Saturday, December 31, 2005

Fusion Combinations: What Works and What Doesn't

This holiday season has been wonderful to me so far--I was recently treated to a generous meal at Tangerine: Pacific Rim Restaurant.

Tangerine is a moderately-priced Asian-fusion restaurant (meaning "$$$$" not "$$$$$"), with an ambient, glowing, amber décor. It's welcoming and best of all, has a special on Tuesdays where the entire tab is 20% off! Furthermore, unlike another popular Asian-fusion restaurant (that shall "remain unnamed" like the Evil Dark Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels) the servers weren't "geisha-wannabes," but instead, we had a talkative, flamboyant, and stylish waiter.

We originally had trouble deciding on what to order (much to the distressed chagrin of our waiter) but we eventually started with two appetizers: 1) seafood-stuffed portobello mushroom skewers and 2) roasted duck spring rolls with a green mango dipping sauce.

The spring rolls were presented in a fancy nouveau-Asian-fusion manner: the spring rolls were sliced on a bias and alternated next to one another like opposing chess pieces, delicate tendrils of shaved carrots adorned the long serving plate, and sitting next to the spring rolls was a small tea cup filled with dipping sauce.

The taste of the spring rolls was similarly innovative. However, I thought that the characteristic sweet-salty-tangy flavor of the Peking duck sometimes overpowered other subtle "spring roll" flavors that were vying for my attention. I think there were some vegetables inside the crispy-skinned rolls, but I didn't even know they were there when next to the duck.

The dipping sauce was stellar. It tasted almost like it was made from pureéd banana, but our waiter informed us it was made from a complex combination of green mangos, wasabi, and mayonnaise. The spring roll dipping sauce was intended for a supporting role, but the striking green hue and intense flavor brought it to the center stage. Small touches really make a difference at Tangerine. Even the water they serve at Tangerine is flavored with peach syrup.

(Unfortunately, I was unable to successfully capture a clear image of the portobello skewers, so I won't go into a detailed description.)

My companion ordered the grilled salmon, which was served with a sweet mango salad and paired with a simple sushi roll. The salmon was a steak-cut (not a filet-cut) and was pleasantly grilled to medium-rare. The sushi rolls were stuffed with arugula, and other fresh vegetables, and showered with a light sprinkling of black sesame seeds.

Zileel (the great friend who recommended and spearheaded our visit to Tangerine) ordered the sea bass with edamame beans in a black bean sauce, which was served on a wilted bed of spinach and a delicate mound of jasmine rice. Although I didn't sample any of the sea bass, Zileel only had the highest praise for her entrée. She lauded the fish for being both tender and crispy at the same time--this was similar to the acclaim being doled out by "my" companion, the one who had ordered the salmon.

Zileel's companion ordered the herb and pistachio-encrusted New Zealand lamb chops baked in a honey sauce. The lamb chops were served with "spicy" rice and roasted bell peppers. I sampled a bite of the lamb chops, and they packed a tight, gamey punch.

Unfortunately, I was cursed with the "dud" of the evening, and those who tasted my dish sorrowfully agreed. I ordered the pork back ribs cooked in a saffron-tomato sauce and served with assorted vegetables. The ribs were served with jasmine rice, which was deceptively hidden under leaves of Swiss chard. It almost made me think I had a jungzi (Chinese tamale), but when I opened the bland leaves, all it revealed was a tasteless pile o' rice. Yippee.

The ribs were unenjoyable because they were made with too much pepper. How can you use pepper when you're using saffron? That's like buying a 1-oz truffle for $250, chopping it up very finely, and stir-frying it with bittermelon and ten pounds of regular button mushrooms. Why would you spend that much money on one really expensive ingredient, and then drown out that ingredient with really cheap ingredients? It just ain't right man. It just ain't right.

