29 June, 2010

Just Straight Up Banana Gelato

I was going to make banana-stracciatella gelato last night (and will, at some point) but I was caught up in the fact that my bananas in the custard had turned brown (as bananas, out of their peel, are wont to do) and completely forgot about the chocolate.

The recipe, which I adapted from the book "The Ultimate Ice Cream Book" -- a book that's gotten rave reviews so I wanted to like it -- said to put the bananas in the custard before chilling. Since the bananas turned brown, I cannot recommend this. Simple solution: I pressed the liquid of the custard through a fine-mesh stainer to remove the brown particles, and added new mashed bananas before immediately freezing it in the machine. This worked perfectly.

I used three eggs. Eggs are your friend, when it comes to creamy, custardy gelato. Some use only the yolk, and some use the whole egg. This particular recipe called for the whole egg. You can also make this custard with any fruit or add-in. Since you will add the main flavor ingredient(s) at the end, it doesn't really matter what you add, and the gelato texture will likely have the same result as with the bananas.

Also, I made this a sugar-free, lower-fat recipe, but will give the alternatives for those using the real thing. As usual, I use a combination of Xylitol (birch) and Stevia leaf as sugar substitutes.

Without further ado, I present a delightful gelato custard with banana. This recipe is easy, but it takes several hours to make (includes cooling times for the custard), so take that into consideration.

Ingredients.
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup Xylitol (sugar substitute) + 1 TB Stevia (or use 3/4 cup sugar, if desired)
  • 1 1/2 TBs arrowroot powder or cornstarch (optional)
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/4 cups fat-free milk (use whole milk, if desired)
  • 1 cup light cream (use heavy cream, if desired)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 TBs banana liqueur (optional)
  • 2 bananas, mashed with the tines of a fork
Instructions.

In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs, sugar, arrowroot or cornstarch, and salt. Set aside.

In a saucepan, bring the milk to a boil. Remove from heat and slowly whisk the hot milk into the egg mixture. When all of the milk has been beaten into the eggs, pour the entire custard mixture back into the saucepan and whisk constantly over medium-low heat until the mixture thickens slightly, about 4 or 5 minutes.

Remove custard from heat and allow to cool slightly. Stir in the cream, vanilla, and liqueur. Cover and refrigerate until cold. When custard is cold, stir mashed bananas into the mixture and immediately freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. The gelato will be soft when finished. For firmer texture, freeze for at least two hours in a freezer-safe container.

24 June, 2010

Anthony Bourdain in Seattle

Anthony Bourdain was the foul-mouthed, beer-swilling, un-celebrity I expected him to be.

What I did not expect was a stand-up comedy routine. From the moment he came out, until he finished the talk, he had food and restaurant enthusiasts rolling in the aisles. I knew he'd be funny, I just did not know to what extent.

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed. I went there to hear Anthony read from his new book Medium Raw which he was there to pimp, and a copy of which came with our tickets. I like hearing readings for two reasons: I like to hear the writer read the story in his or her own inflection, and I also like to see which passages they select for reading to the audience. I think it's telling, and gives a tiny sliver into what part of the book the author seems to like best, or feels is the most interesting for a crowd. I don't know, call me silly, but when I go to a book event, I expect to hear an author read from that book.

I will complain about one more thing and get it out of the way. Tony? Get over the Food Network. You've bitched about it for years, and it was fun for a while. It's a successful network and isn't going anywhere. While the rants are funny in your books, carried over into real life, you just sound angry and disgruntled. (Which, of course, is part of your appeal. And part of your history.) But really Tony? I just really wanted to hear what amazing things you've done, hear you read from the book, and hear about the things you're passionate about (of which there are many, I suspect).

But that's just me.

Now. On to the good stuff.

When I was sitting in the balcony, looking down at the lone stool on stage, I mentioned to Rick "Why don't they get him a comfortable chair or a couch? That stool looks uncomfortable and he doesn't seem like a 'stool guy'." Well, it turns out, he's not. He came out and stood for almost an hour-and-a-half onstage, only using the stool as an oversized beer coaster for his bottle. That was another thing that made me see him as a comedian--the drink, the willingness to get up, walk around, and interact with the audience, and the humor. He's a very interesting entertainer. He might be known for his culinary skills, his adaptability in foreign scenarios, and his written prose, but his onstage presence was equally captivating.

He did spend a good, long time dissing the Food Network, Iron Chef, and other gastronomical spectacles. It got a bit old, but nonetheless, it was amusing to hearing him, as always, dish the back story of culinary superstars, and the restaurants and networks behind them. I understand his disdain, and were I in even a remotely neighboring stratosphere of culinary talent, I'd likely feel the same bile rise in my throat to see nobodys in the industry rise far higher than those with talent.

But doesn't that happen in almost every industry? I mean, I can hardly stomach watching the Oscars anymore.

