Thursday, October 30, 2008

Greetings, from Switzerland!

I just wanted to send everyone a quick update about my whereabouts. The beau and I have been having a wonderful time in Switzerland, eating what the Swiss eat. (Check out this McDonald's advertisement from the streets of Zurich for an idea of a classic difference between American and Swiss food--the cheese!)

In Switzerland, for a typical breakfast, we will have a buttery croissant with butter and preserves and hot chocolate; for lunch, we will have a crusty round of bread with hot wurst and mustard; and for dinner, we will dunk cubes of chewy white bread into a gooey fondue pot of melted gruyere and emmenthaler cheese.

I have so much more to write about the Swiss food I have been having here, but it may have to wait until I return to the States. I can't wait to catch up with all of you, and hope you are all doing well!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Honeymooning, Do Not Disturb (Just Kidding, Feel Free!)

Several big things will be happening here on Passionate Eater.

First, both my blog and I will be making the transition from New Orleans back to San Francisco. I am sure you are disappointed (as I was and am), but now that I am married, things are inevitably changing. I tried to convince the beau to move to New Orleans, but he has a stable job and other regional commitments, so I will be moving back to the Bay Area instead. However, we will continue to visit our New Orleans family and friends on a regular basis. The hurricane season disrupted my ability to try as many restaurants as I wanted to, so I need to go back to New Orleans often and eat like no tomorrow! (And take a look at the sunlight on these gorgeous New Orleans houses on the picture above!)

Second, I am leaving for my honeymoon in Europe in one day! During my honeymoon, I might drop by for a post and comment every now and then. Definitely expect to see a honeymoon recap here on the blog!

Before I take my honeymoon, I just want to share with you the story of how my Bay Area beau proposed:

Back in 2006, I was offered a position in New Orleans. The job in New Orleans was a once in a lifetime opportunity, for many reasons. I remember weighing the pros and cons with the beau, and one of those pros was living and interacting with "kind Southern gentlemen and ladies." The beau saw that "pro" as listed on the paper, and had a look of extreme dissatisfaction on his face. I think he just saw the "Southern gentlemen" part. However, he ultimately let me go.

About one month after I moved away, the beau surprised me with a round-trip plane ticket from New Orleans to Washington D.C. He greeted me at the airport with a limousine (huge surprise) with a dozen roses (1 red, 11 white, to say I was "one in a million") and had me chauffeured off to the Jefferson Memorial. Then, he bent down on one knee, and proposed on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. In front of people! In public! I guess you know what I said, since we got married a few months later.

Sigh, memories get me all teary-eyed. I will be making more memories this upcoming month. See you soon!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Master and Commander

In the early 90s, I remember watching Paul Prudhomme on his cooking show and an unknown Emeril Lagasse on Great Chefs. Both shows aired on my local P.B.S. station. It was through those shows that I first learned of
Commander's Palace in New Orleans, Louisiana--the very restaurant that launched the careers of Prudhomme and Lagasse, putting them on the national culinary map. I would never have imagined that I would one day have the privilege of dining at Commander's Palace, or that I would eventually live in New Orleans.

If you are unfamiliar with
Commander's Palace, I think I could say that it is arguably the "best" and most iconic restaurant of New Orleans. It has a rich culinary legacy that has been defined by time (the restaurant itself dates from the 1800s), its owners, and its classic location. Currently, the Brennan family dynasty owns Commander's Palace and a bevy of other upscale (and pricey) establishments in the New Orleans area, including Ralph Brennan's Bacco and Café Adelaide. You will arrive the illustrious Commander's Palace by following the tree-lined boulevards in New Orleans' wealthy Garden District, but the whimsical "bird" decorations and colors inside the restaurant will amuse you more than the gorgeous neighborhood surroundings.

