Let's eat!

Hi. My name's Carol, and I love food. No, you don't understand. I love food. If I were on the Titanic, I'd be in the galley (kitchen) eating up the chocolate pudding and the roasted quail. I go to most events, activities and parties just for the food. The company and the conversation are secondary. Here, I'll try to document everything that goes into my mouth. Aren't we excited? Oh, hey, are you gonna eat that?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Not so Perfect Pumpkin Pie

It all started with my husband's innocent, "You should make pumpkin pie with all the roasted pumpkin puree you worked so hard on. Not just pumpkin bread." He wasn't completely serious. But, after worrying about the difficulty of making the dough, I took him seriously.

I'd never made pie before. I always thought it was harder to make than cookies, cakes, and quick breads.

But I'd rolled out sugar and gingerbread man dough before. So making dough wasn't foreign to me.

What convinced me finally to do it was finding this supposedly easy recipe for Perfect Pumpkin Pie from Foods of Our Lives. She emphasizes fresh pumpkin over canned. That's point #1. Her pumpkin filling didn't have a million exotic ingredients. I even had a can of evaporated milk leftover from a previous baking project, score #2. And I liked the simplicity and vinegar quirk of her Grandma's Pie Crust. No sugar in the dough for the crust either. Interesting.

Still worrying I'd mess up the crust real badly — mostly in not being able to roll it out without tearing it apart — I forged ahead, adding a few notes from an old Martha Stewart Thanksgiving special and mental notes from decades upon decades of watching cooking shows, mostly about keeping the dough cold, keeping even the flour cold beforehand, cutting up the butter into cold little cubes, brushing the dough edges with egg wash, stuff like that.

Let me tell you, the only way to learn anything, especially baking pies is to do it once. I ran into a few problems they never tell you about, certainly never brought up in this recipe.

The recipe doesn't say anything about keeping the dough chilled before rolling it out and the dough in the pie pan chilling in the freezer while making the filling. It doesn't mention that four tablespoons of cold water isn't enough to pull the dough together at first crack. How long it took to cut the butter cubes into the flour mixture until it all turned into a coarse sand (ow! my arm!), and how important it is to put the filled pie pan on top of a baking sheet in case of spillage.

The recipe certainly didn't warn you that when you go to pull the foil off the 30-minute baked pie, that it could take off pieces of half-baked dough edges. Or, that the edges would continue to bake until it burned if you didn't line them with foil toward the second half of the baking process. Or!, that baking the pie filling off enough until it wasn't jiggling like jello took a lot longer than 30 more minutes.

Don't put your finger in the middle of the pie to test for doneness either. Leaves a mark.

Otherwise, voila! My first not so perfect pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving tomorrow. Very homemade.

(I have the other half of the dough in the freezer to make pumpkin pie for Christmas next month. This time I know what to expect.)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

lucky chicken

This is good. Not sure how I did it (again). It's been awhile since my last successful chicken dish. I'd tried before, many times, figuring it had to be chicken with skin and bone then forgot some steps along the way. Last time, I tried to finish the chicken by broiling the skin crispy. It wasn't quite the same.

It's the same now, by accident.

I didn't need to broil the chicken at all. I forgot to take the chicken out of the oven when I turned the heat down from 375 to 350, maybe 15 extra minutes after 20, and somehow they came out great, crispy skin, deeply flavorful meat, even more deeply flavorful bits and broth left on the baking sheets.

Maybe the key is forgetting.

Here's, to the best of my knowledge, what I did with the chicken:

Marinated chicken thighs in bone and with skin for about 15-30 minutes. Marinade included tequila, soy, sesame oil, Mirin, garlic-salt (I individually sprinkled some over individual pieces), pepper, grated ginger, garlic cloves put through garlic masher. Lay out individual chicken thighs on sheet pan meat down, skin up, pepper skin. Bake at 375 for 20 minutes, reduce heat to 350 for another 10-15 checking for skin crispness.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Hello, Goodbye, Beet Root Cafe

The two separate times we've been to Whistler, we've had a heck of a time finding a decent place to eat. Decent, meaning, affordable first. Whistler can be expensive, especially now with the devalued U.S. dollar. Used to be, you go to Canada to get everything cheaper. Not anymore. They come down here to get cheap stuff, and the cost of living isn't so cheap up there to begin with.

The same thing happened our third time in Whistler this past Labor Day Weekend. But there were so many more places to eat, so we faced the dilemma of finding an affordable breakfasty cafe that pleased a picky eater of a son, his dad and me--oh, with barely 15 minutes to eat because the next jazz show (there for the first inaugural Jazz on the Mountain festival) was already starting in five.

We found ourselves walking around the Village way too long, going from one place to another, finding them all similarly Urban Grill-ish, meaning, not our style.

Finally, as we were prepared to give up and find something on the way to the Olympic Plaza, where the concert was, my husband noticed a hole-in-the-wall advertising Irish lamb stew on a small handwritten sign. We had to walk around a maze of corner buildings to an inner mini-mall on the other side to find the Beet Root Cafe, run by an Irish-accented husband and wife.

