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Archive for April, 2008

Spice Up Your Diet

Check out this story: Rx Spice Rack.  I have been teaching this information to my patients for years and was happy to see it publicized.  I’m not sure the best recipes with those spices are cookies and cinnamon rolls… BUT the message is one I am on board with.

Ways to add these spices to your diet:

Cinnamon: sprinkle on a bowl of oatmeal or cereal in the morning, add to your favorite banana bread or apple bread recipe, buy apple-cinnamon herbal tea bags for a sweet treat that is calorie free

Cloves: infuse the flavor into homemade applesauce, use to make chutney, sprinkle into poaching liquid for pears

Ginger: grate fresh ginger into any Asian inspired stir-fry recipe, infuse hot water with slices of ginger for real ginger tea (careful it has a strong flavor), use in homemade chutney

Turmeric: used in Indian and Moroccan inspired-dishes, make your own curry powder from a recipe,  mix a  Moroccan spice rub and use on steaks or chicken before grilling

Cayenne:  sprinkle into just about any saucy dish for heat, add to spice rubs, add to homemade chilli, make a spicy tomato sauce by adding cayenne (watch your portions – start with 1/8 teaspoon, taste, and increase from there)

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When most people think of pasta they think of Italian food.  At least I do.  And the Italians certainly have many many shapes, sizes, and uses for pasta – but they really only use two types of noodles.  Wheat flour based noodles with eggs or without eggs.  Asian cultures, however, have many more varieties of noodles.  Wheat-based noodles make up a fraction of the noodles.

Asian Noodles (to name a few):

Somen – very thin, delicate, dried, wheat-based

Udon – flat, 1/8 inch wide, wheat based but no egg, white

Lo Mein – fresh, wheat based, with egg, long and rounded like spaghetti

Chow Fun – wide ribbon, fresh, rice based

Mee Fun – very thin ribbons, fresh, rice based

Pad Thai – flat, long, ribbon, dry, rice based

Bean Thread – dried, bean starch based, cooks up translucent

Soba – buckwheat based, dry

Asian noodle varieties all have their own preparation method which varies depending on the dish, the noodle, and the region.  In Italy, everyone boils pasta in rapidly boiling, salted water until al dente, drains, and then tosses with sauce (never rinse!).  In Asia, certain preparations call for rinsing the noodles in cold water before tossing with sauce.  Many times if the noodles are dry, they are soaked in lukewarm water for 15-20 minutes before being added to a stir-fry to finish cooking.  Rice noodles are very delicate, and therefore are never put in rapidly boiling water.  They are simply simmered gently until done.  Soba noodles are not cooked al dente, but usually further until they are soft – another Italian no.  I never knew cooking noodles could be so complicated!  Seems I will be following recipes until I learn all the rules, just to be on the safe side.

One of my favorite noodle dishes is Pad Thai.  This dish originated in central Thailand, like most of the American adapted Thai foods.  Rich soils and abundant farm lands characterize this region.  Bangkok, its major city, is a big tourist destination.  If you have never had pad thai – I strongly urge you to find a good Thai restaurant and try some ASAP.  It is sweet, salty, savory, spicy (sometimes mild), and just plain delicious.  A bowl of noodles mixed with thinly sliced vegetables, bean sprouts, strips of chicken and/or shrimp, flat rice noodles (pad thai noodles), and of course, the sauce

We made Pad Thai in class yesterday, and while the preparation and cooking had several steps, none were too complicated.  Heat wok to smoke point with oil, add ingredient, stir and brown then remove and reserve, wipe out wok, reheat wok with more oil and repeat process with second ingredient.  Repeat process until all the ingredients are cooked.  At the end all ingredients are put together in the wok with the sauce until hot and then served.  The cooking process all happens very quickly, so having all the ingredients prepared and nearby is important.   The wok, I have come to understand, is not only an important cooking vessel in Asian foods, but considered to be an ingredient.  They have a saying, “The breath of the wok”, which is a flavor dimension added to foods cooked in a seasoned wok.  They take this stuff very seriously.  The level of heat needed to achieve the breath of the wok is not possible in most home kitchens in America.  Burners, especially electric, are just not powerful enough.  Sorry, but the solution maybe to find a trusted and consistent take out restaurant as your go-to.