The evening that we dined at
Commander's Palace, the beau started with the turtle soup au sherry. The turtle soup filled the air with a buttery and rich aroma, and was dense with soft pieces of the holy trinity (bell peppers, onions, and celery), tiny cubes of hard-boiled eggs, and chewy morsels of diced turtle meat. When our server brought out the shallow bowl of steaming soup, she drizzled cool sherry over the top of the soup. The beau eagerly swirled the sherry throughout his bowl, permitting the sherry to lend its tartness to warm brothy goodness.

I also selected soup as my starter. However, I instead opted for the gumbo du jour, which was made with a rich shrimp stock, chocolately dark roux, and other fresh regional ingredients. I found the gumbo to be thinner than the gumbo at Acme Oyster House and less substantial at Emeril's Nola, but it was slightly sweet and intensely flavorful, packed a bit of spicy heat, and contained large chunks of duck meat.

We eagerly used the glistening and buttery pieces of golden garlic dill bread to sop up all of the remaining soup left in the bowls.

For his main course, the beau ordered the deep-fried soft shell crab, which was injected with an acidic French-inspired ravigote sauce. The menu indicated the the crab was injected so that the crab would be "marinate[d] from the inside out." The crab was served with an amusing salad of scallions, petite herbs, grape tomatoes, and red onions in a spicy horseradish and grainy dijon mustard sauce, and a drizzling of liquified basil. The crab also came with mashed crab boiled vegetables, upon which the crab was served. The crab's deep-fried breaded coating was crunchy and perfectly contained the soft crabmeat flakes and shell.

I ordered "Commander's mixed grill," which came with a selection of meats finished with a housemade Worcestershire sauce. The meats included a hickory grilled tournedo of beef, rabbit tenderloin, and spicy lamb and rabbit sausages. The protein-heavy dish was served with mustard greens braised in New Orleans Abita beer, Creole smashed new potatoes, and a sweet and chunky huckleberry and cherry compote. I loved the tenderness of all of the meats, the different selection of proteins highlighted the distinctive gamey flavors of the lamb and the rabbit. Also, the contrasting sweetness of the compote and the savory flavors of the meat and greens really made an impact on my palate. Everything was cleverly prepared.

We ended our evening with a classic New Orleans dessert with a lot of fanfare, bananas foster, which was flambéed at our tableside. The server halved the bananas; cooked them in butter, brown sugar, Caribbean rum, banana liqueur; set the bananas ablaze; and poured the mixture over a rotund scoop of vanilla bean ice cream.

Check out the video of our bananas foster in action here:
I hope this post inspired you to visit New Orleans soon, and stop by Commander's Palace for a divine meal!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Therapeutic Cooking #1: Chicken and Mushrooms

Now that times are tough, I want to share with you an amazingly cost-effective (and therefore, therapeutic to your wallet) recipe: chicken and mushrooms.  And by "cost-effective," I mean "dirt cheap." Yes, that's pretty much all that there is, chicken, and mushrooms.  No frills, no nothing else.  But it tastes pretty good.

All you need to purchase is supermarket containers of regular white button mushrooms and cremini mushrooms (you know, the ones in styrofoam), four chicken thighs, and use items that you should already have in the fridge or pantry, such as milk, worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper.

First, place four chicken thighs (seasoned with salt), skin down, onto an unoiled skillet set on high heat. While the chicken thighs brown, use a moistened mushroom brush or paper towel and clean off the dirt from the mushrooms. When they are cleaned, slice them, checking on the progress of the chicken, and turning when brown. (You can actually overcook thighs, just make sure that the insides are no longer red.) Take the thighs out of the skillet, drain off all of the grease, and add 1/2 a chopped onion and 3 cloves of chopped garlic to the skillet, and fry until brown and translucent. Then, add the mushroom slices (I like to add the white mushrooms first, and cook them down a little), a splash of worcestershire sauce (~1 tbsp), and milk (preferably whole milk or cream, ~1/2 cup). You can even add ~1/4 cup of white wine, which is what I did here. Then, replace the thighs into the pan, and continue to heat until the mushrooms have cooked down and the chicken meat is cooked all the way through. Add salt to taste, pepper, and serve with rice or baked potatoes.