Like a fool, I spotted the sandwich section -- this place reminded me of a cafe in Deep Cove, Vancouver -- and tried the turkey panini. Ed had a breakfast burrito, and our son James had his makeshift breakfast sandwich with scrambled egg, bacon, and a toasted muffin.

My panini was HUGE. More like a gigantic focaccia sandwich, more focaccia than turkey to be truthful. But I ate it dutifully while I eyed this lady at the cafe's outside area primly enjoying her small bowl of stew with multi-grain brain and butter. I kept thinking that would've been perfect before the concert, not too much, not too little.

The next day, we were back, but for dinner, again with only 15 minutes to spare before another jazz concert. I ordered my large Irish lamb stew and wolfed it down. It was so peasanty and basic, more brothy than stewy (the kind of beef stew Americans are familiar with), with the hearty multi-grain really going well with it, sopping up the broth along the way.

I loved this stew so much, we went back our last day, for a leisurely morning breakfast, while my husband went with an interesting turkey sandwich with shredded beets and assorted other vegetables. They must love beets in Canada. I'd had a golden beet salad at a Sunday Brunch the morning before that was to-die for.

It was only when I finished my big, honkin' chunk of potato slap-dab in the middle of the bowl of stew-age that I found out the Beet Root Cafe was leasing out, its owners looking to unload their place.

Hopefully, by the time we come back here, there will be new owners and not a for sale sign.

Brunch, the Whistler way

My media invitation read: "The Fairmont Chateau Whistler will be hosting you for brunch on Sunday, September 4. Please meet Jennifer Tice, PR manager, at the entrance to the Wildflower Restaurant at noon."

What a Sunday Brunch it was. I was there to cover the first-ever Whistler Jazz Festival. Organizers did it right, too, taking care of the artists, the visitors, and the media with special events designed to get them all to mingle.

As a part of the media (I write about jazz on Examiner.com), I had the privilege--along with my family--to visit Whistler and have free food at Whistler's finest--twice, the first night at a fancy Bearfoot Bistro, where I'd imagine all the celebs make a beeline for. The second time was on Sunday for a brunch to end all brunches.

Was the Wildflower's Brunch as lavishly spread out as, say, the Halekulani's Orchids in Waikiki? No. They've never heard of sushi and sashimi for breakfast--these are British and French descendants for the most part--but the spread they did have in such a rich, distinguished setting was singularly out of this world and pampering.

As is my habit at brunches, I scoped out the spread with my camera first. My eye zeroed in immediately on the raw oysters with a selection of sauces, cocktail, mignonettes, next to bowls of scallops, smoked salmon and trout, and shrimp. Then, the long wooden plank of perfectly poached, delicate Eggs Benedict.

I also noticed an indigenous breakfast staple, harkening back to Britain's bangers and mash: a pot of roasted tomatoes and beans. Mmm. I could totally go for that every morning. And did this morning.

I pretty much pile-drove through three full, heaping plates of everything, then skipped dessert (carrot cake, danishes, chocolate) out of guilt--with a heaping plate full of as many raw oysters each time as I could get away with.

It's awkward talking to PR and media contacts with food flying out of your mouth, but I did my best. I mean, free raw oysters on the half shell? Come on.

What I didn't have, my husband and son dove into. My son James loved himself on a plate full of bacon, then proceeded to make his breakfast sandwiches (as he's wont to do on vacation since this summer) with some creamy scrambled eggs and a halved roll. He even tried the sausage (the darker-colored one left of the pale ones I tried). Seeing all that bacon piled high was a dream for his little bacon-loving heart.

My husband took advantage of the omelette-making and roast-beef-carving stand. He said his tomato omelette was the best he ever had. The roast beef was perfectly cooked to a medium-rare, with an option of wine-reduced au jus and some horseradish.

It was like going to Vegas in the '80s, but free and much, much more sophisticated.

We dined like kings as the house band played live jazz behind us. I could get used to this life.

Did I wake up and turn into a Kardashian?

The moment we stepped inside Bearfoot Bistro, most of my family especially me majorly sleep deprived since driving across the border from WA state into Canada's Whistler, Friday night (Sept. 2, 2011) for a fancy VIP Media-only dinner, c/o Jazz on the Mountain at Whistler, we knew we weren't in Kansas anymore.

I felt as if we woke up from a restless dream only to find ourselves catapulted into the lives of the rich and famous. I half-expected Robin Leach to round the corner with his tubby jolly form any minute after the five-course dining experience, plus vintage champagne options down in the Cellar, where my nine-year-old son got to saber a bottle top off with an excited, childlike flourish.

My husband and I exchanged several quizzical, dumbstruck glances at the dinner table -- for 15 -- smack-dab in the middle of this five-star resort-like dining establishment.

As soon as I read the menu, each printed on fancy card stock at each place setting on the starched-white table, with fancy choices for the first course (Serrano and Melon, Heirloom Tomato Panzanella, Seared Québec Foie Gras, raw oysters on the half shell)... I knew I was in trouble. Okay, I wasn't in trouble; I could totally eat this stuff.

