Sunday, October 28, 2007

Makin' Some Chowdah

Now that Karen has left for the airport to head back to the Bay Area, I can share my next recipe with you. (You see, I want to have a little surprise for her when she gets home.)

Using the chicken stock that I made yesterday, I put together a simple chowder, again adapting a recipe that originally called for turkey. Made with some of Karen's favorite foods, including bacon, wild rice, and sweet corn, I thought that this soup would make for a nice "Welcome Home" meal.

Before starting to work on the soup itself, I had to prepare some wild rice. I had just enough wild rice in my pantry for this recipe, though it looks like I will need to put in an order to Minnesota for another 10 lbs bag. After the rice finished cooking, I put it aside and started the work on the soup. I started by browning up some bacon my trusty Dutch oven. The recipe called for pancetta, but unfortunately Safeway is a bit challenged when it comes to specialty items such as this.

After browning the bacon, I drained it on paper towels and removed some of the excess fat from the cast iron pot. Then, I threw in some cremini mushrooms and cooked them for a few minutes in the rendered fat.

After the mushrooms were cooked down, I remove them from the Dutch oven and began softening some diced celery, carrots, and shallots in melted butter. I cut down the amount of butter called for in the recipe in half, since I didn't see the need to use an half a stick of butter for this. After the vegetable mixture had softened up a bit, I put in some flour. As I had reduced the amount of butter, I also reduced the amount of flour proportionally.

After the roux had cooked for a couple of minutes, I returned the mushrooms to the pot and added the chicken stock and some dried rosemary.

Once the stock and vegetable mixture came to a boil, I lowered the heat and simmered the soup for 15 minutes or so. Then, I added in wild rice, the reserved bacon, the meat from the chickens that I used to make the stock, and some sweet corn.

After allowing the soup to simmer for another 10 minutes to meld the flavors together, I added the final ingredient, a cup of heavy cream, to finish off the dish. I tried some of the soup with a simple garnish of flat leaf parsley.

The chowder was delicious, very hearty with a nice silky finish. It'll definitely keep you warm on a cool, autumn evening.

As I was making the chowder, I was simultaneously baking some Amish friendship bread using a starter that Karen gave me.

Does anyone want any bread starter?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Stocking Up

With the arrival of fall and cooler weather, it's a perfect time to enjoy some warm and hearty soup. In order to make soup, you need some sort of base liquid, such as a nice chicken stock. Of course, the best stock is the homemade variety, so today I set out to make some for myself, adapting a recipe for turkey stock from the latest issue of Bon Appétit by substituting two chicken carcasses for the turkey.

A stock is basically a liquid made from simmering a few ingredients in water. All stocks are made with some sort of animal bone, often chicken or beef. The main flavor of the stock comes from the cartilage and connective tissues in the bones. The collagen in the connective tissues is transformed into gelatin during the simmering process and contributes to the resulting mouthfeel of the stock. Most stocks also contain other flavoring agents, such as mirepoix, an onion, celery, and carrot mixture (often in a 2:1:1 ratio), and aromatic herbs, such as parsley and thyme. The recipe from Bon Appétit is comprised of these components.

First, I had to prepare the mirepoix. In general, a rough dice will work; I had roughly 1/3 inch cubes in my mirepoix mixture.

I didn't have a large onion for which the recipe called so I used three medium onion halves (which conveniently allowed me to use up all of the cut onions in the refrigerator):

This recipe called for four aromatics: fresh parsley (left), dried thyme, a bay leaf, and whole peppercorns (right, clockwise from the top):

Not owning a true stock pot, I pulled out my Le Creuset dutch oven, heated up some vegetable oil, and softened up the mirepoix.

Ater a few minutes, I added the two chicken carcasses with enough cold water to cover the bones and the aromatics:

I simmered the stock for about three hours. By the end of that time, the bones were very soft and easily crushed. Removing the pot from the heat, I strained out the solids in a stainless steel bowl using a colander. I used a potato masher to press out the liquid from the mass of bones and aromatics. I let the stock cool down for a while and then used a separator ladle to remove the layer of fat that had floated to the surface.

Here's the final result, after the fat was skimmed off. (Gotta love those Cambro containers!)

I ended up getting about 7 cups of stock, so I topped it off with water (as the recipe suggested) to 10 cups. The stock can be stored in the fridge for a few days or in the freezer if you want to use it in the future. I'll be using mine tomorrow!

