Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Summer Heat

In the immortal words of Nelly, "It's getting hot in herre."

Whether or not we "take off all our clothes," something must be done to tackle this, the second in a series of a predicted week of 100 degree+ weather in Portland. Unfortunately for you, readers, I avoid the kitchen like the plague. Yesterday I broke out in a sweat slicing ingredients for a salad at 10am. I had high hopes for an experiment in chilled rapini soup today, but the thought of turning on the stove to blanch the greens makes me lightheaded. So the soup will have to wait.

My only savior on days like today?

(Standing beside the open freezer door is also a nice place to hang out.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Unemployment Croissants

These days, it has become fashionable to refer to one’s lack of a job as funemployment. The word pops up everywhere it seems – Facebook, blogs, backyard barbeques, and the like. Those who use it always emphasize the first syllable, drawing out the fun: it’s FUNemployment, and so certainly not UNemployment. I find it absolutely absurd, and have thus taken to extreme eye rolling every time the word pops up. It’s not fun to be unemployed. It’s boring. Afternoons are the biggest challenge – after filling up my mornings with a 5 mile run, another trip to the grocery store, and an early lunch, I’m left with way-too-short lists of job prospects and applications, and an infinite amount of time in which to complete them.

So, I’ve started trying to think of projects (long projects) to fill up my days. Like seeing how thin I can learn how to slice a zucchini for a salad:

Or practicing my artichoke trimming skills (I'm getting pretty good – watch out, Thomas Keller!):

My best idea so far, however, has been my 24-hour croissant-making extravaganza.

I’d never attempted such an involved baking task before. I tend towards simpler, more rustic desserts, embracing the homely ruggedness of a crooked cake, ugly cookies, or an almost-but-not-quite burnt piecrust. In fact, last weekend, Rosie and I experimented with less-than picture perfect mini pie baking when we hauled in almost 10 pounds of berries from Sauvie Island. They may have fallen apart upon contact with any serving device, but they were definitely delicious. And I’ve already spoken of my love for galettes – the most rustic pie of all – which always taste better when thrown together at the last minute.

Last minute these croissants were not. I found Nancy Silverton’s recipe for the dough online at Epicurious (the story was published in Gourmet in 2000), read through it a couple of times, and began work on Wednesday, at about 2 in the afternoon. It took the rest of my day to make the dough, let it rise, and perform the folds (folding in sticks of butter, that is!) necessary for a flaky pastry. The dough was left to slow-rise in the fridge overnight, and I started with the fun part the next morning.

My only variation from the recipe was to make a couple of my own fillings. First, in an attempt to both use up some of those berries and to recreate one of my favorite childhood treats, I pureed a pint of raspberries with a little honey. Delicious on its own, or as a sauce, I’ve been using the leftovers as a pick-me-up in the late afternoons following. I also threw some walnuts, cinnamon, and sugar in the food processor to make a cinnamon roll-type filling. These leftovers are also delicious.

The rolling step takes a bit of patience, since, just like any yeasted dough, the croissant dough has a spring to it that wants to prevent any attempts at uniform thinness. I had learned/taught myself in the past to let such types of dough come to room temperature before rolling to allow for maximum flexibility. However, the massive amount of butter in croissants makes it impossible to wait for the temperature to rise – you don’t want oozing butter all over your table (that is, until the pastries are cooked!). So I had to whack it around a bit, but eventually ended up with some pretty nice triangles that all rolled up into more or less croissant-like shapes.

Once shaped and rolled, the croissants have to sit for a final rise – about 2 ½ hours – covered. Nancy (I’d like to think we’re on a first name basis now) suggests setting up a tent for the pastries using clean garbage bags and upside down glasses. I did this for a couple batches; but, while strangely pretty:

it was actually an unnecessarily cumbersome step, and I ended up using toothpicked plastic wrap in the end.

