Friday, December 22, 2006

The Steps of Rome Lead to North Beach

The best late-night dessert place in the city of San Francisco is the Steps of Rome Cafe in North Beach. Even if you're a confused tourist aimlessly wandering the neon-lit streets of North Beach (San Francisco's equivalent of Little Italy), you can't miss the quirky Steps of Rome. You'll hear and see the rowdy, belligerent restaurant crowd over a mile away. The best and most "quirky" part of the restaurant, is that if you come in the restaurant with a bridal veil (even if your not a bachelorette), you'll get star treatment--treatment even better than those commercials promoting Celebrity Cruise Lines. The waiters will eagerly flick the restaurant's light switches on and off, slap their muscled thighs while belting out unintelligible Italian ballads, and increase the deafening volume on the music blaring through their eardrum-piercing speaker system.

The twenty-something, fobby, cocky, and energetic Italian waiters are Italy's equivalent of state university frat guys and they look like European soccer players who are in the midst of a heated, sweaty soccer game, frenetically trying to balance trays of food and drinks in their mottled, grass-stained jerseys. Their heavy accents and inherent Italian flirtatiousness are addictive to anyone with an iota of estrogen pumping through her (or his) bloodstream.

Best of all, the heart stopping desserts are titillating to even the most staid of taste buds.

Their tiramisu is the one of best I've had at any restaurant. The Italian "pick-me-up" is carpeted with a luxurious dusting of cocoa powder, and is made with a soft spongy cake saturated with a rich and pungent-flavored espresso. The "icing on the cake" is literally a milky, creamy, thick, and cloud-like mascarpone cheese and whipped egg mixture.

If you come only for dessert, ask for their "special dessert menu," and wink at the waiter if you want something extra special!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Low Income Holiday Party 2006

You've seen a couple of posts about the corporate holiday parties that I've had the privilege of attending, and if you were a reader of mine back in 2005, then you've seen a post about the anti-corporate party generally thrown at my workplace during the holidays.

This year, I'm pleased to report that the holiday potluck we threw at work this year was a resounding success, and the best part of it was that the food was significantly better than the corporate holiday party I attended on the "other side of town."

My favorite food items at the party? Everything was deliciously homemade by my co-workers, but I have to admit, the most memorable items were the overflowing platters of appetizers brought by a co-worker's significant other (who just so happens to descend from a distinguished lineage of restauranteurs). I thought that the appetizer plates looked so gorgeous and visually attractive, that I whipped out my digicam--which had been discreetly tucked away under my tacky holiday outfit--and within a matter of mere seconds, became a fierce and voracious food paparazzo.

Feast your hungry eyes on these poached spears of asparagus wrapped in thick slices of well-salted, high-quality Italian prosciutto; and

Golden, buttery, and flaky tart shells ornately decorated with a thin slices of rare roasted beef and a substantial dollop of creamy (yet "well-textured") horseradish.

Okay, so the food at my work holiday party was technically "donated," but I know you corporate employees are looking at these pictures (and still toiling away in your cubicle), while salivating in jealousy!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Southern Comfort: Filling Up On Chick-Fil-A

Would you travel over forty miles for fast food?

Perhaps when you read the following in a thick Southern drawl, you'll agree to the above question.

Sweeet Teeah
Frrhied Chicken Saanweches

Well, I answered "yes" to the above question, and travel over forty miles I did, embarking from San Francisco for an hour-long voyage to a generic food court inside a random mall in California's suburbia. When I arrived, I fought against the swarming, pressing throng of holiday shoppers to acquire a seat in a lipstick-red booth at the fast food gem my Southern companions call "chick fillet".