But our nine-year-old son was in misery. He's used to McDonald's, Kraft mac 'n cheese, and Tubby Toast. This fancy stuff was over his head and out of his palate.

We gamely tried to go with the flow. It was easy to do with the easygoing guests and hosts who made sure our son was taken care of (he got to pick from the kids' menu and had cheese pizza later) when we trudged down into the Cellar and several of us got to saber a real vintage bottle of champagne, including him. Exciting stuff for a kid.

The champagne was delicious, too, as was the white wine -- which tasted of pears -- that accompanied our feast.

Every course I carefully chose was delicious:

Serrano & Melon
wild greens, shaved parmesan, puffed quinoa

-- A spoon full of a seared pink fish with vegetables in a cleansing bite in between

Beef Tenderloin
potato purée, grilled asparagus, dungeness crab croquette

-- A melon sorbet aperitif, again to cleanse the palate

variations of Pemberton beets & raspberries

We waited forever for the dessert -- a crazy contraption of beet foam on top of a wet chocolate cake and raspberry sorbet. While we did, my son and I snuck off near the lobby (restaurant is attached to a hotel) to play checkers, and watched a nearby table enjoy the restaurant's signature homemade dry ice, ice cream, made in a giant metal bowl.

This was the high life, and we were made a part of it by the grace of God, my participation as a Jazz Music Examiner, there to cover the first Whistler Jazz Festival, and pure, dumb luck.

As foreign as this luxurious living was, we tried to make the best of it, and enjoy ourselves from first bite to last. As a tablemate said to me, as I nervously joked about handing over my firstborn in payment for what surely must be a multi-million-dollar repast, "This is where you go to eat when someone else is paying. Just enjoy it."

I did. Boy, the steak -- was it Australian waygu striploin? -- was so tender...

Monday, August 29, 2011

Indian curry hit

All it took apparently was for me to mention offhand that Indian curry eases dementia (read it in a Costco Membership magazine). Even though I'd made Aloo Gobi last night and would make broiled curried salmon later tonight, my husband wanted to try out another Groupon for an Indian restaurant located in Fremont, Seattle, a 30-minute drive south from here.

Only trouble was, I insisted on going to UPS and Albertson's to get two big errands done, as previously scheduled. I also flaked out on the time to pick up our son from a playdate elsewhere, and found out only on the drive down to Fremont that we just lost a half hour (we're supposed to pick James up at 7 not 7:30 p.m. Oops!).

We had to find Qazis Rrestaurant -- Indian Curry House and Mediterranean Cuisine -- in a hurry during rush hour traffic, order and wolf down our food in less than 40 minutes, praying they served food fast.

It turned out they did. The food was out of this world, way better than a Seattle Bengal Tiger chain that sucked the last time we had Indian. Also, my friend said it was okay if we were a little late in picking our son up. Aah.

First thing I noticed right off the bat was baba ghanouge under appetizers. It didn't hit me until well into our meal that this was Middle Eastern, not Indian. That's when I realized this restaurant was Indian AND Mediterranean. So they also had hummus, gyros, falafels. Double score.

Baba ghanouge was so creamy, light, and buttery, like a feather, with barely a hint of garlic or lemony tang. It was barely there and perfectly sopped up by the buttery pita (more buttery than a Middle Eastern restaurant would offer, but I'm not complaining). I would so order just this next time, maybe the Mazza (hummus, baba ghannoj, falafel, dolmas, and tabboleh, pita bread) platter, and be done.

As it turned out, the curries we'd ordered were just the right amount. At other Indian restaurants, the curries come in these gigantic tubs. We always have doggy bags for days. But Qazis offers their many, many varieties of curries in these cute, metal, small bowls. Eddie and I finished my Chicken Vindaloo (even at mild, it was hot) and Chicken Makni (simmered in butter, tomato and cream sauce), with our colorful, orange-bespecked garlic naan and colorful, orange-bespecked Basmati rice--all deeply flavorful, yet simply prepared.

Nothing was overly done or heavy, not even the Vindaloo which had a kick but held a mild sophistication. We finished every last bite, save for licking our bowls, except the Basmati rice. The Basmati rice was really the only dish that came large; neither of us were complaining.

Even though we were both pleasantly stuffed--as opposed to vomitous--we had to order the kheer. With the flavorless dish water still in our recent memory from that horrid Bengal Tiger, we dived into our small bowl of rice, coconut milk, nuts, and cardamom. They could've added more nuts, but otherwise, perfection, rich, sweet, flavorful.

Because Qazis is also a Mediterranean restaurant, they offered a lot more than kheer (rice pudding), rasmalai (cheese patties swimming in almond-sweetened milk and cardamom sauce) and gulab jamun (fried milk dough dripping with honey/saffron syrup). There was halvah, baklava, kulfi (Indian ice cream comprised of condensed milk, cream, cardamom, almonds)--what I'm ordering next time, Chai ice cream, coconut almond ice cream, mango pistachio ice cream, NY cheesecake.