Nutrition Recommendations:  I love pad thai, but the fat and salt content are quite high.  Just about every ingredient is pan fried, separately, in the wok.  Some sauce ingredients, fish sauce and soy sauce, are quite high in sodium.  Portion control is important.  On the good side, it does have many types of vegetables that are briefly stir fried, and therefore retain much of their nutritional value.  Usually lean white meat chicken and omega-3 rich shrimp are the protein in pad thai.  It can even be made with tofu for a vegetarian spin.  If you are watching your calories or fat content, opt for the noodles dishes that are not stir-fried.  They can be just as delicious and flavorful, but with far less calories and fat.

I have found a recipe on the Food Network website for Pad Thai.  It is simliar to what we made in class, but simplified.  My recommendations – use chicken stock instead of coconut milk, omit the garlic, omit the Sriracha, add 1/2 Tablespoon red thai curry paste to the pan with the shrimp, you can substitute diced chicken for the shrimp or tofu (cook chicken separately in wok before combining all ingredients).  Shrimp and Vegetable Pad Thai

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Last night, we had one of the most satisfying meals eaten out in a long time.  We left the apartment with no expectations.  Our mission has become to try out restaurants nearby and find a new favorite.  This has become surprisingly tricky.  Have my tastes become so keen that I can no longer appreciate most restaurant food?  I was beginning to feel this way.  Until last night.

We walked by a few restaurants, peeked inside the windows, and scanned the menus.  Some were obvious no’s due to the fact that half the restaurant was empty on a Saturday night at 9:00 pm.  In New York City, this is the sign of bad food, bad service, or both.  We settled on a busy-looking restaurant on Macdougal street, south of Houston, called Salt.  The street-facing wall was all windows and we could see a packed dining room (good sign!).  Walking in we were greeted by a hostess who asked for our reservation.  After saying we did not have one she had to “check and see” if there was space for us tonight (another good sign).  There was, luckily, and we were seated at a two-top table, along the front wall, just big enough to fit our plates of food and a bottle of wine.  My seat was on a bench against the wall, and only a foot from rubbing elbows with our neighbors.  The center of the dining room had three, long, communal tables to seat guests.  This is true NY restaurant style.

The atmosphere was cozy and romantic.  Tables were candle lit and the restaurant had a rustic style.  Dark hard-wood floors, exposed roof beams, wood tables and chairs were set off by stark white painted walls.  Bowls of white and pink roses exploded off the long tables.  The dining room was about 20 feet by 20 feet with the back wall’s top half open to the kitchen.  The kitchen was lit brightly in contrast to the dark intimate dining room, acting to highlight the chefs and meal preparation.  Due to the small room, full of diners, the noise level was on the verge of loud – but added to the feeling of being part of a hip scene.

Looking at the menu, we both found things quickly, a sign of a good menu. Does anyone else hate those tri-fold, double-sided menus that take you 30 minutes to fully inspect?  There were about 8 appetizers and 12 entrees.  Everything sounded good.  It had something for everyone without being overwhelming.

Immediately upon placing our order we were brought a basket of dinner rolls, butter, and our bottle of wine.  Our appetizers arrived timely.  I had a mesclun salad with vinaigrette dressing.  The dressing was a bit on the acidic side, which I like, and the greens were crisp and fresh.  The other appetizer was a spring pea and asparagus risotto with cheese (we cannot remember the type of cheese).  This dish was a lovely bright green and tasted smokey – was that from the cheese?  We couldn’t figure it out, but loved every bite.  The risotto was creamy and light, well-seasoned.  Cooked just right.

The appetizers gave us high hopes for our entrees.  These were met and exceeded.  We ordered the marinated hanger steak with sauteed spinach and yukon gold potato puree and the Long Island duck breast with sauteed spinach and braised fennel.  Both were amazing.  Perfect seasoning and wonderfully crisped skin on the duck.  A deliciously marinated steak with a crisp, browned exterior.  Both were served at a perfect medium-rare.  Tender and tasty – the meat almost melted in your mouth.  This was accomplished without a French reduction sauce that is typical in most restaurants.  Execution is key when flaws are not masked by a sauce.  All the flavor and taste came from the seasoning, cooking, and marinating of the meat and duck.  The result was delicious and we savored every bite.

