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Wednesday, August 24th, 2005

Queso Fundido con… Longaniza!

consumed on 8/1/05

Tonight I needed an easy and quick dinner. I defrosted the longaniza sausage my brother brought me (from somewhere in Brooklyn) and made a simple Queso Fundido con Chorizo.

The longaniza was AMAZING. I would maybe equate it to… the best chorizo on the planet? It had so much paprika that my hands were stained red after removing it from the casing. It was also a really fatty grind of meat, but had hardly any gristle—which made the texture very soft and luxuriant.

I’m unsure what the technical difference is between chorizo and longaniza—could it truly just be length? If so, then I would say bigger really is better.

Anyone know where to get good longaniza in Seattle? Waiting until my brother comes to town again just isn’t going to work.

Tuesday, August 9th, 2005

Caffeinated Pork: Part II

consumed on 8/2/05

“Leftovers” is such an unappealing word; it leaves an impression of undesirable, unwanted food. So when I invited my brother over for leftovers, I don’t think he had any lofty expectations. Of course when he found out the leftovers consisted of the pork I Doufeu’d (yes, I’m inventing new words) last Sunday, he was pretty excited. He made a comment about my leftovers being better than most restaurant food, which made me smile. I love my brother. He knows how to butter a sister up.

I gently reheated the roast in its tea sauce and the pork managed to become even more tender and succulent—a thing I wouldn’t have expected to be possible. To accompany the pork, I cooked some fresh, young green beans and slathered on a bit of butter and a beautiful herbed salt from Salt Traders. I also made a package of tarhonya which I had purchased from PFI a while back.

Tarhonya is a Hungarian pasta made from flour, eggs, salt and water. It’s shaped like tiny hard nuggets of barley and is an odd, not-quite-found-in-nature yellow. After some research, I discovered it’s best to brown the nuggets in butter or lard and then add broth to finishing cooking—kind of like a rice pilaf.

I browned the tarhonya in duck fat and then added chicken stock. I was worried that the pasta would get too mushy so I only cooked it for about twenty minutes. Unfortunately, it wasn’t nearly long enough because some of the nuggets were still hard and crunchy. It was good, but I think with an additional ten minutes of cooking, tarhonya might turn out to be my favorite pasta.

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2005

The Hostess Project #5: North African Feast

I was intending to take it easy this month. I promised myself something simple, like pasta and a salad. Of course my imagination ran away from me and kept going and going, like that little pink Energizer bunny.

It all started with my main dish. I really wanted another roast leg of lamb—it’s just so easy and impressive. This time I found a beautiful, Moroccan Spice-Rubbed Leg of Lamb recipe on Epicurious. When an Epicurious recipe has that many glowing reviews, I feel confident that the recipe will turn out well. So completely ignoring my first rule of thumb for dinner parties, I proceeded with an untested recipe. Now one untested recipe is usually okay, but since I’ve had zero experience cooking Moroccan cuisine, I ended up with an entire menu of untested recipes. Typically this turns out one of two ways: a complete and total disaster or, much less often, amazing.

With a Moroccan theme nailed down, it was an easy leap to couscous for a side dish. Of course I didn’t want to make just any couscous; I wanted to make proper couscous. One that’s been steamed multiple times, with each grain lovingly separated by hand. I found the perfect thrice-steamed couscous recipe in the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook. Even though the recipe sounded elaborate and time consuming, it didn’t send out any alert bells because everything I’ve made from the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook has been exquisitely delicious.

For the veggie I wanted something colorful (since everything thus far was brown). Moroccan carrot salads kept popping up in my research and I narrowed it down to one. The winning recipe was chosen because of its use of asafetida. Asafetida (a.k.a. “Devil’s Dung”) is known for its pungent, rotting smell. I’ve had a jar of asafetida languishing in the cabinet for a few months now and every time I open the door, the smell knocks me down and assertively reminds me that I need to cook with it. (In case you’re keeping track: new recipe #3).

