.  If you have a friend who has worked in a kitchen, have them show you the ropes.  Watch the Food Channel to see how the pros do it.  If you are really jazzed up, go on YouTube to check out some sweet knife moves.  You will save yourself time in prepping and money buy not having to buy stupid kitchen gadgets or buying expensive pre-cut foods.   The more you can perfect your cutting, the more easy, fun, and satisfying your kitchen experiences will be.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, here’s the list:

  1. Apple slicer:  Pairing knives or bird’s beak knives work great as shown here.
  2. Pizza cutter:  If you are eating pizza often enough to necessitate a pizza cutter, you should consider backing off.  Plus, as long as you have a large, sharp knife, there should be no problem cutting up your pizza.
  3. Avocado slicer:  Slicing an avocado is not as intuitive a process as the other items listed.  Check out this video to find the easiest, fastest way to slice an avocado.
  4. Bagel slicer:  If you know basic knife safety, you can slice a bagel with confidence.
  5. Hard Egg slicer:  Really?!?
  6. Teakettle:

    Buying Stuff You Don't Need Never Looked So Cool

    While a teakettle may be a good way to decorate an unused kitchen stove, a working kitchen should have all burners open for pots or pans, or to receive hot items straight from the oven.  Plus, if you have a pot for hot water, why do you need a kettle?  Filling a pot with as much water as you need for tea and putting it on the stove is a lot quicker than a teakettle because the water isn’t as deep.  Extra points for pot that has a lip on it for easy pouring

  7. Panini grill:  How often do you make a frickin’ Panini?!  Personally, it never has happened.  Ever.  Why?  Because using a regular pan to crisp the outside of a sandwich works just fine.  If you really do care about the uniformed crispy ridges and the smushed effect of using a Panini grill, get a grill pan and push down on the top of the sandwich as it cooks.  Then you can use your grill pan to cook burgers, salmon, chicken, you name it.
  8. Salad tongs:  We used to use salad tongs at my parent’s house when I didn’t have maturity to make sure my hands were clean before eating dinner.  After age 10, we used our hands.  You really only touch your own salad, so what’s the big deal?  If you’re still grossed out by hand-to-food contact, just use two wooden spoons or other big utensils you already own and use regularly.
  9. Salad spinner:  Huge waste of space.  If you have a strainer of some sort, and a kitchen towel or paper towels, you can just rinse your salad and lay it out to dry.
  10. Magic Bullet You’d be surprised how many people I’ve seen with this thing.  Yes, the infomercials are jolly good fun, but the product really sucks.  There’s a weak motor, not very good liquid volume, and again, it takes up space if you already have a full-sized blender or food processor.  If you really are determined to make each one of your party guests their own customized frozen blended beverage (I didn’t think so), you can rinse out your blender between drinks.

Andaluca Does not Equal Andalucía

Maybe I’m still riding the high of my Tom Douglas experience last night, but I wasn’t too hot on yesterday’s visit to Andaluca.  As a part of my Seattle Restaurant Week tour, I decided to continue my Mediterranean adventures with a three-course lunch.  I was excited to step back into some of the delicious food I experienced when I lived in Andalucía, Spain, but was left unmoved.

Tuscan Tomato Soup

I started things off with the Tuscan tomato bread soup, which would later prove to be my favorite part of the meal.  The soup was decidedly more tangy and less sweet than most.  The basil crème fraiche (insert your South Park- related giggles here) made the zing all the more pronounced.  I might be back for another cup if this lovely weather decides to turn back around towards winter.

Mushroom Chevre Risotto

Second, I had two of the “pintxos”: the mushroom and chevre risotto, and the mini crab tower.  The texture of the risotto rice was good, but the flavor of the strong cheese overpowered the delicate earthiness of the mushroom.

Mini Crab Tower

The mini crab tower did little for me.  There was little seasoning to the crab to make a contrast with the creamy avocado at the bottom of the tower.  I was glad they served the tower with slices of grapefruit to wake up my taste buds.

Cabrales Cheesecake

For dessert, I had the cabrales cheesecake, made of a tangy Spanish blue cheese, apricot fig jelly, a red wine and honey reduction, graham cracker hazelnut crust, and a hazelnut tuile.  That’s a lot of words for a cheesecake that in the end was bland and uninspiring.

