Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Better Half, Hillcrest, San Diego

Yesterday was our 6th wedding anniversary - to celebrate, we had dinner at The Better Half in Hillcrest, a San Diego neighborhood. As the name implies, their wine is sold in half bottles - cutest things you've ever seen, allowing you to have one wine with the first course and another with the second (and another with dessert, if you're so inclined). The wine list was extensive and covered a broad spectrum. It did seem slightly overpriced, however. Double the half-bottle price seemed about 20-30% higher than full-bottle prices at other restaurants. However, I heard a rumor that they offer $5 corkage, if you want to bring your own.

That being said...this is the best dinner I have ever had at a San Diego restaurant. Charles, our server, was amiable and extremely helpful for our wine pairings. The chef, John Robert Kennedy, who has worked with Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter, came to our table twice, and discussed the menu, our particular dishes, and his future plans, at length. I'd love to have a beer or 2 with this guy and talk about food.

Here's what we had:

Amouse bouche - foie gras in a cone. I have absolutely no idea what was in this. But it was lovely. Hubby says: "Bits of joy. Sunshine."

Mediterranean Indigo Mussels: shallot and garlic sautéed green-lipped mussels in saffron lemongrass broth. These were, hands down, the best mussels I've ever had. From the description, I was expecting a lighter broth, but what we got was more of a saffron cream sauce, with a hint of lemongrass and curry. Absolutely amazing.

To go with the mussels, a half bottle of a bubbly pouilly-fouisse, forget the vintner, but the bubbles were great for cutting through the richness of the saffron cream sauce.

Intermezzo: orange sorbet in a cone. Cute, palate-cleansing, and delicious.

Duo of Duck: pan-seared Muscovy duck breast, long-grain rice pilaf, confit jus, White Pekin duck confit, pappardelle pasta, marinara demi-glace. The seared breast was lovely, the skin crisped perfectly, the whole duck/rice plate drizzled lightly with something red and sweet, perhaps a wine reduction mixed with the fond from cooking the duck. But I'm probably wrong. :-) The confit with pasta was the only disappointment of the evening. Taste was good, but the pasta was slightly undercooked, and at a much lower temperature than the pieces of duck. The sauce was tasty, but it either needed to be more assertive, or have a higher sauce to stuff ratio.

Cabernet Short Rib: Chilean cabernet-braised beef short ribs, cauliflower-horseradish mash, morel mushroom cream sauce, fried leeks. I got one bite of this. So I'm going off the taste memory of that one, single, solitary, lonely bite, plus Hubby's comments: the beef was falling-apart-tender. It had to have been braising all day. The cauliflower-horseradish mash was a unique experience. The only way to describe it is: cauliflower, horseradish, and something else, combined into something sublime. The morel sauce was hearty, yet refined, and matched perfectly with the beef and cauliflower. Fried leeks? Yes, please!

And brought to the table with the second courses, brussels sprouts, cooked in a hot cast iron skillet with caramelized shallots. I need to figure out how to make these myself.

With the duck and beef, a 2006 La Crema Pinot Noir. Seriously, this smells like a cream soda with some exotic imaginary berry thrown in. Plus some other stuff that a wine geek would be able to tell you about. It paired well with both main courses, holding its own, yet not overpowering.

Dessert: Bread pudding with pecans and dried figs, drizzled with a creamy something and a sweet honey something. (And I can't understand why the NY Times won't hire me as a food writer! ) Neither one of us were really up for dessert, but every person we talked to and review we read said the bread pudding was extraordinary. And it was.

Verdict: If you live in the San Diego area, you'd be missing something special if you didn't have dinner here at least once.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Grandma's Banana Bread

My grandmother, Lillian Marek, was born in 1920. She married my grandfather, Tony Sykora, in February of 1947, and my mother was born in December of that year (Eastern European efficiency at its finest). Grandma passed away in 1998 after fighting mesothelioma, which she probably got from working near an asbestos factory after she finished school. It was around 1940, when nobody knew asbestos could kill you. She was misdiagnosed for a long time (doctors said it was her heart), and by the time they got it right, it was too late.

