Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Saturday supper: Tuxedo chili and lemon polenta cookies

My cook-fest this past Saturday centered around chili - the first chili I've ever made, in fact - accompanied by cornbread (with caramelized onions in the bottom of the pan).  The chili is the "Tuxedo Chili" from Food52, which I chose because it seemed relatively simple.  Instead of ground chicken I used lean ground turkey, and as usual, given that my biggest pot is quite small for a soup pot or stockpot, I haphazardly adjusted the ratios.  Finally, since I don't have a blender, one can of the Great Northern beans was mashed into water with a combination of hand and spoon.

This chili must be quite forgiving, though, since the result was still very tasty.  A friend came over for dinner and gave it her approval.  Even with my smallish pot, I still got 6-7 servings out of the recipe!

For dessert, lemon polenta cookies.  I went ahead and added salt to the dry ingredients before remembering that I had used salted butter.  Even with the extra salt, though, the cookies were pretty great, probably thanks to lemon juice's acidity and the extra lemon zest I threw in.  These cookies are are a little bit crumbly, fragrant and rich from the butter and lemon, and pleasantly gritty with the cornmeal.

A bonus: they become even more flavorful, with improved texture, after a day or two.  I'll definitely be making these again; next time, I might even double the recipe and freeze half the dough.  Huzzah!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Marshall, CA: Hog Island Oyster Company

This past Sunday, Andrew and I picked up two friends and drove north from Palo Alto toward Point Reyes.  We stopped briefly in Point Reyes Station to buy cheese at Cowgirl Creamery, where the Mt. Tam cheese is irresistible; the Red Hawk is their other top seller but is more pungent than I like.  I can get Cowgirl Creamery cheeses at Whole Foods in LA, but it's so much more expensive here!

Cheese procured, we continued on Highway 1 along Tomales Bay until reaching Hog Island Oyster Company in Marshall, CA.  I had reserved a picnic table, which comes with a grill and some condiments (lemons, hot sauce, etc), and both bulk and pre-shucked or barbecued oysters are available for sale.  Our group bought one bag of 50 Hog Island Sweetwaters and a dozen Kumamotos, and received a quick lesson in how to shuck oysters; gloves and shucking knives are provided.

In case you're wondering how one should properly shuck an oyster, here is what I learned:
1) Hold the oyster in your gloved, non-dominant hand, with the flatter shell facing up.
2) Place the point of the shucking knife at the spot where the top and bottom shells join.  Push and twist back and forth a little bit, which may cause a little piece of shell to chip off.
3) Continue to push and twist, forcing the knife point into the joint area.  Once the tip of the knife has slipped between the two shells, move the knife back and forth laterally to gradually pry the two shells open.  Keep the oyster level if possible so you don't lose the oyster liquor (the salty liquid inside).
4) Once the shells are nearly separate, use the knife edge to free the flesh from both shells.

In addition to the oysters, we had a picnic of the aforementioned cheese, pita, sausages, oranges from Stanford history corner trees, salad (endive, cabbage, and cucumber), chocolate orange cardamom cake, and drinks.  A delicious feast!  Of course we started by shucking and eating the oysters fresh, but we also put some of them on the grill, where they cooked in their own liquor.  The weather was clear and warm, and with the picnic area being right next to a little inlet, we had idyllic surroundings to pair with our unbelievably fresh seafood.  Personally, I didn't taste too much of a difference between the Sweetwaters and the Kumamotos, apart from the latter being a little more delicate in flavor.

Oyster picnicking and shucking was a very unique and fun gastronomical experience!  If I were to return, though, I might try one of the non-reserved tables, still bring my own picnic, and order some of the barbecued oysters with chipotle bourbon butter; I actually did lose some interest (gasp!) in raw oysters after six or eight.  Anyhow, after our lavish lunch, we went for a 3.6 mile hike at Point Reyes (the Muddy Hollow trail from off Limatour Road to pretty Limatour Beach).  Tomales Bay is about as far as we would want to go for a day trip from Palo Alto, but on this Sunday it worked out wonderfully.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Marine's flight home