The typical Moroccan appetizer is Bastilla, which is a savory-sweet phyllo concoction, but it looked too time consuming. Nothing else caught my eye until I started looking at Egyptian dips and spreads, which changed my dinner theme from Moroccan to North African. Du’a (or Dukka) is an intriguing mixture of ground nuts and spices that is used like a dip for bread (new recipe #4) and for my second appetizer I chose an Egyptian Fava Bean Dip (Foul Mudammes) solely because I’ve been obsessed with fava beans lately.

Some of the more traditional Moroccan desserts seemed difficult to make and most of them were deep fried (and couldn’t be made ahead of time). I started thinking about phyllo dough and the nutty, sweet, layers of baklava, and as if to reinforce this choice a few people had randomly told me that it’s quite easy to make. I did more research and discovered that there is an Egyptian version of Baklava, which is similar to the Greek except for the omission of honey and the addition of orange blossom water (new, and final, recipe #6).

Two nights before the party, I’m dripping with melted butter and swearing at the phyllo sheets that refuse to come apart, trying to remember who it was that told me making baklava was easy. I have little patience (or skill) when it comes to making desserts, so choosing to make baklava was a little like playing Russian roulette. After more than three hours of assembly and baking, I pulled the baklava out of the oven. On a whim, I had doubled the amount of nut filling so they were chock-full, but they were gorgeous! In fact, so gorgeous that I didn’t automatically swear off making them ever again, like I usually do.

The night before the party I picked up a beautiful five pound leg of boneless lamb from A&J Meats, which went straight into a Ziploc with the so-simple-to-prepare-I-wonder-if-it’s-any-good marinade. I also assembled the carrot salad so that it could marinate overnight. I wanted to give the salad a face lift, so I hand shredded raw carrots into long strands on my Japanese benriner; they were infinitely prettier than uneven hunks of carrot. I also made quick work of the two dips in my food processor. The Du’a nut mixture was driving me crazy (in a good way) because it was so fragrant while toasting and the fava bean dip barely made it to the party; I couldn’t stop eating it. It was creamy and luscious from the combination of fava beans and olive oil, and the curry tomato flavor was undeniably addictive.

This left the roasting of the lamb and couscous preparation for the day of the party. Unfortunately, the couscous was decidedly more complicated than I ever could have imagined. This was mostly because I don’t own a couscous steamer (a.k.a. a couscousiere) and had to assemble a makeshift one. And by makeshift, I mean really makeshift. The idea is to steam the couscous over flavored water three times, fluffing and separating the grains between each steaming. In order to steam properly, you need a tight seal between your water source and your couscous holder. I took a large pot and fit my largest colander inside. It was a perfect fit, except the colander touched the bottom of the pot. Excellent for boiling, not so good for steaming.

I tried a variety of items to lift up the colander and finally settled on a large biscuit cutter, but this left a huge gap at the top. I had read the proper way to create an airtight seal is to take a tea towel, soak it in a flour and water paste and mold it into place; I did the best I could with foil. This may seem like common sense, but I would like to point out that it’s important to watch the water and make sure it doesn’t boil over. I ended up with a bottom layer of gummy couscous and a stove stained bright yellow from turmeric. Luckily the ruined part of the couscous congealed into a solid mass so it was fairly easy to remove and discard.

The party started off great with the guests bringing a surprising array of cocktails from all around the globe. We had a wonderful twist on a Caipirinha (Brazilian), which was made with cachaça and a mint infused simple syrup. We then moved on to the all-American fuzzy navel. The best cocktail of the night (and maybe closest to being Moroccan) was a concoction of strong brewed mint tea, pomegranate juice, mint simple syrup and vodka. It was incredibly refreshing and the perfect summer drink.

The appetizers were a huge hit—despite the fact that my stove top went out and I couldn’t fry the pita breads. Oddly enough, this was a blessing in disguise because as I waited impatiently for the burner to heat up I realized that the pita breads I had bought the day before were moldy! I happened to have also purchased Lavash flat breads so no one was the wiser.