After running an errand or two, twiddling my thumbs a bit, and staring into space for a while, it was time to set up the oven. And, just like the rest of the process, this step required attention and patience (especially since my temporary house has only one very small baking sheet, so I had to cook the croissants in four separate batches). The oven starts at 425; once it’s heated, you have to spritz it with water, close the door, pop in the croissants, spritz again, turn the heat down, wait ten minutes, turn the pan, turn the heat down, and wait ten more minutes. And then do it again, over and over, watching the clock like a hawk, awaiting perfection.


When they’re finally done – all I can say is awesome.

I mean, check these out:

I made those! And they're not just beautiful, they're butter-oozing, melt-in-your-mouth flaky, toasty rolls of greatness. Remember back when I called a certain galette the best thing I've ever made? Well, these are about a billion-gagillion (totally a number, ask a four-year old) times better. I urge you, the next time you have 24 hours of free time on your hands, make these. And if you're in a job situation like, they'll almost be enough to put a little fun- into your un-….

(yeah, sorry about that one)

*But, in all seriousness, if you are in the Portland area and need some type of employee to do anything, or even if you don’t need an employee, but want to make a certain expert croissant baker super happy, talk to me. I will most certainly bake you something.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Road Trip Days 6-9 / Eating famously in San Francisco / Chez Panisse

I’ve been to the Bay Area a few other times in the past to visit friends, to hang out, to cook Thanksgiving dinner, but never with the explicit purpose to eat as much local cuisine as possible. I could have pretended that this most recent trip was planned to visit friends and to look at colleges (for my sister), but, really, I wanted to eat more; and, in a touristy fashion, I wanted to eat as much of the talked-about, famous food as possible.

As Sally and I were staying in a friend’s apartment in Berkeley, we woke up extra early on Saturday to get on the BART and head to Ferry Plaza to experience the farmers market in full force. On this visit, the market was awash in stone fruits – cherries, peaches, plums, nectarines, and, Sally’s new favorite, pluots. We walked around, sampling these fruits as well as olive oils, honeys, pickles, almond butter, peas (…) before deciding that we didn’t want to carry around fresh produce through the city all day. I picked up a pound of Rancho Gordo flageolets (awesome, by the way, and will probably pop up here again soon), a couple of pluots, and a (very strong) cup of Blue Bottle coffee, and we headed inside the ferry building for some (famous) Acme sourdough and Cowgirl Creamery cheese for lunch.

The bread itself was a bit too chewy for my taste (I like as many air bubbles as possible); flavor-wise, it was a bit bland, actually, for sourdough. I much preferred the olive rolls we grabbed as well. The cheese was delicious, but the bigger surprise was the store’s guest cheese of the day – a tarentaise made by Thistle Hill Farm in Vermont by one of my fellow Reedie’s family. Totally cool.

For the next day and a half, we wandered around San Francisco, visiting famous places, like the Williams-Sonoma mothership (10 pound bars of chocolate!) and Bi Rite Creamery (I had strawberry balsamic and ginger ice cream – epic),

and less famous, but no less authentically San Franciscan, locales like Four Barrel Coffee, Isaac’s new place of work,* and Heaven’s Dog restaurant (a hip take on Chinese, delicious, but too dark for visible photographs … sorry).

Sally and I also ventured over to the Cheeseboard in Berkeley for their Bastille Day special pie. Not only was this pizza an awesome deal for two small girls ($20 fed us for 2 ½ meals!), but also the quality of ingredients used was so fresh that I could taste summer in every bite. I could overlook the too-chewy crust (I like mine thinner, with more char and bubbles) and embrace the sharp notes of the Comte cheese and shallots, and the sweet heirlooms and thyme. The first night we ate the pizza at the apartment, with their Niçoise salad, still warm, but away from the crowds. It held up well, cold, for lunch, the next day as well, and as a snack on the road (and, now that I think about it, I can’t say the same for other famously delicious pizza like Apizza Scholls in Portland).

None of this, however, compares to our most famous meal, the lunch for which I made a reservation a month in advance, at the awesome but perhaps not too surprising,

Ben, our Berkeley host, and Joanna, my friend from high school, joined Sally and me for the meal. I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed in the beginning – the place was packed and the hostess was spacey and a bit rude, and once we were seated (about 10 minutes after our 2pm reservation), our waitress seemed to want to rush us into ordering our meal. Things improved dramatically, however, when the food arrived.

