Monday, March 31, 2008

Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. Food in Star Trek.

Yes, it's a slow food week.

We're working our way through the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine DVDs and I think Avery Brooks' Commander Sisko has become my favorite Star Trek captain (he's promoted later in the series). Why? He's a big fan of food and cooking! A foodie captain... that might win over Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard of Earl Grey fame.

The disc we have right now has an episode ("Equilibrium") with relevant discussion on beets.

Major Kira: What are we having? It smells delicious!
Jake Sisko: Blackened red fish with creamed spinach and sauteed beets.
Dr. Bashir: Beets?
Cmdr. Sisko: You don't like beets, Doctor?
Dr. Bashir: Well, they're not exactly a personal favorite of mine, no.
Cmdr. Sisko: That's because you haven't had them prepared properly. Beets are a very misunderstood vegetable.
Dr. Bashir: Well, I look forward to understanding them better.

D. said, "Yeah, so do I." Guess we'll find out tomorrow when our next CSA box comes in. Maybe we'll have more beets.

Also, we enjoyed Constable Odo learning how to properly whisk souffle batter. At first, he moves the bowl while holding the whisk still. Yes, this is a geek entry. No, there won't be much more of them.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Moo Moment: Wedding Planning Snarkfest

I'll be interspersing my adventures in food with a few posts on my adventures in wedding planning. Mostly, it'll still be about food, mixed with tongue-in-cheek commentary on the ridiculous (and ridiculously expensive!) comings and goings of planning what the industry calls "MYYYYY DAAAAYYY". Like it's a national holiday or something.

It's only been a week or so, but D. and I are wading tentatively into the chaos known as wedding planning. Here's what I've learned so far from wedding websites:

  • I'm engaged, therefore I'm supposed to morph into a super-girly, pink-loving, frill-adoring, squealy-OMG-he-loves-me, uber-party-planner. I missed the memo on that one.
  • Feeding guests good food? Not as big of a priority as the dress or the flowers. That hurts me.
  • Did you know that on the big day, the guests are supposed to be "gazing at me" the entire time? The entire time. Really. And there's not supposed to have anything to keep them from gazing at me. No, I'm serious... I read an article that said something like, "If you have a great cake, it'll be a focal point for guests when they're not gazing at you." What?! I want a party, not an audience.
  • Brides plan weddings. Their partners are merely props. That's upsetting, because I don't want to do this shit by myself.
  • Wedding pictures: some of my family, some of the wedding party, some of his family, and a whole lot more of me. I'm the most photogenically-challenged mo-fo on this planet. Hell, it's probably not even the camera... I just look that bad. I will be in enough pictures to prove that I was present on that day. Nothing more.
  • I'm supposed to be happy all. of. the. time. I've worked 12-hour days for most of this week and worked through the weekend... that doesn't leave a lot of time for squealing and staring at the ring.
  • We're supposed to plan a unique event and be ourselves. Bwahahaha! Right. All the photos I've seen look the same. Plus, the industry assumes all women are the same (see first bullet). It seems the only unique way to have a wedding is to not have one at all. Even the ones that take place on the bridge of the Enterprise (you can do it at the Las Vegas Hilton's Star Trek Experience) often feature someone wearing a white dress. Maybe I should ask Indira to dress up as a Klingon warrior. She can be Lursa. Kirkleton can be B'Etor.
  • If I don't do all of this just right, I've failed as a female. Wait, I think I already did when I was six and was forced to wear a dress and makeup for the school's "fashion show". It was, arguably, one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.
I'm sure there will be some less bitchy posts, but I find myself laughing hysterically and being utterly dismayed at what I've seen so far.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Bouchon Las Vegas

D. proposes. D. discloses location of surprise trip. D. reveals that we have reservations at Bouchon.

Guess which had me squealing and jumping up and down? Let's just say it didn't involve any sparkly objects and a lot of Thomas Keller.

I might never hear the end of it, but it makes a fantastic conversation piece. The most hilarious thing is that my response surprised no one. No one. In my defense, I thought the proposal would be coming during the trip, but I'd never guess that D. would willingly make reservations at what he would consider a "frou-frou" restaurant.

Apparently, it was Anthony Bourdain who changed his mind. During the Las Vegas episode of
No Reservations, Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman visit Bouchon and order steak frites. D., noting that one of his favorite dishes were on the menu, decided that it was an acceptable location.