After cocktail hour we sat down to dinner. The broiled lamb was cooked perfectly and sported a nice brown crust. The lamb was juicy and tender and the flavor was outstanding. None of the marinade ingredients stood out on their own, but blended together they were complex and complimented the lamb. Despite the pains I went through for the couscous, I have to say it was worth it. Steamed couscous is an entirely different animal than boiled couscous. It’s light and fluffy with fully separated grains perfumed with the barest hint of turmeric and coriander. The cold carrot salad had a great crunch and a wonderfully exotic flavor (luckily asafetida tastes much better than it smells). Dessert was easy and delicious, albeit a bit messy. The baklava were flaky, sticky, sweet and fragrant with orange blossoms.

So six for six. Never before have I been able to successfully turn out that many new, untested recipes in one night. And not only did each recipe turn out well individually, but as a whole, the meal came together beautifully. The colors, textures and flavors were well balanced and had enough of a similar thread to tie them all together—and at the same time were unique enough to not be boring. I seem to be saying this after every Hostess Project party, but… this really was the best one yet. Either I’m getting better and better at this Hostess Project thing, or I’m damned lucky. I like to think it’s a little of both.

Thursday, July 28th, 2005

Dry Ribs – part II

Here is my second attempt at dry ribs. This time I managed to take a picture before they were all eaten! I took them to a potluck and everyone was shocked that it was such an easy, yet amazing recipe. In fact, probably only boiling water is easier.

Like last time, I only used salt and pepper, but this time I added a touch of Danish Viking-Smoked Salt, which imparted a lovely smoky flavor. The ridiculously easy, so-simple-that-even-I-can-remember-it-by-heart recipe can be found here: Dry Ribs.

Bon Appetit!

Friday, July 8th, 2005

Pandan chicken

I had some leftover leaves after making pandan simple syrup, so I found a delicious sounding recipe for chicken wrapped in pandan leaves. I marinated boneless, skinless, chicken thigh pieces in chili sauce, ginger, shallot, fish sauce, coconut milk and brown sugar for about 30 minutes. Then I wrapped the pieces up in the pandan leaves, ran them under the broiler until done and served them over rice cooked with a little coconut milk.

Despite the very brief marinating period, the chicken came out full flavored, rich and delicious. The pandan leaves imparted a wonderful, almost floral scent to the chicken which paired nicely with the slightly sweet and fishy marinade. Next time I want to grill them, as I’m betting they’d be absolutely sublime.

Saturday, July 2nd, 2005

Dry ribs

I came across a topic on eGullet Forums last week about dry ribs. From what I gathered, this simply meant cooking ribs without a marinade or sauce. A post about slow cooking ribs with just salt and pepper made me salivate so I decided to try them out.

I bought a nice looking rack of short ribs from Uwajimaya, sprinkled them with coarse salt, lots of fresh cracked pepper and put them in the oven at 350. After 45 minutes, I flipped them and cooked another 45 minutes. I then turned off the heat and let them cook/rest in the oven for another 30 minutes.

When I pulled them out they looked amazing. Perfectly browned with the very edges starting to turn dark and crispy. As I tried to lift them off the broiler pan, they fell apart. They were so tender that I couldn’t move the rack without the meat falling off the bones. They looked and smelled so luscious, that I couldn’t even take the time to snap a picture. They went directly into my mouth and were the best ribs I’ve ever tasted.

Tuesday, June 21st, 2005

The Hostess Project #4: Garden Party

One of the most difficult tasks of entertaining is figuring out where to put all the guests. This can be especially daunting when you have a small apartment and a kitchen nook the size of a breadbox. Over the years, I’ve learned to be creative and started asking friends to host shared parties—I do all the cooking, they provide the venue and we split the guest list and food costs. It’s not only a great way to have a change of scenery, but it also results in meeting quite a few new people, which is excellent for my pyramid dining scheme master plan.

My friends Glenn Withey and Charles Price are the curators of the Dunn Gardens located in North Seattle. They live in a converted carriage house situated in a historic, residential Olmsted garden. I love co-hosting parties with them not only because it’s such an idyllic setting, but also because I get to meet their interesting friends. The only downside is that Charles is a demi-vegetarian and doesn’t do garlic. This can make menu planning a bit of a challenge.

