Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Quick bun nem nuong

Ah, it's over.


I feel good about it. I don't know how I did, but all I know is that I'm not going to take the Chemistry GRE again. Last year, I took it and then made some beef bourguignon to celebrate. No celebratory meal (yet) this year, but I did make the occasional good study meal. Hey, anything to procrastinate.

One of these meals was borne out of a random discovery by my mother.

Mom: I found these meatballs at Costco. They taste a lot like nem nuong (aka Vietnamese grilled pork meatballs).

Me: Really? They sell nem nuong at Costco? Are you sure?

Mom: Well, it's not exactly marketed as such, but they really do taste like them.

She proceeded to give me a package of meatballs, but she had thrown away the label. They were pretty tasty. D. went to Costco to see if he could figure out what she had purchased. He ended up returning with a package of Aidells Pineapple and Teriyaki meatballs, which are made of chicken. Turns out these were the same meatballs my mother gave us. I don't know how Aidells managed to make a kind-of-Hawaiian-kind-of-Japanese chicken meatball taste like nem nuong, but go figure.

Anyway, it's not homemade, but it's opened the doorway to a lot of quick Vietnamese meals that would normally require a little more time and effort. D. went on a weekend trip to visit his folks while I studied for the blasted GRE. Needing a study break, I decided that I would make some bun nem nuong.

The rice noodles are cooked in boiling water until al dente and rinsed with cool water. Drain the noodles completely and let air dry while the rest of the dish is prepared. Drying is important because slimy noodles don't contribute to the texture of the dish. Fresh cucumber slices, shredded lettuce, mint, and Vietnamese mint go into the bottom of the bowl. Raw mung bean sprouts are typically part of the dish, but I'm not a big fan. The meatballs are thawed and browned in a skillet, then sliced in half. I like to add some scallions and oil as garnish. Slice one small bunch of scallions. Heat about 2-3 tablespoons of vegetable oil (any non-flavored oil is fine) in a small saucepan until hot. Toss the scallions in and let them cook down fast. Do not brown them.

Assembly is easy. Veggies on the bottom, rice noodles next, meatballs on top of noodles, and spoon the softened scallions and oil all over. Serve with plenty of nuoc nam.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Purée of English Pea Soup with White Truffle Oil and Parmesan Crisps

D. and I decided to revive our supper club and, for the occasion, I thought I'd throw a Keller recipe into the menu. However, with the Chem GRE studying going on, I didn't have time for anything too time-consuming, which ruled out 99.9% of the recipes in Bouchon and The French Laundry Cookbook.

And the Keller cookbook collection is going to get bigger... my copy of the recently released Ad Hoc at Home is due to arrive tomorrow. So excited!

Anyway... right, a Keller recipe that didn't take until my 30th birthday to complete. The winner was Purée of English Pea Soup with White Truffle Oil and Parmesan Crisps. This is probably one of those times when I should be extra-happy that I live in Southern California, because they're still available. Not super-sweet, but they were pretty good. Buying the peas and truffle oil also gave me a chance to visit Specialty Produce, which is a wholesale produce playground that's open to the public.

After buying 5 pounds of peas and a bottle of white truffle oil, I came home and enlisted D.'s help in shelling them. I followed the cooking instructions to the letter, adding just enough peas to the boiling water to form a single layer. While I waited for the peas to cook, I grated Parmesan cheese finely for the Parmesan crisps. I made sure they were big enough to be a "lid" on the mugs that I would serve the soup in.


After the peas were cooked and puréed in the food processor, the recipe calls for it to be scraped through a tamis. I don't have one, so I used our fine-mesh strainer and a spatula. One note with the food processor, I had to use a little water to make the purée less pasty and easier to work with.


Ok, I understand that the fine mesh makes a smoother purée, but sheesh, this took a little time and muscle. In the end, I had a little over 3 cups of smooth purée and less than 1 cup of the larger-particled pea detritus. I saved it, hoping to use it for risotto.


