Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Davis: Shanghai Town

On Sunday evening, my family and I decided to order in dinner from Shanghai Town restaurant in West Davis; the menu is posted here.  My mom and I ate there once many years ago and remembered it as being mediocre, but a family friend told us recently that the dishes were really good now, and we took that recommendation.

Shen jian bao

We ordered thusly:  Shanghai gluten (kao fu), Shanghai soy sauce duck, Shanghai-style ham and pork clay pot soup (yian dun xian), pan-fried buns (shen jian bao), broccoli in garlic sauce, Shanghai-style chow mein, Shanghai-style braised pork ribs (technically Wuxi-style), some sort of fish, and walnut prawns.

Wuxi-style pork ribs

Whole fish

The gluten, soy sauce duck, soup, and Wuxi pork ribs were excellent - all reasonably authentic (as judged by my mom and second cousin, both of whom grew up in Shanghai).  I particularly liked the ribs, which were wonderfully tender.  The pan-fried buns, chow mein, and fish weren't fantastic, but still good.  Sadly, the broccoli in garlic sauce and walnut prawns were extremely disappointing; the former consisted of overcooked broccoli drowning in cloyingly sweet sauce, and the latter was doughy and heavy instead of delicately battered and fried.

The total was just over $70 - a great deal!  We would happily order some of these dishes again; no other restaurant in Davis serves Shanghai specialties.

Monday, November 29, 2010

NYTimes Thanksgiving reader photos - including mine!

The NYTimes asked readers to upload photos from Thanksgiving meals and then compiled them in an online feature.  My photo is around number 100 of the 748 photos total!  I don't think there was much screening or selection beyond a cursory content check, but this still makes me pretty happy.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Chocolate pecan tart

I decided to try baking my first-ever tart for Thanksgiving this year.  Chocolate pecan was the goal because my mom likes pecan pie, but only for the pecans - my family's objection to pecan pie lies in that gooey brown stuff under the pecan layer: it's usually too sweet.  Given that we are also dark chocolate fans, a chocolate pecan tart sounded ideal.

In progress

 For the crust, I went with David Lebovitz's French tart dough recipe, and my starting point for the tart was a Food & Wine recipe.  I followed the tart dough recipe quite precisely, but given that the tart recipe was for an 11-in tart (and my pan is a 9-in pan) and that my goal was to increase chocolate and reduce cloying sweetness, some tinkering was in order.

Requisite beauty shot

I was very pleased with the final product: very nutty, very chocolatey, not too sweet, with a super flaky crust and just enough caramel to hold things together.  This tart was also very rich; after Thanksgiving dinner, a small slice was more than enough.

So, here is my actual recipe:

Chocolate pecan tart (9-in, serves ~10), adapted from Food & Wine

1. Make a tart crust and let it cool.  David Lebovitz's recipe works well and is pretty easy.

Ingredients for tart filling:
2 oz (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/8 cup honey
1/3 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed or unpacked
1.5 tbsp granulated sugar
A little less than 1 cup heavy cream (this will make sense later)
2 cups pecans, coarsely chopped
Some whole pecan halves
3.5 oz dark chocolate, broken into small pieces or roughly chopped (I used 1 bar of Valrhona 85%)

2. Preheat oven to 400deg.  (The recipe says to bake the filled tart at 350, so I'm sure that would work, too; I simply forgot to turn down the temperature, ha!)

3. In a small saucepan, bring 1/2 cup of heavy cream to a boil over high heat.  Reduce heat to very low, add the chocolate, and stir until melted.  Spread half of this ganache in the tart crust, covering the bottom.  Keep the rest warm and stir now and then, to maintain homogeneity.

4. Sprinkle most of the chopped pecans over the ganache layer, reserving a small handful.

5. In another small saucepan, melt the butter and honey together over high heat.  Add the brown and granulated sugars and stir until dissolved, then boil for 1 minute without stirring.  Add 1/4 cup (or a little less) of heavy cream and stir constantly until smooth.  Remove from heat and drizzle evenly over the layer of pecans, essentially gluing that layer together.  The tart crust should be mostly full at this point.