My salad, baby romaine with raw zucchini and mint, was every bit as light, crisp, and refreshing as I desired, almost like a cool glass of ice water.

My sister had a pizzetta with goat cheese, shallots, and green onion. It was a bit heavy for a lunchtime appetizer, but it tasted great and Sally enjoyed it.

Ben had a beet salad served with avocado and cucumbers. The picture doesn’t do justice to the excellence of this dish. I certainly never would have thought to pair these three vegetables, their flavor profiles seemingly too disparate to complement. Yet the flavor and texture contrasts – at the same time crunchy and creamy, crisp and rich – brought by each element recall a more complex, deconstructed cuisine, yet without the assistance of foams, gels, or liquid nitrogen. This is Alice Waters/California cuisine at its best – a celebration of seasonal ingredients in all of their unadorned glory.

Sally and Joanna both ordered the roasted chicken breast, served with grilled polenta, summer veg (corn and peas, mostly), and a tomatillo sauce. All of the flavors here were good, and the chicken very moist, but I think there was a little too much on the plate – it was almost a three-course meal in itself.

Ben ordered a pizza with housemade sausage and nettle leaves. The leaves were a new taste for all of us, and lent surprisingly creamy note, still with a lingering bitterness, which complemented the sausage nicely.

My favorite entrée was my own – oricchette with a lamb ragu. The pasta was super fresh, with just the right amount of chew, and its crevices were the perfect vehicle for the shreds of tender lamb.

For dessert, Joanna had the espresso-chocolate pave, a dense, flavor-packed brownie of a dessert – a few small bites were enough for me.

Ben had a beautiful black mission fig tart, which was surprisingly not sweet – the pure subtle taste of fig shone through.

I had roasted apricots with raspberry couli and sabayon – orgasmic. Just sweet enough, with a little crunch provided by the crust on the apricots, caramelized and warm, the best possible flavors intensified by the oven. While I wish there had been a higher ratio of apricots to accoutrements, I still licked my bowl clean.

Sally chose the most Alice Waters-y dish of the evening for her dessert – a bowl of summer fruit (Santa Rosa plums, a Suncrest peach, and local raspberries). The plums and raspberries were good (sorry, Isaac, not quite as awesome as you described), but the peach was the greatest surprise. Being from Georgia, I am a self-admitted peach snob, and thus rarely enjoy a west coast peach. But this peach was just as good as the best of the early season Gaffney peaches my mom picks up on her way back from Charlotte every summer. Juicy, sweet, slightly creamy, and golden yellow all the way through – this was what peaches are supposed to taste like.

We finished the meal a bit confused about what time of day it was (I don’t think I’ve ever eaten like this for lunch – 3 courses with a bottle of wine – but I could get used to it. Anyone out there want to fund a Gourmet lunches for Kate campaign?). Sally and Ben went home to take a nap, and Joanna and I wandered down to the Edible Schoolyard for a bit more Alice Waters time before she headed back to Carmel and I back to the apartment to pack for the last leg of the trip.

With not much famous left in us, Sally and I drove up to Ashland the next day to visit Sunya, my freshman year roommate, and then on to Portland on Friday. I’ve settled in to my temporary summer house, looking for jobs, ** cooking, and eating for myself again.

* We did sample an apple maple bacon donut here, which we later discovered while vegging out in front of the Food Network is one of their star’s “best thing I ever ate (with bacon).” Small world.

** Want to hire me? I’m a bright college grad who will do anything and everything, preferably around food. References available…

Chez Panisse on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Road Trip Days 1-5 / Observations on the middle of the country

In many cases, I find it strangely comforting to confirm stereotypes. Not so much stereotypes like, “All people from the South are fat and ignorant,” but stereotypes more like, “Germans eat a lot of sausage and drink a lot of beer” (true). To me, these stereotypes are more along the lines of common wisdom, and verifying their accuracy reminds me that it is possible to trust the words of experience. Case in point – the Midwest. Flat. Mesmerizing. Most of the time, pretty damn boring. Just like everyone said. We had thought that we would find surprising roadside gems, but, in the end, we just found Patti's 1880's settlement, where we did not eat:

and an overpriced animal farm, in which we did not enter:

The road trip took Sally and me up through Nashville to St. Louis and from there, across vast, straight stretches of Kansas, Colorado, Utah (more on Salt Lake later), and northern Nevada. While we certainly witnessed some amazing scenery (see Smoky Mountains, the Great Salt Flats, and Tahoe), many days we had only the masses of trucks on to keep us alert. That, and snacks:

Sitting here reflecting on the journey, I’ve realized that, for those ten days, we mostly just sat (driving) and ate. Pretty well, I might add. I stocked the car with way too much dried fruit, nuts, energy bars, cheese, chocolate, pretzels, tea. In addition, our great aunt Barbara gifted/forced upon us a giant bag of leftover 4th of July popcorn:

Really, had we been in a hurry and too disinterested to stop, we could have survived on my car snacks the whole way. But stop we did. In Nashville, for barbeque:

and we also stayed with family and friends in St. Louis and Kansas City, where we were generously fed homecooked meals. In Denver, we ate at a Ted’s Montana Grill next to our hotel, as we were too drained to search out anything more interesting. We ate at a Subway and a coffee shop, a rest stop and a park, but our best gamble was on a cantina in Salt Lake City.

The night before, we were struggling to plan our upcoming evening in Salt Lake, and for some reason decided to look up Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. Confession: I cannot stand Guy Fieri. He came to Portland in the spring to visit Woodstock’s own Otto’s Sausage Kitchen and cast a giant Food Network shadow over the Reed neighborhood for the rest of the day. But his show is a good source of ideas for cheap, good food. And, as it turns out, he does know a good cantina. This place, Lone Star Taqueria, was luckily near our hotel (and after getting lost once already that day, close was important).

The place was small, brightly painted, and packed. All of the cooks in the open kitchen spoke in Spanish. There was an abundant salsa bar. All good signs. As for the menu, you basically had a choice between tacos, burritos (half and full sizes!), or tamales. Simple, but with an abundance of filling choices.

I ordered a carne asada taco plate, and my sister had a chicken tamale plate (after poking around some more at reviews of the place, I wish I had ordered the fish taco of the day – they are supposed to be killer – but “next time,” perhaps). My taco was almost excellent: the steak was juicy and flavorful, the toppings were fresh but sparse (as they should be); I only wish that they used housemade tortillas. While I appreciated the automatic use of double-stacked white corn tortillas (instead of the far less delicious flour), a housemade tortilla makes all the difference between a great taco and the best taco ever.

The rest of the food was good too – the beans and rice were tasty and filling, but I wish I had ordered another taco instead, mostly for varieties' sake. Sally thought her tamale was delicious (I didn’t try it, so her opinion stands).

After dinner, we stumbled back to our hotel, watched a movie, and got some rest before heading out on our last long day of driving into the Bay Area.

Tomorrow: San Francisco, Berkeley, and a surprise lunch!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Road Trip Day 0 / Filling up on Penang

As you may have noticed, I like to plan – make lists, gather maps, color-code, and cost-calculate just about everything. So when it came to my road trip cross-country, I needed to know just when we would leave and go, where we would stay, what we would eat, for an entire 10 days. I printed out maps and directions a couple of times (my reliance on Google maps was probably a bit too trustworthy, in the end), and made countless contacts with friends and family dotted along interstates 70 and 80. In the end, my sister and I did a pretty good job staying on track – getting lost only once, and only staying slightly behind schedule most of the way.

Part of my plan was to stuff ourselves with good eats before getting on the road, because you never know what you’re going to find on the road. And I had to get in one meal at my favorite Malaysian restaurant before taking off. So my family and I ventured out Buford Highway to Penang.

