Monday, December 13, 2010

When Life Gives You Lemons… Make Lemon Curd

I am quite spoiled—in the lemon department. 

Shortly after moving to our house 15 some years ago, my family went on a day trip to Home Depot to look for plants for the front and back yard. My mom chose roses in all sorts of colors; my dad got the standard shrubbery; my little brother didn't care as he could barely even walk; and I, a lemon sapling. This could have very been a forecast of what's to come in my future!

In just a few years, the sapling grew from the top of my navel to taller than our house, producing an endless supply of lemons. We used them for lemonade, lemon coke, preserved lemons—nothing beats walking just a few yards for the fresh stuff. 

It wasn't till recently that I ventured out the beverage arena to give lemon curd a try. Armed with a recipe from Martha Stewart's Everyday Food, I went and picked out 2 plump specimens and got to work.

In a medium saucepan, I whisked together 1 cup sugar, 1 TB lemon zest and 8 egg yolks. Next I mixed in 2/3 cup fresh lemon juice (about 1 1/2 lemons) and 1/4 tsp salt. 

Once all the ingredients are well incorporated, I set the pan over medium-high heat and added in 10 TB unsalted butter, which equals to 1 1/4 sticks. I whisked constantly as lemon scent scrambled eggs wasn't my goal! 

In a few minutes, it was thick enough to coat a the back of a spoon. Strained and cooled in the fridge for a few hours, I had 2 cups of the lip-puckering compound.

Lacking foresight however, I did not prepare anything to serve the curd with… fail. 

After a mad scrambled, I found a box of Trader Joe's Vanilla Meringues, the hero of the day. With a generous smear of the lemon curd in between the airy cookies, I had myself a deconstructed lemon meringue pie! It works especially well as the cookies by themselves were too sweet for my taste so the lemon curd was instrumental in balancing the saccharine meringues. 

Love the classy ridges on the meringues. Makes me want to ask, "oh you fancy huh?" 

Hope you give it a try!

House of An's Noodle Off: How to Win People's Choice

My heart was beating so fast I was sure the crowd could hear it through the microphone, which was handed to me just a second ago after  the host announced my name. After a never-ending second of terror, I began to speak… 

The day was November 22, 2010. An ordinary Monday that started out as bland as it can be which included a long day at work. 

However, instead of driving home at the end of the day, I braved the traffic instead to Tiato to cook for over 100 people and to be on Fox News. How did I find myself in this situation? 

2 weeks ago, I entered a cooking competition on a nondescript Sunday. The An family had created the Noodle-Off to celebrate the prodigious Crustacean's 30th anniversary and the opening of their newest venture, Tiato and I got the heads up through a friend. 

Using the flavors of my childhood, specifically a beloved dish by my grandma, I overhauled the ubiquitous Italian Bolognese to create my own version. Gone were the tomato base and in its place, sour plum and dried tangerine peel worked their magic. Pancetta was out, replaced by Chinese Yunnan ham. I'll stop now before divulging all my secrets ;)

A couple of days later, I got the fateful phone call from the organizers and here I was, introducing myself and explaining my inspiration for the Asian Bolognese in front of a panel of judges, which included a better part of the famous An family (including the creator of the trademarked garlic noodles!), industry professionals and a full house. Oh yeah, Jane Yamamoto was there with her crew too. 

Although I am deathly afraid of public speaking—definitely lost a lot of sleep over anticipating that portion of the evening and have the under eye circles to prove it, it was an amazing experience that taught me much about competing and how to present oneself. Here's a list of Do's and Don'ts:

1. Do not wear black when appearing on TV. See example.

2. Separate yourself from your competition using your strengths. In my case, I took advantage of my design background to amp up my table.

3. If you have a difficult name, use a prop to help others remember you. In my case, I used a cup of tea, which doubled up as my beverage of the night. Double win.

4. Cook more than you need to for less trips to the kitchen. I was able to win over more attendees by serving still while other competitors were running back and forth because they ran out of food.

5. Leave behind works! I made little flags to hand out to everyone (even and especially the judges) so they will remember my dish. Muahaahah. 

6. Keep your answers short and sweet. Newscasters are under strict time restraints and will not hesitate to cut you off. 

7. Taste, taste and taste your food! Chef Helena told me afterwards that the reason she docked off points was because I overdid it with the sesame oil. DANG. 

7. Stop stressing and just have fun! 

Ultimately, the veteran competitor won. A retired administrator, she now competes full-time and have been cleaning house at various cooking competitions, including the Panini-Off early this year. 

But. I didn't go home empty handed! Yours truly won People's Choice, which was a $200 gift certificate to Crustacean—no too shabby eh? 