6. Bake the tart for about 20 min, until bubbling.  Simultaneously toast the remaining handful of chopped pecans, as well as the whole pecan halves; this toasting should take much less than 20 min.  Cool the tart on a rack (or burner, or something else that allows nominal circulation).

7. Once cool, decorate tart with remaining ganache and the toasted nuts.

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Washington, D.C.: Leopold's and Urbana

On Saturday morning, after meeting up at Union Station and dropping off my bags at her apartment, Paras and I went to Georgetown for brunch at Kafe Leopold.  We lucked out with lovely weather and plenty of sunshine streaming into the courtyard where Leopold's is located.  This restaurant/bakery has minimalist furniture and a rather decadent spread of pastries in the glass bakery case.

We started with hot chocolate and a cappuccino, served on trays along with a small piece of hazelnut milk chocolate (which, sadly, I think we forgot to take with us when we left), and Paras had some fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice.  We shared lemon souffle pancakes with mango sauce (pictured at top), a malted waffle (with syrup and malt butter), and the house-made sausage (also at top).

Both the pancakes and waffle were literally melt-in-your mouth (with a thin, crisp shell on the latter), and the sausage was essentially a springy meatball.  We were happily stuffed, but in the spirit of decadence, we bought a bag of macarons that we grazed at over the next several hours.  I wish Leopold's were located here in Palo Alto!

We spent the afternoon and early evening shopping, sightseeing, watching Big Game on TV (hooray, Stanford!) while eating lots of pita chips and hummus, and freshening up.  Around 9pm we headed out to Urbana wine bar near Dupont Circle for glasses of cava and a thin-crust sopressata/onion/sausage/olives/artichoke pizza.  Our evening ended with some shiraz on the roof deck of a friend and former dorm-mate's apartment building.

Thanks again for a fantastic day and night in D.C., Paras!

[Note: in my first draft of this post, written while very sleep-deprived, I titled it "Leopold's and Ubuntu."  Is this what happens when some of my friends are computer science majors?]

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Philadelphia: dinner at Davio's

Thursday night's dinner was at Davio's, a restaurant with lovely high ceilings and thick white linens inside the Club Quarters hotel.  We had a preset three-course menu and plenty of refills on the fantastic bread basket (focaccia, cranberry wheat, and simple white).  We started with a very good green salad dressed in balsamic vinaigrette that was on the sweeter side.

Next, out of three pasta choices I had the cavatelli with ragu bolognese (a very chunky meat sauce), shown at top, which tasted and looked like it had some finely chopped chives.  Tasty and comfort food-ish, though the chives were unexpected.  Dessert was a mascarpone-heavy tiramisu and [decaf] coffee.

Weekday dinner: pasta with roasted tomato-carrot sauce

For this sauce, I chopped up the tomatoes and mixed them with a large carrot that was finely grated.  I added some minced garlic, salt and pepper and then slow-roasted them until they started to dry out, stirring once.  I then pureed most of the mixture but left some in chunk form.  This sauce had a nice, full flavor with some sweetness - almost a creaminess - from the carrots.  I served it over pasta (extra noodles leftover from when I made lasagna, and I figured they were vaguely like pappardelle), alongside some roasted free-range chicken.

In other news, it's time for me to buy a tart pan.  I'm planning to make a chocolate pecan tart for Thanksgiving next week.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Pumpkin cake

Having bought two cans of pumpkin at Trader Joe's this past weekend, and also having just run out of baked goods, I decided to bake some pumpkin cake last night.  (It's important to always have some dessert around.)  I used this recipe but substituted low-fat yogurt for half of the vegetable oil, reduced the sugar to about 1.25 cups, and replaced the walnuts with chocolate chips.  Instead of the one 12x18 pan, I used one 9x9 pan and one loaf pan; baking time was around 40 min, and my apartment smelled fantastic!  I enjoyed the warm piece of the fluffy-moist, gently spiced (almost too gentle - maybe my cinnamon measuring wasn't quite up to par), and not-too-sweet product along with a glass of milk and the J.Crew holiday catalog, and brought some to work today.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Weekday dinner: zucchini soup

I was going to leave these vegetables in sauteed form, but then decided to puree them and turn them into a soup.  It worked pretty well!  A small swirl of creme fraiche or some croutons would have been a nice touch, but I didn't have any of the former and didn't want to make the latter, so instead I added some crispy shrimp ball before serving.