We both loved it. It's an amazing restaurant and, while I know Keller doesn't cook there, it lives up to his and his restaurants' reputation. It certainly wasn't frou-frou at all, with a relaxed atmosphere, a warm and friendly staff, and absolutely no pretension. Del Mar's Market could definitely take a page out of Bouchon's book. You can have a upscale restaurant with fabulous food and still behave warmly (not to mention without judgment) at your guests.

Our server was witty and knowledgable. I suspect Bouchon has seen its fair share of food geeks, because they were completely comfortable with photography in the restaurant. I was especially reassured by the guy at our next table, who was photographing his dinner with a Nikon digital SLR. The menus were printed on parchment paper and it didn't look like they would reuse them often, so I asked if I could keep one. Our server didn't even blink. He said people ask all the time and, since they don't reuse them at all (oy, that's not very environmentally conscious), I was more than welcome to do so. Yay!

He suggested that D. try the James Bond, a martini-esque drink of gin and vodka with a twist of yuzu. Again, I love yuzu and it's many uses. I ordered a syrah from Paso Robles (Update: The asst. GM at Bouchon replied to my inquiry and it's a '05 Clos Mimi, petite rousse... they did err on one thing, though, the winery is in Santa Maria, CA, not Paso Robles, CA), which was decent. Mellow and sweet, it was a little on the bland side, but it was good for this dinner because it took a backseat to the amazing dishes.

The meal began with an epi baguette (epi is the central flower in a wheat stalk, hence the name of the baguette's shape). I need to bake my next loaf like this.

The appetizers were nothing less than fabulous. D. ordered one of the specials, a slice of lightly crisped pork belly in a bed of flageolet beans and topped with fruit (apples, oranges, dried apricots). D. said the fruit sounded like an odd choice, but it meshed perfectly with the pork and beans. The pork was nice and fatty.

I ordered the
pâté de campagne, which was pretty memorable. The pate was smooth and rich, with the sharp watercress and spicy mustard being great accompaniments. There were little cornichons, which are basically gherkins. These are baby gherkins (pickling cucumber) lightly pickled. As with all baby vegetables, the flavor is sweeter. I normally dislike pickles, but this was really good.

D. ordered his steak frites, which he enjoyed. The meat was excellent and the fries were very good. The steak was topped with a little slab of maitre d'hotel butter. Recipes vary, but it's basically a compound butter with parsley, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Picture's a bit blurry b/c I didn't get close enough with my camera on the macro setting.

My entree was incredible. Unbelievable. I could write sonnets. On the menu, it's
plats de cotes de porc. It's slow-cooked pork shortribs on a bed of red wine-braised cabbage and a side of yellow corn polenta.

The pork was fork-tender, outrageously moist, and fatty enough to bring a delectable depth of flavor. I loved it so much that I'm now obsessed with buying the Bouchon cookbook so I can make it at home. Since the dish was dark and the lighting dim, the camera had a hard time focusing, so the picture is also blurry. I should have focused on an area with hard lines, like the edge of the plate, then keep the focus and turn the lens on the meat itself.

I couldn't let a blurry picture be the only remnant of that incredible meal, so I decided to take an shot of it half-consumed.

The little blob on the left is a spoonful of the polenta. The polenta itself was creamy and perfect texture-wise, but it was too buttery and bland overall. Corn isn't in season, hence the lack of sweetness expected from a corn-based dish. The cabbage, on the other hand, was obscenely delicious. It had the sweet and musky flavors of the wine and the tartness of the cabbage.

What amazed us was that we finished the meal absolutely stuffed. We were expecting the plates to be somewhat small and adequately filling, but the portion sizes were larger than we thought.

Nevertheless, we couldn't leave without dessert. D. picked another item from the specials menu, a Valrhona chocolate cake topped with Bavarian pastry cream and fresh strawberry sorbet. On the side were roasted bananas. The sorbet was my favorite part of this dish... it was light, sweet, and very fresh, which contrasted nicely with the dark chocolate cake.

My dessert, also from the specials, were chocolate bouchons (bouchon means cap or cork in French... the cakes are shaped like corks) topped with homemade ice cream. Left to right: mint chocolate chip, vanilla, and hazelnut. I loved the bouchons, which were a little better than D.'s cake. They were like crisp brownie bites with a moist cake center. The tops literally crunched like a cookie. The ice creams were also very good. Strong vanilla bean, smoky hazelnut (this was the best one), and a sharp and herb-y (not artificially flavored) mint chip.