There you go! With just a few ingredients, you've got a really cheap, foolproof, and satisfying dinner. I would definitely classify something hearty, warming, simple, and as affordable as this, to be therapeutic. To me, at least.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

No Waffling Around

I am going to proclaim it from the mountaintops and vigorously pump my fists in satisfaction. I need to share the news, "I love homemade waffles!"

Don't be intimidated by waffle-making, there really isn't much complexity involved. See how ugly my waffles are? And yet they tasted delicious and exuded an air of magnificence. Best of all, anyone can make amazing waffles with a waffle iron, pancake mix, cooking oil, milk, and cooking spray, and the reward is a million-fold. I love the crispy surface, and moist, pocketed, and buttery interior of every waffle. And I absolutely adore the versatility of "the waffle."

Although I enjoyed these waffles simply (with each and every square cavity brimming with maple syrup) you can make waffles as elegant as you'd like. Thus, you could add chopped nuts, blueberries, mashed bananas, oats, or even wild rice into the batter, and top a finished waffle with mascerated berries, dessicated coconut flakes, whipped cream, crème fraîche, or a piece of freshly fried chicken. You could even drizzle balsamic vinegar over a waffle topped with a rotund scoop of vanilla ice cream!

Ah, I think I am in love.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Open Faced Question

Hi readers, all one of you (Mom, I am referring to you), I have a question to ask you. I have changed the format of my blog to feature larger images and have now placed a watermark on the images to protect against bad folks from reposting my images without linking to my site. However, I have noticed that the images sometimes take a while to load. Do you prefer large or small images? What do you think about the watermark? Thanks for chiming in and letting me know your thoughts. The poll below will end on October 20, 2008. (Oh, and I was going to use a picture of an open faced sandwich for this post, but I didn't find one, so here is blank white emptiness instead. Sorry.)

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Roasted Lemon Chicken Revisited

I am so grateful that the universe always manages to correct itself. If you are a reader from back in the day (and I mean, way back in the day), you will remember that I previously failed at making roasted lemon chicken. Pretty miserably.

Thankfully, Meathenge, a meat blogging genius, just happened to chance upon my "failure post" and left a comment, giving me some helpful advice on how to correct my mistakes. Based on his sage suggestions, I was able to remedy my chicken disaster, and since that moment onward, I have made delicious roasted chicken and never looked back. Today, I would love to share the wealth of his great information, especially since I just made roasted chicken yesterday. There are several steps for how to make a great roast chicken.

~ First, preheat your oven to 450 degrees (at 450 degrees, you will cook the chicken for 1 hr; but according to other food blogs, you can also cook the chicken for 1 hr 30 mins at 425 degrees, or 1 hr and 30 minutes at 400 degrees for a chicken that is 3 lbs or less).
~ Next, remove the inner giblets, clumps of excess fat hanging from the meat, and feather remnants. Wash, and thoroughly dry the outside and insides of a whole chicken, using as many paper towels as necessary.
~ Third, liberally season the outside and inside of the chicken with salt and pepper. Here, I used a bit of lemon zest, pepper, and garlic salt, and moistened the chicken skin with a little bit of cooking oil.
~ Fourth, place the chicken in a roasting pan on a v-rack or another elevating rack, so that the chicken does not touch the surface of the roasting pan. At this stage, I placed three quartered (or halved) lemons and a bay leaf (really, broken pieces of many bay leaves) into the chicken cavity.
~ Fifth, tuck the chicken wings underneath the body of the chicken, so that the wing tips do not scorch, and tie the chicken drumsticks together with kitchen twine, enclosing the chicken cavity. I did not have any kitchen string, so I omitted the step.
~ Sixth, roast the chicken in the oven for 1 hour, or until the juices of the chicken run clear when punctured with a sharp paring knife. Finally, remove the chicken from the oven, cover the chicken with a foil tent, and let it rest for 10 to 20 minutes, so that the chicken retains its delicious juices.