The forty miles was well worth it. The sandwich I ordered was the "archetypal Chick-A-Fil sandwich," and it was surprisingly simple. There were no round slices of crisp dill pickle, no goopy slathering of thickened mayonnaise, no artful squeeze of tawny mustard. There weren't even niblets of reconstituted onions. Rather, the sandwich was naked in all its full glory and barren of any sloppy or disheveled condiments. The barebone components included a plain hamburger bun (not even decorated with little ornaments of sesame seed) that had been buttered and toasted, two leaves of verdant lettuce that were so curly that the bun couldn't even sit tightly atop the sandwich, a crimson slice of ripened tomato, and best of all: a thick piece of tender chicken breast meat, bursting with juices and deep-fried until the breading had formed a spicy, crispy outside crust.

To top my sandwich (and stomach) off, my Georgia peach friend had won two gargantuan, first-prize party platters of chicken nuggets from the online sweepstakes drawing, and she generously shared her winnings with our group of over ten people.

We dunked and doused the little nugget torpedos into the thick and honeyed elixir known as "Polynesian Sauce." If you've never tried this dipping nectar (to steal the phrase from my Southern friend), it tastes like sweet and sour sauce, but with flavors that are much more grandiose.

The motley group at our two tables also feasted on crispy grids of waffle-cut fries with crackly potato skin borders which literally melted away in our mouths.

After our meal and our time together, we realized we had satisfied the purpose of our quest. Yes, it is true that we defeated the purpose of "fast" food, but our lengthy journey was more than redeemed.

My lesson from Chick-Fil-A: Southern comfort doesn't just come in a bottle.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Working Eater Series: Chokehold on Dinner

Out of dinner ideas?

Open up a can of whup-@$$ on your dinner guests with the savory and delightful artichoke plant. Versatile and taste bud-arousing, the artichoke can adapt as a side to almost any kind of main dish. Artichokes feature a diversity of textures: one can nibble away at the tender, almost ivory-colored base of the outer artichoke leaves; pull the tight, fibrous leaf through one's clamped teeth; and use the tapered tines of the fork to delve into the tender, fluffy, baked potato-like stem interior. The artichoke flavor concentrates in the inner most leaves, or the heart of the 'choke, which throbs and pulsates, not with muscular contractions, but with a wealth of woody and earthy flavors.

But lemme tell you, artichokes are hell-on-earth to prepare. Be careful not to get poked by the pointed barbs on the tips of the outer leaves. They sting like lil' b!+¢#e$!

Salad of Steamed Artichoke Hearts and Balsamic Vinegar
6 fresh artichokes, whole
1 tbsp of balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup of parmesan cheese (optional)
sea salt, to taste

Peel of the outer leaves of the artichoke that are green in color. You may discard these leaves, or you may steam them and nibble the ends of the leaves and scrape them through your teeth to eat every remaining bit of artichoke flesh. After you've removed the green leaves (there are quite a lot),
use a paring knife to cut off the excess the green, snapped-off leaf vestiges near the stem. Then, cut the yellow artichoke hearts in half, and use a spoon with a pointed tip to remove the hairy, ultra-fibrous choke from the inside of the artichoke. For a great pictorial guide on how to do this, check out Becks & Posh. For a great recipe on how to prepare artichokes whole, check out the Unemployed Cook.

Put the readied artichoke hearts into a large, microwave-safe glass bowl with a few tablespoons of water and tightly cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Microwave the hearts on high heat for 10 minutes. After microwaving, carefully remove the plastic wrap, being careful of the steam. Sprinkle the artichokes with the sea salt, drizzle them with the balsamic vinegar, and if desired, add the grated parmesan cheese over the steamed artichokes. Now you're ready to enjoy a deliciously warm salad!

In addition with the recipe above, here are two more suggested recipes that compliment the artichokes and make a complete meal:

Fluffed Moroccan Couscous

1 1/2 cups of Moroccan-style couscous, made of durum wheat
1 can of fat-free low-sodium chicken stock or broth
1 tsp of extra virgin olive oil
lemon wedges, to serve
mint leaves, to serve

Bring the chicken stock to a boil in a small sauce pan with a tight lid. Add the extra virgin olive oil and couscous, replace the lid to cover the couscous, and immediately take the couscous off of the heat. Wait for 5 minutes, remove the lid, and use a fork to fluff the individual grains of couscous. Serve with lemon wedges and garnish with a few mint leaves.

