Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Mardi Gras King Cakes

For people in Louisiana, as soon as the Christmas season is over, the Mardi Gras celebrations begin. When you see department and grocery store aisles stocked with multi-colored plastic beads, feather boas, and King Cakes, you will know that it is Mardi Gras time.

Take a look at these two different slices below to see the variation in different King Cakes. In the first, you can see the dark swirls of cinnamon, and in the second, you can see the substantial, bready density.

Before moving to Louisiana, I was unfamiliar with King Cakes. Now, as a resident of New Orleans, I have eaten a slice of King Cake every week since Christmas.

King Cakes are best described as over-sized cinnamon rolls made from sweet yeast dough. To make a King Cake, the dough is kneaded with a cinnamon butter filling, braided, shaped into a circular bread wreath, and baked until golden-brown. King Cakes are then slathered with an oozing blanket of white icing and decorated with crunchy yellow, purple, and green sugar crystals. Some King Cakes possess an eggy, glistening, brioche-like sheen and specialized King Cakes may be filled with pockets of sweetened cream cheese filling, fruit jelly, crushed pralines pieces, pecans, or dried fruits, such as raisins, cherries. You can also get a King Cake with decadent pie filling, such as blueberry, apple, or lemon curd.

King Cakes derive their origins from the French settlers in Louisiana and carry a special tradition with them. Inside every King Cake is a small plastic baby figurine.

Tradition has it, that the person who finds the baby must buy the next King Cake (usually the next day or the next week).

Although it is mildly creepy, it is a great tradition to ensure that the eating of King Cakes never end!

P.S. My original photos did not do justice to the Mardi Gras King Cake, so I updated this post with NEW pictures. Also, I wanted to add another fact. Do you want to know why a King Cake baby has a hole in his bottom running to the top of his head?

It is so that Mardi Gras party-goers can string the baby onto a string of beads. When you walk around Bourbon Street or St. Charles Avenue during the height of Mardi Gras, expect to see a lot of these plastic babies strung around the necks of fellow party-goers!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Blue Duck Tavern is no Lame Duck

Soon after Christmas, my D.C. friend called me up on a whim and coyly inquired, "Want to take a red eye to D.C. from New Orleans to visit me for New Year's? It's short notice, but I'll take you out to a nice brunch if you visit."

"Sure," was my drenched-in-sarcasm reply.

Before I knew it, I was sprinting across the waxed tile floors of Louis Armstrong Airport, with my slovenly-packed luggage careening behind me.

When I breathlessly arrived in D.C., my friend immediately escorted me to the Blue Duck Tavern, based on a review he read in the Washingtonian. "You're gonna love this place," he said, with a smirk slowly inching upon his sly lips.

"It serves comforting, homey meals, but is consummately pretentious in the D.C. way."

Upon entering the toasty restaurant from the frigidness from outdoors, we stripped off the wool mittens and scarves from our chilly hands and necks. Our flushed cheeks were greeted with an encompassing warmness from the restaurant. In the corner of my eyes, I spied glowing embers and slight flames licking the inside a wood fire oven. I felt at home already.

As we warmed our quivering bodies in the heat of the restaurant, my friend and I decided to start with two categorically non-cold weather appetizers. Both included tuna.

First, we ordered an appetizer of tuna tartare. The tartare was flecked with green chive ringlets and adorned with a diameter of freshly grated pepper running across its symmettrical surface. Most impressively, the gelatinous cubes of the chopped tuna flesh coddled a delicate quail egg, tenuously held together by its yolk membrane.

Every cube of tartare was silken to the bite, and the tartare went perfectly with the hatch-cut potato crisps and the baby greens, which were dressed in a light, lemon-infused olive oil. Unlike my previous experiences with tuna tartare, I couldn't taste any Asian inspiration. I could only discern a trace of lemon zest and the full-bodied fruitiness from the olive oil.

Additionally, we ordered thick-cuts of yellowfin tuna steak, seared until a thin crust of spices had embedded into the tuna's surface. The tuna was served over a Mediterranean salad of chickpeas, sun-dried tomatoes, and feta cheese. Every hypnotic flavor from the salad was powerful, but not overpowering.

The sultry and seductive flavors whipped together creaminess of the chickpeas and feta cheese, the tongue-piercing saltiness of the olives, and the concentrated and potent flavor of sun-dried tomatoes.

As a side to our main dish, we feasted on a cheesy, buttery, and dairy-decadent cauliflower gratin. The firm nibs of the cauliflower were suspended in a thick and cheesy casserole gravy made of rich, whole-fat cream.

For our main entree, we ordered wood fired tavern steak with roasted garlic and shallots. The roasting intensified the beefy flavor in every strand of the meat and accentuated sweet aromas from the shallots and garlic. The roasting brought every element to their flavor climax. My dining companion and I eagerly squeezed the creamy garlic innards out from their papery skins and smeared them into the nooks and pockets of the complimentary crusty bread. The bread served another purpose, to sponge up the mahogany au jus collected inside the metal serving dish.