Our plates were cleared and dessert menus passed out.  We almost always choose the fruit-based dessert, and tonight was no exception.  We chose the pear tart tatin with rosemary ice cream.  I was very interested in the rosemary part.  Normally, this herb is associated with savory dishes like roast chicken, pork tenderloin, or stews.  Who would have thought to use it for a sweet preparation?  The result was decidedly different from anything I’ve ever had, and very good.  Not only was the ice cream infused with rosemary, the pear tart had rosemary flavoring as well.  The pear was soft, sweet, and warm compared to the creamy, cool ice cream.  The rosemary was the connecting flavor between the two and somehow – it all worked.  Who knew?

Salt gets an A++.  I would not have changed any dish in any way.  We were left feeling satisfied and continued to talk about the food later into the evening.  The prices are reasonable, and actually low relative to the portions and quality of food you can find here.  They also have a lunch which I am eager to try.  I would recommend Salt to anyone and cannot wait to return.

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What better way to celebrate the warmer days here in the city than grilling fish?  It goes great with a frosty beverage, like a frozen margarita or sangria (my favorite).  Cooking at home was a nice escape from the French and Italian cuisine we have been cooking in class.  I did not have to use butter, cream, flour, eggs, or brown veal stock for anything!

I will share with you the components of a very yummy fiesta style meal you can prepare at home.  There is a lot of vegetable chopping if you make the salsas at home.  But they will be more fresh, vibrant, and seasoned exactly how you like.

AppetizerPan-crisped plantains (pictured above)

How-To:  Buy a nice and green plantain.  Cut 1/2 inch thick slices.  Sprinkle with salt.  Heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a non-stick saute pan over medium heat.  Add the plantains as well as 1 tablespoon agave syrup (or sugar).  Reduce heat to low.  Cook until one side caramelizes and turns brown.  Flip and repeat.  Remove from pan, taste and adjust seasoning with more salt or sugar (depending on the ripeness of the plantain).

Main CourseGrilled Fish with Lime

How-To: Buy two large fish fillets (enough for however many people are eating).  Heat a non-stick grill pan over medium-high heat.  Brush fillets with vegetable oil and sprinkle with salt.  Grill, flipping once, until fish is opaque and cooked through.  Do not over cook.  Remove to platter and squeeze fresh lime juice on fish (about 1/2 lime per pound of fish).

Accompaniments:

Warmed tortillas

Steamed Rice

Black Beans

Salsas (See Salsas in Recipes section)

Nutrition Notes:  Everything was delicious and healthy!  Overall this meal is low in fat and can be low in salt.  You can use less oil by utilizing a non-stick grill pan for the fish.  This meal is full of fresh vegetables, herbs, and fruit.  A wide variety of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.  Especially since the three salsas are not cooked and therefore most of the nutrients are retained.  Serving with black beans increases the fiber and protein in this meal.  Top scores for nutrition and deliciousness.

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Now we have begun a new chapter in culinary school – Asian cooking.  This includes the entire continent and therefore we are only able to hit the highlights in the two weeks time we are given.

The first thing we cooked was curries.  Yum.  This is the food you order and scarf down loving every bite, but wonder after the meal what exactly you were eating.  You can’t remember if you ordered chicken or beef because the meat could have been either really.  Was that a piece of carrot you tasted?  It could have been a pepper.  You love the spices but have no idea how they create that dish from a powdered curry blend, like the one you keep on your spice shelf.  If you had any leftover to take home you are even more surprised the next day when you open the container and a large pool of grease has risen to the top.  Was it really that greasy?  But if you are like me, none of this prevents you from going back and ordering your favorite curry dish and experiencing the deliciousness all over again.

What is it that is so wonderful about curries?  First comes the spice.  Curries have a sweet, spicy, sour, and salty flavor profile.  Not one particular flavor jumps out, a good curry is well balanced.  Second would be the fragrance.  They smell sweet and are usually served with the most fragrant rice of all, basmati.  Third would have to be all the crazy condiments they are served with.  Many types of wonderful chutneys and raitas.  Believe it or not, America did not invent the condiment.  There was a large and flourishing condiment culture in India and Asia for hundreds of years.