Plus, the "assortment" of vegetables that my dish was served with, were a motley combination of vegetable rejects: okra, and some weird chile peppers. The slimy, mucilaginous texture of the okra, the itchy okra hair, and crunchy pepper seeds kept squirming around on my tongue like a a pile of living insects. Simply put, my order didn't turn out to be my "cup of tea."

Ultimately, I had a great time that evening, and would definitely return to Tangerine, but just realized that I am generally very unlucky when it comes to ordering Asian-fusion dishes. My friends had a great time, and loved their entrées--and I did too---but, I gotta take some cues from them next time, on how to order Asian-fusion the right way.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Why Did'ja Do It to Me Sam Woo? My Restaurant Manifesto

For the 7+ hour drive down to Southern California from Northern California, my family has designated certain pitstops as places we "always" stop, even if we don't need to fill up on gas or go to the restroom. One pitstop is the fast food haven in Lost Hills, and the other one is Sam Woo in San Gabriel. The Sam Woo that acts as our rest-stop, is not from the Sam Woo Seafood Restaurant lineage (referred to "Sam Woo-bourgeoisie," because it is generally priced around $10/entreé), but it is the Sam Woo BBQ Restaurant (referred to "Sam Woo-proletariat," because it is priced around $5/entreé), or as I like to call it, "the Sam Woo for the working, blue-collar people."

When I recently drove down to visit my parents, I was accompanied by a friend from the East Coast who had eaten in the Monterey Park/San Gabriel area before. He told me before, that Southern California is "nirvana" or "Garden of Eden" for a Chinese-food lover. As we slowly crept our way through the hellish bowels of Los Angeles traffic, he wanted me to suggest a cheap and delicious place we could grab a quick Chinese meal. I was pretty confident that Sam Woo would deliver on his expectations.

When we finally arrived, we were physically exhausted, irritable, and our buttocks were sore and tense from sitting in bumper-to-bumper holiday traffic. Both of us were expecting a meal to "satisfy the masses."

When we were seated, I was surprised by the lack of patrons in the restaurant. I remember there was always a line with large families waiting for seats, and how the old grandparent-types would sit in the waiting area reading their daily newspapers. That day, the restaurant wasn't even half full. But when I looked around, I was happy to see the same waiter there (he must have been working there for about ten years), and also I was overjoyed to see that prices hadn't changed either. $4-5 bucks for choice entreés? They need to move a Sam Woo up to the Bay Area!

Since my friend was the driver, I let him call the shots (I let him order, with only minimal interference).

Our first dish of coeng ching tsai arrived in a monstrous looking mound. Because I had been pandering to my friend's belief that Monterey Park was the "promised land," I tried to describe the faults in the dish as an unusual deviation. But as soon as I tasted it, I realized there were no redeeming qualities to the pile of flaccid, slimy, and fibrous mash.

Okay. Maybe our pent-up road rage was causing us to be easily disgruntled. "Give it another chance," I pleaded to both him and myself.

Ten minutes after the coeng ching tsai had arrived, the next dish hit the table. I had more of a role in ordering the hi shen tsow mein (seafood chow mein), thus, it felt like a steel-semi truck of disappointment hit me in my gut when I saw the way the dish looked. The noodles were mangled and mottled up like a hairball made of greasy orange yarn. See, when my Dad ordered the "same" dish from Sam Woo, I remember decoratively-quartered leaves of baby bok choy gracing a symettrical and crispy pan-fried cake of golden egg noodles. I remember huge pieces of shrimp, white fish, scallops, and squid. I also remember that the sauce perfectly coated the noodles, so as not to ruin the crispiness of fried noodles, but to provide a harmonious balance of flavor and texture.

Our hi shen tsow mein looked like the waiter gave us a dish that an unsatisfied guest had sent back, and the cooks just re-fried the whole thing together again for the next people who were unfortunate enough to order the same thing--us. There were no crispy noodles. None. There was no bright bok choy. None. Just oily, soggy noodles and sporadic bites of seafood.