(This post was written on Friday January 16.)
I am writing from Southwest flight 577, from LAX to SJC on Friday at 3:03 pm. This flight is one of the most unique in my experience, having just taxied through a "water cannon salute" in honor of the deceased Marine who is being flown in this plane to his final resting place. His family is accompanying him, seated in the first two rows after watching the loading process on the tarmac.
I've never witnessed such an event before, but it lends a particular note of respect and contemplation to what would otherwise be a rather mundane SoCal-NorCal transit. I heard very little talking as we gained altitude, and assume that I am not alone in feeling struck by this surprising event. Maybe it's telling that it was, in fact, a surprise to me. It's all too easy to forget, from the safety and comfort of my living and working environments, that there are so many Americans who put their lives at risk in unfamiliar, inhospitable environments every day, and have done so for many generations, that in this country I may walk the 12 minutes through Westwood Village and into lab with the peace of mind that freedom (and, frankly, privilege) afford.
So I take this as a reminder to be grateful for this Marine's sacrifice, and for the sacrifices of his fellow servicemen/women and their families. Thank you.
(Upon arriving at SJC, we taxied through another water cannon salute, creating a rainbow, and the Marine was met with a receiving ceremony on the tarmac. The plane and half the terminal were silent as everyone quietly disembarked and then stood, watching, next to the windows.)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Sunday supper + Monday at Milo & Olive

On Sunday afternoon, I decided to break in my new cast iron skillet (a Christmas present), and started by extra-seasoning it.  I say extra-seasoning because it is the Lodge model that comes pre-seasoned, but I decided that two more rounds of oil + heat couldn't hurt.  A couple hours later, I cooked some bacon - my first time cooking bacon - and then immediately used the grease to bake cornbread (Trader Joe's cornbread mix, not homemade, but it turns out that the mix is quite good).  At the same time, I was simmering a pot of vegetable stew, which I had started by caramelizing a chopped onion and then adding three chopped bell peppers, two minced cloves of garlic, one chopped shallot, one can of diced tomatoes, about a cup of leftover chicken broth, chopped potatoes, some frozen corn, and finally the crumbled bacon.  Hello, stew for the week!

My third project on Sunday was to bake a lemon cake (following Ina Garten's recipe) with Meyer lemons, adding the lemon syrup but omitting the final sugar glaze.  The cake was one way to start using up all the extra salted butter I have in my freezer, the result of overambitious plans to make about 2 dozen jars of salted butter caramel sauce as Christmas presents back in December (so it goes.  I was only able to make 10 jars before winter break.)  Anyhow, four hours later, ta da!  I brought the cake to lab on Monday and it was happily consumed, thanks to one lab meeting, one journal club, and one hungry and enthusiastic undergrad who rows crew.

Cornbread, cake, stew

For quite some time I've been hearing great reviews of the pizza and bread at Milo and Olive, and given that both [great] pizza and bread are worth celebrating, Ivana and I decided to do so yesterday evening.  The restaurant is on the tiny side, with just 8 or 10 bar seats and two communal 8-tops, and there are no reservations, but fortunately on a Monday night we were immediately seated.  (That said, I've heard that wait times for weekend brunch get pretty insane.)  The interior reminds me somewhat of Girl And The Goat in Chicago, with a high ceiling, wood beams, and plenty of dark gray.  There is also a wall covered in framed drawings that are rather cute:

Being "moderately hungry" but wanting to save room for dessert, we ordered the sauteed kale, gnocchi with pesto and peas, and the pork belly sausage pizza.  The generously-portioned kale offset the smaller portion of gnocchi, but both were prepared very well. The kale was flavored with lemon and what I thought was pepper, but was actually "pickled Fresno chili" (from the menu).  The gnocchi was sweeter, with lots of Parmesan, a sprinkling of toasted bread crumbs, and a bed of basil.  Our pizza came out last and was definitely one of my favorite pizzas in Los Angeles, if not very favorite.  Both Ivana and I thought it was somehow "better" - or perhaps just more pizza-like and less flatbread-like - than the pizza at Pizzeria Mozza.

Pizza + the last of the kale

After further reflection, I decided that what Milo and Olive got so very right was the texture of the crust: a crunchy exterior, soft and chewy interior, no scorched bubbles, and no greasiness (after all, the cheese and sausage provide quite enough richness).  The middle of the pizza was kind of soggy, which could be a criticism, but I didn't mind.