The word curry comes from the Southern Indian word kari, meaning “sauce”.  It is a catch all word.  Curry powders, or masalas, are any spice blend used to flavor a gravy-based Indian dish.  Which spices are used differs greatly depending on the region of India.

The essential elements of an Indian curry include:

  • Fat: Ghee (roasted clarified butter) is the most commonly used, vanaspati ghee (artificial ghee that is really shortening), peanut oil or mustard oil
  • Seasonings: Whole spices, seeds, curries, masalas, chiles, herbs, ground spices
  • Thickener: Ground legumes, ground nuts, chickpea flour, vegetable purees, yogurt, coconut milk
  • Sauce base: Broths, vegetable purees
  • Protein/Vegetables:  Any type of seafood, meat or poultry cut into small bite size pieces.  India has a large vegetarian segment that uses beans and legumes extensively.  In Thai curries you will see more tofu.  Keep in mind we use a large amount of protein here in America, but the main focus of a traditional curry/masala is the gravy-based sauce and the rice.

Method for cooking an Indian curry:

  • Mix your favorite curry/masala spice blend (look up recipes for your favorite, there are too many to list here).  Toast spices (optional) and grind in a spice grinder to make a fine powder.
  • Add a small amount of water to your spice blend to make a curry paste.
  • Heat the fat, ghee usually (they aren’t modest about using fat) over high heat in a wok.
  • Optional: add other spices and cook in the fat to release flavor, do not burn or they will become bitter.
  • Add onions, and pan-fry until golden.
  • Add curry paste, garlic and ginger and cook over medium to med-high heat about 4-5 minutes.  The spices will become fragrant and much of the water will be released.
  • Add your thickener and sauce base.  Taste to adjust seasoning with salt.
  • Simmer several minutes to merry the flavors.
  • Add your protein or vegetables and cook through.  Do not overcook your meats or proteins.  Stop cooking when they are just done.  Keep the sauce at a simmer only (do not boil the meat it will become tough).
  • Stir in sour/acidic elements, if using, such as lime juice, yogurt or lemon.
  • Garnish with cilantro leaves.
  • Serve with basmati rice, chutneys, and raita.

Nutrition Recommendations:  Curries can be made healthy, but are traditionally high in fat and salt.  When you are cooking with so many wonderful spices and vegetables, it is easy to make a lower-fat version at home without compromising much flavor.  Begin with a healthy vegetable oil, like canola.  Use a moderate amount in a large non-stick pan. Use no salt added vegetable purees (such as tomatoes) and broths.  Choose lean meats and low-fat tofu.  By cooking a vegetarian version with beans or legumes and a variety of vegetables, you can increase fiber and antioxidant values in the dish.  Many of the spices used are considered to have health benefits.  Turmeric, for one, has been found in studies to be a powerful anti-inflammatory.  Ginger is aids in digestion as well as another being anti-inflammatory.

Curries have the potential to be wonderfully tasty and healthy dishes if made at home.  Find some curry and masala spice blend recipes and try them out.  Just make sure you know if they are extra hot and spicy first.  I would strongly discourage the use of the typical curry powder at your local grocery store.  Check your area for Indian specialty food stores for the real thing.  Buying your own whole spices and grinding them right before using ensures the best flavor.

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Blue Ribbon Bakery

Saturday night was another warm spring night, and we were in the mood for a dinner out.  After much debate, and being turned away at a Mesa Grill that was “Sorry, fully-committed.” we decided to go to Blue Ribbon Bakery in the West Village.  This is a casual gourmet restaurant known for its housemade breads.

The atmosphere is nice with rustic decor, brick walls, and candle lighting.  Our first impression was good, until the waiter came by.  He was a space cadette.  He only distracted us from our dining experience and had nothing good to offer us in the way of menu recommendations.

The menu was quite large with over 25 small plate appetizers and crostini.  We ordered the appetizer on special – Brussels sprouts, along with garlic shrimp and chorizo, mushroom ravioli, and roasted red pepper crostini.  Our favorite, and the only one we finished, was the mushroom ravioli.  This was done wonderfully.  I could have eaten a plate of them for dinner.  They were served in a mushroom cream sauce with large bits of pan roasted mushrooms.  Beautiful plate and delicious.  The Brussels sprouts were inedible and returned to the kitchen (very disappointing for something being put on special).  The roasted red pepper “crostini” were not crostini at all.  It was a french bread pizza style preparation covered in a large amount of melted mozzarella.  We didn’t even recall mozzarella even being noted on the menu.  The bread was thick and soft, not like the thin-sliced, toasted crostini we expected.