After waiting for fifteen minutes, we thought that the waiter forgot to write down our final order. We were about to leave and pay our bill, when he came rushing out with our plate of jow yen yo yee (deep-fried and salted squid). This is actually something that I didn't have a lot of experience with eating or ordering, so I didn't have very high expectations. However, my friend did. One bite, and he spit back into his napkin. "This dish is not worth eating, let's pay the bill and go now," he resignedly grunted.

"Wait a minute, I'm not going to pay for a dish and only have you eat one bite!" I angrily retorted, as I shoved an entire fried fritter into my mouth.

Although the jow yen yo yee was colorfully presented and looked delicious, the taste was something else. Stale oil permeated the batter-coating and made it taste like a musty closet--complete with the strange moth ball aroma. Plus, they took the "yen" (salt) part of the recipe to a new extreme. It was so salty, I could feel my mouth reflexively and unconsciously puckering, as if trying to expel what was inside of it.

After we paid the bill and began to exit the shopping plaza where Sam Woo was located, my friend asked me whether I would go back again.

Would I go back again? Oh hayelll yea! It's Sam Woo! So the food was bad one day, no big deal. No "invisible hand" will ever drive me away from Sam Woo. It's given me too many great memories, full bellies, and cheap meals for me to ever change my ideology.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

I'm Not Bitter! Jealous? Maybe.

Hi. Umm. This is awkward.

When I haven't spent time with someone in a long time, holding a conversation can be intimidating.

It's been almost an entire week since my last post. Unfortunately, my pre-holiday workload has been exhausting. I've been faced with: looming pre-2005 work deadlines, tiring holiday parties, maniacal Christmas shoppers at the mall, needing to robotically scour
Craigslist to find a new place, and packing and moving thousands of boxes with rock-solid junk.

Whew! But I haven't forgotten about the faithful friends of
Passionate Eater. I am going to make "time stand still" to discuss a meal that I have been meaning to write about for over two weeks: the meal I had at my friend's "corporate" holiday party. It will definitely be a stark contrast to the holiday potluck at my work--which is well . . . let's just say very, very anti-corporate.

As I've indicated in some of my previous posts, I have been trying to glean "entertaining" ideas from my friends, the television, and various magazines to prepare for some parties that my companion and I have in the works. The "corporate" holiday party was a way for me to scrutinize (and criticize) how high-powered and well-paid executives like to be fed at their get-togethers, and also it was an excellent forum for me to blatantly rip off good ideas from fancy caterers.

One table I paid particular attention to, was the crudité table. Usually, for my own entertaining purposes, I just arrange cleaned vegetables in concentric circles on a large serving platter. Okay, not very original, and I'll admit I get my inspiration from Safeway / Vons. Plus, I usually just use celery and carrots. (Again, not particularly innovative, but it gets the job done.) That's why I was impressed with the "corporate" spread of jicama, three colors of sliced bell peppers, turnips, multi-colored radishes, and baby carrots--and these weren't the pre-peeled, pre-washed, and bulk-packaged baby carrots that have their edges chemically sanded off! The carrots still had their tops and looked "natural"!

The next table that I vigorously inspected, had a selection that actually wasn't that appealing to me as an "entertaining snack." I love dim sum, but there is inevitable "weird" feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever dim sum is not being eaten for breakfast. Example: Imagine eating oatmeal or Lucky Charms and milk for dinner. See? It's kinda wrong.

Also, I was taught to eat dim sum in moderation, and only sneak petite bites of each dumpling between prolonged sips of tea. Wolfing down a bundle of those dumplings can be a nightmare to my rapidly inflating waste line.

However, just because I probably wouldn't serve dim sum when entertaining my own guests, didn't mean that I didn't load up on the tasty buns like I hadn't eaten in five days.

Another "note to self" I made during the "corporate" party, was not to serve communal soufflé.

I also really liked the idea of serving "one" piece of seafood with vibrant flavors and vivid garnishes--like a scallop or oyster served on the half-shell with a sprig of mint and lemon zest, or one tail-on shrimp encrusted with black and white sesame seeds.

