Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A memorable meal of the past: dinner party at Mae's, July 2009

Plating desserts in Mae's kitchen, one of my favorites
During the previous two summers, I rented a room from Mae Kenrick, an amazing woman who unfortunately passed away in August 2009.  I want to write a post about Mae, her cooking, and what I learned from her about food, love, and life, but writing that post is almost certainly going to make me cry, so....not now.

Among Mae's many kindnesses toward me, she gave me free rein in her kitchen and full use of her utensils/pots/pans/dishes.  So on a weekend when she was out of town, I hosted a three-course dinner party (with her blessing, of course) for six friends.  Another friend gamely agreed to be my co-host/co-cook for this extravaganza, which I couldn't have pulled off by myself.

Our constraints for this dinner were:
- Should be entirely vegetarian
- Desserts should not be overly sweet or cloying
- No figs, honey, cantaloupe or honeydew (allergies)
- No large pieces of or whole tomatoes (chunks of tomato in sauce are ok)

After a flurry of email exchanges during which Co-Host and I debated the merits and practicalities of cream sauces vs. tomato sauces, lasagna vs. loose pasta, soups, and goat cheese pairings; trips to various supermarkets (mostly Mollie Stone's and The Milk Pail); and an evening of testing recipes and making chocolate ganache, we settled on the following menu:

Fresh goat cheese and balsamic-poached apricots on some form of crisp bread/crackers
Simple green salad with cucumbers (We had considered chilled pea soup, but as I described in an earlier post, I vetoed the soup).
Mushroom and tomato lasagna (labor intensive, but pays off)
Stuffed baked avocado
Dark chocolate ginger truffles
Lemon yogurt cake with fresh fruit and coconut-ginger sauce

Main course
On the afternoon of the party, I started roasting the tomatoes and cooking the avocado filling.  After Co-Host arrived, we prepared the rest of the lasagna components, assembled and baked the lasagna and avocados.  Co-Host spent well over half an hour patiently heating and re-heating chocolate to temper it, ensuring the shiniest shell possible for the truffles.  Our guests then arrived, helped assemble the appetizer and salad, brewed iced tea, and then we all sat down for the meal.  Everything had turned out well and deliciously.

The entire experience still might be my favorite cooking adventure so far, and also one of my happiest memories.  Great food, even better company, and plenty of laughter - it doesn't get any better than that, really.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Weekend in Davis - Burgers, Pinkberry, and home cooking

On Saturday, I had lunch with three high school friends at Burgers and Brew, which was voted the Best Burger in Yolo County for 2010.  The restaurant has been open for several years, and seems to be extremely popular; we decided to try it since none of us had been there before.  The menu consists of around 13 burger options, several sandwiches and hot dogs, a few soups and salads, a few desserts, shakes, and some beers (though we didn't order any beers this time).  I ordered the mushroom and onion cheeseburger, cooked medium.  My friends ordered the avocado cheeseburger, guacamole burger, and garden burger.  The Daviswiki page says "No Split Checks" extremely prominently, but the girl who took our order offered us individual checks before we even asked; perhaps the page is outdated.

We all enjoyed our burgers, which were large, juicy, and perfectly cooked.  The buns were fresh, and the bottom bun didn't get too soggy.  I really liked the mushrooms on mine, but wished I had thought to ask for no mayo - it really wasn't necessary :-P.  Even though the burgers were big, they didn't fall apart while being eaten because they weren't overly tall (like the unwieldy burgers from The Counter).  The accompanying fries were nicely crispy on the outside and sprinkled with black pepper.  My friends also liked the curly fries, and I heard no complaints about the side salads, which are served in quite a generous portion.

After lunch, I was on my way to meet my parents when I noticed the new Pinkberry near Borders.  Having heard lots of enthusiasm for Pinkberry in the past, I tried both the mango and coconut flavors before ordering a mini-sized cup of coconut with fresh mango and toasted almonds.  I now like Pinkberry better than Fraiche because I like Pinkberry's "mini" size option, as well as the single price for as many toppings as the cup can accommodate.