He was particularly full of bile for Sandra Lee, who has a cooking show that really cannot be considered cooking, even if one stretches the definition to include "throwing lots of spices into unsuspecting dishes" and "opening cans and jars and throwing contents into a casserole dish". Even then, she might manage to miss the actual mark. But she's too easy a target. Even her slogan "Semi-Homemade" some sort of disclaimer. Yet Anthony said, "Sandra Lee did to food what Hitler did to Poland." Not entirely untrue, I will give him that. (Especially, after viewing this hideous video that he mentioned.)

He went light on Rachael Ray, citing that she has done him some favorable gestures, and he has a very hard time being cruel to someone who does something nice to him. She's apparently also done something that he actually considered (gasp) 'cool': she hired The New York Dolls for a party she threw. Clearly, she could have hired something like Lady Gaga or some marginally talented group. Instead, she chose TNYDs and Tony was quite bothered by that, because that meant he pretty much couldn't hate her anymore.

Oh, Tony.

Once he got past the Food Network, he started talking about being a dad. It is crystal clear that he is a devoted one. He mentioned that he never has cared much about the ethics of food -- he was, after all, in the pleasure business, not the eco business -- until his daughter arrived. Suddenly, 'certified organic' is all that is good enough for his girl. Now, he and his wife find themselves devising ways to make kiddie-seducers "the King, the Clown, and the Colonel" look uncool, making up stories about Ronald having 'cooties' and the like. He said "Ronald McDonald is more recognizable to kids around the world that Jesus or Mickey Mouse." True, that. Still, he says "I'm proud of my daughter. I don't want to raise an annoying 'foodie', even though, essentially, that's what I am." His proudest moment was when she ripped apart a lobster and ate it at a family seafood feast only after sweetly calling it the name of a lobster character in a children's film first.

He talked further about fast food and how each hamburger could come from dozens of sources, and many suppliers soak their beef in some sort of ammonia mixture to kill off bacteria before using it for food.

"If we let cleaning supplies into our beef, the terrorists win!" he says. "There shouldn't be cleaning products in my hamburger. Hotdogs? There's an implied consent."

He fielded a lot of questions from the audience, which was a segment of the show that was both interesting and annoying. Interesting, because I love that he enjoyed interacting with the audience, and he entertained greatly with his answers, eliciting many spontaneous guffaws. Annoying, because 9 out of 10 people did not use the microphone and we couldn't hear the question (a logistics issue that the Moore Theater should have dealt with) and at least half of the questions were ridiculous, if not downright stupid, such as "Where was the absolute worst place you took a shit?"

Really? Do I want to know that? For real? (It was Pakistan.)

Still, it was interesting, and here are some of the tidbits we learned:
  • Best place for a young cook out of culinary school to go: Spain
  • Worst meal of his life: Fermented shark in Iceland
  • Best place to travel if you're single and celebrating your 50th birthday: Brazil
  • Cheapest place to retire with good food: Uruguay (but it's a meat-heavy diet; it is not for vegetarians)
  • His current favorite food: crunchy pig tails
  • Favorite Seattle eatery: Salumi
  • "In the hierarchy of pork, the Philippine lechon is right up there."
  • Where wouldn't he go again? Scandinavia. Too clean and orderly. He prefers dirty, dysfunctional places like Vietnam, Lebanon.
  • If he is in NYC, what does he eat? "I'm goin' to Cactus Deli for a big fat pastrami sandwich."
  • When asked what was in his fridge, he said "Nothing much. I am a New Yorker. When I want food, I pick up the phone." He did confess that they usually had a pantry full of Italian goods: capers, pasta, olives and such. 
  • When asked what his last meal on Earth would be, he said "Marea's toast with uni and a wafer-thin sheet of melted lardo."
  • Beatles or Rolling Stones? "Do I look like a Paul McCartney fan?" he asks, and leaves it at that.
  • Food he enjoys most: Good runny stinky perfect cheese, regional wines, classic sushi (no avocados and crap), simple things 
After spending almost two hours pre-signing every single one of our books, then talking for an hour-and-a-half, he sat out in the lobby and personalized every single book again for over an hour, and letting people take their picture with him.

His only request was that he 'would not sign breasts or asses'.

Seattle Restaurateur, Tom Douglas, replied "Let it be known, far and wide, that I will sign any breast." (I might remind him of that at a later date.)

Since Tony's appearance on Tuesday, I've started reading my copy of his book. In doing so, I was surprised to notice that he did indeed read from the book. From memory. His Sandra Lee story? Was quoted verbatim from the book. He basically recited parts of the book without reading it.

His talents are far-reaching and in the end, I was left even more impressed than I knew I'd be.