My parties at Glenn and Charles’ place always revolve around seafood. Recently, I had been craving Halibut Cheeks with Tarragon Beurre Blanc, which calls for garlic but I figured it would be okay to omit it. I had also been seeing a lot of pea-shoots on seasonal menus around town and thought they would be a perfect accompaniment, if I could find them. I also decided to make my mother’s delicious Zucchini Bisque, which is elegant and easy to make.

I noticed a green/herb motif starting to emerge, so I continued the theme into the appetizers—although my theme could just as easily have been butter, as almost every recipe contained copious amounts. Case in point: Smoked Trout Rillettes, made with smoked trout and lots of butter. It wasn’t green or herby, but I figured I could add some chopped watercress for color. For the second appetizer, Glenn and Charles had been given three pounds of flash frozen spot prawns from Alaska and asked me to use them. This was the hardest recipe to pin down because prawns and garlic have a natural affinity for each other, but I concocted a decent sounding Shrimp Salad in Endive recipe from a few different sources. For dessert I wanted something I could make entirely ahead, so I picked a Marionberry Semifreddo Torte, which is very refreshing and delicious. After looking over the whole menu, I was concerned that it would be a little light and added in a cheese course between the entrée and dessert.

The morning of the party I headed down to the Pike Place Market to pick up ingredients. I started at Pure Food Fish Market to get my halibut cheeks, but was told that no one had halibut cheeks this week. Saddened, I begrudgingly bought orange roughy and hoped that nothing else would go wrong. I stopped at Sosio’s (my favorite produce stand) and they told me that they didn’t sell pea-shoots. The woman saw the look of panic creeping across my face and quickly pointed across the way, saying "Mr. Lee will have pea-shoots". I scurried across and sure enough, Mr. Lee had lots of pea-shoots. I told him I needed enough for twelve people and he suggested I get six bundles. They were giant, whole-head-of-lettuce-sized bundles and I protested that it was too much, but he adamantly told me I needed that many. I acquiesced and headed towards DeLaurenti lugging what felt like eight pounds of greens.

As I passed by Pike Place Fish Market I saw that they had an entire case filled with halibut cheeks! Usually I’m timid when it comes to stuff like this, but I was determined to have perfection and I went back to Pure Food Fish to try and return my fish. I asked one of the guys standing out in front and, avoiding all eye contact, he told me there was no way I could return the $60 worth of fish I just purchased. Frustrated, I walked past him and up to the counter and spoke to the guy who told me there were no halibut cheeks in the market. When I told him Pike Place Fish had lots of cheeks, he rolled his eyes at me. Undaunted, I asked again if I could return the roughy but he refused to answer me. I kept asking and finally he slammed my money down on the counter and I gave him back the fish. I figured he wanted me to feel guilty, but I was just relieved that I could get the ingredients I really wanted.

Normally I avoid Pike Place Fish like the plague, as I’m not a tourist and am not thrilled about having the fish I plan to eat hurled through the air, manhandled and bruised. I had to push through the circle of onlookers that always surround the perimeter of the store and it felt like I was walking up on stage. I asked for six pounds of halibut cheeks. Next thing I know the guy’s yelling "BUTT CHEEKS FOR THE LADY," and then I hear it being echoed from all corners of the store as each employee yells out "BUTT CHEEKS". I’m shrinking away from the counter, feeling like every tourist has their camcorder pointed at me, whispering lewd comments about butt cheeks into their microphones. Sensing my embarrassment, the man at the counter gently handed me my package of halibut, thankfully relieving me from another round of yelling and the tossing of my cheeks from employee to employee, like a dreaded game of keep-away.

My final stop was DeLaurenti where I sampled a few cheeses for my cheese plate and settled on a creamy French Comte, a tangy Mirableu blue cheese and an earthy Brie de Meaux. I also picked up a loaf of Macrina walnut herb bread and a package of Gerard & Dominique smoked trout.