For dinner, my mom made her awesome potstickers, filled with pork and chives.  These are one of my favorite foods, and I never really get tired of them.  When I was young, I would eat the filling before the crisp wrapper, but now I usually eat them together like a normal person.  Sunday lunch was my mom's version of Three-Cup Chicken; she doesn't add any oil, and only uses a spoonful of sugar (cue Mary Poppins).  Again, a dish I grew up eating and loving.  My mom is a wonderful cook, and her food is both delicious and healthy.  I do feel kind of weird taking photos of home meals, though, sorry.

Friday, August 27, 2010

"Stressed" is "desserts" backwards. "Einworb" is "brownie" backwards.

I was craving a chocolate baked good on Monday, and I had purchased chocolate chips at Whole Foods on Friday, so I Googled "brownies" and picked this recipe.  Thank you, Brooke, because the results were chocolately, the perfect level of chewiness, and not too sweet.  Perfect with some strawberries and a little hazelnut sorbet.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Market goodies: perusing pastries and peaches

My preferred Sunday morning routine is to wake up around 9, bike to the California Avenue Farmer's Market, eat fruit samples while perusing the produce, buy produce, pick a pastry, sample some sorbet, bike home, and eat the pastry and some fruit with a mug of black tea.  I am bothered by the fact that the prices here are so much higher than prices at Pedrick's Produce in Dixon, where my family gets produce whenever possible and where I try to pick up groceries whenever I go home.  That said, I realize that this is Palo Alto and not the Central Valley, and at least the Cal Ave market is cheaper than Safeway (if one shops carefully).

My favorite stands are the following:
1. La Boulange bakery - I love the chocolate hazelnut croissants, and even more so the almond.
2. Hamada farms (I think?) - Generally has the least expensive peaches and nectarines.  I haven't tasted much of a difference between the different stands' peaches.
3. The big organic stand near the El Camino end - On the left side they have prepackaged 0.5-lb and 1-lb bags of salad greens with edible flower petals.  I like those, but I often go for the bulk salad greens and organic basil.
4. The stand around the middle of the market that has bulk cherry tomatoes - Prices seem to fluctuate a lot for the cherry tomatoes, as sweet as they are.  I also like to get eggplants here.  I think eggplants are cute :-).
5. The flower stands - I love fresh flowers, but I've only ever bought them for myself once or twice in my life.  99% of the time I just feast my eyes and sigh.
6. Cowgirl Creamery - A few weeks ago, while bemoaning the fact that I am allergic to avocado, I tried and bought a half round of Mt. Tam.  It was so good, like a better version of brie.
7. Palo Alto Baking Company - Dutch Crunch bread!
8. Roli Roti truck - I occasionally get either a quarter or half chicken here if I'm too lazy to go home and roast my own.  They advertise quarter chickens with roasted potatoes, for the same price as a half chicken ($6.50), but if you ask nicely, they'll sell you just a quarter chicken (they charged me $3.50).
9. Kettle Corn (duh)
10. Scream Sorbet - I tried the coconut basil at a friend's house a few weeks ago, and loved it.  I recently bought a carton of the hazelnut.  These sorbets are seriously intense, and taste just as creamy as ice cream.  Pricey ($8-10 for 12 oz), but it's the kind of thing you eat a small scoop at a time.

This past Sunday, I bought two white peaches, two white nectarines, a basket of strawberries, two little eggplants, some Early Girl tomatoes, basil, some mixed lettuces, Dutch Crunch bread, and a truly transcendent almond croissant (pictured, with one of the peaches).

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mountain View: Amber India and green curry

Last Thursday night, I had dinner with friends at Amber India in Mountain View.  We ordered butter chicken, chicken masala (curry), dal, mattar paneer (farmer's cheese and peas), naan, rice, chai and mango lassi.  Amber is one of my favorite restaurants; it's on the expensive side of the spectrum, but there's no better Indian food in the area.  My favorite dishes are the butter chicken, baingan bharta (eggplant), and mattar paneer.  The lunch buffet costs $15 (or it did, last time I went) and is one of the best restaurant deals I know of in the area.