21 June, 2010

Rustic Strawberry Frozen Yogurt (Sugar-Free/Fat-Free)

I've been experimenting. A lot, actually. I'm using alternative sweeteners to traditional sugar. I'm also trying to cut excess fat out of my diet.

Against the recommendations of the ice cream expert, David Lebovitz, I used nonfat Greek yogurt, instead of the full-fat variety, for the base. It does make it a little lighter and less creamier (something between a sorbet and a yogurt), but it's so good, it doesn't matter. In place of the sugar, I used a combination of Stevia Leaf and Xylitol (Birch), but you can just as easily use the real thing in this recipe. If possible, don't skip the vodka or kirsch, as it stops the mixture from getting too hard in the freezer; it keeps it nice and 'scoopable'.

Adapted from David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop.

Ingredients.
  • 1 pound fresh strawberries, washed and hulled
  • 1/2 cup Xylitol + 1 TB Stevia (or 2/3 cup sugar)
  • 2 teaspoons vodka or kirsch
  • 1 cup nonfat Greek-style yogurt (or whole-milk yogurt, if you so desire)
  • a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • pinch sea salt
Instructions.

Slice strawberries into small pieces and put them in a bowl. Add the Xylitol and Stevia (or sugar, if using), stirring until the sweeteners dissolve. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour.

Puree strawberries with their juice and the lemon juice. Add the yogurt and pinch of sea salt and mix well.* 

Refrigerate for 1 hour and then freeze in your ice cream maker, according to your manufacturer's instructions.

*If you want a smoother version, strain the mixture through a mesh strainer to remove the seeds.

16 June, 2010

20+ Notable Food Trends

As with anything else--fashion, films, or technology, to name a few--the food industry has its fads, shifts, and trends.

A casual observer, I’ve witnessed a few notable shifts in the culinary world of late. The last couple of years has produced some new food trends, as well as revived some genuine old-timers, along with a few new and timely products. Perhaps some are just new to me (previously enjoyed among more esoteric crowds) or only new to the Pacific Northwest/West Coast.

I am by no means an expert on culinary trends, but I enjoy taking note of things I hadn't seen or eaten before. Following a good many food blogs, food writers, food photographers, product manufacturers, cookbook authors, and social media forums, I see fads and trends come and go. I also regularly check out cooking classes, networking events, new kitchen products, area restaurants, and area markets.