A closer look at the crust.  Perfectly browned!

To finish, we shared a piece of vanilla pear tart: thick vanilla custard with poached pears in a rustic, flaky crust.  It's fortunate that we got one of the edge pieces (the tart is baked in a large rectangular pan), because much like the pizza crust, the tart crust was exemplary for its category.  So good, in fact, that when I saw a corner piece was still available as we headed out, I decided to purchase it.  That tart piece ended up serving as an evening pick-me-up for a friend who is currently exhausted on her internal medicine rotation, fulfilling my belief that dessert should make people happy.

Looking forward to returning to Milo and Olive for more baked deliciousness!  Speaking of baked deliciousness, or rather, its potential unhealthy effects, since getting back from break I've been trying the "Seven Minute Workout" concept that's gotten some press lately.  The idea is that for seven minutes a day, every day, one exercises at high intensity for 12 30-second intervals with 10 seconds of rest in between.  There are handy apps to prompt you and also remind/guilt you if you haven't exercised yet that day; I use the one with a blue icon just called "Seven."  We'll see how it goes!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Culver City: Grand Casino bakery

Early on Saturday morning I drove to Culver City for a car maintenance appointment.  After being told that it would take "a couple hours," I decided to take advantage of the lovely weather and relative quiet and walk around downtown Culver City.  One place on Main Street was fortuitously open: Grand Casino Bakery.  This establishment has a bakery half and a restaurant half and specializes in Argentine pastries and dishes.  Both sides had cute elderly couples sitting, eating, and quietly chatting this morning.  There was also an old man reading the newspaper, and various other patrons came in and confidently ordered boxes of pastries, all of which I took as encouraging signs.

I didn't recognize everything in the display case, but after hearing some of the descriptions, selected a guava pastry (top row, far left) and a mini croissant with some custard on top (top row, third from left).  I don't think I'd had a guava-filled pastry since my youth symphony's trip to Brazil, back in 2003!  The two pastries, plus a cafe con leche, came to less than $4.00, and were definitely tasty.  A dozen would have been $9.

The croissant wasn't particularly crisp, but had a nice contrast between the innards and the custard ribbons on top.  The guava pastry was even better (with a better crust), though I did wish there was more filling.  The bakery also sells different cookies, including alfajores, as well as fancy decorated layer cakes, but I do consider 8:15am too early for cookies or cake.  

While I ate, I examined this poster of various mate styles.  It was hanging on the wall next to a tall shelf with various varieties of mate, so if I ever crave a highly caffeinated Argentinian brewed beverage, I'll know where to go!  In fact, mate is available on the cafe menu for $1.95.  But that aside, I'll definitely be returning for the pastries.  I also want to try the alfajores, empanadas, and maybe the skirt steak, perhaps with the "panqueques con dulce de leche" for dessert.

After breakfast, I ran some more errands.  Culver Blvd is actually quite lovely!  Case in point: the impressive archway in front of the Culver City Hall.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

2013 was what's next?

To quote Mushu from the cultural touchstone Disney film Mulan, "I liiiiiiiiiiiiiive!"  A year isn't too long of a break from blogging, is it?  I think not.  I've been thinking about starting a new activity or two in 2014 and have considered knitting, West Coast Swing lessons, drawing, and rock climbing.  Then I realized that before adding anything new, I should probably consider renewing my commitment to existing interests that I've gotten more careless about over the past year.  Music is the big one, and blogging is also on the list.  So hello again, Life As A Feast!

For this iteration I've chosen some slightly different colors, and have also decided to throw out my original "rules" for this blog.  If I feel like posting about something not exclusively food-related, so be it, though I hardly think this will turn into a confessional.

Anyhow, I'll ease into this by listing my culinary favorites of 2013.  Hopefully I don't leave out anything egregious.

