Monday, February 28, 2011

The Kitchen Reader: The Language of Baklava

This month, the Kitchen Reader read "The Language of Baklava" by Diana Abu-Jaber, as chosen by Lisa from The Fork on the Road.

via Diana Abu-Jaber's official website

The book is a memoir of the Jordanian-American author growing up in both the US and Jordan. The memories are told almost exclusively through food and include a number of what are probably tasty Arab food. Every review I read of this book was glowingly positive, so I feel like a real outlier to say that the book bored me, almost to the point of me hating it.

My reaction has to do with the fact that I'm a second-generation immigrant - my parents immigrated to North America from Asia back in the 60s, so Abu-Jaber's memoir shares a lot of similarities to my own upbringing. I question whether she truly embraced her Jordanian heritage as much as she describes when growing up in the US, as this was a period of time where uniqueness was not openly embraced and respect for other cultures wasn't at the same level it is now (at least in multi-cultural cities). I also didn't understand the longing that her father Bud and his numerous brothers/cousins/uncles (I couldn't keep track of them all) had for the "old country" - I had grown up with the attitude that the new world held all the prosperity, and that there was no looking back. Add on top of all this that I couldn't keep track of all the relatives in the story, nor was the writing compelling enough to make me care about the characters, so it made for a disappointing read.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Messing around with lighting

Here are two successive shots:

The difference between the two? The first was shot with a white foam board on the left side of the frame - the window with daylight is on the right-hand side. I'd read an old tip from Tartlette that she often uses a white foam board to enhance the lighting and she was right, a pretty obvious difference between the two.   The little things really do matter...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A not-so-successful purchase - now what?

I've finally found a food that I would rather eat the mass-market version than a gourmet product.

That would be a marshmallow.

I love marshmallows. Almost as much as I love meringue. There's something about their spongy airiness that gets me every time. Since I also love all things gourmet/artisanal, I assumed I would love artisanal marshmallows.

I'm also highly suggestible. I'm generally successful with my impulsive purchases, but I guess I was due for a misstep. So combine my highly suggestible nature with my love of marshmallows, is anyone surprised that I ended up buying some after reading this beautiful blog post by Eat Boutique?

And yes, that's four flavours that you see in the picture. Since shipping can be expensive, I might as well get the most for it, so Salty Caramel swirl, Chocolate Chipotle, Chai Spice, and Vanilla Bean went into the shopping cart. 

We tore into the Salty Caramel as soon as I unwrapped the package. I had such high expectations... and I was so seriously disappointed. The flavour was fine (really, what does a marshmallow taste like, anyways?) but it was the texture that put me off - soft gooeyness that really wasn't appealing. I guess I need a bit more spring or bite from the commercial versions. I suspect it has to do with the corn syrup, which was not an ingredient in the marshmallows from 240sweet.

So while it may seem like a silly question, what the hell do I do with four bags of this stuff that isn't appealing when eaten alone? Keep in mind it's the height of winter in the Northeast and our fireplace isn't working or else I'd try making s'mores. It also seems blasphemous to use them for rice crispie squares but perhaps I should just give in and use them up that way. I might try turning them into chocolate-covered marshmallows, or I'll throw them into my next batch of ice cream, or I might even use them in hot chocolate, though that means a lot of cups of cocoa to get through this stash. Hmmm, maybe the rice crispies aren't a bad idea after all...

Monday, February 21, 2011

Is it summer yet?

We've had beautiful weather in New England for a change - a couple of days of sunshine and 60 degree temperatures does wonders to improve my mood. Since it felt like spring, I decided to make one of our favourite warm weather salads to bring to a friend's place for a wine-tasting get-together - the Barefoot Contessa's Shrimp and Orzo salad.

Doesn't that look like summer ingredients? It's a light salad that feels healthy as there is no butter, mayo, or sour cream involved, just an olive oil-lemon juice vinaigrette. I used Maine shrimp since they're currently in season, but boy is it a pain to remove the shell on a pound of those little critters. Otherwise it's an easy salad to whip together after work on a Friday. Unfortunately I never got the chance to share it - as I was putting the finishing touches on the salad, I could feel a high fever coming on. That was enough to send me to the couch for the rest of the evening and I didn't end up going out. Oh well, I can always make it again - and the husband is more than happy to eat it...