I love couscous as a side, because it takes less time than boiling an egg!

Finally, I would serve the artichokes and couscous with broiled steaks. The recipe below isn't really a recipe, but I am on a roll with artsy recipe names, so here goes:

Virgin Steak au Poivre

2 hearty steak cuts of beef, such as t-bone
whole peppercorns, ground with a mortar and pestle or in a pepper grinding mill

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Ready the steaks, by generously seasoning both sides with salt and freshly ground pepper, and lay them on a ridged baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake for approximately 30 minutes, or until the insides are done.

Serve with the couscous and artichokes.

By the way, this last recipe isn't even close to real steak au poivre, which is made with a gorgeous glazed reduction made with cognac, but the name makes plain ole' steaks heated in the oven sound much fancier! Besides, poivre just means pepper in French anyway!

I hope you've enjoyed the recipes, and my submissions to the fair recipe trade!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Teaching a Sushi Novice How To Roll With the Punches

My understanding of sushi before I moved to California, is what I call "desert sushi," or sushi for an kid who grew up Arizona.

I joke that I grew up eating rattlesnake meat, crackly scorpions (inside tequila lollipops), and cactus (literally, nopales).
Fresh, uncooked seafood was not even on my radar. However, my mother regularly made sushi for our family in the searing, throat-drying, heat-distorting Arizona desert. Mama taught me how to make sushi right: from the basics of making a cooled, sticky, and well-seasoned sushi rice to how to firmly squeeze the flaky sheet of nori over a tight cylinder of sushi rice without the need of a bamboo sushi mat and how to hand-mold ellipsoidal balls of sushi rice. However, my Mom's sushi had some "uniquely Arizona attributes."

"Fish in sushi" was a completely foreign concept to me. Rather, our family's sushi filling primarily consisted of canned eel, pickled carrots, scrambled eggs, and on really, really special occasions, imitation crab meat.

So when my beau--who is a sushi connoisseur (or as I like to call him, a "arrogant, haughty-@$$ sushi snob") because he grew up smack-dab on the coastline and within the immediate vicinity of some of world's best fisheries--asked me to teach him how to make sushi, I leapt at the opportunity.

I took some photos of our lesson together to share with you, and hope you enjoy them. We made California roll with fresh, hand-picked crab meat and rolls with red tuna sashimi and salmon sashimi.

Don't forget to take a look at the final product! He rolled those beauties himself!

I hope this post teaches you that even people from Arizona can teach a seafood lover a thing or two about how to eat good sushi!

My next lesson will be for the blogging community, but I can't decide what food to write about next. Scorpions? Rattlesnack meat? What about prickly pear cactus?

Or maybe I should try fish again!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Working Eater Series: Festive Holiday Meal

Imagine this:

The warming fragrance of a brewing stockpot of hot apple cider, spiced with cinnamon sticks, citrus peel, and a copious handful of cloves. . .

The thick, chocolately scent of a mug brimming with steaming cocoa, with an aquiline-arched candy cane propped against the rim, permeating a strong infusion of peppermint essence in the intoxicating beverage, and all topped off with melting marshmallows, joyfully bobbing up and down like pillowy balloons. . .

The smoky, buttery aroma of roasted chestnuts smoldering in glowing and ashen coals. . .

These are the smells of the holiday season. Now I need to give you a visual.

As we are in the midst of Christmas and the holidays, I want a share two recipes that get you in the holiday mood by showcasing the classic colors of Christmas time: bright holly berry red and rich pine tree green. These recipes are easy for a hurried chef to make during the bustling holiday season.

