Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Perfect Vessel

I'm going to visit Ma and Pops in Southern California for Thanksgiving! However, that means that "Passionate Eater" will be on a temporary holiday hiatus. Before I head off on my roadtrip, I just wanted post something brief about how important presentation is for "passionate eaters." If dressed and displayed correctly, food can seem ten times more delicious that it actually is.

I have the Pavlov Dog Syndrome whenever I am served anything in a carved-out fruit or in a clay hot pot. The food inside the clay pot could be yesterday's garbage and I wouldn't know the difference. For instance, take a look at these pictures of entrees that make my mouth water "on cue":

Hollowed out pineapple makes this spicy red duck curry look incredible. Plus, the "serving boat" and cocktail umbrella are cute touches. The day when I ate it at the restaurant, I was in ecstacy. However, I ordered the same dish at the same restaurant as take out in a large styrofoam cup, and I thought it was terrible.

I also adore pineapple fried rice. When I get it on a bland beige plate, I usually feel like the rice lacks pizzazz, but the rice always seems so bright and fresh when served in a halved pineapple shell.

The rest of these pictures speak for themselves. The pictures include: 1) Dungeness crab with dried red chiles and black bean sauce [in a clay pot], 2) seafood curry with bell peppers, scallops, squid, and rock shrimp [in a clay pot], and 3) spicy mango and tofu stir-fry [in hollowed mango shells].

Just to allow you the opportunity to contrast and see for yourself if you are as similarly impacted by fruit shells and sizzling clay pots as I am, I am providing some additional pictures for you to judge for yourself. If you like the pictures above better, you are a "Type FSCP" (Fruit Shells & Clay Pots).

I'd say the following pictures look "delicious," but they lack the immediate visual attractiveness that get my salivary glands activated like waterfalls. The pictures include: 1) creamy shrimp with candied walnuts and steamed broccoli, 2) fried rice with ham, peas, and eggs, 3) lobster fried with scallions in a batter-like coating, 4) deep-fried flounder with stir-fried greens, 5) deep-fried squid (this stuff is significantly better than calamari), 6) beef and rice noodles, with scallions and bean sprouts, and 7) stirfried tofu and snow peas.

Let me know what type of visuals you like better! Or, let me know if you think all the pictures look pretty good, and that I just wanted to put up a whole bunch of food pictures with minimal commentary! ;)

Monday, November 21, 2005

"Really" Lazy Indoor BBQ

Yesterday, I really wanted juicy barbequed chicken with blackened grill marks and cloying sauce clinging to the meat. However, I had nothing but frozen chicken hindquarters in my fridge and a cupboard full of non-dry rub spices, like cinnamon, curry powder, and star anise. Coming home late from work, I also didn't have the time to marinate or brine the chicken either.

What made matters worse, was that the weather was terrific barbecuing weather. Unfortunately, I live on the second story of a crowded apartment complex and have no desire to lug a heavy bag of charcoal briquets to the park without financial remuneration. My slothfulness is all-consuming. Needless to say, I also had no desire to clean the George Foreman grill or even walk to the barbeque take-out restaurant just five blocks away.

I decided to take the "semi-homemade" way out, and resort to using store-bought bottles of barbeque sauce and also using the range instead of the grill. Thus, the "homemade" part, was just me heating up the chicken.

I employed my "watch television while cooking" method, and put the cut chicken pieces in a non-stick pan, poured the sauce on top, and literally ignored the bubbling pan. About 15 minutes later, I returned from watching the syndicated episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, and was pleasantly surprised. The chicken was exactly what I had been yearning for--tender, juicy, and with a sweet and sticky sauce.

Hey, it worked! And I was satisfied with the outcome! Although America's Test Kitchen warned me of the dangers of stovetop barbeque chicken, I was happy with the results given that I put in minimal effort.

I am getting used to this semi-homemade type of cooking, and in the words of Martha Stewart, using premade store-bought ingredients for a hungry stomach can be a "good thing."

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Spenger's Fish Grotto Is Not That Fishy

There are two yearly events that I love participating in: Dine About Town and Caltopia's Taste of the Bay. Dine About Town is a San Francisco-wide event where the city's "finer" restaurants offer affordable prix fixe meals to people like me, from the general public. Caltopia's Taste of the Bay is a little more relaxed. It is part of U.C. Berkeley's new student orientation, where they allow students to sample from nearby restaurants at a food-fair. It is almost like an outdoor Costco, but the food is great and very cheap. But, the secret is, is that you can go even if you are not a student--that's how I went!