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bon Chon - Nothing says love like Korean fried chicken

Is there an equivalent to the Grinch for Valentine's Day?

From Deviant Art
We've been married for 13 years and have gotten increasingly cynical over celebrating a Hallmark holiday over time. We also became annoyed with restaurants overcharging for special occasions, so we started our tradition of anti-Valentine's Day meals a few years back, when the husband took me to Revere to eat at Uncle Pete's. Fabulous BBQ with an Asian influence and a fraction of the price of a fancy restaurant, totally worth the scary trip into this part of town. We miss Uncle Pete's terribly - the restaurant closed in 2009 after Uncle Pete died, and we haven't found BBQ of the same caliber around Boston since.

This year's outing was to Bon Chon, a Korean chain restaurant in Allston. There have been a couple of reviews lately (see here and here) that got us intrigued, so what better time to go than Valentine's Day?

First off, the restaurant was far nicer than I expected. (I took no pics, as my anti-picture-taking-in-public stance remains in place). I guess when I heard chain restaurant, I was expecting the warmth of a KFC, so I was pleasantly surprised by it's almost hip-lounge-eatery feel. Even though it was busy, we only waited ~15 minutes to get a table. You need easily 15 minutes to go through the very comprehensive menu, consisting of Korean items on one side and Japanese items (mostly sushi) on the other.

(As a side note, I really don't understand why Koreans tend to have restaurants that serve both Korean and Japanese food. I know that's a gross over-generalization, but it seems to be a common thing in Boston.)

We ordered 20 wings, half with the soy garlic sauce and half with the hot sauce, thinking it would be the appetizer, to be followed with entrees (bulgogi for me, bibimbap with bulgogi for the husband). We're glad we ordered the main dishes because they came out first. In fact, I think it took 40 mins for our wings to appear, so at least we had some meat to nibble on. The Korean main dishes were edible but not particularly fantastic, we've definitely had better Korean food elsewhere.

The wait was worth it though - these wings are double fried without any batter, so the skin is extra crunchy. I've read that the double-frying makes it less greasy, which I don't entirely believe - these were pretty darn greasy, but boy were they good. They're also tasty as leftovers, after heating them in the oven to keep the skin on the crispy-side. Plus they come in this adorable takeout box - how cute is that?

We would definitely come back but be prepared to wait, and the next time we intend to eat only wings with a pitcher of beer - seems like the perfect way to spend another evening.

It also seems like we're not alone in our restaurant choice - thanks to Google Trends, was able to discern that Americans are taking their valentine to a chain restuarant. Applebees, anyone?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Even I have my limits

My willingness to buy premium products can seem senseless at times (like Jeni's ice cream), but even I can draw the line at the point of ridiculousness.

We were in Formaggio Kitchen to pick up a few things for dinner - on the menu was osso buco, which is usually made with veal shanks but unfortunately Whole Foods had sold out the day before (note to self, don't wait until Sunday morning to look for veal shanks). The Whole Foods butcher offered me beef shanks instead, which are a fraction of the cost of veal, but due to their more robust beefiness, I was contemplating whether I should use beef stock instead of the more commonly used chicken stock. Of course, I left Whole Foods without making up my mind, and decided when we popped in to Formaggio later that morning, I could always pick up some beef stock there.

Formaggio had plenty of beef stock in their freezer, but when I pulled out a quart, I noticed the container cost $14.95. $14.95!!! For a quart of beef stock? I'm sure it's delicious, they know what they're doing there, but I wasn't about to spend as much on stock as I did on the organic beef, the main component of our meal. So boxed chicken stock it is for tonight.

This is my first time making osso buco this winter, and I've never used beef shanks, so I turned to the trusty Internet to see what people have done. Turns out beef requires just some extra cooking but the recipe is essentially the same. Which is fine, since I was organized and had plenty of time to cook on this Sunday afternoon.