Grandma refused to give in to her cancer for longer than I thought possible. Her reason? Love for my Grandpa. She said to me, "He needs me to take care of him." And he did, since he had early stage Alzheimer's at that point. The world needs more people like Grandma.

My grandmother was one of my favorite people. Her recipe for banana bread is one of my favorite recipes. With apologies to Grandma, I've added more spice, and changed up the fruit.

Grandma's Banana Bread
2 bananas, mashed
1/3 cup butter
2/3 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 t vanilla
1 3/4 c flour
2 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
3/4 t cinnamon
1/4 t ground cloves
1/4 t allspice
1/4 t nutmeg
1/2 c chopped pecans
1/2 c dried cranberries

Mix the flour, baking powder, salt and spices.

Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs and vanilla.

Mix in half the flour, half the banana, the other half of the flour, and the other half of banana.

Pour into greased tins, and bake until done (time depends upon tin size, maybe 45-55 minutes for one large loaf?).

Monday, April 28, 2008

Pork & Eggplant Stirfry

Hubby mentioned a dish that he had growing up, consisting of pork, eggplant and onion, served over rice. I'm guessing it comes from the Filipino part of his family. Couldn't be too hard to recreate, could it?

2-3 lean pork chops, trimmed of fat, cut in 1" squares, 1/4" thick
1 Japanese eggplant, about 16" long
1 onion, cut in Chinese-restaurant-size pieces
soy sauce
veggie/canola oil
4 small dried chilis (e.g. chilis de arbol)
1 garlic clove, minced

Cut eggplant in quarters lengthwise, then in 1" crosswise chunks.

Mix the pork with 2 chilis broken in half, some Lawry's and garlic powder. Let sit for a while, then cook over high heat with a little veggie oil until browned. Drain off any pork-water that accumulates during cooking so that it browns well. Remove pork from the skillet to drain on paper towels.

In the remaining oil in the skillet, add the eggplant, and sauté, stirring occasionally, until soft. Add some oil if necessary to facilitate sautéing and prevent scorching. Remove from skillet.

Add a little oil if necessary, and sauté the garlic, onion and remaining 2 chilies (broken in half) until the onion softens. Throw the pork and eggplant back in, and add soy sauce. Most of it will be absorbed by the eggplant. Add a little more. Serve over rice. Green onion would be a good garnish, but I was out.

Note: this is not very healthy, since eggplant is a sponge, and absorbs whatever salt and fat you throw at it, and if you want to actually taste any sodium/lipids, you have to add a lot.

Hubby: "You don't make this often enough."
Me: "But I've never made it before."
Hubby: "Exactly."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Simple Baked Bass with Rice and Salad

Tonight's dinner:
Baked baquetta bass
Jasmine rice with furikake
Cucumber salad

Hubby picked up beautiful fillet of baquetta bass, so I seasoned it with s&p, paprika and garlic powder, placed it in a baking dish with a film of olive oil and a little butter, covered the dish tightly with foil, and baked. I think it was about 30 minutes to get the thickest part cooked, with the thinner side pieces removed as they were done.

As a sauce for the fish, I finely minced some garlic, and sautéed it over low heat in a little butter, sprinkled in some lemon juice, then drained off the liquid from the garlic.

Sides were my standard cucumber-chili-lemon salad, and white rice with soy sauce and nameshi furikake. I picked up the furikake from Owajimaya on my trip to Seattle. It contains "green vegetable", sugar, msg, miso, kelp extract and bonito powder. Green vegetable is further defined on the package as hiroshima nappa, kyoto nappa and radish leaves. I'm guessing that the first 2 ingredients are cabbage from Hiroshima and Kyoto, but I could be wrong, since I'm going from the English over-label on the package. I think I need to take it to work with me and ask my Japanese co-worker to translate. Bottom line, whatever's in it, it was a welcome addition to plain rice.

Overall, I'm not complaining. The fish was meaty and moist, the salad was good as always, and the furikake rice was a good carb-side.