In my corner of the world, I've observed a good many interesting trends. Here are the most notable:
  1. Street food. While New York City has always had its street-food vendors, a lot of smaller cites (most notably Portland, OR) are enjoying a resurgence of street grub. This can be a fine way to combine the speed of fast-food (we do love a quick bite) with the freshness and variety of a restaurant. The mobile Skillet Street Food truck (an old airstream trailer) in Seattle has a huge following and I have yet to be in the same neighborhood where it is located for the day. It boasts hearty fare, including burgers and poutine. Move over, Ice Cream Truck! Now there’s something meatier!
  2. Provenance. People are working to make their communities sustainable. Many people are now professed locavores. Even successful chefs are brawling over meat that's shipped in rather than locally selected. It's becoming way more than just a fad, but an ardent way of life for some.
  3. Grass-fed beef. After the documentary film "Food, Inc." exposed the force-feeding methods of cows that are fed corn (which they cannot digest properly), grass-fed beef is being sought after more and more among conscientious meat eaters. In fact, most humane methods of raising livestock are slowly becoming preferences among those who keep track of their food and where it comes from.
  4. Rosé wine. This ain't your mother's glass of blush. A lot of vintners are making award-winning pink vintages that are winning over new (and old) wine enthusiasts. I currently have a couple bottles sitting in my wine rack, waiting for the right meal.
  5. Bacon. Okay, so the love of bacon is old news. But bacon has been showing up in all kinds of strange locales lately, I’m starting to wonder if it’s developing a food-identity crisis. It’s shown itself the last couple of years in the likes of cupcakes, chocolate bars, coffee (!), pancakes, cocktails (!), jam, vodka, and I even managed to acquire some “bacon soap” from a soap-making friend, as a gag gift). I even found a recipe for Bacon Macarons. For real, people. There's also a trend in people making their own bacon at home. Bacon appears to be at the top of its game right now.
  6. Beekeeping. I don’t know if it was the threat of possible bee endangerment, but something caused a sharp rise in the public interest of bees. There are a lot of urban and suburban backyard beekeepers in our neighborhoods (my ex-husband being one of them). Demand might also be a cause, as people are switching from processed sugar to honey and other sweeteners.
  7. Gluten-free foods. Where there is demand, new market niches will form. And with more and more people being diagnosed with Celiac disease, this is definitely a new addition to the world of products and restaurant fare in the last couple of years. During some health issues a couple of years ago, I wondered if I might be gluten-intolerant. I looked for cookbooks and products to substitute my regular diet and there were very few at that time. Now, you almost can't walk down the grocery aisle without bumping into Gluten-Free goods.
  8. Specialty sea salts. Sea salt has been enjoying a huge renaissance in this country for a while now. There are now, however, many unique flavor combination sea salts on the market. I recently acquired my first specialty sea salts ("Truffle Salt", "Chorizo Sea Salt" and "Lavendar-Rosemary Salt" from Secret Stash Sea Salts). Sea salts and salt seasonings have been the talk of the town for a while now, but it seems that the craze is turning into a long-term trend, and home cooks are experimenting more with all kinds of interesting sea-salt varietals. "Sea salt" has replaced "low sodium" on product labels.
  9. Homemade artisan breads. With the excitement over the "My Bread" and "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day" cookbooks, home bread-baking has caught on again like wildfire. The most popular method lately, used in both cookbooks, is the no-knead bread-baking method. Both have you start the dough and let it sit for a while before baking. Lahey's method is to simply plop the dough in a cast iron or stoneware pot, and bake it right in that. Easy baking techniques are making it more accesible to the home baker. There are some interesting flavors of bread loaves that are enjoying popularity, such as Lahey's Coconut-Chocolate Bread.
  10. Whoopie Pies. I'd never even heard of them before this year, but I have been assured that they're an East-Coast tradition and have been around probably longer than I've been alive. They've suddenly gained popularity over here on the West Coast, and I see at least one blog per week with a new twist or version of the recipe. Home bakers, as well as professionals, have added this humble but tasty dessert to their repertoire of sweets.
  11. Pepper. With salt having its glorious hey day, pepper is coming right along on its own as well, thankyouverymuch. Black and red pepper are showing up in all kinds of unusual places, such as potato chips, popcorn, cookies, chocolate truffles, and even ice cream. 
  12. Kale. This was always just one of those greens in the market that I never gave a second glance to. Now, everyone is posting recipes for kale chips, sauteed kale, beans and kale, as well as adding it to eggs, stews, stir frys, and smoothies, among other things. It is, by far, the "in" green this year.
  13. Ramps. A cross between a wild leek, wild garlic, and a spring onion, this green veggie is also getting a lot of press lately outside of its usual habitat (Quebec and South Carolina). I've seen it on so many restaurant menus before, and had honestly never heard of it before this year. It's delicious and I'm pretty much a fan of anything even remotely reminiscent of "onion".
  14. Tap water. In case you hadn't heard (and honestly, how could you possibly not), bottled water is on its way out. Too much plastic garbage is horrifying when you look at the big picture. People are drinking straight from the tap again, or through tap filters. Stay hydrated, but utilize reusable bottles or just simply glasses.
  15. Unusual potato chips. I actually first noticed this last year in the UK. There were the most absurd flavors of "crisps" (my favorites being "Scottish Haggis" and "Australian BBQ Kangaroo"). As a joke, I returned home and presented Rick with a dozen different bags of strange flavors (which he actually enjoyed, to be fair). In the U.S., you previously got BBQ, sour cream and onion, classic (salt), and salt and vinegar. At some point, however, grocery stores seem to have suddenly stocked up on scads of new flavors, such as Seaweed, Honey Mustard, Philly Cheesesteak, Buffalo Wings, and Caesar Salad just to name a few. What ever happened to the simple elegance of a lightly salted chip? They are now buried under their Chili and Lime-flavored second cousins. (I guess I'm showing myself as potato purist.)
  16. Making your own sausages. Until this year, the only people I'd ever known to stuff and smoke their own sausages (except for those working in a charcuterie shop) was my ex-boyfriend's parents from Portugal. Small-town Europeans have always enjoyed this tradition. Now, however, the average American who, years prior, couldn't be bothered since a couple dozen smoked varietals sat in the average grocery store (and many more at the butcher), now seem to have backyard smokers. Now, the home sausage connoisseur is trying their hand at charcuterie techniques. A popular book may have helped this trend along, and made it more accessible to the home cook.
  17. Organic, single-origin chocolate. Chocolate made from beans from a single region (or even a single farm) are becoming popular. Blending chocolate has been done as long as chocolate has been around. But apparently, according to proponents of single-origin chocolate making, claim that some bean regions are superior and should be labeled, and sold, as such (much like wine). Single-source chocolate "tastings" are sprouting at local food festivals, chocolate shows, and other places. Like a lot of organic produce, organic chocolate is highly susceptible to pests, which make it a harder crop to cultivate, and for that reason, the pricing for organic chocolate reflects that, especially if paired with a single-origin status.
  18. Sous-vide cooking. A few highly notable chefs, such as Thomas Keller and Heston Blumenthal, use this age-old, highly technical method of cooking things in airtight bags at low temperatures (well below the boiling point) for long periods of time, often upwards of a day. This is something that experimental home cooks are fascinated with, and many are now using this method for specialty items in their own kitchens. You can even buy sous vide machines on Amazon.com now, although some even more experimental cooks make their own, such as The Seattle Food Geek.
  19. Raw foods. People are sick and tired of being sick and tired. They want to be healthy and eat (and therefore feel) well. One trend toward this goal is the raw (or living) foods movement. Many people have embarked on a diet of uncooked, unprocessed plants, sprouts, fruits, seeds, nuts, and grains. Raw foodists say that heating foods above 116 F degrees destroys enzymes that aid in food digestion and absorption. For maximum nutritional intake from a food source, it's best to eat it uncooked or barely heated or dried. There are many (un)cookbooks on the market with recipes for raw meals.
  20. Macarons. Not to be confused with coconut macaroons, these filled meringue confections are gaining intense popularity outside of their native France, not only in bakeries across the U.S. but in private homes. They are notoriously difficult to make--one wrong move and the batter is dead--and yet people are undauntedly trying their hand at various flavors and fillings for them.
Other notable trends I've observed are urban kitchen gardens, foraging for mushrooms and berries, the popularity of prunes (I only remember my grandmother eating them for, um, digestive assistance), people arguing over "pie vs. cake" (can't we all just get along?), green smoothies (adding greens to their smoothies is in), deconstructed dishes (traditional foods, not in their usual format), people ordering CSA boxes from their local farms, and a rise in internet cooking videos (from bloggers and chefs, as well as other professional sources, such as Rouxbe Online Video Cooking School).