Since I hadn't really bothered to research variations before, I'd never noticed that osso buco recipes are almost all the same. They consist of a) a meat shank (veal, beef, pork or lamb can be used), b) mirepoix of onion, carrot, celery and garlic, c) herbs (rosemary, thyme and bay leaf usually), and d) liquid (red or white wine, plus chicken, beef or veal stock). The amount of tomatoes is the one ingredient that varies considerably from recipe to recipe. My old standby (a very old recipe from Christine Cushing and Food Network Canada) uses at least a cup of tomatoes, which I find made for a runny sauce. The version that  I eventually settled on uses 1 tbsp of tomato paste as I prefer less tomato-ness, and was also unusual in that it included a 1/2 cup of dark rum.

Here is my mise en place - notice the size of the beef shanks? Two shanks weighing 3 lbs total! Keep in mind that this is two dinners for the two of us.

This is the final product, served with gremolata on top, lots of gravy, mashed potatoes, and sauteed swiss chard:

As you can see, I'm still experimenting with the lighting - the photo of the raw ingredients was taken during the afternoon with natural light, the second was in the evening under our interior lighting. Not bad, but a noticeable difference. Perhaps I'm taking this photography thing a little too seriously...

And the verdict on the recipe? Delicious! The flour thickens up the sauce nicely, the beefiness of the meat is somehow more satisfying (though less delicate), there's really no hint of tomato and the rum adds an unusual dimension that I can't describe. It doesn't taste like rum obviously since the alcohol was cooked off, but I think it added a subtle caramel sweetness. I don't think the organic boxed chicken stock ruined the sauce. The gremolata added a lovely herbaceous zing from the combination of parsley and lemon zest - made me wonder why I'd never bothered to make one for osso buco before. It was nice to venture outside of the norm and not rely on an old standby - I'll need to branch out more often in the future!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Notice anything about yesterday's post?

There are no pictures.

It was sort-of on purpose - I didn't really think about it beforehand to tote the behemoth camera (I think I'm going to have to name the Nikon), though I'm not sure I would have wanted to bring it out in the rain. I also went flying on a patch of ice on the way home one of the nights and landed on my backside, which wouldn't have been any prettier had I been carrying a bulky camera.

The real reason why I didn't bring it with me is that I'm not ready to start whipping out a massive camera to snap pictures of my food (or other people's food) in the middle of dinner. It's one thing if it's just the husband and I, but one of the nights we were out with friends and I didn't think it would have been appropriate to interrupt the flow of the conversation.

So am I being overly self-conscious about this?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Restaurant Weekend - Bergamot and Highland Kitchen

Driving around the Boston area these days is a slower and more treacherous prospect than usual, thanks to back to back to back snow storms. With so much snow on the ground and no systematic snow removal, streets have become much narrower, sometimes leading to the loss of a lane, and results in a nerve-racking game of chicken with on-coming cars vs. parked ones. The fallout is incredibly bad traffic, with the same amount of cars on the road and less room to maneuver.

Because driving has turned into such a frustrating and fairly dangerous activity that I can't fully avoid due to work, I've started to walk as much as I can to go about my routine. That includes going out for dinner.

The husband and I have been wanting to try Bergamot, a fairly new restaurant on the Cambridge/Somerville line in the old EVOO space. so on a recent Friday night when we didn't really feel like making dinner, we made reservations and trekked the 1.5 miles (one-way!) for a meal. It's a good thing it's not an overly formal space since it's hard to feel dressy when you're bundled in several layers and are tromping inside in snow boots. We're glad we did - good wine (I had a glass of sparkling Vouvray, which I rarely find by the glass around here) and mostly solid food, our favourite being the winter vegetable risotto on the menu right now. However, I'm not sure we'd be rushing back anytime soon - other than the risotto (and it is very worthwhile going just for that risotto), there weren't any outstanding dishes that we tried so we didn't waddle away with the feeling "oh, we have got to come back".