Edit: The San Francisco Chronicle today published an article in which Bay Area chefs share their opinions on the best way to make stock. (10/31/2007)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

One Dram at a Time

Last night, Karen surprised me with a fabulous early birthday present: tickets to the First Annual San Francisco Whisky Fest hosted by Malt Advocate magazine. We met up after work yesterday evening at the Hyatt Regency, site of this tasting event, and headed into the main ballroom where more than 200 of the world's finest single malt and blended whiskies were waiting for us to sample. Whiskies of all kind from around the world were present at this event. There were Canadian and Irish whiskeys, Japanese single malts, and Kentucky bourbons distributed among the 70 or so booths at the gala. For me, however, the highlight of the evening were the Scotch whiskies, which were well-represented at this event.

As we walked around the ballroom, it was difficult to figure out where to start, but after a few minutes of wandering, we ran into the table for Highland Park, a single malt label that I had been looking to try for some time. Not only did I get a chance to try to 12 year old bottling, I also was able to sample 15, 18, 25, and 30 year old versions of this fine liquor. The gentleman pouring the drams for us at the Highland Park table was very friendly and happy to answer our many questions. This was our experience all evening: many knowledgeable and nice people who were more than pleased to serve us their version of the distilled beverage and share their extensive knowledge about this famous liquor. Over the course of the evening, we took the opportunity to sample the whisky from many different distilleries, including Talisker, Oban, and Dalwhinnie. We also sampled some blended whiskies, such as The Famous Grouse, and a Japanese whiskey, Suntory of Lost in Translation fame. Karen and I also sampled some of my favorite Scotch, The Macallan. We capped off our evening with a tasting of various bottlings of Glenfarclas.

At each booth, we had the opportunity to try multiple offerings from each distillery, including some 30 year old whiskies and a few 110+ proof cask strength ones as well. I learned that I'm not a fan of full cask strength whisky, but I also realized that just a tiny bit of water opened the liquor enough to enjoy the complex flavors. Even though each pour was quite small, the total amount that we consumed added up, so we took several breaks from imbibing to eat some pasta, roast beef, and crudite in the adjacent ballroom.

Interspersed throughout the evening were a number of breakout lectures on whiskies, on topics ranging from "The Art of Japanese Whisky" to "Scotch... or... Bourbon?" and "Deconstructing Glenfiddich 21 Caribbean Run Finish". We decided to check out the lecture "Chocolate and Scotch Pairing", also known as "The Fruit of the Gods meets the Water of Life". Our session was sponsored by the maker of Laphroaig and The Dalmore single malt whiskies and Bay Area chocolatier, Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker. The session was hosted by Simon Brooking, Master Ambassador for the two aforementioned distilleries. Simon delivered a very engaging and entertaining lecture about the making of Scotch whisky, which contrasted markedly with the far less energetic presentation given by his chocolate making counterpart. It was interesting to see the parallels between the making of Scotch whisky and chocolate, and even more intriguing to try various types of Scotch paired up against specific kinds of chocolate. Some of the pairings worked better than others, but all of them were palatable.

All in all, I had a really fun evening enjoying some whisky with my sweetie. It was a great birthday surprise and an event that I hope to attend again next year. (Hint, hint.)

Monday, October 22, 2007

The 2008 Michelin Guide

Today, the second edition of the Bay Area Michelin guide was released, with 34 restaurants receiving a one star rating or higher. Out of this list, Karen and I have been fortunate enough to visit a few of them: Bouchon, Boulevard, Gary Danko, Quince, Range, Redd, Sushi Ran, Cyrus, and Manresa, with the last two restaurants garnering a two star rating.

In addition, the guide lists 50 other Bay Area restaurants which earned a Bib Gourmand rating. According to the guide, this rating is given to restaurants that are "an inspector's favorite for good value. For $40 or less, you can enjoy two courses and a glass of wine or dessert (not including tax and gratuity)." Out of these restaurants, Karen and I have sampled the fare at A16, Cafe Gibraltar, Delfina, Hong Kong Flower Lounge, Junnoon, Kokkari Estiatorio, Koo, Nopa, Perbacco, Poleng Lounge, Pres a Vi, rmn, Tomasso's, and Yank Sing. We've also visited the predecessor of TWO (namely, Hawthorne Lane).