I listened to the server talk to another group in detail about the house sangria.  I was tempted to get a glass, then realized that doing so after my previous glass of wine would put me half in the bag at 2 p.m. on a Monday afternoon.  I regret not trying a glass, but they do have the recipe online, so maybe I’ll make my own.

My biggest dissatisfaction with my experience at Andaluca was actually not the food, but the ambiance.  The fake flower arrangements, bad lighting fixtures, weird patterned booths and walls, all wrapped together with cheesy easy-listening flamenco tracks made me feel like I was in a mildly hip mid 90s eatery.  It’s really a shame, too, because the actual space of the restaurant is impressive, with huge inviting bay windows in the front and plenty of space to accommodate guests.

Overall, Andaluca will need to update their menu and their atmosphere to keep up with the competition of all the original and up-and-coming restaurants in Seattle.  With more interesting flavor profiles and a facelift, Andaluca could maximize its potential and rise to the top.

Her Name Was Lola, She Was Delicious

My Seattle Restaurant week review continues with a Seattle imperative:  Tom Douglas.  I originally wanted to go to Madison Valley Café last night, but silly Jordan didn’t realize they didn’t do Sunday night dinner service (or Monday night for that matter).  My brother, Adam, is a hardcore Seattle foodie, and immediately had a list of five alternatives to Madison Valley Café.  After watching the leg of lamb Iron Chef America battle the night before, I immediately decided on Lola, Tom Douglas’ Greek spot.  And how Greek (and delectable) it was.

Jackie's Greek Salad

Jackie's Greek Salad

I started off with Jackie’s Greek salad with barrel-aged feta.  I’m usually not a fan of Greek salad due to the tendency for feta overload, but this salad, named after Douglas’ wife, was very tame in the feta flavor department.  As you can see from the photo, the feta came as a single block of crumbly goodness so I could choose how much feta went into each bite of the mixture of raw red onion slices, cucumber bites, and juicy cherry tomato.  After all was said and done, the robustly flavored yet slightly muted feta was definitely the star of the dish.

My drink of the night was the Downtown Mai Tai ($10), a seductively sweet yet complex cocktail made with Lola’s house-made spiced rum.  I could have eaten a whole bowl of the port-soaked cherries that my glass was garnished with.

Leg of Lamb

Leg of Lamb

Second came a generous portion of the slow roasted leg of lamb with fennel and olive.  While the flavor of lamb is always delicious, it tends to get and little too chewy for me.  The lamb at Lola was so tender and juicy that it basically melted in my mouth.  I tasted fennel, sage, dill, and maybe even a little cumin in the mix of succulent spices used to season the meat.  The wilted greens that were served family-style at my table we not my favorite, however.  Maybe I’m not a cooked greens type of girl, but I had to opt out after my first bite on account of the bitterness.  Adam loves greens and was in heaven though, so I guess they were on to something after all.

What I loved more than even the lamb, however, was the bowl of smashed potatoes brought out to my table.  Often times I opt out of potato sides, as they usually lack the texture or flavor to be worth the calories.  But I think I ate more potatoes than lamb at this meal!  The smashed potatoes were cooked then literally individually smashed into a thick disc.  As foodies, of course, we had to ask our server to verify the preparation process of the potatoes.  As Adam had guessed, they are cooled; letting the potatoes sweeten up by letting the starches turn to sugars. Lastly, they are flash fried for crispiness.  Somewhere in all of that, bits of garlicky, salty goodness are added to the outside of the potato.  The finished product is a sweet, salty, and crispy nugget that I couldn’t leave alone.

Coconut Pie, Meet your Maker

Coconut Pie, Meet your Maker!

While not on the original menu, I ordered the triple layer coconut cream pie.  This piece of notorious Dahlia Bakery pie was of monstrous proportions, and I shared it with both of my dinner partners.  Unlike many other coconut cream pies, the coconut flavor wasn’t overbearing, nor was it fake tasting.  The solid custard base stood on its own, and wasn’t buried in the mounds of whipped cream you sometimes get with other cream pies.  Kudos to Dahlia Bakery, that just so happens to be another Tom Douglass spot (Coincidence?  I think not).