That's not how we feel about Highland Kitchen in Somerville. We don't go out of our way to come here (it's a 1.5 mile trek in a different direction), but we're happy to go anytime it's suggested. Consistently solid comfort food is a fantastic choice for a rainy and icy Saturday night. Starting off the evening with my usual orders: my favorite cocktail (a Monsoon, consisting of rum, mango juice and ginger beer), pappardelle bolognese, and finishing off with an insane banana bread pudding dessert in a caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream made me a happily full girl. We spent half what we did the night before for a more relaxed and better meal. While venturing beyond the norm is something I hope to do more of, it's a bit of letdown when it doesn't live up to expectations, particularly since we don't go out to dinner all that often anymore when we're at home. Sometimes an old standby is all I need.

118 Beacon Street
Somerville, MA
(617) 576-7700

Highland Kitchen
150 Highland Avenue
Somerville, MA 02143
(617) 625-1131

Monday, February 7, 2011

Experimenting with Food Photography

In the spirit of improving this blog, I put away my trusty little iPhone camera and pulled out the heavy duty Nikon Coolpix P90.

Ok, I lied - I used my iPhone to take a picture of the real camera. The husband bought this digital behemoth a few years ago and I don't think I've really ever used it. I don't think I even knew how to use it. It's not a DSLR, the fanciest of the fancy, but a fancier than most digital point and shoot camera. We do have a smaller point and shoot model, but I thought I might as well try the one with all the bells and whistles.

This involved me pulling out the comprehensive user manual and dutifully reading almost all of the 178 pages of technical information. I was studiously poring over a section when the husband commented "I don't even think I've read that". I was then able to show off my new found knowledge by helpfully pointing out a shortcut on the camera that he didn't know about.

Here are some of my experiments so far, taken on a weekend when the sun was out:
This has been challenging for my left brain ways, since a) I'm not artistically inclined, and b) I'm also not the most technologically inclined either. First, the photos themselves. They were all taken by the same camera, obviously, but the first was set on the standard macro setting, and the second was the "food scene" option. For the food scene setting, the only choices seemed to be bluer or redder, and I didn't like either, so macro will probably be my default. I will start playing around with shutter speed and aperture, once I figure out what changing both of those things do to a picture.

After I successfully downloaded the pics from the camera to the computer, I realized I would need to become at least marginally competent with photo editing software since Google's Picasa just wouldn't cut it. Adobe's Photoshop was far too fancy and expensive for a novice like me, and even their next step down (Lightroom) was pricey at close to $300. The free independent software programs on the web seemed unreliable to me, but in my research, I found a number of positive reviews from amateurs using Adobe's Elements with a much more reasonable price tag of $80 after rebate. Even better was the free 30-day trial that I promptly downloaded to our computer.

The trial involved many hours of staring at the computer screen, not moving and probably not blinking, and doing a lot of muttering. Elements isn' an intuitive program at first glance, or at least not to me - I don't recommend you do what I did which is hack randomly in the program, not get anything to work, and end up wasting a lot of time. There is plenty of help on the web and it's only a Google search away. Once I actually read the instructions, it became quite easy to combine photos, as in the above and this one below.

I now appreciate how much of a pain it is to take pictures throughout the cooking process. I was repeating the homemade oreo experiment (TKO's!) since I had plenty of leftover filling, and decided I should at least try taking some shots partway through. Not terribly easy when your hands are covered in chocolate grease (these cookies are all butter), not to mention it really does interrupt with the flow of things.

The husband, who is the one in our household with the greater interest in photography, came along and snapped these shots. Maybe I can convince him to take the in-progress photos - or maybe I should take the photos while he cooks for me... 

Friday, February 4, 2011

Friday's Food For Thought - Real Helpful Diet Advice, Federal Government People

The 2010 dietary guidelines were released earlier this week (um, aren't we in 2011 - but do we really expect government officials to keep on a schedule?). According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, we are supposed to eat less, eat better, and enjoy our food.

Well that's just brilliant. It took them 6 years (including a 1 year delay) to come up with that gem?