However, I'm not sure the 3 dishes complemented each other too well - the fish was "American", for lack of a better description, the rice had Asian overtones (obviously), and the salad was Mexican. Call me the queen of fumbled fusion.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Pomegranate Urfa Biber Brownies

Ever since I came across this post on Habeas Brulee for Raspberry Pomegranate Urfa-Biber Brownies, I've been dying to make them. I finally got some urfa-biber from World Spice Merchants, and already had the pomegranate molasses. I was still missing the raspberry liquor, and Hubby picked up unsweetened instead of bittersweet chocolate, but I simply couldn't wait any longer.

You start by melting the chocolate and butter with the sugar in a double boiler. Here's a tip - if your glass bowl isn't Pyrex, DO NOT USE IT for a double boiler. I discovered this when I heard the ominous --crack-- from the vicinity of the stovetop. After quickly and messily transferring the melted goo to a stainless steel bowl, things progressed smoothly.

Until it was time to taste. Umm...I don't think you should try to substitute unsweetened chocolate for bittersweet. My brownies were intensely over-cocoa'd. So intensely that I had to throw them out. However, I'm definitely going to try them again (with the right chocolate!), because the pomegranate and chili really went well with the chocolate.

Arroz con Pollo

My next challenge dish was Rice Simmered with Chicken and Chorizo (Arroz con Pollo), from Bistro Latino. Not like the arroz con pollo I usually make, this one has roasted red pepper strips, corn, peas, but most importantly, chorizo. This recipe calls for fresh chorizo instead of dry, which is good, because I've never found the dry type around here (although I'd love to know where to get some).

Sauté 8 ounces of sliced chicken, 4 ounces of chorizo, garlic and onion in olive oil. Add 1 cup of long-grain rice, stir to coat, then add 2.5 cups of broth, seasoning and sliced carrot. Bring to a boil, reduce to very low, simmer 15 minutes. Sprinkle with peas and corn, simmer 5-10 minutes more. Stir, season, and lay red pepper strips on top.

How was it? Different. The chorizo added a little spiciness that usually isn't present in arroz con pollo (at least not in my house). The amount of broth called for was higher than what I'd normally use, because when it finally all absorbed, the rice was a bit overcooked and starting to fall apart. So it was kind of half rice / half porridge, something almost risotto-like. It's got a comfort-food feeling to it, like what you'd eat if you were homesick or under the weather.

But, and here's the best part, we made burritos out of it the next day, adding a little soy sauce, a little sriracha, and shredded cheddar cheese in toasted flour tortillas. Absolutely amazing.

Highly recommended recipe, not for as it's originally intended, but for the burrito modification.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Angel Hair Croquettes with Cheese

Challenge recipe #3 was another difficult one. The book, The Renaissance of Italian Cooking by Lorenza De'Medici is gorgeous. Pictures of the different regions of Italy, beautiful houses, stunning food photos. But when it came to choosing a recipe to cook....

Spinach Sautéed in Garlic (Spinaci all'Aglio)? Boring. Not very challenge-ish.

Fresh Sardines Baked in Breadcrumbs (Sarde al Pangrattato)? Sounds good, but I have never seen fresh sardines here (or anywhere, for that matter).

Stuffed Rabbit (Coniglio Ripieno), which isn't really stuffed like you'd stuff a chicken, but instead laid out flat, topped with pancetta, egg frittata and mortadella, then rolled up and baked. Sweet Jesus, I want this right now. But have you seen the price of rabbit these days?

So I settled on Angel Hair Pasta Croquettes with Cheese (Crocchette di Capelli d'Angelo). You cook angel hair pasta, mix in eggs & parmesan, shape into balls, and stick a cheese cube in the middle. Coat in egg, then in breadcrumbs, and deep fry. Sounds good, a little like arancini, stuffed leftover-risotto balls (delicious), but with pasta instead of rice.