Pestoed Angel Hair Pasta with Prawns and Cherry Tomatoes
3 cups of fresh basil leaves, firmly packed with stems discarded
1/2 cup of pine nuts, toasted in a non-stick pan (without oil) until lightly browned
1/2 cup of fresh parmesan cheese, grated with the small holes of a cheese grater or with a microplane
1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil
5 large cloves of garlic, with papery skins and woody ends removed and cut in half

1 lb pkg of angel hair pasta, cooked al dente according to directions, in salted, boiling water
1 lb of large prawns, peeled and deveined
1 box of cherry tomatoes, cut into halves or quarters
1 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
salt, to taste

Puree the pine nuts, cheese, and garlic in a food processor, adding the basil in batches and slowly drizzling in the olive oil in the large "pouring spout" opening in a food processor. Continue to process until achieving a relatively-smooth consistency. You can either leave the food processor "on" button pressed while you slowly drizzle the olive oil, or alternate with "on/off" switches of the "pulse" button.

Heat 1 tbsp of olive oil in wide-brimmed, non-stick skillet on medium-high heat until the oil is shimmering. Add the prawns and pan fry, tossing the shrimp frequently until the prawns are opaque, pink, and firm to the touch, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the cooked angel hair pasta and cherry tomatoes and cook until the tomatoes begin to wilt and soften slightly, about 3 minutes. Take the pan off the heat, add the pesto mixture, and stir the pasta until the noodle strands are evenly coated with the pesto.

Serve the pasta on holiday-themed dinnerware and enjoy! For dessert, try:

Honeyed Fruit Salad with Mint
3 kiwi fruit, sliced
1/4 cup of dried cranberries or 1 plastic container of red raspberries
3 sprigs of fresh mint, hand-leafed with stems discarded
1 tsp of honey
1 tsp of orange juice (optional)

Mix the ingredients together in a large, glass mixing bowl, and serve in a large bowl emblazoned with repeating patterns of snowmen or Santa Claus on a sleigh. Enjoy and happy holidays!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Entertaining Ideas from the Google Holiday Party 2006

This past Friday, one of my friends invited me to the Google Holiday Party, an annual celebration of gargantuan proportions thrown for Google employees. (Due to his pity on me and in exchange for a gift worth over $100, I was able to negotiate my way into being his "plus one" to the party.)

Like Giada says on
Food Network, "I (too) am your all-access pass, (but, this time) inside the (Google) bash!"

The ornate decorations and fanciful costumes at the party were awe-inspiring and the crazy blend of music was dance-worthy... But, I didn't really care about those things, because I was primarily focused on sampling the food. I wanted to investigate all the hype surrounding Google as being a pioneer in organic, local, and state-of-the-art cuisine.

Unfortunately, the night wasn't what I expected. First, there were so many people and so many things to do, that I didn't really get to "try everything." Plus, I learned that the regular Google chefs people didn't make any of the food that night, rather, the event was catered by an outside company, and that gave me more motivation to dance and less to gorge myself.

Like all party events, I love learning and getting a five-finger-discount ("stealing") entertaining ideas from the pros. I learned quite a few tips from the Google caterers.

As you can see from this picture below, these tamales were made out of a whole lotta husk, but I'll definitely shoplift the great serving idea of keeping steamed items warm throughout the evening with a bamboo steamer perched over a comfortable simmer (not skin-scalding boil).

I also like that the peeps at Google relied heavily on "simplicity"--they served regular ham and cheese sandwiches and green salad. Simple and artful can be great when done right. But, for my own parties, I don't think I would set sandwiches onto a platter standing on their side edges, because these sandwiches in the snapshot below fell apart in a discombobulated pile of toast triangles and individual slices of cold cuts.

For entertaining, I love the idea that sandwiches don't always have to be made out of sliced bread, but little Pacman-like rolls can do fine. Although, for my own future parties, I think I'll make sure to "overstuff" my bun sandwiches, since rolls present double the bread mass and a thick, chewy, and dry crust. Extra mayo and mustard are necessary for babies like these.

I also love the idea of using different-colored lighting as a garnish. Red-toned light can really accentuate the visual appearance of certain foods, including shrimp.