The Blue Duck Tavern prides itself on cooking traditional America cuisine. If eating at the Blue Duck Tavern is a sign of one's love towards America, then I am one of the most patriotic there is! But if we talk about the Iraq war. . . Well, that is another story.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Chip In to My Stomach! Cioppino's on the Wharf

Before I left San Francisco, I made it my goal to savor every second I had left in the City.

Thus, I spent several afternoons laying in Golden Gate Park, gazing longingly at the full-bodied cumulus humilis cloud formations in the pristine sky. . .

I rode the MUNI bus line across San Francisco, peacefully listening to the soft humming, buzzing, sputtering, and zipping noises common to the electrified MUNI buses. . .

And I visited the place where most journeys to San Francisco begin, Fisherman's Wharf. My goal there was to enjoy two foods that epitomize the bounty of San Francisco's waters: (1) cioppino (pronounced "chip-ee-no" or "chuh-pee-no") and (2) clam chowder.

Cioppino is a hearty fish stew that originated in San Francisco. Legend has it, that after a tiring morning in the rough waters of the bay, the fisherman gathered their catch and congregated on their fishing boats to eat lunch with one another. Each fisherman contributed or "chipped in" their "catch" for the shared meal, be it fish, crab, clams, shrimp, scallops, squid, or other delicious morsels from the sea. The ingredients would be combined and cooked in a communal pot, with wine, tomato sauce, and a smattering of different herbs and seasonings. As the dish evolved, so did the name, and the Italiano-fied pronunciation of "chip in" became the fish stew, "cioppino."

Usually, the seafood in cioppino is served in its unadulterated glory, meaning, it is served with shells and everything. Therefore, an authentic cioppino will be served with a disposable bib, mallets, crab crackers, metal picks, and a wet-nap. Cioppino is generally cooked in a thin (very liquid) fennel-infused tomato soup diluted with white wine, so expect a significant amount of messy splattering during your eager consumption.

In San Francisco, you will find a dozen or so restaurants with Cioppino in their names, and although I haven't tried all of them, I believe if they serve cioppino, they have to be good. If you order the cioppino at Cioppino's on the Wharf, expect a bountiful seafood extravaganza of braised dungeness crab, clams, mussels, rock cod, calamari, and shrimp in a steaming fennel and tomato stew.

And now to San Francisco's ubiquitous clam chowder. Although San Francisco serves "New England" clam chowder, the one thing makes the thick calorie-laden cream soup distinctly San Franciscan is that it is served in a crusty and chewy sourdough bread bowl. You can't get that in New England! Okay, my friends and I didn't get the bread bowl for the clam chowder we ordered at
Cioppino's on the Wharf (as shown in this picture), but you know what I mean.

If you are in the tourist-infested Fisherman's Wharf, I encourage you to stop by the tourist magnet
Cioppino's on the Wharf, to try two of my favorite San Francisco seafood dishes.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Look. It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Korean Food!

I am getting lazy. As I have said before, my goal in 2007 was to publish all my remaining San Francisco posts.

As you've probably noticed, it is now 2008.

Therefore, in an effort to push out some of those San Francisco posts, here is a "picture" post dedicated to all to Korean restaurants I've loved before, in San Francisco.

For those of you (and I am talking to my current friends in the South) who may be unacquainted with Korean food, I will provide a brief description along with the pictures.

Look! Enjoy!

Every good Korean restaurant will serve you small dishes (free) of banchan soon after you are seated. Banchan are free palate-stimulating appetizers which include pickled daikon, tofu, bean sprouts, and kimchi, which is napa cabbage preserved and fermented in brine and red pepper powder.

In addition to panchan, you may want to order pajeon before you begin your meal. Pajeon is a savory pancake which is oftentimes made with scallions and seafood. The pancakes are thin and crisp at the edges, and taste more like crepes than pancakes.

Bulgogi is a no-fail item to order in any Korean restaurant. Bulgogi is grilled and marinated beef, which is sliced very thinly.

If you are feeling relatively adventurous (again I am talking to my New Orleans friends, not San Francisco friends), you may want to try bibimbap, which is a white rice dish topped with pickled vegetables and often a fried egg. The rice is generally served in a hot stone bowl so that the rice becomes crisp and brown at the edges.

Also, if you are interested in trying Korean food, you may want to check out the various Korean hot pot locations too. I think that Korean hot pot is virtually identical to Chinese hot pot, but I have only had the buffet kind of Korean hot pot, so I am not sure. . . Hot pot is basically where you are given a pot of hot broth and you add raw meat, fish meatballs, tofu, and vegetables to make your own soup. At Korean hot pot locations, there will also be a grilling area directly under the "hot pot" where you can grill and barbecue your own marinated meats.

I hope that some way, somehow, the pictures here might have intrigued you, especially if you have never tried Korean food. If you live in the South like me, there won't be any Korean restaurants near you, so I encourage you to take the initiative and check out recipes online and to get acquainted with Korean cuisine. You'll be rewarded, I promise.