While I cannot complain in the least about the food, I do have to say that I wish the comfort reflected in the menu was also reflected in the ambiance of the restaurant.  There was minimal continuity to the theme of the décor, or maybe I didn’t ‘get it,’ like so many other artistic expressions in Seattle.  The overuse of drab shades of brown and industrial metal details did not do much to make me feel relaxed while I was eating.  I feel that a more rustic, welcoming atmosphere would greatly increase the overall dining experience, as well as reflect the earthy flavors of the menu.

Pancake Breakfasts for N00bs

For me, the traditional pancake breakfast goes up there next to baseball and 4th of July on the list of Americana.  I have fond memories of pancake breakfasts and B4D (breakfast for dinner) from my childhood, but never realized how much I loved it until I lived in Granada, Spain, for six months.

Let me tell you a little bit about Spanish breakfast (or lack thereof).

The Spanish Breakfast

The Spanish Breakfast

There are no pancakes, there are no eggs, and there is certainly no bacon.  The closest you’re going to get to American breakfast in Spain is a piece of toast with some jam.  As a whole, the Spaniards do not believe in anything substantial for breakfast, just a cup of coffee and a pastry, or some toast.  They put themselves through borderline starvation until the comida, where they chow down and if they’re lucky, take a little snoozer in front of the TV before heading back to work.

After six long months of no American breakfast, I had one main objective for the first 12 hours I was back in the states:  make a complete pancake breakfast.  It didn’t go so hot the first time around.  My boyfriend and I were a hot, inexperienced mess in the kitchen, trying to figure out how to time all the components so they all were hot and fresh when it was time to eat.  Over and hour later, we had a full, albeit sub-par, pancake breakfast feast in front of us.

Since then, I’ve perfected the preparation of the pancake breakfast, right down to the timing of preparation, and the perfect pancake recipe.  I’d like to impart my knowledge by pointing out 3 pancake breakfast n00b mistakes and fixing them.

N00b Mistake #1:  Using Bisquick.

Come on, people.  If you have the most basic of baking ingredients in your kitchen, there is no need to use Bisquick.  As you can see from the label, it has unnecessary ingredients like partially hydrogenated oils to keep it shelf stable.  I spend more time trying to get the consistency of Bisquick right than it takes me to just put together the scratch ingredients into a delicious, much more satisfying homemade mix.  Overall, you are going to save yourself time, money, and flavor (and maybe some health) if you just make your pancakes yourself.  Here’s my tried-and-true, no-fail pancake recipe:

Good Old-Fashioned Pancakes

Makes about 12 4-inch pancakes

Ingredients:

1-½ c. flour

3-½ t. baking powder

1 t. salt

1 T. sugar

1- ¼ c. milk

1 egg, beaten

3 T butter, melted

1 t. vanilla

I added sliced strawberries to my pancake mix

I added sliced strawberries to my pancake mix.

Directions:

1. In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar.

2.  Pour the milk, egg, butter, and vanilla into the flour mixture.  Mix until combined, but no over-mixed.  The batter will be slightly lumpy.  If you’d like to add fruit or chips to your pancakes, do it now.

3. Heat a lightly oiled griddle or frying pan over medium heat.  Pour or scoop batter onto griddle, using approximately ¼ c. of batter per pancake (I use a ¼ measuring cup).  Brown on both sides and serve hot.  Be sure to oil the griddle for each new round of pancakes.

N00b Mistake #2:  Serving up hot breakfast items cold.

In a rush? Don't be. Two or three pancakes at a time is all you're going to fit in that pan.

It took me a while to figure it out, but now I’ve perfected the timing of when I prep all my components for breakfast.  I will say that it is easier to do if you’re not flying solo in the kitchen.  Even having someone in charge of setting the table helps.

Sorry, vegetarians, but bacon hitting a hot pan is a divinely inspired sound.