Coincidentally, despite the public health concern over the rise in obesity, a trend that shows no signs of abating, it was in the same week as the release of the updated guidelines that a third US biotech company had their regulatory application for a new obesity drug rejected. For those of you in the drug industry, I know the FDA response to Orexigen's NDA was a complete response letter, but with the request for a new clinical trial to study the cardiovascular risk for their drug Contrave is in essence a rejection at this time. The biotech company Orexigen finds itself in the same place as Arena Pharmaceuticals and Vivus, who both had their weight-loss drugs rejected when reviewed by the FDA in the fall of 2010.

I've done research in the obesity field for a few years, and I'm convinced that there are biochemical changes, both neurologic and metabolic, that drive weight gain and sabotage attempts at weight loss. In other words, it's all fine and dandy for a government agency to tell us to eat less, but it may not be as simple a matter as exerting self-control. Re-training or behavioral modification over the long-term will be key in maintaining weight loss, but a little boost in the beginning to kickstart the process could probably help a lot of people.

So what I'm really trying to say is that I think there is a need for weight-loss drugs used in a responsible way, and I'm annoyed but not surprised that the three obesity drugs got rejected by the agency that is in place to protect the public from evil pharmaceutical companies. The FDA is worried over the safety of weight-loss drugs that will undoubtedly be used by millions of people, and I'm sure they have valid reasons for not approving the drugs yet - for example, there's a higher rate of cancers in rats who take the drug would probably be a reason to worry. But until the FDA has the right data to convince them that weight-loss drugs are worthwhile approving for general consumption, it looks like we'll have to make do with the dietary guidelines - eat less, eat better, and enjoy our food.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

More sweet goodness - cookies and toffee and brownies, oh my!

So this is a shot of downtown Boston yesterday. Note how dreary it is in the background? I wasn't able to capture just how much snow was coming down. The weather has been crazy.

Boston Public Garden

I guess it's not that surprising that we've been holed up indoors and I feel like I'm eating more. We enjoy watching Foodcrafters on the Cooking Channel. Aida Mollenkamp is adorable (as opposed to annoying/lame on her Food Network show "Ask Aida"), but more so we appreciate the way they feature the artisanal producers and open up a a whole new world of food options. I'm also highly suggestible and have been known to order foods featured on a show on a whim.

Here's the latest food order:
Crunchy buttery sweets get me every time. This is from the GoodyTwos Toffee Company, a mother-daughter duo from Arizona. I ordered traditional, sweet and salty, and 2-alarm peanut brittle. I liked their toffee options since they offered flavours without pecans or walnuts, my least liked nut products. The toffee arrived the same day that I made the TKOs, so they haven't gotten quite as much attention as they deserve, but I emailed the company and found out they can last for 30 days in the fridge. That means we have plenty of time to enjoy them. My first impression is that they're very good, but I wouldn't necessarily order them again as shipping from Arizona is rather expensive.

Instead, we have this lovely item making a repeat appearance:

Yes, that's a brownie from the Vermont Brownie Company. Recently we had a small box on our porch that the husband brought inside and left at the door. I assumed it was a non-perishable like a book, but when I walked by and took a closer look, I noticed a "refrigerate immediately upon receipt" sticker on the box and thought "what on earth is this, I didn't order anything". I had totally forgotten that my friend W had asked for food-related gift suggestions for Christmas, and that something would be arriving mid-January. It turns out she signed us up for the Brownie of the Month club with VBC! The box contained 6 squares of Espresso Dulce de Leche goodness. Those went into the freezer to try to make them last till the next shipment, though not until one was eaten. Unexpected brownies are an excellent surprise and thanks to W and the P family for the gift!

Finally, go check out my friend's blog Open to Grace where she learned how to make French macarons. I love macarons, but I'm particular and haven't found any in the US that are as good as the ones in Paris. I may have a new project on my hands... With all these sweets I've been eating, I'm high-tailing it into the gym to try and keep the butter weight off - or I guess I could just go outside and shovel snow...

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