Photos courtesy of my friends and boss. Thank you for documenting the event as it went by in a blur for me! 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Fresheast : Be Kind to Yourself

Although I adore Chinese food, I'm quite wary of going to Chinese restaurants *Note: in America*. Partly because my parents dragged me along to way too many as a kid and I feel as though I've fill my lifetime quota. But mostly, I'm not too fond of the queasiness I am left with after a meal. The copious amount of oil and MSG within each dish just wreaks havoc to my stomach. 

So, when Ravine, the owner of Fresheast, invited me for a meal at his newly opened restaurant, I was cautious. 

But I did some research and learned that Fresheast wasn't a Chinese restaurant, but rather an eatery dedicated to sustainable ingredients and showcased flavors from Asia. Interesting.

I called up my friend and off we went to explore Fresheast. Tucked away in an unsuspecting plaza with Pavilions and a Chase bank in Weho, the restaurant is easily overlooked with the exception of day-glo green vinyl patterning on their windows.

The interior houses an eclectic mix of modern furnishings and traditional decorations tied together by the theme of sustainability. There were recycled chairs made out of coke bottles, reclaimed wood floors, Japanese wood screens and vintage bird cages—interior-wise, they certainly do as they preach.

However, we're there for the food so we ordered a few of their offerings. The menu was easily navigable with your choice of protein and sides as well as a few specialties (a burger even!).

For drinks, we tried the melonade, a refreshing blend of watermelon, lemon and palm sugar, which can be liken to a milder aqua fresca, and the Fresheast juice. The latter was the standout star, which startles at first with beets and kale, but then finishes on a sweet note with orange and apple. 

The Shanghai beef with brown rice and stir fried veggies came out first. The flavors was spot on for the beef, but the Harris Ranch grass fed beef unfortunately didn't have enough fat so it was too tough for my taste. I quickly abandoned it for the veggies, as they were crisp and had a kick coming from an abundance of grated ginger.

The grilled miso jidori chicken was my favorite. Perfectly grilled and lacquered with a no-too sweet miso glaze, it was a great pair with the quinoa. My friend and I fought over for the last piece! 

By then, we were both full, but we couldn't resist ordering their sorbet of the day: comice pear. Unbelievably creamy, yet made without dairy (impossible!!) and full of pear goodness, it was a great end to a tasty meal.

Best part? As we walked out, I was not overcome with the urge to go to the ladies room or the need to sit through a food coma. Rather, I felt uncharacteristically good and filled with energy. Even though we were off to watch Tangled, I was ready to run or lift something. Crazy huh? 

On that basis alone, I'll be back to Fresheast. I mean, of course it's a noble cause to support their goals of being sustainable and socially responsible—even their plates were made of recycled palm leaves. But it's rare to find a restaurant that's able to produce healthy dishes that actually taste good as well. Kudos!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Green Dinner: an Homage to Munchies

Last month, I had the most expensive dinner to date. And what  an experience of a lifetime it was. This month marks the most interesting dinner party I've had the opportunity to cook for. 

This past Sunday, I was given carte blanche by a friend and fellow foodie to create the menu for his latest dinner party. The challenge? It was in 2 days and I was to include Cannabis Indica infused oil and butter within the courses served. 

Not one to shy away from a challenge, I accepted. Never mind that I've never cooked with the substance and the only experience I've had with it was a lone bite of brownie, the opportunity was too fun and risque to pass up. Did I mention there was a Thermador 48-inch range put into play? 

So, taking inspiration from all the TV shows (aka That 70's Show) that referenced the illicit substance, I based my menu on the foods one would want to consume after smoking. 

With the help of the attendants, we set out to revamp classic munchies. The first course takes on cheetos and other crunchy snacks with Poutine. Using ground pork and finely diced veggies, we made it into a spicy Japanese curry that was ladled over fries scented with Indica oil. To finish it off, we shaved aged white cheddar over and sprinkled on chives. Frysmith ain't got nothing on this!

For the 2nd course, I wanted to pay homage to Chipotle so we made a pan seared flap steak, served on top of quinoa seasoned Chipotle-styled with a squeeze of lime, cilantro, garlic and green onions. To round it off, a healthy heap of sauteed snow peas with garlic and bacon. The sauce was an infused Chimichurri.

After the heavy steak, a palate cleanser was sorely needed. To the rescue was a ginger pear granita served with a Cavas shot and elderflower. Taking a breather, there was no addition of green for this. 

For the last course, I took on the ultimate cliche—the special brownie. The host has made little special bundt brownies earlier so I warmed them up and paired it with a bacon peanut butter caramel with the addition of the infuse cream, banana foster ice cream and more bacon. I dubbed it The Elvis.