Warning: These next images are particularly graphic. Please do not view them unless you are certain you will not be jealous or angry.

Okay, now I officially hate Corporate America! They can afford to hire caterers to hand-mold sushi for them at their buffet tables!

But my hatred and jealously was partly redeemed by a tremendous entertaining faux pas--at least in my eyes: the dreaded and contaminated chocolate fountain. I call it, "the breeding ground for disease."

I never understood the appeal of a chocolate fountain. Just seeing filthy hands reaching towards the sloppy brown sludge that is sliding down a hot metal tower makes me nauseous to the point blacking out.

By the way, the hand on the left is mine.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Japanese Vegetarian Entertaining Ideas

I visited Medicine New-Shojin Eatstation with my co-workers for lunch this Thursday, and I was impressed by the differing flavor and texture combinations of dishes that I had. My taste of Medicine inspired me to create my own "combinations" in cooking and in holiday entertaining.

Medicine is for the "hip, younger crowd" kind of place. A huge plasma screen was brandished on the farthest wall, and it played calming images of a sunny beachfront view like a relaxing screensaver. The images reminded me that cooking should not be stressful, but a fun time to experiment and learn from others.

For me, cooking can be overwhelming at times, especially when I am trying to create innovative dishes or when I am entertaining a group of 3+ guests. That's when I turn into a perfectionist, and the result is disasterous.

Given my "stress-case" propensities, I paid particular attention to the simple, no-frills dishes that were still daring and adventureous.

My first course consisted of a chilled cube of silken tofu, topped with a light sprinkling of crispy (and perfectly symettrical) seaweed flakes and a tiny dollop of microplane grated ginger. Eating plain tofu is not something I generally enjoy, but the lightness and simplicity of dish helped me to appreciate the distinct contributions of each of the ingredients. The tofu helped to detoxify and cleanse my palate, and the small portions of the ginger and seaweed gave me a heightened awareness of the subtle flavors of each component of the dish.

This dish inspired me to serve something similar when entertaining, as a hor d' oeuvre, but served in a shot glass, with a light drizzling of soy sauce.

Also with our first course, was a small dish of pickled daikon and lettuce. I don't really like the bitter aftertones of certain Japanese pickles, but I love using the colorful radishes and artistically sliced daikon as garnishes for my party platters.

My main dish was udon in curry. Atop the fresh pile of noodles was a crispy-fried nest of shredded and tempura-battered sweet potatoes. The crispy fritter was the prize of the dish. The crunchy golden exterior was immensely satisfying--much more so than any meat (Medicine is a vegetarian restaurant). I also enjoyed the thick, chewy udon noodles coated in smooth curry sauce.

I learned several things from the udon dish: 1) do not serve curry in udon to guests, because the curry vigorously splatters everywhere when one slurps up the wriggling noodles, but 2) sweet potatoes and curry make a fantastic coupling. I would definitely serve sweet potato fritters with a curry dipping sauce as an appetizer for guests.

Most memorable was their signature sushi, which was stuffed with verdant green sprouts, pickled carrots, leaves of fresh shiso, and sliced avocado. The sushi was made with a colorful 9-grain rice and boasted a decorative sprinkling of flax seeds.

The vibrant colors of the sushi was awe-inspiring. Generally, when I make sushi, I use the "plain vanilla" ingredients, but after my Medicine experience, I will definitely try using other types of rice, especially when entertaining. I may have to master my "sushi rolling" skills first, since it is difficult to make wild rice or brown rice "sticky" enough to be rolled as sushi. It definitely makes for a majestic looking dish though.

New flavor combinations from Medicine seared their way into my memory and helped me gain a better understanding of how to make enjoyable non-meat meals when entertaining vegetarian friends.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Get Shorty: The Makings of Korean Short Ribs

Making Korean short ribs is fairly uncomplicated. You don’t need multiple ingredients or exotic spices, and there isn’t that much labor involved.