I'd say the biggest overall trend is sustainability--do-it-yourself, local, healthy, and artisan products are drastically on the rise, versus the expensive, hands-off, imported versions of yore.

It's fascinating to observe supply and demand, as well as how TV, social-networking, blogs, and books can greatly influence the market, and determine what's in or out. Any food trends that you've noticed in your corner, or some that I've overlooked?

14 June, 2010

And the Winner is...

Kat, from Montrose, Colorado has won Lorna Yee's new cookbook! She nailed it by guessing 107 corks--that's exactly how many were in there.

For the record, before I counted, I guessed 75. :-)

Congrats, Kat!

13 June, 2010

Our Encounter with the Seattle Food Nazi



I'd never walked out of a dining establishment during a meal before. Maybe my expectations should have been lower, or perhaps I'm simply an overly sensitive culinary wuss, but I just couldn't stomach the unsavory vibe there and was secretly glad that my dining partner decided she'd had a enough.

From the beginning, this place did not seem to have the customer's best interest in mind. From the street, there was not a visible sign. After driving around the block a couple of times, we finally parked the car and decided to walk in the direction of where it should be. Eventually, after almost missing it, we found a tiny sign with an abbreviation of the name. I was about to keep walking when my friend spelled out the abbreviation for the whole name of the restaurant. Ah yes, this must be it. How weird, though, not to have a more visible sign.

The door was already open, and upon walking in, we were greeted by the proprietor in a cold and very matter-of-fact way--we were told to hang up our jackets and select a table. When we set down, he immediately brought a carafe of cucumber water and two double-shot glasses of a clear liquid. 

"Ah, thank you," I said. "What's this?"

"Just something to wash the dust off your day." Amusing, but not really the answer I was looking for. I always like to know what I'm putting in my body, especially when it comes to alcohol. And my dining partner doesn't drink much alcohol at all. She just simply prefers to drink water. Not even coffee or juice or tea. Just flat water. She loves the stuff, it's her favorite drink, and she is known for always having some with her.

We both tasted our complimentary drinks and we couldn't quite put our finger on what it was. It could have been a very, very light dessert wine (it had a fig flavor, reminiscent of a very light port, but it was just not that sweet) or it could have been a flavored grappa, although not so strong. Perhaps it was something else altogether. I'm usually fairly good at guessing what something is, but I was baffled.

We sat and sipped our complimentary drink, and took in the place. It was sparcely decorated with nary an art piece adorning the stark white walls. A few candles burned, but for that, it seemed like a cold, Ikea-Pottery Barn collaboration. There were 6 or 7 tables total and two other ones were occupied. Strange, I'd heard this place was always packed.

He returned to our table, retrieved our empty shot glasses, and asked if we would like a cocktail. 

"I'm not really a cocktail person," I said, "but do you have any signature drinks?"

He stared at me blankly, shrugged, and then said "Whatever you'd like to drink". Um, that's not a signature drink. But hokay.

"Well, I don't really have a favorite cocktail. Any recommendations?"

He didn't answer and immediately looks at my friend and asks "What about you?"

"Um, I think I need a couple of minutes. I don't usually drink. Let me think about it." So he walks away, and I had the distinct feeling he was going to just make us drinks. She says to me, "I think I just prefer the water he brought to the table". 