My boss told me about another program this past week called
Gourmet East Bay's Restaurant Week. Out of the online list, I decided to try Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto, since I am always interested when I drive by its welcoming 1950-1960's era neon sign and catch a glimpse of its creative decor (complete with fish netting drapes, foreboding oars hung in a cross-wise fashion, thick dock-side roping lining the sidewalks, and the famous ship steering wheels with the protruding spokes).

It was very busy at Spenger's, so service was lacking, and the food took a while before it came out. But service is never really a "make-or-break" issue with me. The food however, is.

First Course: Both my companion and I ordered the steaming clam chowder garnished with freshly chopped parsley. The chowder was thick and creamy, coating the spoon like a satin glove, but entirely lacking in clams. There was no rubbery snap of biting into clam as I vigorously moved my mandibles. There were tiny bites of diced potatoes, but no clams. Where I'm from, we call that cream of potato soup, not clam chowder.

Second Course: My companion ordered the grilled trout, which was accompanied by julienned carrots, haricots verts, wilted spinach, and traditional creamy mashed potatoes. When disturbed by an inquisitive fork, the fish meat fell in tender flakes onto the plate. This moist fish was very satisfying.

I ordered the grilled salmon with roasted red-skinned potatoes, haricots verts, and a bed of tomatoes (including sweet grape tomatoes and tongue-penetrating sun-dried tomatoes) drizzled with a fruity extra virgin olive oil. I loved the citrus acid from the lemon when contrasted with the husky and deep flavor of the sun-dried tomatoes. However, the salmon was a bit overdone--but not to the point of tasting like a bad can of tuna with all the moisture and life drained out of it.

The ultimate test of the evening was the dessert, which was a rich chocolate ganache cake with raspberry coulis. The cake was definitely "stick to your tongue" sweet and very heavy to the stomach. But the sweet and sour dichotomy and the smooth syrupy raspberry sauce was wonderful.

Because fish is such a delicate meat, just cooking at a few degrees higher or a few minutes longer can totally ruin the overall experience. For that, I am generally more forgiving of busy restaurants that make mistakes with fish. I am glad that I got an opportunity to try out Spenger's, and will definitely try another restaurant in next year's Gourmet East Bay's Restaurant Week.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Po' Boy Sandwiches Ain't Po' Tastin'

My summer visit to Maryland was like a 24-hour all-you-can-eat seafood buffet. In fact, as part of my daily outfit, I would tie a paper bib to my neck every morning in anticipation of the messy seafood I would gorge myself with in the afternoon and evening. Although the outfit made me look like I just escaped from the insane asylum, hey, it worked!

Although Maryland is not known for its crawfish production, some friends and I stopped by Copeland's of New Orleans for dinner one evening, where I had my first taste of the tasty sea delicacy.

I started my dinner with a small bowl of gumbo ya-ya, a smoky, chocolate-colored Cajun gumbo with tiny, tiny bites of shrimp. (The penny-sized shrimp reminded me of those pre-cooked kinds you purchase at chain supermarkets.) Gumbo ya-ya was invented by Chef Paul Prudhomme and was named "Ya-Ya," because after one taste, everyone will talk at once in celebration of the delicious and spicy gumbo. The Copeland's menu alleged that the gumbo also included scallops, but I wasn't fortunate enough to partake of any in my bowl.

I also ordered a crawfish po' boy sandwich. The french baguette housing the sandwich was toasted, well-buttered, and slathered with mayonnaise, and the deep-fried crawfish tails were crunchy and heavily-seasoned with cayenne pepper, and other piquant spices common to the bayou. Thinly-sliced tomato, leaves of iceberg lettuce, and quarter-sized slices of pickles rounded out the ingredients for the po' boy. Overall, I was satisfied by the spiciness and crunch to the sandwich and the steaming pile of freshly-fried onion strings beside it.

My companion ordered blackened pork la boucherie, which consisted of light strands of angel hair pasta covered in a creamy sauce with sliced mushrooms and bell peppers. The blackened pork tenderloin was already cut into manageable bite-sized pieces, but the pork was a little tough. However, some toughness is probably to be expected since the pork must have the spices seared into its surface.

I thought that the pasta was pretty good, however, my companion complained about the richness of the cream sauce--and considering his appetite and non-finicky nature, that's saying a lot.

However, we had a good experience overall, and it was a great way to celebrate the liveliness and vibrancy of the historically and culturally rich city of New Orleans.

Excuse the poor resolution of the images--I took these pictures when I first started photographing for my food blog, and my inexperience shows. These pictures clearly do not do justice to the meal, and the pictures are of the leftovers too!

Just to make up for the pixelated images, here are a few gratuitous shots of some delicious regional sandwiches I had the other day: Philly cheesesteak and beef gyro (if you can technically call a gyro a sandwich).