Monday, January 07, 2008

In Pictures: Thanksgiving Dinner, Courtesy of Other Folks

Well, since I am at it, I might as well just put up another post just so that I can say that I posted twice this year! I was invited to a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner this past year with the beau's family. As I've said before, they are quite the gourmands! Here are the dishes that they served during Thanksgiving:

A salad of mixed greens in a light vinaigrette with fresh persimmons slices, loose pomegranate kernels, tangerine segments, and goat cheese rounds encrusted with crushed walnuts;


Brined turkey roasted in a rosemary butter.

Blanched green beans with grape tomatoes; and

Argentinan flan made with evaporated milk with a liquid caramel sauce.

I need to Google this flan recipe, because it was thick, creamy, and delicious.

Update: I think I just found the mother lode! I just found a fantastic Puerto Rican website called, "El Boricua" that lists two alternative recipes for flan, and both recipes include evaporated milk in the ingredients. For your convenience, I cut and paste[d] the substance of the recipes here, but please check our their website (as they are the source for this recipe).

Traditional Flan with Evaporated and Condensed Milk (Spanish Egg-Custard)
1 can evaporated milk
1 can condensed milk
5 whole eggs
1/2 cup of sugar
1 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt

1 cup sugar (for the caramel)

Blend all ingredients until completely mixed. Pour the flan mixture thru a metal strainer right into the caramelized pan.

Set the mold in a broiling pan (baño de María). Cook in a 350º oven for one hour. At 30 minutes check to see if it's getting too brown on top--if so cover loosely with foil.

Test the flan to see if it's done by inserting a knife in the center. If the flan is still soft, let it cook longer until a knife inserted again comes out clean. Remove from the oven carefully and let it sit on the counter until it cools. Then cover with foil and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.

To serve lay a plate on top of the mold then carefully flip it over and slide the mold off.

Meanwhile, for the stove top caramel, melt 1 cup sugar in a non-stick pan, over low heat. Keep your eye on it. If it burns you will have to start over. It just needs to melt that's all. Using a non stick pan will cause the caramel to just slip off the pan when pouring and it is easy to clean later.

Immediately pour the caramel into a metal pan and swirl it around to cover the bottom and sides. Your have to be quick because once it starts to cool down you don't stand a chance. The caramel should have cooled down before you pour the egg mixture in it.

Alternatively, you can make microwave caramel by placing 1 cup of sugar and 3 tbsps of water in a microwave proof bowl. Microwave for 5 min. and keep your eye on it. Just needs to melt and be slightly golden.

Immediately pour the caramel into a microwavable flan mold (a transparent Pyrex bowl) and swirl it around to cover the bottom and sides. You'll have to be quick because once it starts to cool down you don't stand a chance. The caramel should have cooled down before you pour the egg mixture in it.

Microwaved Flan with Evaporated Milk
1 can evaporated milk
5 whole eggs
3/4 cup of sugar
1 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt

Blend all ingredients until completely mixed. Pour the flan mixture thru a metal strainer right into a microwavable flan mold. Fill up to one inch from the rim.

Cook the flan uncovered for 8 minutes on high. Test with the knife as you would a cake. Remember that the microwave cooks from the middle out so insert the knife away from the center of the flan. If it comes out clean then it's done. You might need to add a minute or two if 8 minutes wasn't enough. Run a butter knife around the edges of the dish to separate. Let it cool, cover, and then refrigerate in the mold. How easy is that?

Remember that a microwavable flan mold is perfect for a single recipe only. You might need to discard any extra mixture if it is too much. During the microwaving process the flan will rise, but just ignore this because once it is removed from the microwave it will shrink a bit. Always use a microwave safe paper towel under the Flan mold to "catch" any spills. The mold will be hot so be extra careful when taking it out of the microwave. Let it sit on the counter until it cools down then refrigerate.

The flan needs to be cold to serve so it should be refrigerated at least 3 hours. Invert into a deep dish (like a pie plate) so the caramel won't spill out. We tested the recipe above and doubled it and it took 12 minutes to bake in the microwave (in a larger mold) - so don't double the microwave cooking time, just check it after 8 minutes and add 1 or 2 minutes if not yet done.

Buy a nice ceramic pie plate with lid to show off and serve your flan.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

I Told You MSG Was the Sixth Food Group! Err, I Mean the Fifth Taste.

Happy New Year's everyone! The bad news is that I am way behind in my ever-increasing load of work and I completely blew my goal of finishing up my SF posts before 2007. . . But I have good news! MSG is healthy and good for you! Well, maybe not. Although I am sure you have heard already, but umami (also referred to as L-glutamate) has now been recognized by the mainstream media as the "fifth taste." In addition to sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, our taste buds can actually detect a meaty, hearty flavor. Still confused as to what umami is? MSG adds umami flavor, and parmesan cheese and plain beef stock contain a potent and almost unadulterated form of the umami flavor. Soy sauce is a combination of salty and umami tastes.

I actually first heard about umami on my way to work while listening to NPR. Soon afterwards, I read about it recently in the Wall Street Journal. Click on those links to check out their mouthwatering description of umami.

In celebration of the recognition of umami as the fifth taste, here is a post of some of my favorite umami-flavored foods: dim sum! Unfortunately, here in New Orleans, there aren't many dim sum places. Well, there is one in the West Bank, but it is both pricey and it sho' as heck ain't all that.

Bring on the umami please!
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