STOP! Don't try to make these. There was no way these were ever going to be shaped into "walnut-sized balls". I tried cutting the pasta into shorter pieces. I tried chilling it. I tried adding more egg. Then more cheese. No dice. I ended up frying the pasta in a skillet, with the cubes of cheese nestled into the pasta. Even that didn't work too well, because the 2nd side burned a little because I didn't add more oil when I flipped it. And it tasted like, well, fried pasta.

I should've made the rabbit.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Fried Bananas

This is the 2nd dish of my self-imposed challenge. After perusing The Asian Cookbook, this is the only recipe that I wanted to make. (Hubby must have been right, this book is "just taking up space".)

Super-easy, you make a batter of flour, egg, salt, sugar and milk, dip sliced bananas in the batter, and deep fry (I used peanut oil).

Not bad. But if I'm going deep-fried, it has to be something spectacular (like ice cream or stuffed chilies), not just "not bad".

I used up the leftover batter to fry a couple slices of eggplant, and one mini-carrot, because Youngest said she wanted to try a deep-fried carrot.

The batter recipe is pretty good, a little sweet, a little eggy, suited better for bananas than for eggplant, I think. It might work with zucchini or yellow squash, but probably not with plantains, unless they're really ripe, because the batter browns pretty quickly.

Moral of the story: sometimes your husband is right - your cookbooks are just taking up space.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


I'm off to Seattle for business for a few days. Cool, right?


Between days at the job and dinners with the bigwigs, I'm going to have absolutely zero time to do the things I really want to do, like go to Pike Place Market, the Space Needle (yes, it's touristy, but I still want to see it once), maybe a visit to World Spice Merchants, etc etc etc.

But this time, I'll have to be content with a bread bowl of clam chowder at Anthony's in the airport. I'd order oysters, but I have this thing about not eating raw seafood before being on a plane for 3 hours.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Protein + Starch + Green

Tonight's dinner:

Pan-seared ribeye, seasoned with salt & Aleppo pepper, cooked medium, topped with blue cheese and a pan sauce made from drippings, balsamic vinegar and butter.
White rice with soy sauce.
Escarole and romaine salad with "Tahitian Lime & Coconut Dressing".

No picture of the meal, since the vultures, er, family, attacked the steaks before I could even snap a cellphone picture. So here's the dressing.

I think that was enough beef to last me at least 6 months.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Torta di Frittate from The Silver Spoon

Since The Silver Spoon has over 2000 recipes, I decided to narrow it down by only considering recipes with an accompanying picture, which effectively cut the behemoth down to something more manageable, maybe about 150 recipes.

Easter Leg of Kid looked scrumptious, but where the hell am I going to find the leg of a goat? Ditto for the cotechino in Cotechino with Lentils.

And Veneto-Style Liver? I don't think so. (I am so grateful that pictures were all but absent in the lungs-heart-kidney-tripe chapter. Ick.)

Ricotta and Spinach Crepes looked good, as did the Belgian Endive with Prague Ham. Tomato Fritters (stuffed with mozzarella, basil and anchovies, then batter-dipped and deep-fried) looked absolutely amazing, but will have to wait until tomatoes are in season.

But it was the Torta di Frittate, or Frittata Cake, that not only caught my eye, but wormed its way into my brain so that I was barely able to restrain myself from going to the grocery store at midnight. With eggplant and bell pepper separated by layers of eggy cheesy goodness (fontina!), how could this not be delicious?

The verdict? It was delicious. Hubby loved it. Oldest, who hates eggplant and doesn't like eggs, said "that's pretty freakin' good". Youngest said she'd try it. I asked her if she liked roasted eggplant and peppers, and she said "probably not, but I'll still try it". (That made up for the microwave quesadilla.) Her response: "Pretty good." Not good enough for her to have a whole piece, she went for leftover beans and cheese, but I'm satisfied.

One thing, though, this is an awfully fussy recipe. Broil the eggplant. Roast the peppers, then peel and de-seed and cut in strips. Make three 2-egg frittatas with parmesan and parsley, still soft on top, which were as thin as crepes and extremely difficult to handle when assembling the dish. Layer everything, then bake for 10 minutes.