When I got to the Dunn Gardens a few hours later, Glenn handed me a simple white box containing the defrosted prawns. I opened it up and nearly cried because they were so beautiful. The prawns were a perfect pink color and were very plump—the kind of plump that comes from high quality, not preservatives. I poached the prawns in a rich broth made from the shells and created a salad that was spooned into the end of the endive leaves. The prawns were sweet and briny and by far the best I’ve ever eaten.

Around 5pm, the guests started showing up with wine and cocktails. It was starting to rain, but we pretended it was warm and sunny and made gin & tonics using the Hendricks’s Gin that J brought. After a few drinks we decided to go on a garden tour, even though by now it was pouring down rain. Luckily, the Dunn Gardens are equipped with a selection of umbrellas for such occasions. The walk through the garden was stunningly beautiful and the greens were bursting with color. When we got back we sat in the "sun" room for appetizers and more cocktails. The rillettes was the perfect temperature—still cold, but soft enough to spread on the accompanying nutty Ak-Mak crackers. The shrimp salad in endive was gorgeous and tasted heavenly with the sweet shrimp contrasting nicely with the light artichoke-like flavor of the endive.

My original (sunny day) plan had been to serve the zucchini bisque cold like a vichyssoise, but the nice thing about this soup is that it’s equally good served hot. I heated it up, added the final touch of cream and a pinch of truffle salt and served it in warmed, shallow bowls. Everyone (including myself) was stunned that vegetarian zucchini soup could taste that good—it was creamy and rich without being heavy and the onion and zucchini flavors shone through.

Halfway through the soup course, I excused myself to start on the fish. Earlier in the night a guest had commented on how brave I was to be serving fish since it’s so hard to cook perfectly. This made me a little bit nervous—in addition to the little bit tipsy I already felt after all the gin and tonics, but it seemed hard to screw up halibut cheeks, as they are somewhat forgiving and their natural stringy texture can obscure small missteps in cooking. As I was cooking the fish, I also started sautéing the pea-shoots. I laughed as I watched them shrink from a pile of leaves spilling out of the top of my largest stock-pot to about three inches of greens. I silently said a thank you to Mr. Lee for his sage advice.

I plated the fish, which looked gorgeous perched atop the bright green pea-shoots on Glenn and Charles’ lovely blue stoneware. It wasn’t until I started eating that I realized I had forgotten to salt the pea-shoots. They were still good, but not nearly as good as they would have been with a sprinkle of salt (or cooked in chicken broth!). The halibut was thinly breaded and perfectly cooked and the buttery tarragon sauce was an amazing pairing. Even J, who swears she hates tarragon, was raving about the dish.

My friend R is a wine enthusiast, so I had asked him to bring some wines that would pair well with halibut… and tarragon—a little tricky since tarragon is such a strong and distinct flavor. R said he simply went to, typed in tarragon and got a recommendation for Viognier. R picked out a "New World" Viu Manet Secreto 2003 Viognier from Chile and an "Old World" 2003 Texier Côtes du Rhone Viognier from Esquin Wines, which were both fantastic with the fish and sauce.

After dinner we retired to the sun room where I served the cheese course. I had let the cheeses sit out for about an hour and a half so they were the perfect temperature. I’ve always been a huge fan of Brie de Meaux so I eat a lot of it. I think this was what made me feel like it was a bit of a boring and mundane choice—even though it was delicious and mushroom-y. My favorite was the French Comte which was unbelievably rich and complex. My least favorite was the Mirableu, but only because it seemed a tad too overpowering with the rest of the selection.

Last came the Marionberry Semifreddo Torte. Once it was served there was silence and all I could hear was the scraping of forks against plates. The semi-frozen marionberry custard was creamy, yet light in texture and was divine with the rich and buttery shortbread crust. I had made a 9 inch tart, which seemed like enough for 12 people, but we seriously could have gone through an entire second one; there were fights over who got the last piece.

I was exhausted and had to say my goodbyes shortly after dessert, but even still, I felt that this was one of the most successful parties yet. Almost everything was made ahead of time, so I got to spend a lot of time with the guests and all the courses were delicious and went extremely well with one another. There were many raves and exclamations over the food, so I’m hoping this means there will be return dinner invites extended soon.