Also, I am throwing in a picture of a greek salad I had with the gyro, for good measure!

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Make-Your-Own Oxtail Flip Book

I am the type of person who would rather live in the sun-blinding, searing heat of Death Valley than live in a region that snows or has temperatures under 30 degrees fahrenheit. To combat this week's frigid weather in the arctic-feeling Bay Area, I opted to make a warming, hearty, and nutritious meal of oxtail stew.

Making oxtail stew is relatively easy. You don't need to vigilantly babysit the stew to make sure it doesn't burn or stick to the bottom of the pot. All you do is throw the ingredients together in a large dutch oven, turn the gas flame to medium-high, and come back in three hours.

However, I did not have that much to do today, so with the aid of my trusty digital camera, I snapped pictures of the various stages in the cooking of oxtail stew. What follows will be quasi-narrative, quasi-recipe, and 100% hunger-inducing! (Hopefully.)

Stage #1

First, brown the meaty portions of oxtail alongside cubes of yellow onion and sizeable chunks of carrots. Once the edges of the onions begin to caramelize and turn brown (the onions should still be a crunchy and white in other places) fill the pot with red wine, a thick can of chunky stewed tomatoes, and boiling water.

Stage #2

After 30 minutes, you may find that nothing has changed much--except you will notice that the soup-line is slowly receding.

Stage #3

At this point, the soup has clearly begun to thicken. The simmering bubbles have separated the layers of the onions, so that the onions flaps that remain have a floppy and soggy or almost papery consistency. The carrots still have a crisp bite, almost like al dente pasta; and the oxtail meat is not yet tender enough to be eaten.

Stage #4
Now, the onions have begun to disappear, and the harsh lines of the carrots have softened and become rounded. The bone also begins to show as the meat tightens and pulls away.

Stage #5
Finally, three hours later, the tough tendons, chewy gristle, and crunchy cartilage has softened into a flavorful gelatin and the marrow of the heavy bones have imparted their creaminess throughout the soup. The onions have completely melted away. At this last stage, the soup is wonderfully edible. The oxtail meat is sans any toothy tug, is smothered in deeply-flavored sauce and is very "fall-off-the-bone"--better than any barbequed rib you could ever imagine.

Stage #6

Eat! Bundling oneself in a hooded wool jacket and slurping up the steaming and thick stew is the perfect way to thaw out numbed and frozen extremities.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Tomato Sauce Diaries

Tomato sauce was on sale this week for $0.35 cents a can, so I went crazy at the grocery store and walked out with a cart full of lil' red cans rolling around and clanking against the metal grating like wild ping pong balls.

When I got home to my apartment, I realized that I had forgotten the limits of my closet-sized Bay Area kitchen. I had bought too much. Here, I can no longer ravage the shelves of Costco by buying gallon-sized Dijon mustard or stocking up my freezer with a 10-pound bag of bulk onion bagels. Plus, I found out the hard way that using massive warehouse cans as furniture is only novel for so long.

Although I tried rearranging the cupboards to make room for the tomato sauce, each time I turned my back to retrieve more cans from the grocery bags, an open box of pasta would slide out of the inundated shelves and spill onto the ground. After I realized the unattractiveness of the cans lining the sides of the hallway and the potential poison hazard posed by putting food next to corrosive drain unclogging solution, I decided it was time for the sauce to go and for me to engage in "Iron Chef Battle Canned Tomato Sauce."

With three hours left on my clock, I went crazy. Can openers whirred, razor-thin metal plates flew in the garbage can, pots boiled over, and I furiously chopped fresh tomatoes and cilantro.

Three hours later, I was finished. Tomato sauce was a staple ingredient in every dish that I made.

The first course was a simple pico de gallo salsa, made with sweet vine-ripened tomatoes, pungent tear-inducing yellow onion, freshly-squeezed lime juice, and fistfuls of leafy cilantro. Although not a traditional ingredient, tomato sauce helped unify the sauce ingredients and bring out the fieriness of the hot peppers.

The main course of the evening was chicken enchiladas slathered with a cumin and chili powder-infused tomato sauce and wrapped in soft white corn tortillas. The tops of the enchiladas were sprinkled with blisteringly hot and stringy cheese, while the insides were flavored with pickled jalapeƱos, shredded chicken breast meat, and refreshing handfuls of chopped cilantro.

The last course was essentially a side dish of Spanish rice. Instead of blending fresh tomatoes to use as the base, using canned tomato sauce adds a depth of richness and vibrancy to the fluffy steamed rice.