Once I had the purée, it went into the blender with some vegetable broth, but it was still pretty thick. However, I didn't want to compromise the flavor with too much broth or water, so I kept it thick. On the stove it went for a gentle heating, where I seasoned with salt and white pepper. When I was ladling it into mugs for serving, I drizzled a little bit of truffle oil on top of the soup and had my guests give it a good stir. A small amount of chives for garnish and a Parmesan crisp to cover the mug.


Blasted auto-focus caught the mug and the crisp, but the soup is blurred. Ah, well... the soup was delicious, with strong pea flavor balanced out by the truffle oil and Parmesan crisp.

Check out Carol's version of the soup. I didn't look for her entry until after the dinner party and was so glad to see that I followed her footsteps with the "mugging". I'm also glad I managed to cook the peas correctly and that her soup ended up being pretty thick. I guess thinning it out is an option, but that strong, sweet pea flavor is going to fade away.

It's easy, fabulous, and the Kermit-green of the soup makes for beautiful presentation. Grab a copy of the book and see for yourself.

Monday, October 5, 2009

RSS feeds

If you're a subscriber, your feed should have transferred automatically... I think. Please let me know if there are any feed issues!

New Domain!

I decided to finally take the plunge and buy my own domain. It's going to take a little while to update everything, but please change your links and RSS feeds to www.adventuresofanamateurfoodie.com

The original link: culinarynerd.blogspot.com will redirect to the new address, but if y'all can help me get my new domain out there, it'd be great! I know it's awfully late to change the address and the address is a mouthful, but recent events have shown me that having a domain name that doesn't match my blog title isn't going to work anymore.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Breakfast Post

I woke up this morning to D. making waffles with strawberries... I knew I married him for a reason. What can I say? I'm easily impressed.

With that said, I thought I'd clean out the memory card a bit and post about some of our favorite breakfasts.

The aforementioned waffles with strawberries:

When we got married, we had a small post-wedding brunch for a handful of friends. Many of them have scattered all over the country, so reunions were infrequent. For that brunch, our best man picked up a box of Bisquick from Costco. Let's just say we have half of the box left and D. and I are looking into creative uses for it. For now, waffles work just fine. Strawberry season is ending here in Southern California, so we're enjoying whatever's left in the supermarkets.

Occasionally, on a weekend morning, we wake up and head out for breakfast. Our favorite stop is Perry's Cafe. It's the classic diner with American and Mexican-American dishes served quickly and deliciously.

I usually do something with eggs and potatoes, but this particular instance, I decided to clog my aorta with corned beef hash, hash browns, eggs, and biscuits and gravy. Trust me, I didn't eat for the rest of the day.

Perry's Cafe
4620 Pacific Hwy
San Diego, CA 92110

We live a few blocks from the North Park branch of The Mission. These pictures hail from D.'s birthday in April, when we decided to go out for breakfast on the day of his birthday. It fell on a Tuesday and it was great to grab breakfast out before work.

The pancakes are big and a bit heavy, but they're good and the berry compote swirls make great toppings.

The Mission- North Park
2801 University Ave
San Diego, CA 92104

And lastly, a breakfast dish I was obsessively making for a couple of months. When we were in Las Vegas, we had breakfast at the buffet at Bellagio and one of the items was French toast with Nutella and bananas. It's an indulgent meal, but so very good.

Nutella-Banana French Toast
(Inspired by The Buffet at Bellagio)

Per serving:
2 slices of slightly stale white bread
1 banana, sliced in 1/4 inch thick slices
3 tablespoons Nutella

1 egg
1/4 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch nutmeg

Spread Nutella on 1 slice of bread and arrange bananas in a single layer. Place the other slice on top to make a sandwich. Mix egg, milk, cinnamon, and nutmeg together. Completely soak banana/Nutella sandwich, then fry on a hot pan until thoroughly toasted. Sprinkle with with powdered (confectioners') sugar.

Breakfast is clearly the most important meal of the day. You betcha.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

La Fachada Taco Truck

The restaurant is La Fachada, but they also have a taco truck in the parking lot. We visited the taco truck for dinner, after looking for the Churros El Tigre churro cart. Alas, the little cart was forced to cease operations due to permit issues. Since we were in the neighborhood, we decided to dine at La Fachada's taco truck.