Sunday, June 19th, 2005

Summer BBQ

I don’t own a grill so I’m always excited (like a three-year-old going to a birthday party) when I get invited over for barbeques. I was a little out of it from cooking like a mad woman all weekend, but it was still fun to laze in the grass and over-cook my meats (as with baking, I’m really bad at grilling—mostly because I have limited experience with it).

I brought some unbelievably delicious pork and apricot sausages from A&J Meats. I know they’re breakfast food, but they are also insanely good cooked on a smoky grill and eaten like an appetizer. I burnt them a little (okay, a lot), but they still managed to be juicy and succulent. We dipped them into honey and maple syrup and ate them with our fingers.

I also brought caribou patties from Exotic Meats. I again left them on the grill way too long and they were a tad dry, but I loved the taste of the meat; slightly gamier than beef, but not overwhelming at all, with a nice meaty texture.

Oh yeah, and we finally got the octodog to work…

Wednesday, June 15th, 2005

Making Baklava

Yep, I’m at it again

A few people recently told me that making baklava is easy. If easy means spending three hours clarifying butter, painstakingly separating wafer thin sheets of dough that in no way want to be separated, and patching them back into even layers, then yes, making baklava is easy.

But aren’t they gorgeous?

Saturday, June 11th, 2005

Stormy weather

I love water… but I’ve also been a little afraid of the water ever since I almost drowned while river rafting. I know how powerful and uncontrollable water can be, which is why I was nervous when J,G & K asked me out for an overnight trip on their boat. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but the weekend weather was calling for thunderstorms. I said I’d come and then headed straight to the store for Dramamine and those weird motion sickness wristbands.

We all met at the Elliott Bay Marina and settled onto the boat. I was a little motion sick just being docked, so I put on my wristbands, which seemed to help. We maneuvered out of the marina with a plan to head up to Port Ludlow to spend the night. About 20 minutes into our trip we decided to turn around; the water was full of whitecaps and you could clearly see that it was going to get much, much worse the further north we went. I was relieved that we weren’t going to make the two hour trip to Port Ludlow in nasty weather, but then we decided to head over to Blake Island.

While crossing over to the island, I honestly thought we were going to die. The thing about boats that I tend to forget is that they don’t have shock absorbers and you feel every jarring crash in your spine. The boat was rolling so hard that I thought we would tip over. We hit one wave and the cooler came loose and K made a bold and daring leap from the top deck to save it just as it was going over. I occupied myself with holding down all the other things that could potentially go over, including me.

Once over at Blake Island we found a protected stretch of beach to anchor for lunch. Even with the wristbands, I was so queasy that I wasn’t sure if I could keep food down, but hunger won out. Dizzy and stumbling around in the kitchen I managed to put together the seafood salad I had brought for lunch: butterleaf lettuce topped with smoked salmon from Trader Joe’s (surprisingly good), Dungeness crab and halibut cheeks that I had previously sautéed in butter, garlic, ouzo and parsley. I topped it off with my Russian dressing with lots of spicy horseradish and a side of toasted rosemary bread slathered with butter. It was delicious and managed to cure our sea-sickness.

Luckily the ride back to the marina later that day was much, much calmer. As soon as we were safely docked we broke open a celebratory bottle of champagne and pretty much kept drinking all night. For dinner G had bought filet mignon from Lobel’s, which he marinated in olive oil and then grilled on the cute, tiny boat grill. The grill was hooked up to a propane tank, but the flame kept going out and we were getting a little tipsy so we kept forgetting to check on the meat. Miraculously, we managed to cook the steaks perfectly and we ate them with an amazing gorgonzola butter that G made. They were by far the best steaks I’ve ever eaten; incredibly juicy and tender with a surprising amount of flavor.

The next day we woke up and the weather was gorgeous. So we took the boat out again for a few hours. The difference was night and day. The water was smooth like glass and the sun was brilliant and warming. G noticed that two seals were following us around so we stopped and about fifteen seals surrounded the boat to check us out. I decided that I liked boating after all.