(Edited 10/24/2007 to include links to past dining experiences.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

What We Ate... At Saha

Wednesday, October 17

Dinner: Saha, 1075 Sutter Street; 415-345-9547

Tonight was Date Night, so where does a guy take his lady? For a dining experience in the Tenderloin  the Tendernob Nob Hill, of course. For our date tonight, I decided to try something a little different, so I took Karen to Saha, a Middle Eastern restaurant in the Hotel Carlton. Named after the Arabic word meaning "a toast to good health", Saha serves up Middle Eastern fusion cuisine, combining the flavors of Yemeni cooking with Californian and French influences.

What we ate:

  • Stuffed avocado: Knaffe (see below) coated & lightly fried avocado stuffed with pomegranate, couscous, tabouleh, and served with semi-soy marinated tofu and raspberry reduction. This starter had an interesting mix of textures and flavors with the crunchy coating contrasting nicely with the creamy avocado. The slices of tofu were surprising good as well.

  • Kofta: Yemeni meatballs of ground lamb and beef marinated with allspice, cumin, mint, cilantro, onion, and olive oil. Served with zahaweg, a spicy tomato and chile sauce. The meatballs were nicely charred and tasty. The accompanying sauce provided quite a bit of kick.

  • Classic Moroccan couscous: prepared with 7 seasonal vegetables and 8 spices in light saffron broth with chicken and merguez sausage. This dish was excellent, with the couscous soaking up the plentiful juices from the meat. This plate had an interesting mix of vegetables too, included what I thought may have been daikon.

  • Lamb tagine: served with basmati rice. This was another excellent dish. The lamb was very flavorful, with a slight hint of sweetness, and fall-apart tender. This dish was a special addition to the menu tonight.

  • Knaffe: a sweet dessert made with shredded phyllo and melted cheese. A fabulous dessert, not overly sweet, with an interesting contrast in textures between the phyllo and cheese. Worth the 20 minute wait.

What we drank:

Monday, October 15, 2007

Angels and Cupcakes

A couple of weekends ago, San Francisco hosted Fleet Week, an annual event held during the Columbus Day weekend to honor the Sailors and Marines serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. The past few years, Karen and I have missed Fleet Week, as either one or both of us have been out of town for some reason or another. (For instance, we were in Hawaii during last year's event.) This year, both of us were in town, so we decided to head down to the waterfront to check it out.

One of the main draws of the weekend is the airshow, which is highlighted with an aerial performance by the Blue Angels, the Navy's Flight Demonstration Squadron. Though I had been to a few other airshows in the past, this was the first one where I saw the Blue Angels. They did not disappoint. The precision in their maneuvers was amazing; at times, it appeared that the six planes were moving as a single entity, as the fighters flew together with just a few feet of separation between them.

From our vantage point near the shore, we could feel the immense power of the jets as they roared overhead during their 45 minute show. One of the more memorable moments for me was when a solo F/A-18 did a high-speed pass at what must have been no more than 50 feet above the water, the vortex of its mighty wake turbulence parting the waters of San Francisco Bay. It was just a lot of fun to watch the planes weave between one another against the gorgeous backdrop of the San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge.

After the show ended, Karen and I decided to take advantage of the fact that we were in the Marina District to grab some sweet treats at Kara's Cupcakes, named after owner Kara Lind. An advertising sales exec turned baker, Lind sources the organic ingredients for her cakes from local suppliers to ensure that her products are as fresh as possible. After having read about this little bakery in both the Daily Candy and in the local paper, both of us were excited to pay them a visit.

Luckily, we beat the big rush and only had to wait a minute or two before it was our turn to order. Karen decided to go with the Chocolate Velvet (below left), a chocolate cupcake with a velvety bittersweet chocolate buttercream, while I went with the Raspberry Dazzle, a chocolate confection frosted with a raspberry buttercream.

The cupcakes were very good, a bit lighter than I expected. At $3 (or more) per cupcake, it's also a bit on the expensive side. I wonder how the cupcakes compare with those from New York City's Magnolia Bakery, of Sex in the City and SNL fame. Maybe it's time for a West Coast v. East Coast, SF v. NYC, cupcake face-off.