Zucchini soup (serves 2)

3 medium-to-large zucchini
1/2 of a yellow onion
Skim milk
Salt and pepper
1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
Olive oil

Thinly slice onion and dice zucchini.  Saute garlic in olive oil.  Add onions, caramelize, and then add zucchini and cook until softened.  Puree using blender, immersion blender, or food processor, then return to low heat and add milk to desired viscosity, salt and pepper to taste.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Kitchen beautification

At the Farmer's Market this morning, I went to one of the flower stands and asked for a plant that would be difficult to kill.  The owner guided me to a selection of various succulents and a few flowering plants, and I chose a coral geranium.  I'm still trying to decide on a name for my new plant pet, but regardless, I'm very happy about the addition to my kitchen windowsill.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Banana cake, stroopwafel, and dessert daydreams

My friend Jane recommended a banana bread/cake recipe by David Lebovitz (thanks, Jane!), and since I had three bananas that were darkening nicely as of today, I decided to use them.  The recipe calls for two medium bananas, but I used three, and in place of the 0.5 cup of sour cream I used an extra tablespoon of butter and some coconut milk.  The cake turned out incredibly moist, and has been disappearing pretty fast.  If I were making this again with the extra banana, I could definitely reduce the butter, and maybe also reduce the sugar since even semi-sweet chocolate chips are on the sweet side.  I also think this cake could be a good layer cake, perhaps with chocolate buttercream or caramel filling instead of the chocolate chips, and a chocolate ganache glaze?

Continuing in the baked-goods vein, today I ate my first stroopwafel.  One of my coworkers, who happens to be from the Netherlands (so I'm sure he knows his stroopwafels), brought some of this brand to lab today.  Wikipedia describes the stroopwafel as "a waffle made from two thin layers of baked batter with a caramel-like syrup filling in the middle," and I describe it as a totally awesome cookie.  It's both crisp and chewy, and on the buttery, sweet side - one is more than enough (although I ate two, spaced by a few hours).  Hmm, apparently you can order them online....

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Rainy day rice pudding

After reading a recent Serious Eats article on rice pudding, I decided it was high time I made some of my own.  I found an Alton Brown recipe for Indian rice pudding online, appealing because he calls for coconut milk and I had a can in my cupboard.  (He also calls for cardamom, whole milk, heavy cream, and pistachios, none of which I had, so I omitted those and also changed the proportions a little bit).  On a cloudy night, it was incredibly soothing to stir the simmering mixture of rice, milk, and coconut milk, not to mention easy.

The result was deeply satisfying, with a luxurious but not overpowering richness and nice bursts of sweetness from the golden raisins.  I brought a portion to work yesterday and enjoyed creamy spoonful after spoonful while reading a paper.  In the evening, not feeling like a real dinner, I had some more pudding with a sliced Bosc pear and a cup of lemon-ginger tea.

"Indian" rice pudding, adapted from Alton Brown

1.25 cups cooked rice (I used long-grain)
1 cup skim milk
1 cup coconut milk
Cinnamon and ginger powder to taste
Golden raisins, cut into small pieces if necessary

In a large saute pan, heat rice and skim milk until the mixture starts to boil, then reduce heat and cook for about 5 min, when mixture has started to thicken.  Add coconut milk, cinnamon and ginger; increase heat and allow to simmer until pudding has again thickened, 5-10 min.  Let cool (pudding will thicken even more).  Add raisins.  Refrigerate.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Rice noodles and some dim sum