Also, the best entertaining food in the world is serving sushi. But "make-your-own-sushi" for guests? A sushi-making party or party with ready-to-eat foods with a sushi-making element would be so cool.

Finally, the great idea that I picked up from the Google party is not to pre-plate the dessert, but allow the guests to help themselves. Some people are full by the time dessert rolls around and some are still hungry. Let them decide!

I hope you learned as much as I did. The Google party definitely taught me, "Don't be evil... tasting."

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Good Things Really Do Come In Dumpling Packages

For my annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage down to Southern California, I was compelled by the force (of my growling stomach) to make a necessary pit stop at the Arcadia location of the famed Din Tai Fung chain restaurant from Taiwan. Din Tai Fung produces the perfect dough-wrapped, meat-filled packages, packages that are aptly known in Chinese as "shao loeng baos."

Joe's Shanghai in Flushing, New York, you ain’t got nuthin' on these Taiwanese chain-restaurant babies.

That Din Tai Fung's soup dumplings run out within an hour of opening (and that they only sell soup dumplings on the weekends) is an indicator of how good this place is.

You can't miss Din Tai Fung. You'll see a line of pushy patrons snaking around the insides of a strip mall, and like me, their eyes will be bright with "visions of steaming shao loeng baos dancing in their heads."

My favorite part of Din Tai Fung is not the dumplings themselves, but the ability to watch the entire production. When patrons enter the restaurant, they are allowed a bird’s-eye view of how Din Tai Fung’s dumplings are made. Immaculately-cleaned, thick, and soundproof glass windows enclose the dumpling-making area and allow patrons to peer at the assembly-line.

The dumpling makers work in a rapid-fire sequence of coordinated movements. Worker #1 rolls tight, flour-dusted dough balls into thin, flat, and circular dumpling wrappers. He does this by efficiently moving a wooden rolling pin over the dough using his right palm and simultaneously twisting his left wrist to quickly rotate the wrapper in a counterclockwise motion. Worker #2 then pats a round meatball-sized circle of ground pork onto the wrapper using a flattened wooden dowel specially used to portion the perfect amount of meat into the dumpling. Worker #3 then manually folds mini-pleats into the perimeter edges of the dumpling wrapper and squeezes the wrapper over the meat to form either a crescent moon-shaped dumpling or a beggar’s bag-shaped dumpling.

Just talking about the dumpling-making process has gotten me in the mood for these dumplings. Even if you don't live nearby any location of Din Tai Fung, I highly encourage you to try these perfect and juicy packages this holiday season!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving for 2006!

Tis' the season to be a food bloggie, fa la la la, la la la la!

It is a family tradition of ours to make special dumplings during the holiday season, so I wanted to share these pictures of my family's "special tradition" to get you in a festive holiday mood. Pictured below are the raw ingredients behind my Mama's special soup dumplings (including prawns, ground pork, bamboo slivers, and water chestnuts).

The holidays are a time to inspire your creativity and bring out your natural culinary prowess! I can't wait to hear about your family practices and traditions and to see the vivid Thankgiving pictures taken of your dining table this year! (Please feel free drop me a comment about a special tradition carried on in your family during the holidays!)

Happy Thanksgiving (and Black Friday) everyone!

. . . Oh, and also, I am trying to improve the content of my blog and make it appealing to a wider audience. I don't want to limit the relevance of my posts to a target audience from the San Francisco, Bay Area. So for those of you who are here from outside of the Bay Area, I want to leave you with a great kitchen tip!

Post-Thanksgiving Kitchen Tip from Passionate Eater: To reheat refrigerated rolls, croissants, biscuits, pancakes, or muffins (especially those from Thanksgiving), place them in a microwave with a microwave-safe cup partially filled with water. The steam from the evaporating water will make the bakery-good moist and fluffy, and also help it to warm faster. This tip will help you to say good-bye to those dried out pieces of bread that have become microwave-dried croutons!
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