Thursday, November 10, 2011

Gastrophoria 2.0 : New Home!

I've got something tasty to share with you all—Gastrophoria has a new home at!

Just like a hermit crab, I've shed my old home (it was a good run dear Blogspot) and designed a new one entirely from scratch. Powered by Wordpress, it's now better, stronger and tastier!

Some of the improvements include bigger photos, better organization with the site split into five sections:

1. A Spot of Tsz: self musings
2. Fooding Guide: must-share restaurant finds
3. Gastro-Remix: kitchen experiments
4. Nuanced Pig: shrine to bacon and its porky counterparts
5. Project Sweet Tooth: all about desserts and my dream trip to Paris

So, don't hesitate and visit me at! Bon appetit!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Dolce Gelato : Green Gold Rush

I've struck green gold. Tasty pistachio gold.

There's a little trade secret amongst gelato connoisseurs to gauge the caliber of gelato shops and that's by the quality of the shop's pistachio flavor. The reason is that pistachio is one of the most expensive flavoring and hardest flavor to get right, making it the perfect benchmark. 

There are two ways for a shop to create this flavor. The artisanal (arguably the right and only way) is to grind toasted pistachio into pistachio butter or use pre-made pistachio butter in their gelato base. The second method is to skimp on using actual pistachios, opting instead to cut it with cheaper alternatives such as almond butter or worse yet, solely employ artificial flavors and colors. Unfortunately, this happens more often than not. A telltale sign of an interior pistachio gelato is that unnatural pastel green you can find in subpar shops and an overly sweet, marzipan flavor. 

However, when it's done correctly, the result is sublime. A wonderfully creamy experience with a subtle sweetness and nuttiness that you can't get with any other flavor—a little slice of heaven in a cup or cone. If you can't tell, I'm a little obsessed with pistachio gelato!

Yesterday, after a fail grunion run at Laguna Beach, I was in need of a serious pick-me-up. Fortunately, my friend and fellow gelato enthusiast (so much so that he used to own his own shop!) recommended Dolce Gelato, a little shop off the beaten path. 

While I trust his taste, I had some reservations after seeing the shop's signage. Being a graphic designer, I must admit I judge many a place by their appearances and the usage of the font Curlz doesn't exactly convey an unforgettable gelato experience to me. 

Fortunately, it's the insides that matter and their gelato was exactly that. Dolce offers a rotating roster of 24 flavors, most of which are classics, (such as vanilla bean, coffee and chocolate) and some are more adventurous with Margarita, brown butter (amazing!) and habanero chocolate. All are made daily in house.

My friend orders the PB and chocolate chip at once. As for me, being highly intolerant to lactose, I arranged for a tasting of all 24 flavors. As proof, here are all my spoons! While all their flavors were top notch, there were 3 that were extraordinary: 

The first was of course pistachio. Creamy, full-bodied, yet delicate at the same time, it was one of the best specimens of pistachio gelato I've ever eaten. The secret (not-so secret now) to Dolce's recipe is that they use 50% California pistachios for the creaminess and 50% Sicilian pistachios for their intense flavor. 

Second flavor is their non-dairy chocolate, mostly because I couldn't tell it was non-dairy! They were able to get the richness by using quality dark chocolate, rum for the extra kick and bananas to get the creaminess just right.

Third flavor is banana cream as it was just like eating banana pudding. By using a ratio of unripe bananas and ripen bananas, they were able to get spot on with the desired texture and peak flavor. 

My friend and I left with our spirits renewed and stomachs fully satisfied. The only critique I have is they should have opened in Los Angeles instead, preferably next door to where I live ;) 

247 Broadway Street
Laguna Beach, CA 92651

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Ruxbin : Rethinking Chicago Cuisine

I half-dreaded visiting Chicago. 

My first trip happened years ago when I met my arch nemesis: snow. While pretty to look at for a few minutes, I subsequently spent the next few hours shivering in a fetal position under covers in full winter regalia and with the hotel heater at full blast. Needless to say, I was not made for the cold. 

Also, Chicago cuisine is not my cup of tea. Deep dish pizza, Chicago hot dog and popcorn was not something to write home about. So, when my friend invited me to the NRA (not the gun-totting kind), National Restaurant Association Convention, I was weighing the cons and pros for a few days.

Fortunately, my curiosity won out and I am so glad it did because this trip changed my perception of Chi-town's foodscape. Of course, I made it a point to avoid all tourist traps, so no Yelp and instead, I only consulted friends with a strong penchant for eating well.

One such recommendation was Ruxbin. It's an almost brand spankin' new restaurant near Wicker Park that's creating a buzz in the community for its renditions of American comfort food fused with Korean flavors—and doing it well. Not to mention it is a dream project of the brother-sister duo of Ed (formerly of Per Se) and Vicki Kim (USC alumna, a fellow Trojan literally—my friend was in the same student organization with her!). With a story like that, how can I not visit? 