One thing you have to understand about my family and Penang is that we have certain set dishes. We go there so infrequently, that by the time we sit down, we all know exactly what it is we crave. Much of the time, we invite friends just for this reason – more people equals more dishes equals more chances to squeeze in an extra new dish amongst the roti canai and char kway teow. This time, there were only six of us (my immediate family and grandmother), so we only tried one new dish – a fried fish with “Thai sauce.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We always start with the same three appetizers:

Roti Canai, a griddle-fried pancake, made with lots of butter and served with chicken curry. This dish is always a crowd pleaser. The bread is airy and only slightly sweet, with alternating pockets of air and chewy, buttery bits. It can be enjoyed on its own, but is awesome in the curry. Because we usually share these between two or three people, my siblings and I used to fight over who got to eat the potato and who got to eat the bite of chicken (always a random, unidentified piece of dark meat, usually with skin and bone attached – my parents used to describe watching the chicken butchers in Singapore hack away at the birds until no more than small cubes – nothing like supermarket chicken in America). We always save the leftover sauce to pour over white rice with the rest of our meal.

Satay (one chicken and one beef), Malaysia’s version of meat-on-a-stick, served with peanut sauce (except for me), cucumbers, and red onions. My dad has come up with his own version of satay, which we have served at a couple of dinner parties over the years. It’s surprisingly tricky to recreate the marinade, and many restaurant versions, in my opinion, just aren’t up to par.

Achat, pickled, jullienned veggies, covered in peanut sauce and sesame seeds. I’ve never eaten this (warning, don’t give me peanuts unless you are skilled with an Epi Pen and know the fastest way to a hospital), but it’s one of my brother’s favorite dishes.

Following the appetizers, we pretend like we don’t know what else to order for a few minutes, close our menus, and recite our standards:

Pork Fried Rice, for my increasingly less picky sister, which, in Penang’s Malay version, has little seasoning other than oil, and a smattering of carrots, peas, and red onions to go with the char sui pork. About 5 or 6 years ago, Penang added a menu insert of “daily specials” that actually never changed, including the memorably misspelled Pineapple Friad Rice. Entertained by the comedy of it all, we would order this instead, until finally growing tired of the overwhelming sweetness of the pineapple added in.

Char Kway Teow, a fried rice noodle dish, with seafood, egg, and a few vegetables. Traditionally, the dish is very spicy, but at Penang it varies from visit to visit. This particular night, it was one of the hottest things that we ordered. Regardless of the varying intensity, char kway teow is one of the few dishes we have ordered every single visit. It is one of my favorites, and I crave it regularly. My mom tells me this is because she ate it constantly while she was pregnant with me, and so I’ve had it in my blood since before I was born. Maybe this is true, or maybe it is just delicious.

Kari Sayu, a vegetable curry, served in a coconut broth. We first ordered this dish a couple of years ago on a whim, and it is now in regular rotation, partially due to the abundance of green in the bowl, and partially due to my mother’s obsession with lady fingers (or okra, in the south). This curry manages to walk the line between creamy and crunchy, and it only slightly spicy – a nice contrast to our other dishes, like –

Crispy Golden Fried Squid, a spicy calamari, covered in some kind of chili powder and served with beautiful slices of bell peppers and onions. This was the first squid that I ever enjoyed – it is never chewy, always crisp – and it’s painfully addictive.

As I mentioned earlier, our guest dish of the evening was a deep-fried whole fish (we were thinking red snapper, but the menu just calls it fish) with what they called “Thai sauce” a mysteriously red lemongrass sauce that makes an appearance on many of Penang’s seafood. The fish was flaky and moist, just as it should be, but the sauce stole the show. I found myself scraping it on to rice too many times to count. More Thai sauce, please!

After stuffing ourselves with spice, we always end our meal with Ice Kacang. As my parents explained to me at a very young age, successful, stomachache-less Malaysian meals need both heating and cooling elements. As our entrees are almost always hot and greasy, our desserts must always be cooling. An ice kacang does just that. Extremely sweet and strange the first few times you eat it, the snow-cone like bowl of awesome gradually grows powerfully enticing. At this point in my eating career, I can’t imagine anything better to end a meal, and I find myself wanting them every time I eat spicy food. What makes it so strange, though? At first glance, it seems innocent enough – a towering pinnacle of shaved ice with syrup on top. But this syrup is not your average artificially colored high-fructose corn syrup mess. Instead it is a combination of rose syrup, palm sugar, and sweetened condensed milk. And hiding underneath the tower is a collection of agar agar jellies, atap seeds, corn, and beans:

Sound weirder? It took me several years to get up the courage to try the treats hiding underneath, but it is now my job to eat up the bottom. I don’t know why it tastes so good, really, but it is. Awesome.