The tacos were so good that I barely took pictures of them, let alone any exterior shots. I apologize. The truck is a classic food truck, with a row of Mexican
aguas, salsas, and pickled carrots in front. To the side is a grill with all-you-can-eat beans and grilled onions. The seating in front of the truck is shaded, generous, and one can dine with the musical selection blasting behind you. For our dining pleasure, they were blasting hits from the late 90's, which I approved of. Ah, nostalgia.

I had four tacos: 2 of the
birria (stewed goat), lengua (cow's tongue), and tripa (fried tripe)

The birria was excellent. I love goat, which is gamey without being too tough. Birria's broth, with its smoky depths, brings out the richness of the meat. It soaked through the handmade corn tortillas in a few minutes, but no matter, I ate the small tacos quite fast.

I didn't mind the tripa, but I didn't love it either. The texture's fine and the frying gives it a nice crust, but there was something... earthy about the tripa that made me think it wasn't fresh or it hadn't been cleaned out too well. Yikes. I'd prefer not to think about it too much. Otherwise, it was kind of bland, with only breading and no other means of seasoning. Oh, well, an opportunity to showcase their different salsas. I liked a spicy red one that tasted like it might have had pasilla in it.

The lengua was inspiring. Tongue is a very richly flavored cut, and La Fachada cubes the tongue and keeps it tender and flavorful. The cubes were melt-in-your-mouth moist. They needed no condiments, but a touch of onions and cilantro were nice.

Drop by, grab a few tacos, and enjoy! San Diego has a few great taco trucks and this one is one of them.

La Fachada
20 25th St

(at Imperial Ave)
San Diego, CA 92102

Friday, September 25, 2009

Wine Vault & Bistro

I'd argue that Wine Vault & Bistro is one of San Diego's better-kept secrets. For me and D., it's our favorite fine-dining restaurant. San Diego doesn't lack for fine-dining, but I have to say that some of the restaurants I've tried in that genre tend to try too hard or not hard enough, with execution falling flat either way. Top that with high prices and shoddy service and I begin to feel like I could put my money to better use elsewhere. I like Wine Vault because they have a wide range of prices, the execution is usually excellent, and the service is simple.

To be fair, my assessment of fine-dining may be a little biased, as it's only been within the last three years that I was willing to spend more on dining in general. I have more disposable income, but still have the mentality of a former student: maximal bang-for-buck is key.

Wine Vault has $20
prix fixe menus on Thursdays and Fridays. Three courses with a handful of options per course. On Thursdays, one dish for each course will be specifically paired with a showcased wine flight.

Our first visit, descriptions from the menu (you can take the menus home... yes!):

peach + bourbon glazed pork belly|pickled peaches|fried green tomato|rocket

Beautiful, isn't it? It was extremely flavorful, but this is a dish of textures, too. Crisp rocket, crunchy tomato, rich/creamy pork belly, smooth peaches, sticky glaze. Perfectly cooked, the pork belly exploded with fatty goodness and the sweet glaze. From the top and bottom came tart/bitter, with the tomato, peaches, and rocket, which lightened the richness of the belly fat.

lamb osso buco|eggplant fondue|tomato confit|summer beans

Delicious dish with perfectly braised lamb that fell off the bone. The little chunk of marrow at the top was a nice little treat.

peach crisp|vanilla bean ice cream

The dish was tasty and the peaches wonderful, but the crust was burnt and could have been a little sweeter. Ice cream was good, but a little more vanilla bean would have been nice.

ahi tuna|red curry|preserved black beans|macadamia nuts

Great take on tuna tartare, with fresh fish and a nice crunch from the macadamia nuts. The black beans were a pungent contrast to the tuna.

braised beef brisket|caramelized onions|sour cream spaetzle|habanero relish

Spaetzle was wonderful, but the brisket was a tad dry and could have been a little more flavorful. The relish helped bring a little more out of the meat, but it was the spaetzle that was the memorable part of this dish.

pommes frites|roasted garlic + chipotle aioli dipping sauces

Great appetizer and we picked it when the featured wine flight contained a champagne. Bubbly goes well with the salty crispness of frites. The frites were delicious and the dipping sauces strong, which I liked.