So after a red eye flight and a full day of work and exploring, we made our way to Ashland. In an unassuming building on a sketchier block, Ruxbin was quite a sight to behold in all its reclaimed and steampunk glory. What was not good though was that it was already a full house when it was only 6 pm.  

My fears were confirmed when we were turned away as there was a 2+ hour waitlist, merde! Fortunately, the hostess (who was actually Vicki herself as I later learned 2 courses down the road) sensed that we were travel weary and agreed to seat us upstairs in the communal wine table for appetizers—let the feasting begin! 

First up, bread service. Instead of the usual bread and butter routine, we were treated to a fluffy bowl of popcorn treated with toasted seaweed. So addicting that we scarfed down three bowls of this within minutes of getting situated.

It was a good thing the garlic fries soon arrived as we would packed away their entire popcorn supply! Thinly cut, expertly fried and sprinkled with just enough garlic, these fries made for a top class appetizer, especially when dipped (and doubled dipped) in their housemade smoky chipotle aioli.

We also ordered the Ruxbin's Croque Monsieur. Normally it's leaden with cheese and quite deadly, but this rendition was given major lippo and makeover with the use of fresh tomatoes, olive tapenade and a sprinkling of herbs. 

For libations, we let our server (who was also the in house mixologist) take care of us. His special of the night was a homemade ginger soda with lemongrass, cucumber and Thai chili. It started out refreshing and cool and slowly grew spicier as the meal progressed. Lovely!

By then, a table opened up and we were ushered downstairs. It was a feast for the eyes being fully immersed in the dining room. With Vicki as our guide, she pointed out the reclaimed elements, which was basically every piece in the room! Here are some highlights: the glass wall was  salvaged from a DJ booth, the lights made from old chandeliers and school chairs, seats created from old Eames chairs and seatbelts and the ceiling were decoupage with vintage cookbook pages. 

Finally, our mains arrived. Mussels bathed in a savory mixture of sake, tomatoes, orange and fennel was textbook good, but the hanger steak stole the show. 

The humble cut of beef was elevated to prima dona status as it was perfectly grilled and adorned with a single caramelized yolk (made by poaching it in a solution of melted sugar and fat). When pierced, the yolk coated the slices of steak luxuriously… I am salivating just thinking about it. And it only gets better from there with the strong support cast of crispy kale and kimchi fried potatoes. It was hands down the best dish from the trip. 

By then, we were ready to throw in the towel but Vicki encouraged us all to push through by sending out desserts. The first was a refreshing lime panna cotta with lychee and toasted coconut, almost like a pina colada! 

The other was a grown up strawberry shortcake, was macerated berries, chantilly creme, crispy biscuit and a balsamic drizzle. The only regret I had was wishing I didn't eat as much during the meal so I could have enjoyed it more fully.

My friends and I stumbled back the car afterwards fully sated and with grins all around. We were definitely in a state of gastrophoria ;) 

I couldn't have asked for a better first night in Chicago. Thank you Vicki for taking care of us and showing me Chi-town is so much more than deep dish pizza! 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Tortellini Tikka Masala : Gastro-remix Inspired by hitRECord

I'm probably one of the biggest procrastinators out there. Just sit me in front of a computer (with internet access) and I'll be happily occupied for days if not forever. 

It always starts innocently enough, with a quick log-in to gmail to check messages (estimated time: 5 minutes)—you know, just a quick in-and-out maintenance. 

Fast forward to 2 hours later and I'm furiously trying to figure out the typeface to a Logan Walters' redesign of Wu-Tang Clan album. Productive night fail.

Once in a blue moon, procrastination can produce some fruitful results, such as creating a new recipe for tortellinis. 

Strangely enough, it started with watching an interview with Joseph Gordon Levitt on Team Coco's website after being stuck staring at a plate of uncooked tortellinis and deciding to take a break. Mesmerized with the plain red button that JGL was wearing, it led me on a google search. Turns out it is the logo for his production company, hitRECord… interesting.

After a quick stroll through the site and finding out it's for artists collaborations, I then sign up and proceeded to spend the next hour checking out projects—this one is a goodie (To warn you, clicking on the link may lead to your own procrastination odyssey!) 

While I was going through all the remixes on JGL's site, it clicked. Tortellinis doesn't have to be prepared with a classic Italian sauce and accompaniments, why not take a page from hitRECord and remix it with a different cuisine? After all, I often wish I could pair sauces from one restaurant with main courses of a another.

With that way of thinking, everything fell in place. Three-cheese trifecta tortellinis on a play date of a lifetime with the spicy and sassy tikka masala—tastes like a Vespa ride on the set of a Bollywood feature or JBL's mismatched Badtz Maru socks. Ok, definitely not that, but you get the idea. 

Give it spin and let me know what you think!