On Saturday my parents drove down for a visit, stopping at Ranch99 (the one near Berkeley) on the way.  They showed up with fresh dim sum, wide rice noodles, seafood, vegetables, fruit, and tea, making my kitchen and me very happy.  For dinner we had rice noodles stir-fried with a green (that I think is called Chinese flowering cabbage) and some seafood, along with several dim sum items: shrimp dumplings, chive dumplings, tofu-skin packages, radish cakes, crispy shrimp balls, and flaky baked dumplings I don't know the name of.  Many cups of green tea, and a sponge cake roll for dessert.  Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Palo Alto: Dessert at Shokolaat

I seem to be making dessert catch-ups a habit these days.  Last night, after eating catered Chinese food at a UAR talk-with-freshman-about-doing-undergraduate-research event - a spread that included roast duck with the appropriate steamed buns (how 'bout that!) - I picked up my friend J and his bike and we headed to University Ave for some dessert and diverting discourse.  I was thinking of Satura Cakes, but apparently they are still closed, so after walking several blocks, we decided to try Shokolaat.

Sometime in the past 10 months or so, Shokolaat renovated its front patio area, replacing the normal tables with a lounge-like array of swiveling leather chairs and little cocktail tables.  Fortunately, one thing that hasn't changed is the generous heating.  J and I were seated pretty quickly, and I ordered the fruit tart (pictured above), which here is more like a thick disc of soft shortbread with some pastry creme and berries.  I've had it before, and even though I don't think it's an amazing dessert, I liked it enough the first time to order it again tonight.

J ordered the "Bittersweet Love," which comprises layers of chocolate cake, chocolate mousse, either orange or mango curd (we first thought it was orange, then started tasting mango), and caramel.  This was excellent; much better than the fruit tart.  All the plated desserts at Shokolaat are accompanied by creme fraiche sorbet and caramel streaks, which I think are nice touches.

Another consistent characteristic of Shokolaat seems to be the staff: our server tonight was the same handsome man who was working the patio area months ago, when my girlfriends and I had dessert for girls' night out ;-).

San Diego: Isabel's Cantina

Another non-food picture to start this post off, because I'm pretty sure the subject of this photo (not the photo itself) is unbeatable.  I took this at the Salk Institute in La Jolla; the Salk is an architectural stunner, with a view that speaks for itself.

But now, on to food.  Wednesday's dinner was at Isabel's Cantina, which I'm pretty sure is the first Latin-American/Asian fusion restaurant I've ever been to.  The students at our table said Isabel's is one of the best places in the area for brunch, but no one really seemed to know what dinner would be like.  We started with some "dragon potatoes" which were basically thick fried wedges of various potato varieties - tasty like most fried potatoes are tasty, but otherwise unremarkable.  For my main dish I ordered the udon noodle bowl simply because I wanted noodles.  These were tossed with julienned vegetables - cabbage, carrots, and red bell peppers, I think - in a spicy and sort of syrupy peanut sauce.  The dish was oversauced for my taste buds and spicier than I expected.  The marinated tofu that I requested was really good, however, with a gently crisp skin on each piece.

On my left was a student from Puerto Rico who kindly told me what authentic Puerto Rican food is like.  He ordered fish tacos, which I thought looked very pretty and asked to photograph.

For dessert, a coconut flan landed in front of several of us, but the student on my right and I decided to order some flourless chocolate cake as well.  The flan was thicker than we expected, to the point where it was reminiscent of cheesecake (in a good way).  I've never been a flan fan (hehe, doesn't that sound funny?), so I was more excited about the cake, and this cake was excellent: rich without being cloyingly dense, and the perfect level of sweetness.

If I were in the area, I would definitely want to try Isabel's for brunch, and I would happily order the chocolate cake anytime.

Those readers who remember Teatime from freshman year will be amused to hear that I ordered a berry iced tea that was strongly reminiscent of the [in]famous Snapple tea.  It turns out that berry-flavored herbal teas taste much better iced than hot.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Chocolate panettone bread pudding

Finding myself with half a loaf of panettone (store-bought) that I would probably get tired of before finishing, I decided to make a bread pudding.  Since brioche and croissants make good - if rich - bread puddings, why not panettone?  I used a few of the proportions from a Food & Wine magazine recipe for milk chocolate croissant bread pudding.