On Friday afternoon, after a rather difficult week during which I learned that a near-constant intake of Benadryl and coffee results in malaise and makes me feel stupider, I visited the Land of Magic known as Whole Foods.  Among other delicious things, I bought a jar of green curry paste, determined to try making something curry-like instead of just ordering curry from Lotus Thai, which is my usual antidote to curry cravings.  At home, I washed and chopped some broccoli, oyster mushrooms, and firm tofu.  I sauteed the broccoli and mushrooms in a little bit of oil, then added a mixture of canned coconut milk and a few tablespoons of green curry paste.  The tofu went in last, after everything was bubbly.  I served this approximate curry on top of freshly cooked white rice.  Paired with a gin and tonic, this made for a very satisfying dinner.  I ate some of the leftover curry with pan-fried noodles later in the weekend, and packed the rest for lunch on Monday.

A culinary lesson, finally learned

I'm currently finishing up my lunch break.  My food photos are on my home computer, so a post with pictures will have to wait.  In the meantime, I thought I'd start the "real" posts off with a culinary lesson I sort-of learned last summer, but really learned today.

The lesson is simple: if I cook something and don't like how it tastes the first time, I probably won't like how it tastes in leftover form the next day.  Last summer, while testing recipes for a dinner party, I tried making Ina Garten's pea soup, which her book (Barefoot Contessa At Home) said could be served hot or cold.  I made it, tried it hot, and didn't like it.  I then put it in the fridge and chilled it, tried it after a few hours, and still didn't like it.  Undeterred, I waited until the next day, tried it again, and really really didn't like it.  Needless to say, the soup didn't make it into the dinner party.  In general, I love Ina Garten.  Her coconut cake was what I chose to make after taking the MCAT, and it (the cake, not the MCAT) was fun and fabulous.  In the case of this pea soup, I think it was the combination of peas and mint that just wasn't friendly to my taste buds.

Anyway, yesterday it was around 100 degrees in Palo Alto, and of course, most apartments - including mine - have no air conditioning.  It was way too hot to cook anything complicated, so since I had some ripe Early Girl tomatoes and basil from the Farmer's Market, along with some leftover canned coconut milk, I decided to quarter and toss the tomatoes with a few spoonfuls of coconut milk, finely chopped basil, and black pepper.  Sounds pretty good, right?  I thought the creaminess of the coconut milk would pair well with the tomatoes, and basil and black pepper made sense, too.  The first bite was pretty refreshing, but the more I ate, the less I enjoyed it, though I couldn't figure out why.  Fortunately, I also had some corn, salmon, and pasta to go along with it.

I brought some of the leftover tomatoes and pasta for lunch today, and microwaved it first.  I don't know if the microwaving was an improvement or not, but my first bite today was much less pleasant than yesterday.  The coconut "dressing" didn't seem overly creamy, but it was somehow still cloying, and even after a couple bites of a great brownie (more on that in another post), I still have an unpleasant aftertaste in my mouth.  My conclusion is that I don't like uncooked coconut milk, and I plan to avoid using it as a salad dressing in future.  I'll also forgive myself for throwing away the rest of this tomato salad :-(.

My rules for this blog

I used the Epictetus quote as my blog title because I think the same tenets about attending a great meal should apply to life: be polite, be enthusiastic, be open-minded, and enjoy.  I love food, whether it's shopping for food, reading about food, going to restaurants, cooking, or eating.  Now that I have my own kitchen for the first time, along with a small but steady income, I think this year has great gastronomic potential.

That said, I intend for this blog to follow a few rules:
1. I will post reasonably often, but will not compel myself to post every day.
2. Any discussion of my personal/academic/work life will be limited to immediate food-related topics, e.g., "I've been particularly stressed about X and Y this week, and so tonight I am baking cookies and eating as many as I want."
3. I will include pictures reasonably often.  My camera is a point-and-shoot, so please do not expect photographic greatness.

Hooray for food!