sweet corn soup|tomato confit|micro cilantro

The soup was light and sweet, the tomato confit was a contrast in texture but a match in sweetness, and the micro cilantro gave little sharp bursts of flavor to contrast with the sweetness of the soup and confit.

steak au poivre|cipollini onion rings|smoked potato puree|asparagus|rosemary jus

I love that Wine Vault executes well and gives elegant interpretations of otherwise ordinary dishes. This is essentially steak and potatoes, but the potato was musky and the steak had the strong bite of pepper. Well-made, nothing unusual... it's just good cooking and good food.

cheesecake panna cotta|fresh berries

This was absolutely gorgeous. The panna cotta was light and really smooth, but with the tangy sweetness of cream cheese. They kept the cream cheese as a mild presence, which allowed the berries to shine. If anything, the texture was the winner in this dish, with the mouthfeel evoking feelings of decadence.

With the wedding and all, we haven't had any time for further revisits of Wine Vault, but it's our favorite fine-dining location. Their email list always includes menus and wine flights, so dinners and their prices are never a surprise. These dinners range from our favorite $20 3-course menus to 5-6 course menus with featured winemakers. Sign up for their mailing list on the website.

Wine Vault & Bistro
3731-A India Street
San Diego, CA 92103

Monday, September 21, 2009

Guilty pleasures

Another light post... just stretching the rusty blogging muscles. I have to say that I do have a soft spot for so-called bad food. I don't eat "bad food" often and I recognize that they're certainly not the best in their breeds, but I like them because they're tasty. They may not be scions of amazing technique or ingredients, but that's why they're guilty pleasures.

May I present... the Disneyland churro. It may have been fried at some point, but to warm it, the staff member puts it through one of those bagel toasters. The ones with a conveyor belt that you find in cafeterias.

After they complete their journey, they drop into a pan of cinnamon and sugar. He tosses the mixture completely over the churro and then wraps it in paper.

It ends up fairly crispy and full of sugary goodness.

Next up is a creation from The Cheesecake Factory. Hey, even Ruhlman had a meal there... his comments echo how I feel about the place. The food's not bad if you order the right dishes (it's not easy, considering the menu is a literal book), but as he puts it, the chain is "simply a company responding to the demands of America, and the demands of America were helping us to take our food one step backward rather than one step forward, and I don't think we have time for backward steps." I also agree with his friend LJ, "It's a guilty pleasure, liking bad pasta." Something about certain dishes at CF (mine is the Thai Chicken Pasta) hit a spot.

They cooked up a red velvet cheesecake. I ordered it without having seen it in the display case at the front of the house, so I was a little worried I'd get cheesecake dyed red or something. However, their take on it was rather nice. Decent layers of fluffy buttermilk-y red velvet with creamy cream cheese-y cheesecake (kept much creamier than their usual) in lieu of the usual cream cheese frosting. I took the slice home and ate a little of it at a time.

Of all of their creations, I think this one is one of my favorites.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


One of our wedding gifts: gorgeous new sheet/duvet set.

We love 'em, but apparently Bear felt the need to assert his thoughts. The sheets are a winner.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Spaghetti with Sardines, Dill, and Capers

Well, 2009 is flying by and I'm freshening up the blog a little bit. A little change of color and font, plus a new banner picture of the Moeraki Boulders in New Zealand. I even started a Twitter account, because a lot of food blogs have them and it's time I caught up.

Obviously, I'm seriously lagging behind, but I have a memory card full of pictures to post and I'm hoping to have this blog going again. It's been a long year... more than that, considering a lot has happened since mid-2008. D. and I got married (and the food... I can't wait to tell y'all about the food), we did a lot of traveling, I applied to grad school, was rejected from grad school, and now am reapplying. On top of that, it's been a long and rough emotional journey for the last year. A lot has happened and it's just one of those periods of life where I just had to shut down, withdraw, and re-emerge a little fresher.

If you think I'm out of the blogging game, then I hope you'll follow along as I try to catch up and recap some of my adventures. After all, still doing the eating/cooking bit... hope I still have a little corner of the interweb!