The setbacks though of having a non-Cannabis enthusiast cook a green-theme dinner is that I had no idea on the correct portions. I don't think any of the attendants felt the effects, which made for an ineffective dinner in that regards. However, food and flavor wise, I was very happy with the turnout and am already thinking of the theme for the next underground dinner party…

Fry party anyone?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Noodle-Off Next Monday, Nov. 22: Let Me Feed You!

Beat the usual Monday blues by checking out Tiato Santa Monica from 8-10p next Monday for a Noodle-Off! 

I, along with 3 other finalists, will be cooking and serving up our entry dishes for House of An's first ever cooking competition! There'll be free food galore as we're told to create 70-100 portions and I'd personally rather serve friends than strangers. 

To give you a little sneak peak, I'll be serving up an Italian classic with a twist—the Asian Bolognese. Taking inspiration from the ubiquitous family dish, I gave it an update using lesser known gems—such as dried tangerine peel, Jinhua Ham (the Virginia ham of Chinese cooking) and picked plum. 

What's in play? The grand prize is:

• $1000 gift certificate to any House of An Restaurant in SoCal (I'm gunning for Crustacean Beverly Hills!)
• Recipe added to House of An Restaurants' menus
• Noodle-Off championship bowl by Jonathan Adler

Also, there's also a People's Choice award! Every attendee are given a ballot during the finals to vote for their favorite dish. The person with the most votes will get a $300 gift card to any House of An Restaurant!

So, please come on by, say hi, enjoy some tasty noodle dishes and vote for me (that is, if you like my dish)! It'll be nice to see some familiar faces in the crowd and have some cheerleaders as the thought of having to appear on the nightly news is terrifying to say the least. Eeee. 

Bring your friends and hope to see you there! 

More info:

The Noodle-Off Event Finals will showcase the top four (4) finalists and the Semi-Finals winner with the best Noodle recipes from all the collective submissions. The Noodle-Off Championship will be held at Tiato Garden Market Café located at 2700 Colorado Avenue, Santa Monica, 90404 at 8:00 - 10:00 PM. Finalists will be asked to attend the event where they will prepare their dish LIVE in front of the attending crowd and panel of judges. Finalists should be comfortable with having the media present at the event Finals and speaking to attending press, as the event will be covered by Fox 11 and Jane Yamamoto.

The Noodle-Off Championship panel of judges include:

• Helene An, House of An Executive Chef
• Elizabeth An, CEO of House of An
• Carole Dixon, NBC’s Feast LA
• Krista Simmons, Los Angeles Times “Brand X”
• Mar Yvette, CitySearch Los Angeles
• Lesley Bargar Suter, Los Angeles Magazine
• Jeff Miller, Thrillist Los Angeles

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Scarpetta: Trying Truffles and Being Served in the Best Seat of the House

It started out like any other Monday with an uneventful day at work. But when 5:30p came along, it was time for some serious fooding so I hopped in my car and sped (more like crawl) along Wilshire to get to the grand opening of Scarpetta, the newest venture of chef Scott Conant. 

The funny thing though was I had no idea what I was in store for—certainly not a grand night filled with truffles.  

You see, my research of Scarpetta was comprised solely of an 1 minute search on google, to which I made the assumption that it was a casual Italian restaurant. Since I've been craving a solid bowl of pasta and was extended an invite by KevinEats, it was on. 

It wasn't till I arrived on site that I knew I was in store for something more than a simple bowl of pasta.

Located in the grand Montage hotel, Scarpetta is a cavernous space dedicated to soulful Italian cooking. Upon being seated with my dining companions, servers brought out a myriad of breads and accompaniments. 

But before we could partake, it was time to order. The table decided upon an off-menu tasting and a minute later, I found myself and the rest of the table being ushered to the best seats in the house, located at the kitchen's bar in the midst of all the action.

After that, food and wine started parading in and I felt like Alice in Wonder(food)land.

After settling, the servers arrived again with another bread basket, filled with hearty salumi stromboli and herbed focaccia. Although they provided lovely sides of fruity olive oil, mascarpone butter and eggplant caponata, the flavorful breads stood well on their own.

The amuse came soon after, a miniature pot of olives all'Ascolana: olives stuffed with a mixture of beef, breaded and deep fried. Can't go wrong with that.

1. Hamachi crudo and tuna Susci

Speaking not as a fan of raw fish, I quite enjoyed the simple slice of yellowtail sprinkled simply with crunchy grains smoked of smoked salt. The tuna "roll" was decidedly more complex with diced carrots and sprouts, which was then layered generously with black truffles.

Used to the blunt taste of truffle oil and salt but never the real deal before, the ethereal taste of the truffle surprised me.  

2. Pumpkin soup with black truffles, faro and crispy pepitas

This next dish also featured truffles—there seems to be a theme going on here… Truffles aside, I adore the use of the entire pumpkin, from the tender cubes of pumpkin, its pureed form and its seeds. It was like eating a savory pumpkin pie.