Mine turned out pretty well, with the raisins and candied orange peel adding some nice flavor notes and textural contrast.  That said, I didn't account for the slight sourness of the panettone and the lack of sweetness in the dark chocolate I used, so the product was not very sweet (and thus can serve as a non-cloying breakfast, hooray!).  If I were making this again as a dedicated dessert, though, I would add a little bit more sugar.  Here is my recipe, with the sugar adjustment:

Chocolate panettone bread pudding

Panettone, cut into small pieces, enough to fill a 9-in round cake pan
1.5 cups milk
1 bar chocolate, i.e. 3.5-4 oz (I used Ghiradelli's Twilight Dark bar)
1 tsp vanilla
3 large eggs
Pinch of salt
1/3-1/2 cup sugar, depending on darkness of chocolate and the sweetness level desired

Preheat oven to 350 deg.  Break chocolate into small pieces.  Heat milk and, once hot, add vanilla, salt, and chocolate; stir until completely melted.  Remove from heat and let cool for about 15 min.  Whisk in eggs and sugar, until smooth.  Place panettone pieces in cake pan and cover with custard; poke the pieces so they are drenched.  Bake for 30 min, or until top is crusty and springy and center is no longer wet (by the toothpick test).

I think good pairings would be vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, or an orange sorbet (to pick up on the citrus in the panettone).

Monday, November 1, 2010

New York, Part II: Bouchon Bakery and Nougatine

After a brunch event on Saturday, I hopped in a taxi and headed to Columbus Circle.  I had some time to kill before my 1:45pm Nougatine reservation, so I decided to do some more culinary questing.  Fortunately, the Time Warner Center is home to Bouchon Bakery on the third floor.

I was incredibly tempted by quite a few items in the display case, but in the end showed some restraint and picked up only two cookies: a chocolate macaron and a TKO bat (Thomas Keller Oreo, i.e. a gourmet Oreo where the filling is white chocolate ganache), along with a cup of Earl Grey tea.

I enjoyed both, though the macaron was definitely my favorite.  A good macaron is the perfect combination of gentle crunch vs. creamy interior and nutty richness vs. fruit/chocolate/other flavor :-).  Luckily, I snagged a table overlooking the four-story atrium, and sitting there with cookies and tea was a nice way to spend an hour or two.

Then, I headed around the circle to the Trump Hotel and Tower, home of Jean-Georges.  Nougatine is essentially the more low-key (and somewhat less expensive) atrium and bar area for Jean-Georges itself.  In a surprising twist of digital-world fate, one of my high school friends (now working in New York) saw my "Central Park was gorgeous!" Facebook update on Thursday and posted a comment.  A few messages and texts later, and we had established that she was able to join me for dessert!

We had a comfortable table right next to the window.  Service was surprisingly slow; it took us quite a few minutes to get menus, and when we asked for the dessert menu, our server disappeared for a while before returning.  My friend and I were also amused when another server came over with a bread basket and tongs and was about to serve us, but was pulled back by our server (who practically leaped to stop her - fancy restaurant fail!).

Even so, our desserts were still pretty great.  Above is the mango-papaya-lime vacherin with citrus meringue, which was a sorbet-like frozen layer with a meringue cap, dusted with coconut and lime and accompanied by a fruit compote.  The citrus meringue (the white wave on the left) was a fun and flavorful garnish.

Our other dessert was the chocolate-hazelnut fondant with espresso streusel, ginger, and black currant sorbet.  Definitely a winner - chocolate, hazelnuts, and ginger is really a winning combination, and when treated as well as this was...heavenly.  The creamy fondant - essentially pot de creme - was studded with toasted hazelnut halves, and the black currant sorbet was fortunately intense enough to balance the chocolate; it and the austere streusel certainly cleansed the palate between bites.

All in all, a lovely dessert experience, marred only by less-than-prompt service.  At $11.80 per person (including tax and tip), this was still a nice mini-splurge and great chance to catch up.