Favorite restaurants in...
Chicago, IL: Table Donkey and Stick (I have no idea what "cuisine of the Alps" tastes like in the Alps, but here it was delicious)
Los Angeles, CA: Bar Bouchon (where I treated myself to endive salad, mussels, french fries, and chocolate tart at the end of second-year), Waterloo and City (I went during DineLA but would have paid full price for those three excellent courses), Native Foods (one of my local go-tos), 800 Degrees (tasty Neapolitan pizza for less than $10), MB Post (decadent brunch), EK Valley Restaurant (an oddly-named but charming, inexpensive and family-run Oaxacan restaurant)
New York, NY: Atlantic Grill (the scallops!), Russ & Daughters (bagels + lox are irresistible)
Palo Alto, CA: Terรบn (previously Terrone; now my go-to Neapolitan pizza spot in Palo Alto); Patxi's (for the opposite kind of pizza); Cafe220 and University Cafe (which I will never stop loving),
San Francisco, CA: Wayfare Tavern (cocktails and popovers started off a lovely special-occasion dinner), Walzwerk (comforting German food), Pizzeria Delfina (which I now like more than Pizzeria Mozza in LA)
Seattle, WA: How to Cook a Wolf (my second visit, this time with my parents)
Shanghai, China: Nanxiang Steamed Dumpling Restaurant (the 3rd floor is pricier but way better than the street level), Lang Yi Fang (classic Shanghai dishes and a killer view)

Favorite bakeries/desserts in...
Chicago, IL: Bang Bang Pie Shop (they serve pie and biscuits, all excellent, and the latter with an eclectic array of flavored butters and jams)
Davis, CA: Konditorei (their chocolate hazelnut cake and fruit tart are still the best I've ever had)
Los Angeles, CA: Copenhagen Bakery (impeccable Danish), Bouchon Bakery (macarons), Scoops (ice cream)
Palo Alto, CA: Douce France and La Boulange (both have great fruit tarts)
San Francisco, CA: Craftsman and Wolves (I really want to try their afternoon tea)
Seattle, WA: Theo chocolate factory store, Fainting Goat (gelato!!)
Shanghai, China: Lillian Bakery (egg custard tarts), Whisk (for chocolate overload)
Victoria, BC: Afternoon tea at The Dining Room at Butchart Gardens (perfect tea service, savories and sweets, and a perfectly picturesque setting)

Favorite coffee in...
Los Angeles, CA: Espresso Profeta (a little local gem), Groundwork Coffee (tasty lattes and good pastry)
Palo Alto, CA: Philz (though too expensive)
Seattle, WA: Milstead & Co. (mochas are made with unsweetened Theo chocolate)

Favorite bars or wine bars in...
Los Angeles, CA: Bigfoot West (frontier-themed whiskey bar with a disco ball, $5 happy hour, and empanadas), Napa Valley Grille (classy and quiet, but also with a good happy hour)
Palo Alto, CA: Gravity Wine Bar (reasonable flights and tasty dessert)
Shanghai, China: Southern Cross (a living room-like Japanese cocktail bar with a super-skilled bartender)

Favorite cookbook: Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.
Andrew and I have cooked beef kofta, carrot salad, chicken with cardamom rice, chicken with fennel and clementines, and a fish dish from this book, and everything (but especially the beef and chicken dishes) has been absolutely delicious, even when we couldn't find this or that ingredient.  The book has introduced us to spice combinations that we would otherwise have never explored on our own, and we're planning to try more recipes in 2014.

Favorite food-related book: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Even after reading this book, I've never seriously considered being vegetarian, though being a lacto-ovo-pescatarian or just giving up red meat wouldn't be too difficult (I already hardly ever cook it myself).  That said, Pollan's book gave me a much more complete view of where food comes from and what various labels (e.g. at Whole Foods) may or may not mean; as a result I've tried to be more conscientious about the food purchases I make.

Favorite savory dishes I cooked (or helped cook):
Chicken with cardamom rice, eaten with spicy carrot salad (both from Jerusalem)
Mushroom bourguignon (from SmittenKitchen)
Soup with spicy sausage, peppers, corn, pasta, and tomatoes (adapted from SeriousEats)

Favorite sweets I made: 
Banana bread (based on Andrew's grandmother's recipe)
Meyer lemon bars (Amanda Hesser)
Brownies (from Alice Medrich via Food52)
Red wine chocolate layer cake with whipped cream (adapted from SmittenKitchen)
Salted butter caramel sauce with bourbon (adapted from SmittenKitchen)

Between 2013 and 2014 I also switched from being a med student to being a grad student, moved apartments, and acquired some nifty new kitchen implements, including new spatulas, tongs, and a cast-iron skillet.  I'm excited for this new year!