We ate inside, way before dinner time, around 5-6 p.m., so there weren't that many people. They were outside enjoying the sun. Some of the owners' children ran in and out from the kitchen. It was comforting, not intrusive, breezy.

I think this shall be my favorite Indian restaurant. We're definitely going back--only when we have nothing else to do but just sit back and really enjoy.

Aloo Gobi from a Soap Opera Actress

It's not often I'm inspired to make a recipe I find from a magazine. I've recreated a Campbell's soup recipe. I've wanted to recreate a Nigella Lawson strawberry muffin recipe. Otherwise, I never get around to it, or the recipe's too complicated.

Not this one. It's from Soap Opera Digest, and an Indian actress who plays Rama on ONE LIFE TO LIVE.

Shenaz Treasury's (Rama, OLTL) Aloo Gobi (Potato-Cauliflower Curry) Recipe:

2 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 small or medium cauliflower, cut into florets
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium tomato, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 tbsp. ginger, grated or finely chopped
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground garam masala
1/2 tsp. ground red pepper
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup fresh cilantro
2 green chilies, whole

Heat 3 tbsp. vegetable oil in large skillet over medium heat. Cook onion, garlic and ginger in hot oil till golden brown, 5 minutes. Stir cilantro stems, green chilies and turmeric into the mix. Add tomato and continue cooking until tomatoes are softened. Add potatoes, cook and stir till potatoes are completely coated. Add cauliflower, season with cumin, coriander, garam masala, ground red pepper, and salt. Pour 2 cups water over mix, stir. Bring to boil, cover, reduce heat to medium-low and cook till potatoes and cauliflower are tender but not mushy, 20 minutes. Garnish with cilantro leaves before serving [with rice!].

-Soap Opera Digest, Aug. 23, 2011

I love Indian food, especially vegetarian offerings like Aloo Gobi (potato and cauliflower curry). I was first introduced to Indian food by a former boyfriend back in Hawaii. He would take me to this awesome place in Honolulu where all the curries and daals and chutneys were served on this metal tray like from my high school cafeteria. Everything was so spicy and exotic. I couldn't get enough. That it was healthy and vegetarian, aided in my never ending fitness routine and six-mile daily jog.

This Aloo Gobi recipe seemed easy enough to make in my home. All I really needed was to pick up garam masala by the 1/2 teaspoonful at PCC (cheapest option; buying an entire bottle is expensive).

I actually had to pick up a whole lot more than one spice. Earlier today, I went to the Farmer's Market and PCC for most of the vegetables. The recipe didn't specify what kind of green chilies to get, so I got big serranos.

The hardest part of cooking Indian food is preparing all of the ingredients for the skillet, then, standing there making sure each one is toasted long enough in the oil with the other spices. I got the garlic and onion prepped when I realized I didn't get enough ginger. I finished chopping the other vegetables, put them in their own dishes, then went back to the store for more ginger.

I hate doing that.

I didn't use just water for the two cups liquid. I needed more flavor, if my husband was going to try some. Truth be told, I should've added chicken for him. I used a can of chicken broth then finished up the second cup with water. It still needed more salt after simmering covered for 20 minutes.

If you're a vegetarian/vegan, you would love this as is--minus the chicken broth. If you're allergic to tomatoes, use bell pepper, or even Chinese eggplant.

This is my attempt to eat better. Let's see how long this lasts.

I'm still interested in finding other Aloo Gobi recipes to try. Could be an Indian food-cooking trend here.

Banana Bread for Christopher

I've been wanting to UPS an online friend a baked good for months now. He lives clear across to the East Coast. It could cost me. I hope not. Am committed to mailing him this banana chocolate chip bread anyway. It's a recipe adapted from Food Network's Tyler Florence, and found on one of my go-to food blogs, Week of Menus (she's Korean too!). I left out the walnuts, because of allergies.

Next time I make this, though (yes, it's a keeper), I may save some flour to coat the chocolate chips with. When it was time to unmold it from the loaf pan, it stuck. Three chocolate chips wound up sticking to the bottom.

Not to worry. I simply waited until the loaf cooled down considerably longer than 10 minutes to unmold.

It's easy to make. I even dared to add one extra overripe banana -- all my bananas were saved up in the freezer for months -- without it messing with the final outcome. Smells so delicious. Banana bread lasts for awhile.

In Hawaii, it's a sign of hospitality, welcome, friendship and love.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Remember House Greens

If I were in my right mind, maybe I'd have had the wherewithal to ask about my favorite Jake's Grill salad in the Portland, OR restaurant we arrived at. We were off on our first trip of summer vacation August 14th, headed toward the Oregon Coast, making a pit stop for lunch at Jake's Grill in downtown Portland. But I had the worst sleep deprivation known to man coupled with some anxiety issues related to sleep and throat spasms when I tried to fall asleep. I was on three hours of sleep and scared for my life I would never sleep again.