3. Autumn vegetable salad with roasted root vegetables, black trumpet mushrooms stewed in liquified foie and roasted hazelnuts

Another aptly prepared *semi* vegetarian dish. It's a successful dish when you don't even miss the meat. 

4. Sea scallop with sunchoke puree, porcini mushrooms and black truffles

A wonderfully prepared specimen, but unfortunately marred by over salting. 

At this point, the sommelier walked by our table and places his version of the Margarita (made with Pimm's!) in front of each of us.  While I thought it was compliments of the house, upon receiving the check at the end of the night, it turned out to be a part of a $110 wine pairing. Ouch. The worst part is that I didn't order it because I don't drink.

5. Polenta with white truffles and assorted mushrooms

Arriving at our table modestly with a ceramic cover, this was anything but when unveiled. Heady aroma from the white truffle overwhelmed the senses—black truffles ain't got nothing on this! The impossibly creamy polenta served as the vessel for the bouquet of fungi. A show stopper.

At this point, my stomach was nearing full capacity, so for the subsequent courses, I started packing them in boxes. By the end of the night, I had filled a shopping bag!

6. Spaghetti 

Sounds simple—and it is—but perfectly executed. Springy noodles with a distinctive richness from egg yolks, aromatic basil and sweetly stewed tomato sauce, this was what I have been craving for. I would have been happy just having a big bowl of it to myself. 

We were given a glass of aged 10 years old Brunello to pair with the pasta. Still under the belief of it being on the house (yes, I should have known better), I passed it along to my sitting partner. Ah, the beauty of miscommunication!

7. Ravioli with chestnuts and short rib

Chestnuts being one of my favorite foods, I greatly enjoyed the pairing of it with the savory beef. No complaints here. 

This was paired with another red wine, which I declined to the puzzlement of Mark, the sommelier. He persuaded me to at least try some, which I don't have much to say other than it tasted like wine? Sorry Mark!

8. Roasted duck breast with parsnips 2 ways, raisin mortarda and lentils puree

All I got to say is that duck with raisins = genius. 

Accepted a sip of the Barolo as Mark insisted. Yep, my brain still hasn't made the connection… 

9. Beef loin with porcini, parmesan, baby potatoes, barolo reduction and white truffles

Didn't get the logic of this dish as the beef and shaved parmesan overwhelmed the delicate truffles, which should be the star in my opinion. Wish they prepared it simply with a potato puree or a poached egg so I could get all the subtle nuances of the truffle.

The dish was served with the 2003 Bibi Graetz. From my sip, I thought it was the most robust tasting of the bunch. The watercolor label was very handsome.

10. Cheese course

• Parmigiano-Reggiano with aged balsamic: nutty 
• La Tur with pineapple chutney: funky in a good way
• Caveman Blue with sour cherries: funky in a bad way
• Pecorino Fresco with apple mostarda: a more savory brie-like cheese and my favorite of the group

The cheeses were served with savory biscotti and a 5 yr old oaky Madeira.

11. Rum soaked cake with roasted pineapples and vanilla flan with marsala soaked berries

Light and refreshing. It's a wonder how there's always room for dessert :)

The pairing for this was a Rose wine that even I had to partake for it tasted like a Shirley Temple for adults!

12. Amaretto flan with marsala zabaglione gelato

I'm not a big fan of chocolate desserts as I find them to be rather heavy, but this was absolutely wonderful from the crunch of the amaretto cookie crumbs, to the light yet flavorful creamy flan and the not-too-sweet gelato.

Was riding the sugar sweet high of dinner and dessert till the check came in. Turns out the off-menu tasting were $250 per person and $110 wine pairing—a bit of a sticker shock to say the least. Lessons learned? 

1. Ask for prices for assumptions are deadly. In this case, it leads to unwanted wine pairings.
2. Know your dining companion's eating style. The night could have been a complete 180 with a different group—know what you're getting yourself into.
3. Truffles are $$$, white truffles are $$$$$.
4. The ease of spending verses earning. 

Despite the dreaded thought of the credit card bill next month and having to eat in for the rest of the year (and then some), I wouldn't trade this experience for anything. 

I mean, how often can I say I was one of the first diners to eat at Scarpetta's kitchen on opening night? Or having Chef Scott Conant personally serve me? Or going from being a truffle virgin to being around the truffle block several times over? Or (sssshhh) swiping fresh herbs from their centerpiece for my soup? Or perhaps going down in Scarpetta's hall of records as the one who didn't drink the wines from a wine pairing like an eccentric baller? And my favorite, asking for fashion tips from Mark, the sommelier? Check out his beautiful tie! 

An unforgettable night on all levels. 
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