Now, if only we could have food like this at our wedding, then I'd be a happy camper.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Moo Moment: D. and Moo's Anniversary with Outback Steakhouse and Sage French Cake

I know, I know, first Cheesecake Factory, now Outback Steakhouse? Sheesh, right? Well, Outback is a tradition for us. Back in the day, we realized our first anniversary (March 20) fell during finals week. Obviously, there was no time or energy to enjoy a fancy meal, yet we wanted something that was a little more than our usual fare. Outback, with its steak-dominant menu, was still reasonably-priced, but with a little more fanfare. Hey, we were college students on a budget!

Today, Outback is no longer "fancy," but as D. pointed out, "It's still a tad expensive." More like overpriced. We eat there once a year on our anniversary and, while we've bandied around the idea of changing venues, it's not the same without the Bloomin' Onion. Speaking of...

In the past year, they've revamped their menu to offer a variety of different portions. My usual prime rib now comes in three weights, so I opted for the 8-ounce. Perfect for me. I'm not eating a lot of meat nowadays, so excessive protein tends to sit like a brick in my gut.

Part of the meal was two choices of sides, instead of the old salad-or-soup-plus-one-side. I chose the Asian chopped salad, which must have originally been called the Wasabi chopped salad because our waitress called it that. Guess wasabi didn't appeal to their customers. It was a mayonnaise-y and slightly spicy mix of chopped iceberg lettuce and the occasional cucumber. It wasn't very good.

For dessert, I picked up some goodies from Sage French Cake. It's a great bakery in Kearny Mesa, but the two times I've been there, they've run out of pastries long before closing time. I find that to be excellent, actually. That means they don't make more than they need and the pastries are always fresh. The first time, the case was completely empty by 7:15pm. This time, we were down to a handful of cake slices, so I picked three: strawberry shortcake, chocolate raspberry mousse, and caramel mousse.

The strawberry shortcake was the classic Asian interpretation with eggy and moist sponge cake with fresh whipped cream and strawberries. It was fantastic.

D. loves raspberries, but the chocolate raspberry mousse cake wasn't quite what we'd hoped for. The flavors weren't balanced very well, so it was tart and bitter at the same time and not in a good way.

The caramel mousse cake was really good. It had a burnt sugar crust a la creme brulee.

One last thing... when we arrived home from dinner, we were greeted by Bear playing the St. Bernard stereotype. Interesting bit of useless trivia... the classic image of a St. Bernard isn't true, they never carried brandy around their necks. Well, Bear did have something around his neck.

It looks like D. is going to become Mr. Moo! It is 2008, after all. Hehe.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Costa Brava

Last Tuesday, March 18, we met up for Costa Brava's happy hour. Located towards the northern end of PB's main drag on Garnet Ave., it's nicely enclosed with a lovely fence covered in ivy. Can't see out, can't see in. As I took the picture of the awning, some lovely folks pulled up in their pick-up truck and yelled at me to go back to my own country.

I'm from Los Angeles.

Granted, as M. pointed out, Los Angeles is practically its own country.

As I entered the patio to the shocked looks of Tirrone and the C.W.G. (the rest of our group hadn't arrived yet), who had heard the yelling but couldn't see that it was me on the other side of the fence, I noticed they had started with a lovely little dish of
patatas alioli. Lightly fried chunks of potato with a drizzle of garlic aioli.

The menu is small, but interesting. There were tapas and
montaditos, which were sandwiches.

pollo al ajillo (picture blurry) was all right. It's chicken in garlic and wine sauce, but it was a bit bland and the chicken was a little dry.

Tirrone ordered the
tortilla de patata from the montaditos menu, but our server told him that it's better served a la carte. I really liked this dish, which was hearty and comforting. D. ended up ordering the actual sandwich, which proved to be a weird combination.

I spotted caracoles al alioli and couldn't resist. I love escargots. The butter/garlic/parsley sauce was just right for them.

I ordered a montadito with jamon serrano. It was a few slices of ham placed between dry bread. I wasn't a huge fan of the dry bread, but the ham was very tasty.

The empanadillas de atun were pretty good. The tuna was either overcooked or canned, but the pastry was crispy and it was decent overall.

I really liked the pinchitos morunos, which were skewers of lamb served in a sauce of onions, peppers, garlic, and butter. The lamb was quite flavorful and the sauce excellent for leftover bread.

The prices are a bit on the high side, but service is excellent and the sangria is delightful.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

J.'s Dark Chocolate Beet Muffins

J. made the dark chocolate muffins from Nicole's Pinch My Salt. Beet count is now at 5 CSA boxes in a row, so J. actually didn't use up her share of the beets even after doubling the recipe. The muffins were very good and I wouldn't have known there were beets unless someone told me. Blind taste tests (that's what co-workers are for) resulted in a lot of, "What's that? I can't put my finger on it," but no one guessed beets. Between the beets and the whole wheat flour, it tasted a bit like a chocolate bran muffin.