It was in this mindset when me and my family arrived at Jake's Grill on Sunday Brunch. We forgot about Sunday when the server handed us a Sunday Brunch menu. Neither me or my husband could find my salad on the menu (it was there under starters-mixed green salad, sorta). My husband, who tends toward pessimism, thought that meant they no longer carried it. I mean, it was three years or so since we were here last. It's possible.

Without bothering to ask our server, we took what he said as gospel and found Sunday Brunch fare to order. Me halfheartedly. It was all I could do not to keep freaking out about my lack of sleep. I wasn't even hungry, even though I should be--not having eaten a thing in the entire two-hour drive down from Seattle. My stomach, at the moment, was in knots with anxiety.

If I were hungry, I'd have ordered the Smoked Salmon Lox, Bagel and Cream Cheese selection, Traditional Eggs Benedict, Dungeness Crab and Shrimp Cake Benedict, or Grilled Bavette Steak and Eggs. The Chef's Special: Lobster and Pancetta Quiche looked good and interesting too. I never order much less see quiche on any menu, and lobster? Forget it.

But the Parmesan Rainbow Trout and Eggs caught my eye and I went with that, hoping it would do the job, fill me up, and we can get this four-day trip over with, so I could see a doctor about my sleep problem.

The trout was okay. Only okay, because I half-expected it to arrive unadorned. I didn't pay attention to the "Griddled Parmesan Crusted" part of the description, apparently. The Romesco sauce it came with had more flavor, a slightly creamy, vaguely tart flavor. The two eggs over easy were perfectly cooked but unsalted, a practice many restaurants succumb to that *sucks IMHO.

Everything was just okay, even the biscuits (with jam) my son loved. It was at Jake's Grill where he discovered what everybody else already knew about: the breakfast sandwich. He made his with scrambled eggs and bacon. No condiment. After that, he began ordering fixings for his breakfast sandwich at a lot of Oregon Coast restaurants. My son tends to prefer all his food separate, so this was a victory of sorts.

It was only after we'd finished eating and were speaking to a hostess that she told us the salad in question was available, even on Sunday Brunch. We only had to ask our server. Duh!

The salad I speak of is simply, House Greens. But they come with blue cheese and walnuts, and the most amazing vinaigrette (not Balsamic, which you can order too). All I need is this salad, their freshly baked, crispy/doughy sourdough bread and butter, and an iced tea.

Next time. Maybe next summer, when I nag my family to go to Cannon Beach, OR this time. I'm not done with the Oregon Coast.

*Always salt during cooking. Salting afterwards does little to flavor the food. You're better off not even eating it.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Assembly-line Tourist Chowder

Me and my family had high hopes when we walked into a busy Mo's Chowder--at their Lincoln City restaurant. After all, we'd been told to not miss this place when we traveled to the Oregon Coast, it's an institution. Everybody loves the chowder at Mo's.

Really? Everybody, meaning everybody loves Hallmark cards, Nordstrom sales, and those god awfully unfunny white-trash National Lampoon Chevy Chase Vacation movies?

In that case, I'm glad to say we hated Mo's. Okay, we didn't hate it. The food wasn't horrible. It was just, bleh... typical brand-name, assembly-line, factory-churned chained-franchise fare.

The chowder itself, which I ordered in a cannonball (supposedly a sourdough bread bowl), was fairly bland. The bread bowl barely sourdough--lord how I miss San Francisco, way too soft, mealy, and almost stale in texture. The broth was barely there, with a way too heavy cream base that overpowered everything into nothing much at all.

When we sat down to eat, I almost bailed on the whole chowder experience for the chilled Oregon Bay Shrimp Cocktail and something in an equally chilly Crab and Salmon, Bouillabaisse, or even a giant bowl of steamed clams in butter and wine, sopped up by bread with butter.

Maybe I should've.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

La Strada dolce pizza

I was at the Mukilteo Farmers Market (every Wed. 3 p.m.-7 p.m., June 1-Sept. 28) for the first time today, expecting to find fruits and vegetables, hoping to find Washington honey (in hopes of spoon-feeding it to my son regularly so he avoids allergies here). I didn't expect gourmet Italian pizza of the finest quality and probably found only in the cafes of Rome and Florence.

I didn't expect to find any food. Just produce.

Yet, the first booth I saw next to the organic meats was for hamburgers and hot dogs, then across the aisle, following my nose to the sweetest, most succulent smell ever -- calling to mind all the best pizza joints on the East Coast -- a pizza booth. But not just any pizza booth. This wasn't a carnival pizza reheated in a microwave or convection oven.

This was a wood-fired oven pizza with gourmet options, from Margherita -- which I had, to fresco giardino, pear gorgonzola, and pepperoni--at $4 a slice, $18 for a whole pizza. (Soda options include glass bottles full of Coca-Cola on ice.)

I could see myself coming back every Wednesday from now on, every summer, with my family. Pick up a pizza, enjoy it by the Waterfront overlooking the Sound, watching the ferries, James playing in the beach or the playground with other kids, go back, pick up some organic fresh produce, some fresh homemade fruit pie, pastry, artisanal breads, toffee, get a massage, and have a fantastic summer day out of it.