Tortellini Tikka Masala
Serves 6

1 package Barilla Three Cheese Tortellini

Tikka Masala
2 tb canola oil
1 small onion, diced (around 1 1/2 cups)
2 tsp ginger, minced 
2 gloves garlic, minced
1 pinch pepper flakes (or to taste)
2 tsp garam masala (or curry powder if you can't find it)
1 tsp paprika 
1 tsp cumin
1 jar Classico marinara pasta sauce (any brand is fine)
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped

1/4 cup silvered almonds, toasted
1 tb lemon zest
Cilantro sprigs
Olive oil

1. Prepare the tortellinis according to package directions. It should take around the same amount of time as the sauce.

2. Heat a medium saucepan over medium heat, add oil, onion, ginger and garlic and cook until the onions essentially melt. Around 10 minutes. This is the flavor foundation on which the sauce builds upon so don't skimp on the time spent here!

3. Add the pepper flakes, garam masala, paprika and cumin to the onion mixture and stir for a few minutes to let the flavors meld and bloom in the oil. 

4. Add the sauce and let the mixture simmer for 5 minutes. Once that's finished, turn off the heat, stir in the cream, cilantro and salt to taste. 

5. To plate, pour a healthy ladle of the tikka masala sauce on a plate, add as few (or as many) tortellinis as you like and garnish with a sprinkle of almonds, cilantro, and lemon zest. Top with a peppery olive oil and enjoy!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Billionaire Bacon Palmier : My Plan to Impress Gordon Ramsey

I have a confession to make: I once tried out to be on reality television last year. More specifically, to be on Gordon Ramsey's MasterChef series (season 1). 

It's actually quite uncharacteristic of me as I am cursed with the worst possible stage fright. Stuttering, clammy hands, tomato complexion—the whole nine yards. Just thinking about the experience gets my heart pumping at full speed. 

However, I'm a devoted Gordon Ramsey fan. I was willing to battle my affliction for the slim chance of meeting the infamous chef and who knows, maybe even impressing him with my culinary creation! And so, on an early Sunday morning, I set out with my good friend to my first casting call at The Grove.

To enter, we had to fill out an application akin to the mammoth packets to apply for college as well as to create our signature dish in front of a panel of judges. Knowing there were no stoves nor refrigeration, I create a plate of cookies as my entry dish. A risk since everyone were preparing extravagant masterpieces. 

The producers actually stopped when they walked by my station as I simply unwrapped my plate and said I was ready to present while everyone else scrambled to assemble their elaborate dishes. Looking back, I think they were a little miffed as they thought I didn't take their prompt seriously. However, I presented it as a dish that was uniquely me. 

Merging the French palmier (my Francophile side coming out) with the goodness of bacon, it was the matrimony of the two loves of my life. I called it the Billionaire bacon Palmier. 

In a way, it's like the perfect man of the cookie world. It combines the French sophistication of buttery pastry layers, the complexity of caramelized brown sugar, the manliness of smoky bacon and just the right amount of spice from the black pepper to keep things interesting. A wonderful blend of sweet, salty and spicy to keep you wanting just a little more. Best of all, he's, I mean, it's low maintenance too—the whole process got me in-and-out of the kitchen in no time.

Perhaps they thought I was crazy to describe a cookie in such depth or that they too saw the light after eating the palmiers (I hope it was the latter), I got the golden (green) ticket to go on to the next round! 

Needless to say, I never got on to the show as I was cut after the third round (which involves a cooking video that will never see the light of day). However, it was worth it to see them cast the Housewives of Beverly Hills, not to mention it was a memorable month to say the least! Perhaps one day, I too can make a beef Wellington for Chef Ramsey… 

Billionaire Bacon Palmiers
Yields 20 cookies and serves 5

1/2 package or 1 sheet of Pepperidge Farm Puff Pastry Sheets 
1 cup brown sugar
2 thick slices of apple smoked bacon
1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

First, render the bacon slices in a skillet on medium heat till golden brown and crispy. Drain the cooked bacon on paper towels and crumble to tiny pieces  (the smaller the better) when cooled to the touch.

Next, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Unfold the sheet of thawed puff pastry on a clean work surface and sprinkle 1/2 cup of brown sugar evenly on top. Use a rolling pin to gently press the sugar into the dough.

Carefully flip the pastry over and scatter the crumbled bacon all over the top. Do the same with the black pepper. Take the remaining 1/2 cup of the sugar and sprinkle over evenly and lightly press the toppings in with the rolling pin. 

Now comes the fun part! Roll the left vertical side to the center and then repeat with the right side. Gently press the two sides together and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate the pastry log for an hour or so till it's firm and thoroughly chilled. This step is imperative because it enables you to slice the palmiers easily later on and also ensures even baking.

Once the pastry is chilled, slice the log crosswise into 1/2 inch medallions. Place them on a parchment lined baking sheet (silpat works wonders as well) with plenty of space in between as they will spread and expand in the oven.

Bake the palmiers for 8-10 minutes till they are golden brown on top. Flip the cookies over and bake for a 3-5 minutes longer till the bottom is caramelized as well. Let them cool for a short while and enjoy responsibly!

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