Entrees – more disappointment.  Two orders of the house special, braised short ribs with succotash, and one market salad came late.  We had to ask our waiter where the food was.  Both people who ordered the short ribs thought they “were not very good at all”.  They lacked any really wonderful flavor.  The meat was tender and well-cooked, but the sauce needed help.  It was under-seasoned and added nothing to the dish.  I think it needed to be more reduced to concentrate flavor and better seasoned.  The sauce would have benefited from acid, like reduced red wine.  The “succotash” was just a large pile of corn, some bacon, and a few small green beans that did not look like lima beans.  We aren’t sure what they were.

Our appetizers and entrees – most of which were a let down – left us hungry and we decided to order dessert.  This was the best decision made the entire evening.  It was to die for.  We ordered a banana bread pudding served over caramel sauce with cinnamon ice cream.  Yumminess to the power of ten.  Though it was not very bread-pudding like, we found it to be much better than any bread pudding.  The banana bread was perfect, soft, with large bits of walnuts and banana.  It seemed to have been pan-crisped like french toast.  Sliced ripe bananas, caramel sauce, and the wonderfully delicious and perfectly complimentary cinnamon ice cream rounded out the plate.  It was a big hit.  We were glad we stuck this meal out to the end.

If I were to go back, it would be for dessert only.  They live up to their name and the baked goods were amazing.  The bread basket at the table, and fresh baked banana bread were the best parts of the meal.  Would I recommend this restaurant?  Yes, for dessert.  The banana bread pudding is worth the trip.

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The Place

Matt and I went out to eat at The Place on Friday night.  This restaurant is tucked away, deep in the West Village.  We were drawn to the open air dining they offered, it being one of the warmest spring nights in the city yet.

The waitress suggested an appetizer “The butternut squash ravioli is not to be missed!” that we ordered along with a frisee salad with apples, Stilton blue cheese, and walnuts.  Both were great.  Beautifully plated.  The ravioli was as good as the waitress suggested – and wound up being the highlight of the meal.  They were housemade, the pasta was delicate and cooked al dente.  The stuffing was delicious, well-seasoned, and savory.  The ravioli sat in a small amount of olive oil that tasted like it was swirled with reduced veal or beef stock.  The meaty and savory flavor contribution of the beef or veal stock perfectly complimented the somewhat sweet butternut squash.  Yum.

Our entrees were also very good, though mine had some components I could have done without.  I ordered the Long Island duck three ways.  Seared duck breast with pan sauce, duck leg confit, and wontons with duck stuffing were the three preparations.  The first, the duck breast, was the best of all.  Cooked perfectly and tender.  I was sad that there was so little.  I wanted to turn in my duck wonton for more duck breast.  The wonton lacked flavor and the wonton wrapper was a bit undercooked.  The duck leg confit was nice – savory, juicy, with crispy skin – but how can you go wrong (see my entry Duck Confit)?  Potato scallion pancakes were served with the duck trio.  I love a potato pancake, but these were sweet, not savory.  They tasted like a sweet cornmeal or cake flour had been used with very little potato or scallion taste.  The pancakes were left on the plate with the wontons.  Why not more duck breast and lose the wontons?

A grilled flank steak with peppercorn sauce served with wilted spinach and smashed potatoes was the second entree we ordered.  The steak was a beautiful medium rare, well seasoned, with a tasty crisped exterior.  Delicious.  The spinach was ok, the potatoes were well-done.  Matt loved the smashed potato preparation – chunky with bits of skin in a rustic style (my personal favorite way to do mashed potatoes).

Dessert was a poached pear, glazed, and served with cinnamon ice cream – mmmm….  The pear was soft, sweet, and spiced with winter spices.  Cinnamon ice cream was the perfect compliment.

Overall, this restaurant was a nice step up from casual dining, had great candle lighting for romance, along with and attentive and helpful waitstaff.  I would certainly recommend it to friends and include that the butternut squash raviolis are a must.

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