If you’re serving bacon or sausage, you’re going to want prep that first.  Cook your bacon or sausage on the stove, and when they are done, put them on an oven-safe plate, separating the layers of meat with paper towel to soak up excess grease.  Pop them in the oven on the warmer setting, or about 200° until it’s time to serve.  Next, cook your pancakes or waffles.  When each round of pancakes or waffles gets done, pop them into the oven to stay warm on another oven-safe plate, separating the layers with paper towel.  Very last, cook your eggs up (I cook mine with a little bit of leftover bacon grease), and send them straight out to serve.  Grab the components from the stove (with an oven mitt, of course), and get to enjoying your delicious meal.

N00b Mistake #3:  Throwing out leftover pancakes.

My first pancakes stay nice and toasty in the oven while I whip up the remaining batter.

Terrible idea!  Especially when you’re using my recipe above J.  If you have leftover pancakes or waffles, lay them out in one layer on a cookie sheet and let them freeze up in the freezer.  This will keep them from getting soggy or sticking together in the freezing process.  When they are hard, you can stack them in a plastic freezer bag or even a leftover plastic English muffin bag if you have one.  When you’re ready for breakfast bliss on the fly, take out a few pancakes and defrost them in the toaster.  They should be nice and crispy and just as delicious as the first time around.

Part of this complete breakfast!

Hope this has helped make your dreams of a perfect pancake breakfast a reality.  Did my tips help? I’d love to hear your own tricks and see some pictures of your perfect breakfast.

Chicken Soup for the Tattered Soul

My romp through the rain the other night hasn’t done much for my cold. The few obligatory engagements I’ve had over the past few days have barely been able to drag me out of bed, and I woke up feeling funky fresh yet again this morning. While I’m not a fan of being sick, I am a fan of the comfort food that comes along with being sick. I have fond memories of my mother making me “sick eggs” (soft boiled eggs over buttered toast) as a child, and the delicious nourishment of packets of Lipton’s Super Noodle (no longer in stores).

Chicken noodle soup isn’t just a wives’ tale, either. Many health experts agree that the sodium and carbohydrates found in the soup aid in absorption and retention of water. While adequate hydration is always an important aspect of wellbeing, it is a crucial part of fighting off an infection. The problem is, I’m getting sick (pardon the expression) of bad soup! Soups made by others are often too bland or too salty for my tastes. Packaged or canned soups tip the sodium scale to obscene levels, and don’t pack the freshness I crave. To increase healthiness and flavor, I decided to make my first-ever homemade chicken noodle soup. And I’m really glad I did. Not only was the soup delicious, but it was also much more satisfying than other options. To top it off, it was very easy to make, which comes in handy when you can barely get out of bed. Here’s the recipe I used, adapted from Mark Bittman’s book, How to Cook Everything:

Soul Saving Chicken Soup:

Makes 4 hearty servings

Ingredients:

The life-giving trio of chopped ingredients

The life-giving trio of chopped ingredients

6 cups of chicken stock (buy it or make your own)

2 carrots, thinly sliced

2 celery stalks, finely chopped

1 boneless, skinless chicken breast, chopped (can be either cooked or raw)

1 cup of pasta or rice (I used cut spaghetti for childhood memory’s sake)

Lemon pepper to taste (or just plain salt and pepper)

Directions:

1. Pour chicken stock into a large saucepan. Turn heat to medium high. When the stock is almost boiling, turn down to a medium simmer (medium heat).

2. Add carrot and celery, and simmer until they are tender (about 15 minutes).

3. In a separate pot or pan, start the water needed for your rice or pasta, and start the cooking process as directed on the bag or box. (Cooking the rice or pasta in a separate pan and not in the stock will ensure that the rice or pasta doesn’t absorb so much liquid that it does not keep well as leftovers).

4. Add the chicken. If the chicken is cooked, simmer for about 3 minutes until heated through. If the chicken is raw, simmer for 5-7 minutes until cooked through.

5. Add the cooked rice or pasta to the stock mixture in the last few minutes of simmering. 6. Pour yourself a big bowl, sprinkle with lemon pepper, and dig in.

7. Repeat step 6 until you feel better or it’s time to make a new batch of soup.

Being sick is the worst. Which is why I believe we need the best in nourishing, comforting food while we are trying get over a bug. From my couch to yours, feel better soon!