For now, I'm going to mention one of my new favorite recipes. I subscribed to Gourmet in the spring. It's funny that I never really read too much of
Gourmet before, despite being obsessed with food. It was in the middle of one of these crazy life-upending moments that I picked up an issue and read through it. I had decided, of all things, to dye my hair. Never wanted to, never had the patience or time to, but my new (and awesome!) hairdresser convinced me to give highlights a try. Well, they involve sitting around and the salon had a copy of Gourmet. I was hooked, subscribed, and my first issue (May 2009) had this recipe. It's easy, fast, and it'll make you convert to sardines if you don't already like them. The recipe works best with sardines packed in olive oil.

Spaghetti with Sardines, Dill, and Capers
Gourmet, May 2009

1 pound spaghetti
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup drained capers, patted dry
2 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs (from a baguette)
1/2 cup chopped dill
2 to 3 (3 3/4-ounces) cans sardines in olive oil 4 garlic cloves

Cook spaghetti in a pasta pot of well- salted boiling water until al dente.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat until it shimmers. Fry capers until they "bloom" and are just a shade darker, about 2 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. Toast bread crumbs in same skillet, stirring, until golden, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and toss with capers, dill, and 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper.

Add sardines to skillet with their oil (if using 3 cans sardines, discard oil from 1 can) over medium-high heat, then force garlic through a garlic press into skillet. Sauté until sardines are golden in spots around edges, about 2 minutes.

Reserve 1 cup pasta-cooking water, then drain pasta. Add pasta to skillet with cooking water and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Toss until pasta is coated and sauce is slightly thickened, 1 to 2 minutes. Serve topped with seasoned crumbs.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Oaxaca: Markets

(Note: If it isn't already obvious... 2009 has been quite the year for me. I apologize for basically abandoning the blog and will try to return to some semblance of regularity after two more things: getting married and honeymooning in New Zealand. :))

I love markets (street markets, marketplaces, etc.) and I've always lamented the lack of them in Southern CA. I'm not talking about a supermarket, which is a whole different thing. I'm talking about a big place with various stalls, manned by vendors who sell one thing or one type of thing. Southern California has farmers' markets, but they aren't permanent fixtures. One of my favorite American marketplaces is Reading Terminal Market in Philadephia.

Oaxaca is filled with markets. There are some really big markets that draw tourists and locals alike and several smaller ones that have the homier feel of a neighborhood deli. After breakfast at La Olla, we started wandering towards 20th de Noviembre. On the way, we wandered into the Benito Juárez market.

My first, of many, encounters with
quesillo, which is fresh Oaxacan cheese very reminiscent of mozzarella. In fact, the coils have the texture and taste of string cheese, only a whole lot fresher.

I didn't take a photo, but Benito Juárez was where I first saw chapulines, or grasshoppers. I consider myself to be a brave soul when it comes to food. I thought I was fazed by nothing, but when I looked down at the pile of thoraxes and striated abdomens, I froze. The kindly vendor offered me a sample, but I could only smile weakly and say, "No gracias, Señora."

Epic fail. I blame sleep deprivation.

I did recover my sense of adventure to try them at a later point.

Tons of mole paste for sale. I'm told that you can bring the jarred stuff back to the States, but this freshly packed paste? Not sure if it would clear customs.

Carne (meat)... lots of it. I loved the variety, the links, the fact that it doesn't come shrink-wrapped in pre-cut, unidentifiable pieces. I love that the smell, while a bit overwhelming, was actually of fresh meat. I know that elicits a scathing duh from some, but if you grew up in suburbia like me, that smell isn't always part of the meat-purchasing experience.

Chiles... the sheer variety was stunning.

We headed a couple of blocks south to 20th de Noviembre.

We walked through that bright blue doorway and promptly found ourselves in a glorious hall of meat. Lots of it. Grilled to perfection with real charcoal.

We were a little full from breakfast, majorly sleep-deprived, and a little overwhelmed by both the crowds and the warm weather. Grilled meat wasn't exactly appetizing at that moment, but boy, did we miss out.

Surrounding the markets and dotting the Oaxaca City center were Mayordomo chocolate stores. We watched a young man feed cacao beans and cinnamon into a hand-cranked machine to make chocolate paste. The paste fell onto a pile of sugar, which was hand-mixed.