Extra flour was accidentally added, so the muffins were a bit dry. D. thought more chocolate chips would have completely disguised that slight "bran-y" aftertaste. Beets and chocolate are definitely a surprising combination and the muffins had a lovely red tinge to them.

Thanks, Nicole! It's a great recipe!

Monday, March 24, 2008

D.'s Fabulous Dinners, updated

**Here's the original post... pictures have been deleted.

I wanted to put in better pictures than the previous post. D. made his flank steak again and served it with green bean casserole, K.'s sweet potato casserole, and baked potatoes. No, we're not avoiding carbs.

The steak, marinated in store-bought Spicy Ginger marinade.

The green bean casserole. Yes, that green bean casserole. Canned cream of mushroom soup included. I love it, especially the French-fried onions.

K.'s sweet potato casserole. Sweet potatoes, evaporated milk, and eggs. Yum... marshmallows are literally the icing on the "cake".

Baked potato with grated cheddar and sour cream. Also decadent and delicious in that starchy way.

It's always a welcome meal in our rotation.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Weekend in the Central Coast: Carlock's Bakery and Thai Boat

As I mentioned, we didn't go out very much. However, we did have a couple of good ventures to the great outdoors. I had visited Carlock's Bakery before, since D.'s mom found it a year ago. However, I recently heard on Chowhound (thanks, Toodie Jane!) that Carlock's was making French-style donuts from scratch. Most places use mixes, including Carlock's, for their regular donuts. Fresh donuts? From scratch? I can't miss that.

Carlock's is a family-run operation in Los Osos, about 10 miles south of Cayucos. It's an incredible drive, which was the perfect way to start my morning. The service is fantastic and the donuts just as good. I believe donuts of this shape are typically called crullers, but when they're made from scratch, there's something magical about the texture. They're light as air with a delicate crunch to the crust.

They tasted a lot like any other donut, but... fresher. Like you could taste the eggs and butter in the
choux dough. The sweetness was definitely dominant, but not overpowering. In fact, the dough was so nicely sweet that the glaze was almost unnecessary. Perhaps someone at Carlock's felt the same way, because the donuts were very lightly glazed.

Carlock's has a plethora of baked goods to choose from, but my favorite are their maple thumbprints. Oy vay. These things are amazing. Soft shortbread rolled in walnuts, then topped with a big dollop of maple glaze. It's like eating maple candy with a cookie on the side. I
love maple candy.

For a late lunch, we headed to Thai Boat in Morro Bay. The name is rather apt.

The picture doesn't capture it all, but the building is shaped like a boat. There are four tables inside and the menu's not extensive or expensive. Perfect!

Kirkleton ordered the spring rolls. They were surprisingly good for a basic cabbage and vermicelli roll. Nicely fried and served with sweet plum sauce. The staff was extremely friendly and service was excellent, except that we had to wait 45 minutes for our food. Yikes. I thought take-out restaurants would have be very brisk, but not this one. One party ahead of us was served and finished their food 20 minutes before we received ours.

I loved my Thai fried rice with squid. It's pretty simple, but the flavors were excellent. Fresh tomato, lots of egg, and tender rings of squid flavored with curry powder.

Indira and Kirkleton both ordered pad see-ew, but K.'s was perfect while Indira's was overcooked and oversalted. That kind of inconsistency is strange. However, I would return to see if that inconsistency is... well, consistent. Next time, I plan on calling ahead and placing my order before I drive there.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Weekend in the Central Coast: Meals at Home

We weren't motivated to go out and we also made the mistake of shopping hungry. The result was an enormous amount of food that lasted all three days. Ironically, Morro Bay (a few miles south of Cayucos) is home to the best Albertson's I've ever shopped at. It's well-stocked with surprisingly high-quality selections from the seafood, wine, and deli areas.

Thursday night, we made pasta with sauteed squash. We picked up spaghetti and butternut squash at a farmer's market and tossed it with onions, garlic, Italian seasoning (didn't buy any fresh herbs), salt, and pepper. The big kick this dish received was the California varietals olive oil from Pasolivo.

It isn't really squash season anymore, but perhaps that worked in our favor. The squash we bought were small, but very tender and fresh. I hate peeling and chopping butternut squash, but this was really easy. Spaghetti squash is a new favorite of mine. I love how it's crunchy and shredded when cooked. We served it with pasta, foccacia, and Meyer lemon olive oil for dipping.