He returns and indeed plops down two cocktails in front of us, both very different from each other, and walks away. No explanation. No "If you don't like them, we'll take them back" disclaimer. No nothing. And even though I suspected he might just do this, we really didn't want to pay for drinks we didn't order. My friend had even decided she didn't want to order any at all. We both sighed and decided to take a sip of our respective cocktails.

"I don't like it. I'm sending it back," she said.

I'm not one to send things back to the kitchen--as a matter of fact, as straightforward as I usually am, this is one thing that I absolutely loathe--so I offered to trade her drinks. She slid her drink over to me, and we both sipped each other's drinks. 

"Nope," she says. "I don't like this one, either. I'm sending mine back. I didn't order one and really just don't want to drink." It was indeed presumptuous for him to serve us alcohol anyway, and try to presume what we might like.

"Well, maybe I'll drink it," I offered. "It's not that bad." (It actually tasted like 7-Up, vodka, and lime juice. Not good.)


"Jackie, I didn't order this. I'm totally sending it back. I have no problems with that," she said ardently.

I continue to sip on my drink. It's okay. Nothing earth-shattering. I have absolutely no idea what is in the drink. It looks exactly like caramel, and I imagined something buttery-sweet with a sprinkle of sea salt on top. No such luck. It tastes of something bitter and sour combined. It doesn't taste like it looks. I continue to sip anyway, because that's how I am. I'd rather drink a substandard drink, or eat an unappetizing meal, and spare myself the perceived humiliation of explaining why I don't like someone's culinary masterpiece. I most definitely need more strength and honesty in this area. I've been lucky, in that it's been a long time since I've been really dissatisfied with something.

He returned to our table and brought a bowl of popcorn, and immediately turned on his heels and left again. I thought this was a strange appetizer for an upscale establishment. I'd expect it in a bar alongside beer coasters and pretzels, but not in this sterile, upscale, barely candle-lit restaurant.

"I'd like to return this drink. I didn't order it, and it's just not working for me," she said, and he turned back around. "I just want to stick with water." He looked at her blankly, grabbed the drink, and took it back to the kitchen. He returned will a glass full of sparkling water.

"Oh my God. Now he's giving me sparkling water! He's making me feel really uncomfortable," she said. "I didn't order sparkling water. I'm happy with the flat water at the table which he already brought."

"I know," I whispered. "And he's completely unfriendly."

I sighed and took a piece of popcorn and put it into my mouth. It was oily and salty, but lightly so, and with very interesting flavors underneath.

"Hey, try this popcorn," I told her. "It's really unique."

She ate some. "Mmmm. I taste garlic," she said.

"Yes... Hmmm... And truffles. I think I taste truffles."

There were also black specks in it. It was lightly seasoned with great flavors, and was perhaps some of the best popcorn I've had.

As he was passing by our table, I lifted a finger to him, stopped him, and said "This popcorn is really good. What's on it?"

He gave me an honest-to-goodness look of snobbish disdain. "Um, salt and pepper?" He said it like a question. It was really a shortened version of "Um, salt and pepper. Are you stupid?" I know there was more on there than salt and pepper, but he wasn't giving it away. I didn't want his secret, but I like to know, once again, what I'm eating.

And he walked away, we both felt increasingly uncomfortable. We had not yet seen a menu, and yet several things had been delivered to our table, which had not been ordered. We're imagining the bill at the end of the meal.


I sipped my drink which was almost gone now. Only 15 minutes into the evening and I'm already tipsy.

A few minutes go by and I see him delivering bowls of soup to the other two tables. Eventually, he comes over and puts soup, and soup spoons, down in front of us.

"What's this?" I asked.

He started to walk away and gave a cursory glance over this shoulder and said, "The first course".

As he walked back to the kitchen, my friend took her napkin from her lap and put in on the table. "That's it. I don't care what you decide to do, but I'm leaving."

I took a bite of soup. It was nothing special. Again, I had no idea what's in it--couldn't fathom a guess. I took a second bite. I was no more knowledgeable than I was with the first bite.

Sigh.

"Really? You really want to leave?"

"Yes. I do. He's making me so uncomfortable, I'm actually feeling kind of emotional right now. I've never felt this vibe in a restaurant before. Ever."

I felt angry, too. For not being acknowledged, outside of a couple of over-the-shoulder, flippant remarks. But I'm still loathe to leave. For some weird reason.

"I hate having to make a split-second decision like this," I tell her.

"I know, and I'm sorry, but I have to go," she says.

"Okay. But you ask him for the bill then." I wasn't thinking straight. In hindsight, we shouldn't have even had a bill, since technically, we didn't order anything.

She gets his attention and he walks over and she says "Um, I think we would like the bill now. We need to cut out."

"Okay," he said and turned to walk away. He stopped halfway to the kitchen, turned around, and said "Is there something wrong?"

I felt that all eyes in the restaurant were on us. I'm dying a little inside.