Later in our trip, we had a chance to visit the Sanchez Pascual market, which was smaller and located in a quiet residential neighborhood.

It was far less crowded and hectic than the other markets, filled with fruits and veggies of all kinds.

These look like the perfect stereotype of an heirloom tomato. Perhaps they're just "tomatoes" (or, more appropriately, tomates) in Oaxaca.

We were at Sanchez Pascual because of our cooking class at Casa Crespo. Our instructor mentioned that a lot of the vendors grow the fruit and veggies at home. Talk about local.

Ah, who can turn down a sugared pastry filled with custard. Not me.

We also visited the huge Abastos market, which was incredibly overwhelming and we didn't spend enough time exploring it. Unfortunately, our short visit also precluded pictures, but it was an incredible and chaotic mass of people, products, and activity.

My favorite online resource for Oaxaca markets was Planeta. The interface isn't the most user-friendly, but the information was detailed and excellent.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Oaxaca: La Olla

Could there be anything wrong with an airline that serves complimentary booze?

I'd say no, except I did find one thing. The airline could serve it on a red-eye flight, the people behind yours truly become trashed and start talking REALLY LOUDLY all. freaking. night. long.

With that said, however, I do have to give a massive shout-out to Mexicana Airlines. Fantastic service, decent food, tons of leg room, and the aforementioned free booze. Top all of that with a great fare and our trip to Oaxaca was off to a boozy and thrifty start.

By the time we arrived, we were massively sleep-deprived and needed some calories and caffeine. La Olla has been mentioned on many food and travel sites, so we decided to stop there for breakfast. The one thing we loved about Oaxaca was the strong coffee. It's strong and beautifully balanced, so we were chugging mug after mug of black coffee without cream or sugar. Even though I'm not a big fan of adding cream and sugar to my coffee, I usually do it when I think it'll help. In Oaxaca, however, it would have ruined the perfectly pungent brew.

The bread was delicious... sweet with a vaguely wheat-y earthiness.

The condiments? Yes, that's right... jam, salsa, and the best butter on this planet. The butter was so rich and so flavorful that we considered trying to sneak it back into the States. Or take regular trips across the border to Tijuana to buy butter. Jam and salsa seemed weird at first, but they paired surprisingly well. We probably weren't supposed to pair them, but hey, they were there...

I ordered a tortilla de flor de calabaza (squash blossom frittata). The egg was mixed with squash blossoms, zucchini, onion, and epazote, a herb that is supposed to be pungent, but seemed to blend seamlessly with the other flavors. I could also have been so sleep-deprived that my brain wasn't processing unfamiliar flavors.

I don't normally like omelets for breakfast because they can be really heavy. Yet, this one was light and refreshing and was still heavy enough to stave off hunger for a while. All and all, a worthy stop in Oaxaca. La Olla is part of the Casa de los Bugambilias B&B and is also linked to the La Casa de los Sabores cooking school, which was highly recommended in our research for Oaxacan cooking classes.

La Olla
Reforma No. 402-1
Col. Centro Oaxaca, Oax. Mexico, 68000

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Where I've been...

Oh, crap... it's May. Almost June.

After many attempted comebacks, I'm starting yet another one. It's been a while and life has been incredibly busy. The first half of 2009 has been filled with travel, some great projects, and amazing food... here's a mini-scrapbook:

Land of seven moles...

Land of enchantment...

Land of 10,000 lakes...

Land of insanely fabulous cheese...

Land of fabulous food...

Lastly, we've been scrambling to get things done by August. Someone once told me that wedding planning was busy at the beginning, a lull in the middle, and scrambling at the end. I agree, because once we had a venue, we procrastinated like hell.

Now we're scrambling like crazy to get things done... it feels like we're planning the wedding in three months!

In the midst of all of this, I found out that grad school wasn't going to happen this year. I was waitlisted at a couple of schools and finally formally rejected at the end of April. Oh, well... my consolation is another year in beautiful San Diego and another year of fabulous eats.

Let's hope this is the return of semi-regular posting... starting with that long-overdue recap of our Oaxacan adventure.