Why I never bothered to go the previous summers is beyond me. Lazy, stupid,... Well, I know now, right?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Thank you Groupon, for John's Grill

This review was also published in the Mukilteo Beacon's August 17, 2011 issue.

I'd never heard of John's Grill before. Usually, a restaurant named after someone -- Beth's Cafe notwithstanding -- doesn't bode well for me. It's like the name of someone denotes something casual and diner-ish, and maybe not good.

My husband received a deal through Groupon on this place in Mukilteo, WA, on the way to the ferries. John Aiden is the chef. He's worked in kitchens before but then had a regular job before deciding to open up his place only a few years ago. It's a family affair, his wife and daughter help out as waitstaff. The place itself is tucked amongst other businesses, a salon, a mortgage company, one or two residences--all along a townhouse set-up overlooking the Puget Sound.

I wanted to go to Beth's Cafe, actually, straight out the gate. But we had the Groupon deal so we decided John's Grill was better. It was.

As soon as I saw the appetizers, I knew I was in trouble. So many to choose from, a few you never see around here. Kind of a mix of Asian, seasonal, seafoody, and Italian influences. Fried calamari with jalapeno tarter sauce, crabcakes with remoulade, grilled beef kabobs in sweet red miso and with cilantro sauce, chicken satays. I wanted to order them all. But if I did that, I couldn't order all the entrees.

What I wound up with was trying the Polenta Sticks. They intrigued me. Deep-fried hot polenta sticks sprinkled with Parmesan and a Roquefort sauce for dipping. I'd seen a Giada de Laurentiis cooking show recently where she deep-fried polenta cubes as exotic croutons for her gazpacho. This was the best decision of the night.

After one crispy, creamy, tangy, memorable bite, I knew I would come back JUST to have these. Even my husband grabbed two sticks and he doesn't eat polenta. When the server took my empty plate away, I felt miserable--

--until my husband's bowl of roasted corn clam chowder arrived. I spent most of my time coveting his soup. The corn was fresh and freshly roasted, the clams a perfect antidote, and it was so so creamy but with flavor, not just to be creamy. Best chowder ever, even better than Elliott's or Arnie's down aways. This is another dish I would come back for.

The only miss was my soup du jour, a chicken jambalaya which needed salt and another base of flavor. I kept going after my husband's corn chowder with the slices of rosemary bread they served (the bread's from the local Essential Baking Company and very good).

The restaurant's seasonal with changing menu options. Good thing one of us ordered the Beef Stroganoff, as I don't see it on their regular website menu. I was torn between that and their specialty--the steaks with a choice in preparation. My husband and I agreed one of us will order the Stroganoff and the other the New York Steak (regular cut). I ordered the grilled steak medium-rare with the green peppercorn/mushroom sauce that's served on the side. It came with wedge-cut potatoes and asparagus.

Again, my first bite was my husband's order. So good. Stroganoff can be hit or miss. Secret's in the deeply flavorful, rich sauce and the seasoned meat. John's Grill did it perfectly. I'm praying they have this entree in November when I go back with my mom (who's going to be visiting from Hawaii) for my birthday dinner.

My steak was done perfectly too, though, don't get me wrong. Problem is, there's only one of me. This restaurant requires you return over and over again for one exquisite bite of one particular dish at a time. One day, maybe I'm there with a girlfriend for the chowder, sopped up by the gently sourdough bread. Maybe another, me and the hubby treat ourselves just to the steaks.

We had to leave leftovers for doggy bags (and my late-night dinner tonight), or else we couldn't do dessert. Do dessert. John's Grill has two trademarked features: white chocolate and deeply dark chocolate mousse and a brownie with John's own special caramel sauce (they do a sundae for the children). Their special, seasonal dessert was a blueberry crisp. Oh decisions, decisions. Since I had my heart set on the mousse, I stuck with that. But next time...

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Lofthouse Cookies

My son's burnt out on his weekend baking lessons. Gonna give it a break. This meant I had to do the one part I thought he would get a kick out of (which is why I chose the recipe from Runs With Spatula food blog :\): the icing and sprinkles.

He wound up just rolling out the dough, cutting shapes out, and finishing up the icing. I took care of the rest, opting to use leftover green icing from another recipe before the recipe icing--leaving it white. The leftover green icing is slightly different in amounts and liquid (cream instead of milk), so the multi-colored sprinkles just bounced off those cookies. I could've colored the white, but was too tired.

I didn't have a smallish, round cookie cutter, so I used some round spare parts of a Pampered Chef frosting gun. The cookies baked unevenly. The first batch smelled burnt, so I just took them out exactly after eight full minutes. But the tops were still pale. Wouldn't you know, the last batch of four came out golden on the top and not burnt smelling, after I almost forgot I left them in the oven longer than eight minutes.

Best of all, this recipe produces two rectangles of dough. We used up the first. The second's in the fridge in case James gets the urge to bake sugar cookies again.