"Yes, something is wrong. We've asked you several questions, and you have either ignored us or haven't answered our questions. It just feels very rude and we feel uncomfortable."

"Okay then. How about $10 for the bill?" I hand him a twenty and he leaves to go to the till.

"I'm going to just give him the whole $20," I said to her. "Let's just go."

"Oh no, you're not! You're not going to tip him." Luckily, he showed up with my change immediately, plopped it on the table and walked away. I'd almost expected him to yank the soup from my place setting and yell "No soup for you!" Instead, even worse, he showed absolute disinterest in the fact that we were leaving.

No apology. No remorse. No customer appreciation. No respect.

I walked out of there deflated and confused. Why were we treated like that? Why didn't he answer the simplest of questions? Why didn't he even offer up a half-hearted apology for ruining our dinner? And why didn't I have the cajones to stand up for myself, like she did?

I've honestly never come across that before. I've heard since then, that it's a place where you sit down, do not look at a menu, and you are just served dinner. It could be five courses or 12. Whatever the day holds. I like the concept. A lot. But the execution is horrible. There was nothing on their web site that indicated this. Also, no one asked if this was our first time there, and explained the protocol and how it worked. We had no idea what we were eating, how much we would be eating, and what the prices would be. No information whatsoever.

I'm just not that kind of consumer. I know people love this place (Yelp has given this place rave reviews) but I am honestly thankful to my friend, who forced me to have the courage to walk out with my dignity and pocketbook intact.

I have also heard, after the fact, that this proprietor is legendary for being difficult and pompous. So it wasn't just us. Good to know. And yet sad that others have had similar experiences. The few folks on Yelp who gave this place a negative review did so because of him. Their experiences were identical. Even some of the good reviews said "It's not for everyone; don't expect to know what you're going to get." No thanks. That's not how I want to dine.

And, except for the popcorn, there was nothing at all remarkable about the place, the drinks, or the soup that I tried. And I can make popcorn at home, thankyouverymuch. I think the reputation is probably overrated.

After leaving, we dined at a nearby Mexican dive. The Chicken Mole and Pork Carnitas were delicious, and the waitstaff was unbelievably helpful and nice.

As they should be.

09 June, 2010

The Newlywed Kitchen (CONTEST!)

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The Newlywed Kitchen Cookbook

Lorna Yee is getting a lot of press lately--and for good reason. Her new cookbook The Newlywed Kitchen is making an enormous splash. (Amazon.com was sold out before it was even released last month.)

A while back, I asked Lorna if she needed a photographer for her cookbook and offered my professional services. She declined my offer politely because a) she was already using Kathryn Barnard (who did a fine job, by the way) and b) she didn't know me (or my work) from Eve! But I just had to ask because I'd been following her blog, The Cookbook Chronicles, for a while and loved the mission of the book. I've always wanted to shoot for a cookbook, and Lorna's book seemed exactly like my kind of book, involving both food and couples. (For those who don't know, I also shoot weddings.)

Over the months, we've gotten to know each other better, and I've come to admire her dedication (she put the book together in essentially three-and-a-half months!), her strength (she is humble and yet driven), and her character (she is just plain nice). She also has one of the most contagious laughs EVER, and is fall-down-punch-drunk in love with her dog, Kimchee.

There's so much to read about Lorna's culinary adventures on her blog and elsewhere, but first, you should start here. I think it helps to know the person behind the art, and this tiny slice into her life is a painfully beautiful one.

She came here from British Columbia because of love, and now calls Seattle home. She's been a big contributor to this city, writing a plethora of articles for Seattle Magazine. Just look at this exhaustive list. Though she might be a transplant, Seattle most definitely now claims her as our own.

I went through her cookbook, page by page, as soon as it arrived in my mailbox. When all was said and done, I'd dog-eared 22 recipes. I've tasted four of them so far (two made by other people, and two made by me) and each one was great. Most seem to have a lovely twist to a more traditional recipe. The book also has depth--which is somewhat unique for a cookbook--as it has an agenda: inspiring couples to spend quality time together in the kitchen and showcasing stories of marriages that have food as a central theme.

I'm not married, but it has still inspired me to do more in the kitchen with Rick (and even his son, James). I think love and sustenance are a harmonious and winning combination, and I, personally, cannot imagine one without the other. Since Lorna met her husband, Henry, in a food forum, I don't think they could imagine a life without the kitchen, either. In other words, she practices what she preaches.

Lorna's recipes run the gamut between simple (The Ultimate Grilled Cheese Sandwich) to spicy (Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup) to hearty (Fall Apart Pot Roast) to comforting (Chicken Pot Pies with Cheddar-Thyme Crust) to decadent (Rack of Lamb with Sour Cherries, Cauliflower and Capers). The book even has Lorna's award-winning Four-Cheese Mac-and-Cheese recipe, not to mention a sweets section that blew my mind, with titles such as Dad's Favorite Carrot Cake with Whiskey Praline Cream Filling and Salted Caramel Pecan Tart. How does Lorna stay so fit?!