As long as you have soy sauce, rice wine (or dry sherry), sugar, a package of beef short ribs, and a large knob of ginger, you can make a pretty good set of Korean short ribs.

First, you must marinate the short ribs. For every 4 sliced short rib racks, add 1/4 of a cup of soy sauce, 1/4 of a cup of rice wine, and 1 tablespoon of granulated sugar together as the marinade.

Also, you may want to add 2 cloves of garlic, and a quick drizzle of sesame oil.

Also add 1 tablespoon of finely minced ginger.

Let it marinate overnight.

Although the short ribs taste best grilled, you can also cook them in a non-stick skillet.

Be sure to drain off the oil though, and keep the ribs on the dry side, so that the sugar will caramelize onto the ribs.

Before placing the ribs on a serving plate, drain them on paper towels or a paper plate. I find that short ribs have a lot of fat and gristle, so it is good to try and eliminate the excess where you can. I like to take the grease away in the latter stages of cooking, as opposed to trimming the meat before cooking it. That way, I think that the ribs are not as dry, and quite moist and juicy.

This is my first "recipe" posting, so I’m interested to know if you make these ribs, and what you think!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Holiday Potluck Party

I love potlucks. I remember attending Baptist church potlucks as a child, and how the older ladies would always bring thick-handled casserole dishes piled with mountains of cheesy potatoes or noodles, covered with browned and crumbly topping, and riddled with hot, buttery pockets interspersed into every bite. I also remember how the ladies would eagerly trade recipes among themselves when a dish was particularly good.

This last week, I relived some of my potluck memories for our Holiday Potluck Party at work. I want to share about the potluck dishes, and perhaps give you some ideas for potlucks in your near future.

Everything was very tasty, but my two favorite potluck dishes were the eggplant caponata and the homemade bread. When eaten together, it could be a vegetarian sandwich "to die for."

The eggplant caponata was a delicious relish of finely diced celery, sweet red bell peppers, and spongy chunks of fresh eggplant. I had never had caponata before, so I was surprised that the eggplant wasn’t slimy, dry, or blackened by oxidization. Instead, the eggplant perfectly absorbed the other flavors, but also retained its own distinct attributes. The recipe my colleague used was from
Everyday Italian, by Giada DeLaurentis.

The crusty bread was phenomenal, because of the contrasting, yet symbiotic flavors. The bread had subtle tanginess from swiss cheese; the deep crunch of shelled and oily walnuts; the crispness of airy oat flakes dusted on the surface; and chewy bites of salty kalamata olives. The bread was not made from a recipe, but from heart!

The remaining repertoire included:

Cabbage salad with crumbled ramen noodles and sliced almonds,

Lil' Smokies cooked in a slow-cooker in ketchup sauce,

Take-out cabbage and pork potstickers,

A crudité tray of colored bell peppers, broccoli, grape tomatoes, baby carrots, and sugar snap peas,

A tray of supermarket sushi,

Noodle kugel,

Pumpkin pie,

Pumpkin bread cooked in a coffee tin,

And finally, a huge peach cobbler.

The dishes I made won’t seem new to you—I brought the staples I always make for hungry people: enchiladas and fried rice. (Sorry for the posting "reruns.")

Potlucks are the best way to break the ice and to develop friendships with others. Cooking for guests can be a very vulnerable experience. You are putting yourself out on the line to be criticized or lauded. Also, you are relying on the generosity of others to contribute to the overall experience.

For me, when I cook for others, I want them to be satisfied. If they are disappointed, I feel personally insulted or dejected. Conversely, when someone eats my food and likes it, I feel accepted and loved. A potluck brings the best relationship elements together, and thus is the perfect way to spend time with others and enjoy their company.

I hope this posting inspired you to also have a "Holiday Potluck Party" this year. For me, holding potlucks is a tradition that I will continue for every holiday season.
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