I'm thinking of having him sell these tomorrow to the neighborhood for profit. Why not, right?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Mom 'n Pop Haven in Snoqualmie

The best-laid plans... Seems to be the story of my life the past few weeks. Maybe I just dislike summer and forgot.

Nevertheless, after about eight hard-fought hours of restless sleep at a hotel overnighter, I bagged on working out in the fitness center, I bagged on getting breakfast in the lobby lounge (since I got out of bed way too late), me and my family bagged on going to a nearby breakfast joint or even back to a tried-and-true diner.

Nope. We pressed on, trying to make the most of the rest of a full day off for the family, searching for a U-Pick Blueberry Farm (sorry, only on Wednesdays), winding up all the way East of Seattle in Snoqualmie, and settling for something to eat, anything we could find just so none of us would be doubled over with an empty stomach ache.

At first, I wasn't interested in trying this small, non-descript place (Snoqualmie Falls Candy Factory and Cafe--in business in the area for 14 years) my husband pointed out. The menu didn't include a Diner Breakfast or Hotel Room Service Breakfast I'd had in mind. But after finding nothing else in the small town, we went back -- heading to our car -- and went in, mostly because our son was hungry and wanted a cheeseburger. Then, my husband got a (cheese-less) burger himself.

I was holding out, hoping to drive back closer to home and to that Breakfast Diner spot. But it was a long drive back and I was really very hungry at this point. I thought having a Coke float -- nothing else appealed to me, not the grinders they offered (a Philly grinder had chili, mozzarella and cheddar cheese in it!) or the sandwiches.

After taking a bite of my husband's delicious, tender, soft burger, out of desperation, I decided to order my own, with cheese and a side of tater tots, not the potato salad, thank you. My son had his cheeseburger with a bag of Cheetos and, strangely appealing, an ice cream-less cone. The mom took my order from behind an old-fashioned-looking ice cream parlor counter and her husband prepared my burger from the see-through kitchen across the way.

Best burger ever. A lot of that was my hunger talking. But the burger was less hard, gnarly, mealy beef, and more soft, inconspicuous filler. The bun was a meal in itself, tasted freshly made, artisanal, maybe even buttered before lightly toasted, crusty like French bread on the outside, soft and flakey like a croissant on the inside.

Even better: the Candy Factory also housed in the same Cafe. My son had craved gummies all morning. There they were, along with my caramels and Ed's homemade chocolates.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Second Time's a Charm (Barking Frog)

"If it's supposed to be a fine-dining restaurant, why's it called Barking Frog?" -my son James

The first time I went to Willows Lodge's Barking Frog restaurant, it was with my husband about two years ago. It was the first time we stayed overnight at the Woodinville, WA lodge for free too. My musician husband plays in the Thursday night band. They played for a weekend employee event. Payment was a free overnight stay and a $125 restaurant comp.

We weren't bowled over by the fine-dining restaurant. It was too fancy for us. The menu items were just too complicated. Seasonal, fresh, organic, went well with a variety of wines, sure, but just too weird with way too many weird ingredients. It wasn't bad. It just wasn't... us. We're spaghetti and meatballs, clean, fresh, simple flavors, don't mess it up by mixing in too many ingredients.

I think a part of the problem then was we weren't opening ourselves to trying new things. We tried only to find main entrees that we could relate to, like, say, a filet mignon, and then tried to enjoy it but couldn't because some blackberry sauce with fennel garlic bulb aioli was taking away from the basic flavor we were used to and entrenched in.

This time, I made a point to really open my mind, forget my favorites, and just try dishes that seemed--as the sum of their myriad, disparate parts--interesting to try and so much better than I'd originally given them credit for.

The restaurant was running late when we arrived for our 7:30 p.m. reservation last night. We were seated in the small lounge and given a free appetizer of our choosing. My husband couldn't settle on anything to share. Originally, I was going to go for the grilled foccacia, prosciutto, blue cheese, fig jam, hazelnuts and grape must syrup. Far out, right? The fig and prosciutto drew me. But I knew my husband would not go for the blue cheese; he hates blue cheese. So, because I heard a couple waiting before us talking about it, when the server approached for our order, I automatically blurted out, Steak Tartare.

Ahi tartare, I'll eat. I like sushi. But raw beef? Ew.

Still, I figured Barking Frog is a high-end establishment and wouldn't serve questionable meat. Plus the raw quail egg intrigued me (reminded me of the Korean Bi Bim Pap a little). Fighting my fears, I went for it and was rewarded with the best raw meat dish ever, even better than any raw ahi served in Hawaii. My husband went crazy for it. Thing is, you had to put a little bit of the Steak Tartare, the picked white asparagus spear, the red wine onion jam, and the Dijonny mustard on the slices of grilled bread to truly enjoy what the chef intended you to enjoy.

The meat was meaty, not gross-meaty. If that makes sense.

I hate beets. With a venom. But I've only ever had canned beets. I've been told farm fresh beets are best. Especially when paired right. When these roasted beets (red and golden) are paired with Micro Arugula, raspberries, Marcona Almonds, deep-fried goat cheese balls, blackberry vinaigrette, they're sublime. The creaminess of the goat cheese and the faint tart-sweetness of the berry vinaigrette removes any hint of dirty in the beets and brings out their earthiness. I could've eaten another plate of this.