A "Great" Start to the Day

Today, Hardee's announced their newest breakfast offering. The new Country Breakfast Burrito is composed of two bacon, sausage, and ham omelets, five hash rounds, shredded cheddar cheese, and country gravy wrapped in a flour tortilla. Ladened with 920 calories and 60 grams of fat, the breakfast burrito is a perfect complement to Hardee's 1420 calories, double quarter pound Monster Thickburger and its 83 grams-o-fat Southwest Chicken Salad. Hopefully, they will have AED units available at all locations.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

United v. Lufthansa, Part II

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been on a road a couple of times in recent weeks. Shortly after my trip to Minnesota, work took me to Europe for another week-long journey away from home. On this trip, I flew United, so I had the opportunity to sample their Business Class cuisine. As you might recall, I wrote about my dining experience on Lufthansa earlier this year, so to be fair, I figured that I should share my thoughts about United's culinary offerings. This time, I remembered to bring my camera so that I could share my experience via pictures.

On its international flights, United offers exclusive menu selections created in partnership with Chicago restaurateur Charlie Trotter. Known for his highly regarded eponymous restaurant, Trotter worked with United to create several different dishes for First and Business class passengers on U.S. outbound flights.

For dinner, we started with citrus-cured smoked salmon with caramelized fennel citrus salad and organic yuzu-miso vinaigrette. This Trotter-designed dish was pretty good. The salmon was tasty, as was the fennel citrus salad. I didn't really see the need for the vinaigrette though; there was enough dressing in the salad and the salmon was fine without a sauce.

For the main dinner course, I chose another Trotter-inspired offering, a mustard-braised pork medallion with roasted banana fingerling potatoes and rosemary honey glazed carrots. This dish was not good. The pork was dry and lacking in flavor. It was overcooked as well; I prefer pork to be cooked to medium, with a just slightly pink center. On the other hand, the carrots were completely undercooked. It felt like I was eating warm, but raw carrots. In hindsight, I should have probably picked the Boursin lasagna instead.

For dessert, I had vanilla and strawberry ice cream. It was quite nice, especially with the glass of port that I enjoyed to help me fall asleep.

After a good six hours of sleep, it was time for breakfast. Once again, I had another Trotter-created dish: Florentine quiche with Hollandaise sauce, pork sausage, and crispy bacon. The quiche itself was decent, but the Hollandaise sauce was quite odd, having a consistency similar to crème brûlée. I had a taste, but it just didn't seem quite right. One of my colleagues got very sick the following day and he thinks that it might have been related to eating the sauce. The sausage and bacon were okay, about what I would expect from airplane breakfast meats. The highlight of this meal was the accompanying fruit platter, which was quite good, especially the cantaloupe.

On the return trip, there weren't any Trotter-inspired items, so I just went with what sounded good. I was flying back on the late flight, so dinner service started soon after takeoff. The starter was marinated prawns and salami with pineapple mango chutney, vegetable ratatouille, artichoke hearts, and stuffed green olives. This plate was good, though I didn't care so much for the chutney.

For the main course, I selected the pan-seared filet mignon with porcini mushroom sauce, roasted potato wedges with rosemary, and lemon brown buttered asparagus. I should have known better than to go with a beef entrée. The filet was way-overcooked, definitely well-done, quite tough, and totally dry, even with the mushroom sauce. I can't even vouch for the claim that it was a cut of filet. It could have been a hunk of round, for all I could tell. The out-of-season asparagus was stringy and overcooked. I should have gone with the herb and cheese stuffed gnocchi with spinach cream sauce.

Since I had ice cream on my previous flight, I decided on the cheese platter for dessert, which included grapes and crackers to go with the Bavarian Blue and Red Cheddar cheeses. The platter was excellent. The cheeses were very flavorful and paired well with the grapes. I would have definitely liked seconds on this dish.

Since I enjoyed the cheese platter so much, I selected the cheese plate for the snack just prior to landing. The plate had Cheddar, Brie, and Chaumes cheeses and a selection of fresh fruit. The fruit was excellent, surprisingly ripe and flavorful. The cheeses were excellent as well. It definitely hit the spot.

The final verdict? Eh, the food was okay, with a few hits and some misses, the Trotter effect notwithstanding. I guess that there's only so much you can do using those heating units in the airplane galley, so even though the concepts might have been good, the execution was lacking. (Of course, the contestants on Top Chef seemed to do reasonably well under those conditions.) One interesting side note is that United has actually gone back to using metal knives in their flatware in Business class. I always thought that it was a bit silly to offer plastic knives when the airlines were still using metal forks.