But I like fussy fiddly recipes. And I'm happy that my first dish of my self-imposed challenge turned out so well.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I Challenge Myself...

I've decided to put my cookbook collection to use. My goal is to cook one recipe from each book, in their order on the shelf, until I reach the end. And then start over with new recipes. I will, however, be excluding some of the books, since I'm not fluent in Thai or Hungarian.

The first book I'll be cooking from is The Silver Spoon. Yes, there are other things before it on the shelf, but they're magazines, which don't count, and something called Savoring China published by Williams Sonoma that I didn't put there, so it doesn't count. My challenge, my rules.

Stay tuned...

Monday, April 14, 2008

Posting Doldrums

I feel like reverting to the format of my first few posts, e.g.:

Reading: Servant of the Bones by Anne Rice
Eating: Fried Rice (again)
Watching: Nothing, the TV's broken (which is kind of a good thing, except for movies)

I could blame the lack of a camera, 'cause lets face it, the cell phone just doesn't cut it, and it's not worth the $15 a month to be able to email photos to myself.

I could blame my work situation, 'cause one of my employees is having personal issues, and the other has some weird medical problem that not even Harvard Medical School can figure out. So I end up having to do the job of 2.5 people and by the time I make it home, I'm too exhausted to cook something interesting.

But then I sit back and think - out of the almost 7 billion people on the planet, how many of them have a digital camera? How many have an HDTV and can rent movies whenever they want? How many of them even have the option of cooking something interesting if they want to?

And as for family issues, of course I have them. But my daughter's not pregnant. And I love my husband and he loves me.

And I don't have a possibly life-threatening disease that doctors can't diagnose.

I have this:

And this:

So what the hell am I complaining about?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

I'm a Failure...

My youngest just made a quesadilla... the microwave.

I'm a complete failure as a mother.

Friday, April 11, 2008

My New Favorite Snack

Toast a slice of sourdough bread. Spread with blue cheese (Saint Agur is what I used, because that's what's in my fridge right now).

I want to top it with something else...thinly sliced strawberries? canteloupe? a drizzle of pomegranate molasses? reduced balsamic?

Ideas, anyone?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A little goofing around...

Look! A picture of my blog...on my blog!

I am such a dork.

Foiled Again...

Look! A picture! Quality kinda sucks, but that's because it's from my phone.

I cut myself on aluminum foil. Didn't even know that was possible. But when it comes to injury, I'll find a way...

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Food & Wine, May 2008

These are the recipes that look yummy (to me, anyway) from the May 2008 issue of Food & Wine. Will I make any of them? Probably not, unfortunately. I have about 100 cookbooks, of which I've cooked from about 15, only 3 or 4 regularly. And I recently got rid of most of my back-issues of Saveur and Food & Wine because they were just taking up space. I'd love to make use of the paper in my kitchen, but the Internet is just so much easier these days. Anyhow, on to the list of things I want to make but probably won't:

Tangy Twice-Cooked Eggplants with Red Peppers
Grilled Mortadella and Robiola Packets
Chickpea-Chile Flatbreads
Shrimp and Noodle Salad with Ginger Dressing
Glazed Japanese Beef and Scallion Rolls

If anybody out there (all three four of you (who are you #4? (I love nested parentheticals (what, you don't?)))) makes any of the above, please let me know. If it's good, I'll make it too (I promise!).

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Ham Shank, Kale and White Bean Soup

Once again, I found myself in possession of a hunk of protein for a very low cost. In this case, a ham shank.

I figured that the shank could be cooked the same way as the hock, since they're just different parts of the piggy leg.

So I boiled said shank for about 90 minutes, removed it from the resulting porky broth, cooled, and separated meat from doggy bits.

After that, the broth was refrigerated until cold, in order to remove the fat. Then I clarified the broth using 2 egg whites mixed with a little cold water and the crushed up shells. (I found various ways to clarify - I picked the easiest, simmering broth, dump in cold beaten egg whites, cover and let simmer 10 minutes, remove from heat, let sit 10 minutes, strain through cheesecloth, or, in my case, paper towels.)