And the roasted chicken? Well, it turned out perfectly! With a paper thin, translucent, golden brown, and crispy skin. Also, in the meantime, I was able to make mashed potatoes with that 1 full hour on my hands.

For mashed potatoes, I peeled and cubed 5 large russet potatoes, and boiled them in salted water until fork tender. Then, I drained the water, and ran the potatoes through a ricer. I added about 2 tbsp of butter and 1/2 cup of whole milk, and salt to taste. Then, I smashed the riced mixture with a potato masher. When the chicken came out of the oven, I then decided to take a ride on the gravy train. Thus, I mixed about 1 tbsp of cornstarch with 1/4 cup of cold water, until there were no lumps, set the roasting pan on two burners, at a low heat, and used a wooden spoon to mix the cornstarch slurry into the drippings remaining in the roasting pan. When the sauce thickened, I had gravy! (Let me warn you though, the gravy will be a little sour from the lemon juice that seeped out during the roasting process.)

See how easy it is to have a great and affordable dinner on the table in less than 2 hours, with very minimal labor?

I hope that you have learned from my kitchen failure. We all make mistakes when cooking, but that leaves many more opportunities for the successes! Good luck, and keep on cooking!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Broke-@$$ Oktoberfest Lunch

When I was growing up, my dad often made me sauerkraut and sausage for lunch. I remember that I would wait until my bread got soggy with all of the juices from the sauerkraut, and I would use my fork to cut my sausage (or hot dogs) into small pieces, so that I could enjoy a bite of sausage with every mouthful of sauerkraut. I knew, even as a little girl, that there was something special about the combination of the two: sausage and sauerkraut, like the yin and the yang, like Cagney and Lacey--inseparable, and necessary with the other. Somehow, the tart, mouthpuckering sauerkraut was meant to be paired with the salty sausage meat.

The other day, I received an email about Oktoberfest, and I suddenly remembered my favorite afternoon meal. I am sure that no person of German descent or any other Oktoberfest participant would lend any credibility to my recipe, thus the "broke-@$$" qualifier. Furthermore, presentation-wise, it doesn't look spectacular. However, it is packed with flavor, and will be worthwhile to make, I promise. Best of all, this dish is very affordable (I would venture as far to say that it was "cheap"), and therefore, a meal that is easy on the pockets during these tough financial times.

Sauerkraut and Sausage
1 pkg polish kielbasa, cut into individual-sized portions, or smoked sausage links
1 can of sauerkraut
1/2 red onion, chopped finely
1/4 bottle of beer (drink the rest, while cooking)
1 tbsp cooking oil
1 tsp brown sugar

Heat the oil in a pan on high heat until the oil begins to shimmer. Add the finely chopped red onion and cook until the onion pieces have wilted and begin slightly brown at the edges. Add the brown sugar and beer, and let the pan's contents simmer and reduce for a few minutes. Then, add the sausage to the pan, quickly turning the links so that they are cooked evenly. Finally, add the sauerkraut, cover the pan, lower the heat, and cook until everything is heated through. Serve with hot dog buns or toasted slices of dark rye bread and grainy mustard.

Oh, and as a side note, when I cut into the red onion in the picture below, I discovered that it was rotten in the middle so I used a white onion instead. Therefore, for a bit of additional color, I added some chopped scallions at the end. As you can see, my preparation was really broke-@$$!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Wham, Bam, Ala-Kazam at Emeril's Nola

When I moved to the City of New Orleans, I had my my first upscale dining experience at Emeril's Nola Restaurant. I remember that day quite vividly. After securing a last minute reservation online, the beau frantically rummaged through his luggage to find clothes appropriate for an elegant dining establishment. He wanted to treat me out to a memorable meal the day before he was going to return back to the Bay Area. We excitedly threw together a strange ensemble of clothing with the "touristy" and summery outfits in our baggage, and drove to the French Quarter from our hotel on Saint Charles Avenue, to sample the food prepared by the Food Network star.