For Friday's dinner, the MB Albertson's had American-farmed shrimp for $9.99 a pound and they were really fresh.

Ah, I love shrimp. I know shrimping involves a lot of by-catch, but it's still a favorite. I haven't given it up completely, but I eat less of it and look for U.S. farmed or wild-caught. It was marinaded in the Meyer lemon olive oil with honey and dukkah seasoning, all purchased from Pasolivo. Salt and pepper were also mixed in, of course. I was hoping the dukkah would toast nicely to give a fragrant crust, but I didn't use enough for that to happen. We could taste the cumin, though. The shrimp were cooked with garlic toasted in the California varietals oil.

Shrimp was served with a Spanish rice mix (pasta for Indira and Kirkleton) and rolled in flour tortillas with leftover squash and sauteed onions for a Moo-style burrito. I should note that the pasta was not rolled into a burrito.

Albertson's yielded two other good buys, a whole roasted chicken from the deli section. Normally, I'd be leery that a roasted chicken that's sitting in its package on a heated shelf all day would result in dry and flavorless cardboard. However, this was anything but. This was the salt-and-pepper crusted chicken and it was very moist. Even the breast meat was more than decent. I had fun practicing my carving skills. Home roasting is best, but this is a very good alternative.

Saturday's dinner was the Spanish rice, chicken, and Indira's freshly sauteed asparagus from the farmer's market. The asparagus was coated with Meyer lemon olive oil, salt, pepper, and a little garlic. Yum.

The other great buy was a bottle of Chumeia's 2006 Chardonnay. With the white-wine-friendly dishes we had, this was an excellent choice. We also didn't have a chance to visit Chumeia during our wine-tasting, so this was a chance to try their offerings. I think this winery's high on the list for the next trip.

On Sunday morning, we decided to do brunch at home instead of going out. With long drives ahead, there wasn't much time to have a leisurely brunch out. Using the challah from the previous weekend, we made creme brulee French toast with this Epicurious recipe. The photo doesn't do the French toast justice, because I didn't photograph the gooey underside, but the egg/half-and-half mixture baked up into a sweet custard, which is the "creme" part, I guess.

Excellent recipe! Definitely one to repeat in the future.

Some resources that I find helpful:
San Luis Obispo County Farmer's Markets and other Events (search for specific dates and "Farmer's Market" under "Type of Event")
Monterey Bay Seafood Watch

Monday, March 17, 2008

Central Coast: Wineries

I've just returned from a fabulous trip to Cayucos, a small beachside town on the central California coast. Indira and Kirkleton joined me for a long weekend of doing... nothing. That's the beauty of it all. D.'s folks were very kind to let us use their vacation house and the view from the deck was incredibly seductive. That is, it seduced us into sitting around and gazing at it all day long.

After a brutal drive on Wednesday afternoon (Los Angeles traffic can kiss my ass), we spent Thursday roaming around the area and filling up the fridge for cooking at home. First, we visited a couple of wineries out in the hills of Paso Robles.

Justin was our first stop. I had been to Justin before and it was a good visit. This time, it wasn't that great. Service was excellent and we were greeted by two adorable pooches, a Lab and a basset hound. However, the wines were very
meh. I loved their '05 Tempranillo, though. Enough to shell out 45 clams for a bottle.

We ended up at Adelaida next, because our other choice, Tablas Creek, had a $10 tasting with mostly reds. Adelaida is a great winery. Beautiful location and fabulous service.

Sally, who was manning the tasting room, let us taste an additional four wines on top of the tasting menu. As she put it, the wines were "nicely balanced". Even the vignoier, which I typically don't like, was very good. I loved their '05 Rhone-style red. Indira bought the '06 Rhone-style white and Kirkleton invested in the '05 Cabernet Sauvignon.

And here's a shot of their orchard. Beautiful! Two days later, I found myself heading back to Adelaida after running errands in Paso. The whole drive from along Adelaida Rd. to Paso Robles is totally worth it. 5 miles of lush valleys and distant vineyards.

Last stop was at Pasolivo for olive oil tasting. Yum. D.'s parents had given me a bottle of their Meyer lemon olive oil for Christmas and I was excited to try the rest of their offerings. This is a great place to finish off a day of wine tasting. Kirkleton bought their California varietals oil and I bought their dukkah seasoning and black button sage honey (produced by Katz & Company) to go with my lemon oil.

More trip reports to come! Also, there will be a couple of posts from the culinary delights of D. and J.