Although I considered making tomato sauce ice cream, I called it quits after the rice. However, looking at the damage done to the stocked shelves of tomato sauce, I was content. The empty cans lying lifelessly in the pile of rubble was indicative of a triumphant victory in my "Iron Chef Battle Tomato Sauce."

Monday, November 07, 2005

I Wish These Were Sausage Links

I just changed by blog's appearance from the default "plain vanilla" layout to a "coffee with cream" color scheme. However, in the transition, several elements of my previous layout were lost--namely, the sidebar of links. Since I no longer have any links permanently affixed to the main index page, I wanted to still provide access to the links previously on my blog page through a posting. Here they are:


Sunday, November 06, 2005

Tommy’s Joynt, A Meat Lover’s Dreamland

After spending a day of only eating only a rock-hard Nature Valley granola bar, I was starving. I wanted (say the following in a deep and husky tone): "meeeeat."

For dinner, I moseyed on down to Tommy’s Joynt, a notorious restaurant vilified by my vegan friends, but generously lauded by websites ranking the best cheap eateries in San Francisco.

As I entered the swinging saloon-style doors, I was greeted with a line of patrons snaking around the bar. Great . . . My stomach was not willing to wait any longer than it had too.

However, there are benefits to waiting in line at Tommy’s Joynt. One of them is watching the theatrics put on by the restaurant-servers as they slice and serve the plates of roasted meat. It is mesmerizing to watch and hear their carving knives clatter and crisscross as they sweep across the face of a hefty roast.

I ordered a pastrami dinner plate and my companion ordered the famous buffalo stew with a side of coleslaw.

I have never tried buffalo before, and I have to admit, the thought of eating buffalo was just a tad abominable to me. When it comes to trying different types of meat, I am as narrow-minded as they come. I guess that is ironic though, since I have always been a rapacious meat-eater.

When our orders arrived, I was disheartened by the thick white pieces of fat interspersed in the pastrami. However, the pastrami was well-salted and seasoned, and very (say the following in a deep and husky tone) "meeeeaty." I also daringly snuck a bite of the buffalo stew, and was taken aback by the fantastically melded flavors in the tomatoey gravy. Plus, the stewed buffalo meat did not have a strange, biting aftertaste like lamb, but it tasted just like plain ole' beef. Therefore, the stew ranked pretty well in my book.

The coleslaw, buttered bread buns, mashed potatoes, and sliced "all-you-can-eat-from-the-communal-barrel" pickles were perfect accompaniments to my meal. Shoot, if I could just eat those pickles for dinner, I would be more than satisfied.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

New York Style Pizza in San Francisco

This past week, I had an insatiable desire for a messy slice of fully-loaded pizza. After unsuccessfully trying to quiet my pizza-lust with a disappointingly stale and coagulated slice from a "no-fail" pizza parlor, I decided to try a new place to stifle the little man within me.

The first critical decision that I had to make, was choosing a pizza place that would (as men usually put it), "fulfill my needs." Thus, I had to choose sides in one of the most contentious rivalries in America: Chicago-Style Deep Dish versus New York-Style Thin Crust.

After spending the afternoon surfing the internet for ideas, I realized that my stomach was yearning for the crackery-thin crunch of New York style pizza. The only challenge remaining was finding a restaurant in San Francisco that served authentic--yes, "authentic"--New York style pizza.

I decided to try out a small place on Van Ness that advertised itself as being "really from New York." Walking in, I saw two hefty-build men in ebony suits lingering around one of the back tables. Possible mobsters. Good sign.

At the front of the restaurant, the pizza chef vigorously threw pliable dough blankets in the air, using his fists to stretch out concentrated knots in the pie dough. Freshly made pizza crust. Another good sign.

I ordered two slices and sat at the bar stools so that I could watch the football game from the overhead television set. When my steaming order came out, I noticed undercooked broccoli stems and flowerets scattered across the pizza. Broccoli on pizza? Bad sign.

I paused for a moment of silent confusion. Did I order this? The pizza did not look like what I had been yearning for all week. It did not look like the classic, grease-laden slice covered with circular slices of pepperoni glistening with specks of fat, cherry-sized pork sausages seasoned with fennel, and salty black olive rounds. Instead, there were . . . Well, a lot of vegetables.

However, as I bit into the densely-topped pizza, the hot stringy cheese and molten tomato sauce partnered amazingly well with the crunchy New York style crust. I did not even realize I was eating those "items forbidden as pizza toppings in America"--namely any topping that has the same fiber content as a glass of orange Metamucil.

As I polished off my pizza slices, the satisfaction of my "urge of the week" finally set in. Not only did the pizza serve to stifle my demanding desire, but it also provided me with my recommended weekly fiber intake.
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