The bottom line: Lorna's book has quickly become a new personal favorite. I'm so sure that everyone will love this book (besides just newlyweds) that I've procured a signed copy of the book to give away to a very lucky recipient. The contest will end at midnight this coming Sunday, June 13th. It is available to readers worldwide. Whoever is closest to guessing the number of wine corks in this big jar (below) is the winner. I'll announce the winner on Monday, June 14th. Just leave me a comment here on this blog with your guess and you're automatically entered to win. Good luck!

How many wine corks are in this very large mason jar?

And now for some event photos...

Last weekend, Lorna did a book signing at the Jessie Oleson's new Cakespy shop on Capitol Hill (the perfect place to sign a cookbook and give out Red and Blue Velvet cupcakes). It was inspired by Twitter posts that both Jessie and I made, that Kingfish Red Velvet Cake is probably the best in town. Lorna swore that her cake recipe was better. I told her to prove it, thus a cake smackdown commenced. Her cake did indeed have a winning combination of moistness and cream-cheesy tanginess in the frosting. Excellent! While eating cake, Lorna also signed and sold cookbooks, and even ran out. (Henry had to go out for more!)

Here are the highlights from the afternoon.

Cakespy Shop

Cakespy shop and art

Lorna frosts her Red Velvet layer cake

Making sure the layers are even

I love that she doesn't frost the sides of the cake. 
It's almost like a big triple-layer frosting sandwich!

Lorna Yee and Cakespy owner, Jessie Oleson

Cake!

Danny and Jessie Oleson

Lorna greets enthusiasts and signs her books

Signing books

Talking with food writer Matthew Amster-Burton



Lorna taking a quick break
to give hugs to her dog, Kimchee!




A young fan, Iris



Lorna dishes up cake for customers





Lorna with her biggest fan, her husband, Henry

Me, Lorna, and Jessie

It was a lovely time and I'm happy to have participated!

04 June, 2010

Vancouver's Best Breakfast - Twisted Fork

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Okay, so I haven't had all of Vancouver's breakfasts, but I'm stopping here. No need to explore further! This is the most amazing breakfast I've had in a long time. Here, they call it "brunch", but it my town, brunch is a buffet of offerings. But at the Twisted Fork Bistro, their "buffet" is a menu. So, for American purposes, let's just call it breakfast.

Basically, for $11 (a steal!), you get any item off of the menu, and you may add in all kind of other items for extra. I love the idea that you can get an amazing breakfast, in a place that is both cheery and wistful, and without being pushy, they'll serve you the most amazing breakfast drinks, such as a Slinky Mink (essentially, a raspberry mimosa), all for a small price.

For me, enjoying a meal out is a mathmatical equation. It essentially amounts to 25% atmosphere, 50% taste, and 25% price. Sometimes the scales shift if, say, the atmosphere REALLY sucks or I agree to part with a large amount of cash because I know the meal will be worth it. But generally, for an average dining experience, this is how I rate whether I like a place or not. In this case, all three were big winners. The atmosphere was amazing, and our server, the gorgeous redheaded Bridey, was cheery (without being obnoxiously bubbily) and really seemed to enjoy being helpful, and she stopped by our table frequently, without being the least bit intrusive. Not only that, but the atmosphere was artistic and yet humble. It was both upscale and down-home. I loved just sitting in there. And the food tasted as good as it looked. It was presented beautifully, tasted achingly divine, and left all three of us professing our undying love.

If you're in Vancouver (or plan to be), add this to your weekend breakfast schedule. But plan ahead as we had to wait 45 minutes for a table, and I don't doubt that this is common for this place. I'd like to add that their lunch and dinner menus looked equally appetizing, with tasty items, such as "Rosemary Tenderloin Skewers", "Free-range Chicken Stuffed with Brie on Butternut Squash Risotto", and "Duck Confit with Squash-Pear Jam". For such gourmet items, their prices are beyond reasonable. Even their French press coffee was outstanding. Check out their web site for more info!

On the street, waiting for a table

Granville Street

Interior

Full bar

Diners and their drinks

On the ends of the twisted forks, there were raspberries

Fabulous menu offerings

Banana-stuffed brioche french toast (to die for)

So gorgeous - couldn't stop photographing it, so Jean
had to finally take a bite! 

Before. And after.

My Eggs Benedict with ham



Blair's breakfast beans with eggs
over brioche with white cheddar

Food and atmosphere both equally stunning

Really tasty breakfast beans and skillet hash browns

For $8, you can take home one of their preserves

Gorgeous preserves wall in the back of the restaurant

HIGHLY RECOMMEND this place.