The whole clarifying thing probably wasn't necessary, but if you've ever made piggy broth before, you know it's cloudy with unattractive protein.

For the soup, I sautéed onion, garlic, carrot and celery for a bit with a lot of paprika, then added most of the broth and the chopped up meat. Simmered for a while to soften the veggies, then added chopped kale, simmered a while to wilt it, then a can of white beans, and simmered just to heat through.

Of course salt and pepper were added along the way.

Hubby, who normally dislikes my soups, loved this. Went back for a 2nd bowl, and packed himself leftovers (!) for lunch for the next day.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Something Salty This Way Comes...

What do you do with a man that gets mad when he sees you pull out the box of kosher salt?

"I hate kosher salt. It's not salty enough. Use table salt."

I told him that different salts had different purposes. I bake with table salt. Almost everything else gets kosher. Other salts, (which I had yet to acquire) were good "finishing salts".

He said the only salt you need is table salt. I told him "Just wait, one day I'm going to come home with a bunch of different salts, pink ones, smoked ones, chunks, flakes. And I'm going to make you taste them all."

So today I came home with Himalayan pink salt in a grinder, Australian Murray River pink salt flakes, and Trapani (Sicilian) sea salt chunks.

I hope he drank his 8 glasses of water.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Slow Cooked Beef Short Ribs

I had picked up some beef short ribs because they were on "Manager Special", meaning they were about half price, and you had to use them quick or freeze them. They turned into an absolutely wonderful slow-cooked beefy vegetabley soup-stew. We ended up picking out the pieces of beef and veggies, and making sandwiches. The remaining veggies & liquid were quickly devoured stove-side with hunks of baguette. I won't be making this too often, as it's pretty rich, but it made a satisfying meal at a really low cost.

Slow Cooked Beef Short Ribs

beef short ribs
red wine
canned tomatoes
chicken broth
bay leaf

Season flour with paprika, salt and pepper. Dredge the short ribs in the flour, and brown well in a small amount of veggie oil at medium-high-ish heat on all sides in a large pot (I used my enamel-coated cast iron Descoware). Don't worry that it sticks - it'll unstick itself when it's ready. It probably took about 15 minutes to complete the browning. When nicely browned, remove from the pot.

Lower the heat, and throw chopped onion and garlic into the pot, and sauté until softened. Add a few glugs of red wine, and scrape up the browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Add canned tomatoes (with or without their liquid), and some broth. Nestle the ribs into the liquid. They should be almost covered.

Add your herbs however you choose - I used my mesh tea ball, filled with some oregano, thyme, basil and bay leaves. Also salt and pepper (lots!!). Bring to a boil, cover, and place in a 325 degree oven for about 2 hours.

For the last 30 minutes, mix chopped celery, carrot and parsnip into the liquid. I'm sure potato would work well too.

Now here's the fussy part: Short ribs are fatty. I don't like being fatty. So I removed the ribs to a plate to cool, then cut the meat off the bones into chunks, and removed the most glaring bits of fat. Then I drained the liquid from the veggies, and refrigerated them separately. Next day, I skimmed the solidified fat from the liquid, and forced about half of the veggies through a strainer. I mixed together the liquid, veggies, and veggie puree together, and added back the chunks of beef.

At this point you'll want to check for salt. Overnite refrigeration normally means you have to add more salt the next day, don't ask me why.

Serve over rice, over potatoes, as sandwiches, as soup, whatever. Just eat it. It's good.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

They're Alive!

Oh the frustration of not having a camera.

Before we left for Chicago (March 6), I had 3 potatoes in my cabinet (cool, dark place, y'know). When I came back, they had sprouted. A lot. I decided to leave them there for a while longer to see what would happen.

The 2 Yukon golds, about 3 inches long, now have 4-inch sprouts.

The red potato, about 5 inches long, has sprouts coming from 3 places, each with a multitude of arms. The biggest sprout has about 12 arms. Picture a sea anemone attached to a potato.