We felt a little out of place upon arrival because of our clothing, but were immediately welcomed with a freshly baked basket of Emeril Lagasse's famous scallion cornbread muffins.

After reading the mouthwatering menu selections, the beau and I decided to start with the pan-roasted crab cake. The crab cake had a crispy and evenly browned exterior and was topped with a delicate dollop of smoky eggplant puree and crinkly leaves of fried spinach. The crab patty was served on a plate scattered with substantial crumbles feta cheese and pitted kalamata olives, and placed in a pool liquefied citrus butter. The classically flavored crab cake was moist and bound together well with fine bread crumbs and New Orleans seasonings. I thought the crab cake itself was delicious and had a relatively good crab meat to breadcrumb filler ratio. However, while I love kalamata olives and feta cheese, I found them to be too salty and a tad overwhelming in comparison with the delicate crab cake and citrus butter flavors.

The beau and I each had a bowl of Emeril's gumbo. I know I will make many enemies by saying this, but after having (and loving) the thick okra or file-enriched gumbos at Mother's and Acme Oyster House, I noticed that the gumbo was more watery than I had envisioned. However, the penetrating flavors of the spicy gumbo were deep, earthy and left a fiery, burning sensation in the back of my throat. I also loved the simple touch of how the chocolate-colored gumbo was served, ladled into a shallow bowl and topped with chopped green scallions.

For the main course, I ordered the hickory-roasted duck with whiskey-caramel glaze, natural jus, buttermilk cornbread pudding, haricot verts, fire roasted corn salad, and candied pecans. The haricot verts were blanched perfectly, so that they retained their verdant color and vibrant "fresh produce" crunch. I loved the chilled, sweet corn kernels, the sugary candied walnuts, and the moist bed of cornbread stuffing. However, I found that the dry, jerky-like duck meat to be over-saturated with the strong flavors of hickory smoke, and the glaze and the jus had concentrated unappetizingly into a salty syrup.

The beau ordered grilled pork porterhouse with brown sugar glazed sweet potatoes, toasted pecans, and a caramelized onion reduction sauce. It definitely had similar taste and textural elements as my duck entree, but without the same shortcomings. The pork was tender and juicy, and the slippery slices of sweet potatoes tasted like a Thanksgiving feast with the pecans and oniony gravy.

I was originally going to name this post "No Love for Emeril's Nola," but after reminiscing, I realize that there was a lot to appreciate in bold, experimental flavors in each dish. While I felt a little overwhelmed to an extent by the salt and sugar used in each entree, my tastebuds have a lot to learn from the master. Bam!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Art of Dissecting a Vanilla Bean: Scraping 'Nilla Bottom

I am sure that the dire financial situation faced by the nation and felt by all of us is on everyone's minds right now. Just remember, even when you are "scraping rock bottom," there is always something to look forward to--such as an amazing dessert. Many great desserts are made with vanilla flavoring. Here are some instructions on how to remove the seeds from the vanilla pod, to capture the most concentrated form of the vanilla essence.

Use a small paring knife to score open the bean. Follow the length of the bean, using the fibers to guide you down the wrinkled, elongated raisin-textured pod. After you split open the bean, use the back of the paring knife to scrape the moist crumbles of earthy vanilla seeds out of the tough vanilla skin. Then, use the seeds to flavor cakes, baked goods, candies, and more.

The soothing flavors of vanilla bean are the perfect for vanilla ice cream. Click here for a recipe that I recently used to make a vanilla ice cream.

I hope the pictures and the link inspired you to get cooking. Keep your hopes up, we will get through this rough financial patch together.
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