My husband didn't notice I'd ordered the beets until they arrived, then he tried to eat all mine--and he's not much of a fan either--even with the goat cheese and he hates them.

Another food I'm not terribly into is halibut. It's bland and eh to me. Very little flavor. Easily overcooked. Yet, for my main entree, I ordered Oven Roasted Alaskan Halibut with pancetta, morel, cipollini onion, English peas, English pea sauce, and Fingerling potatoes.

I never order halibut!

I'm so glad I did this time. The top had a nice, flavorful, salty enough crust, but the thick, almost translucent meat underneath was perfectly cooked, very flaky and required the creamy lusciousness of the English peas in their sauce and the salty bite of the pancetta cubes.

I almost licked the plate.

For dessert, there was nothing else to order but more of the unconventional. I was searching for a strawberry shortcake. But I'm at Barking Frog, not Red Lobster. So after going back and forth between the blueberry soup (there's olive cake in there with lemon thyme sorbet and lemon curd) and Peach Melba Coupe, I went with the Peach Melba Coupe, hoping the peaches were ripe. I liked that it had white peach sorbet, honey ice cream, whipped raspberry, raspberry coulis, and Caramel Krispies.

Our server said it was all kinds of wrong, listing each ingredient with "love" being the last. Indeed.

After I first took a bite, I closed my eyes in ecstasy as my husband laughed. It was that perfect. So peachy, so light balanced with a tartness of the raspberry and so decadent with the creamy whipped raspberry.

I even finished off my husband's Syrah.

Definitely an improvement the second time around.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Nutella Banana Muffin Baking Lesson #2

Last weekend, my son, 9, and I launched the first of what will hopefully be a semi-regular, in-house series of baking classes. All because James indicated a desire to bake sugar cookies (really, just making frosting). After we found and made a suitable recipe for iced sugar cookies, I thought it best to diverge into something else entirely: a banana bread.

Eventually I settled on this Nutella Banana Muffin recipe from Miss in the Kitchen.

It's easy, James adores Nutella out of the jar, and it didn't require a lot of bananas. Unfortunately, I forgot to thaw the frozen overripened bananas for the recipe, so I just grabbed the barely ripe one off the fruit bowl. *Mental note: eat All Bran with sliced bananas the rest of this week.

In the middle of trying to excavate 1/2 a cup of Nutella out, James declared he'd much rather make and roll out sugar cookies. So we'll focus more on variations of sugar cookies from now on, provided he find a way to finish them and share them with the neighbor friends before the next lesson, which he hasn't done with the first batch we still have.

He also refuses to try any of the muffins. That's alright. I'll have them with my bowl of blueberries or raspberries. Bananas are nutritional, right?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Whatever You Have Sugar Cookies

It all started when my son asked how to making frosting out of the blue last Wednesday. I was busy then, so I promised him we'd do a proper frosting lesson. Next thing you know, I'm doing laundry up in my bedroom with the TV on when Giada de Laurentiis's cooking show comes on and she's making Animal Sugar Cookies with Basic Frosting. I'd seen this rerun before, it's for her daughter Jade's first birthday party, but it came on at just the right moment.

I knew there was a simple recipe that broke down frosting into four basic components: a fat (butter), a flavoring (vanilla), a sweet (powdered sugar), and a liquid (water, milk, or cream). I just couldn't find it online; almost every frosting recipe there was very involved with a million tons of powdered sugar and fancified techniques (whipped egg whites?).

I gave my son an option on the frosting: water or cream? He wisely chose cream. It really does have more flavor. Otherwise, our baking lesson was fairly straightforward. He was neat, attentive, and rolled out dough/cut out shapes cleaner than I ever did.

This recipe's cool because you can use a basic Pillsbury sugar dough, with some additional flour and let your children go to town. They can do pretty much anything the recipe calls for, and my son did.

What I enjoy about the frosting recipe in particular is that you can play with the amount of powdered sugar and cream. Unless you have a scale, you have some leeway as to the interpretation of a pound of powdered sugar. We started off with 2 1/2 cups, then my son just added 1/4 cup extra, until he tasted more sweet and less butter. It taught him measurements and instinct.

He got really excited about coloring the frostings his way. After I told him that rainbow might turn into brown, he went ahead and mixed up very vibrant colors in red, green, and blue. Red can be difficult. You need to use a lot of it for red red. He wound up with fuschia. But it's all good.

We didn't have animal cookie cutters. Just a mishmash of way too large gingerbread men, hearts and flowers, and little teeny stars, a chili pepper, and random stuff like that. We used what we had. It was fun.

About a third of the way in, frosting the cooled sugar cookies, he got tired, and I finished up.

We liked our baking lesson so much -- and James loved that he had leftover blue-green frosting for snacking on the rest of this week -- we plan on continuing it on a semi-weekly basis. Next Saturday, we may bake banana bread.