Stuffed and happy, we left the restaurant and headed home to finish packing, organizing, planning. I was still full the next morning when Sally and I jumped in the car at 8 am and headed to St. Louis.

Tomorrow: The long leg of the trip, across the Midwest, though the desert, and into the west coast. Stay tuned!

Penang on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Road Trip!

Tomorrow my sister and I leave for a ten day long road trip across the country, all the way from Atlanta to Portland. I probably won't be posting any time between now and then, but I'll be sure to catch you up on everything – from good southern home cooking in St. Louis to an exciting surprise in the Bay Area – when I settle back down in PDX.
Until then, eat well!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy 4th / Time for Lunch

Oh, Independence Day. The one day a year where I willingly don the flags colors, on my clothing, and in my food. It doesn’t seem like a statement of politics today, but rather an embrace of another over-the-top holiday consisting mainly of food, drinks, and very loud explosions. Today, though I’d like to ask you, readers, to think about another way in which you can celebrate the holiday with an act perhaps more patriotic than wearing red, white, and blue.

I’d like to invite you all to take a look at the Time for Lunch website. Time for Lunch is a campaign, organized primarily through Slow Food USA, to bring the upcoming review of the Child Nutrition Act to the country’s (and Congress’s) attention. The Child Nutrition Act is a bill that governs how the National School Lunch Program feeds kids in the nation’s public schools. Most importantly, the Child Nutrition Act sets a limit on the amount of money that a school can be reimbursed for the cost of their cafeteria’s food. Right now schools receive only about one dollar (one dollar!) per child per meal. No wonder my memories of school lunch consist of powdered mashed “potatoes,” square rubbery “pizza,” and canned “peaches” (and these foods were served on the best days; I was lucky enough to have a choice to eat school lunch or bring my own. Many children today do not have that privilege). The Child Nutrition Act will come under review this September, and Time for Lunch is asking Congress to consider doubling the amount of reimbursement – from one dollar to two.

In addition, Time for Lunch is advocating for stronger control of the types of additional foods sold in school, like the French fries, cookies, and chicken wings from the “a la carte” line in the cafeteria, as well as items sold in vending machines scattered around many schools’ premises. The presence of these types of food encourage poor eating choices among students – I remember many of my high school friends eating French fries and a cookie for lunch every single day of the week. Why would they want to suffer the inevitable stomach ache and sugar crash from such a diet? Because their parents weren’t there to tell them otherwise.

Finally, Time for Lunch is asking for the continued and increased support of Farm to School programs. In the last year, my high school has added a kitchen garden to its premises (the result of a student-organized senior project) and they will hopefully begin eating from it in the fall. More programs like this are possible, but there needs to be more funding. Apparently, the last time the Child Nutrition Act was reviewed (in 2004), a section was added to provide an unspecified amount of money to schools to hold lessons in local eating and healthy eating, but Congress never appropriated the funds. Time for Lunch is asking Congress to guarantee mandatory funding for programs like the one started at my school.

I know that this might seem like a lot of political advertisement, but I really believe that support of groups like this can do a great deal to improve not only childhood nutrition in this country, but also over-all public school education standards. It is common sense that students will pay attention and learn better when they have a full stomach and proper nutrition. A meal of powdered mashed potatoes or gummy pizza simply does not provide the brain food necessary to be a successful student. It is also common sense that such proper nutrition cannot be provided on a dollar a day.

Take a few minutes today and show your support. Time for Lunch is putting together a petition to show public support for the review of the Child Nutrition Act; all you have to do is sign it. It only takes a minute. You can also check out their Eat-In potluck program that will commence on Labor Day. Find one in your area and get involved. It will be fun, helpful, and, most importantly on a day like today, patriotic.