September 28, 2007

First Bite: Lo Mejor de Michoacan

Holy frijoles. I cannot believe the tacos at Lo Mejor de Michoacan in Paso Robles, Calif. Incredible. The filling, the sides, the (soft, warm, delicate but sturdy) corn tortillas, I can hardly convey how unbelievable their food is. Well, perhaps stating the fact that Kim and I ate there three days in a row will suffice.

Over the few days, we had three different kinds of tacos (carnitas [pork], camarones [shrimp], al pastor [pork with slightly sweet pastor sauce]. Additionally, we tried some chicken and pork tamales and chicken mole.

We both loved the carnitas (Kim ordered them every time), but the shrimp tacos were just as good. The Tacos al Pastor were all right. The pastor was bit chewy, and lacking in the usual pineapples and sauce. It was, however, similar to the tacos al pastor I had at La Casa de Tacos back in SpaHa.

Their chicken mole was also in the highest order. Perfectly balanced mole. It balanced the salty, sweet, and piquant, and the chicken fell off the bone. Not the prettiest picture but damn it tasted good.

Go to Lo Mejor. It is el mejor. The best. It makes me sad to leave. Take a look at some of our other delicious photos on flickr.

September 25, 2007

First Bite (sip): Intelligentsia

After my ridiculous exit from LAX, I made a quick stop for some much-needed nourishment. I wasn't particularly hungry, per say, but the delicious Southwest Airlines in-flight meal wasn't going to hold me over for the three-hour trip to Paso Robles.

A bit of research into LA hot spots led me to Intelligentsia, a new-ish coffeehouse in Silver Lake. Their mothership may be in Chicago, but the bohemian-hip cafe seemed very much in its element. Eater LA had the biggest part in getting me there. I needed a place to go. They had it. Done.

I shouldn't have been so surprised at the lack of food, but the moist, dense marble poundcake and pleasantly wet cappuccino more than compensated for the lack of harder savories. Plus, I thought the higher caffeine-to-body mass element might make the drive a bit better. (In retrospect, it just made me jittery and more impatient in the city's trademark traffic.) I'm not sure what else to say. The coffee was of the highest calibre. Hot enough, strong enough, pretty enough. The cake was so much more than I've come to expect from places known for their coffee, which is to say it tasted like cake.

It was quite easy to find, and the coffee is beautiful. The barristas grind and brew it on the spot, so it's pretty damn fresh. I found the staff to be quite knowledgeable and friendly. The comments on the LA Times Daily Dish site are moderately entertaining. One person noted that a visitor would never want to drink regular coffees ever again. I wonder if they meant Folger's, Starbucks, or sidewalk coffee trucks.

Question of the day: What is regular coffee, anyway?

There are many more exciting pictures on our flickr site.

September 24, 2007

Riding Shotgun - California (Part 1)

Shortly after waking up at the god-awful hour of 5am, I found myself standing in the cattle-esque Southwest Airlines queue. The drive to the airport went very smoothly, and being able to sing along to some of our favorites (Ben Folds, Guster, The Darkness - I don't care what anyone says about them, I Believe in a Thing Called Love is a classic. A classic.)

It was wonderful getting to see Meg this weekend and witness the marriage of one of my best friends, but now I'm off on a business trip. Five days of tasting the foods and wines of Paso Robles, California, will almost certainly be grueling but someone has to do it. And I will be recording it daily, so keep your browsers peeled (or something).

But we must go back to the present - the airport. I was so excited to see Einstein Bros. bagels in Bradley Airport this morning. I was just relieved that I had a choice of something other than McDonalds or mystery meat airport food. Something that I actually liked. That and their bagels and 'schmear' are actually really decent. Chewy, firm, fresh. Having worked my way through many more unfortunate bagel-like beasts than a normal human being should be subjected to, it's comforting to know that Einstein Bros. seems to be doing well. The cinnamon-suger was what broke that awful nauseous feeling I get when I wake up about 6 hours before I should. You know the feeling; the one where your body is telling your brain that it hates you.

I think we're flying over the Mississippi right now. It's the first time I've seen it in person. It's really quite big. I'll have to check it out on a map once I land in Memphis. [postscript - it could not have been the mississippi, unless we were really far off course. It was probably the Grand Rivers, or Lake Barkley. I'm sure the MS is really impressive too.]

I started reading The Raw and The Cooked by Jim Harrison on the first leg of the flight. It was a gift from my boss after sending me a hillarious quote a few weeks ago. It's a book to be savored and not rushed (thankfully, since I have such a short attention span and penchant for falling asleep on airplanes). Among other things, Harrison is a poet, novelist, and screen writer. I am ashamed to admit that I haven't read anything so poetic in a while.

Snack packs on long flights: useless or godsend? This is not a rhetorical question. I found my Southwest flight snack of dried fruits, miniature cookies, and ritz crackers a mostly useless. It did stave off rabid hunger, but not by much. A lufthansa cheese sandwich would have been really nice about then.

Find these pictures (and more dangerous ones, like me driving) on our Flickr account.

Next time: LAX (rhymes with sux)
Intelligentsia (LA Coffeehouse)
Why Google Maps isn't the best for Paso Robles
and maybe more!

Extra special thanks to frizzlednewt for the airplane picture in the graphic.

September 20, 2007

Beets Rock!

Tonight, I figured it out. I hadn't realized it before leafing through the August Gourmet (trying to find some great skillet-cooked potato recipe). I hadn't thought about my blogging muse before a colleague of mine asked earlier today. Naiveté. Youthful exuberance, perhaps. I came across a recipe for beet carpaccio with goat cheese and arugula and was instantly overjoyed by the fact that I had all three of those ingredients sitting in my fridge. Right then I knew it was a post.

I suppose when I spend $50 per Whole Foods trip I shouldn't be so surprised to find myself with ingredients, but at that moment all the planets had lined up and that beet carpaccio and I were destined to be together, for however short a time.

Local chevre, even local-er arugula, and golden beets. Man, it rocked. I don't even know where to start. Alabama, I've got to hand it to you. Y'all's got some good produce. The arugula from Jones Valley Urban Farm was the most assertive green I've ever eaten. Arugula is typically peppery, but this batch lit my mouth on fire (in a not unpleasant way). And the Belle Chevre goat cheese is available nationally at some specialty retailers. The effusive arugula heat matched the sharp chevre and the mild beets.

Tonight, I repurposed a drink shaker to make my salad dressing. perfect.

Quick Balsamic Dressing (serves 1)

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

2 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

1/8 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1/8 teaspoon dried oregano

1/8 teaspoon dried rosemary (more like a heaping 1/4 fresh rosemary)

Shake and pour. Come on, who needs to buy salad dressing. Remove the strainer from the shaker when pouring. May as well get the herbs.

September 10, 2007

Tackling the F-Word

The dreaded “F-Word”! For some, it conjures thoughts of horror. For those nerds in internet-land, perhaps you see cartoon of men with fantastically tall hair shouting while nothing actually happens for episode after episode and I can’t believe how much time I tried to follow that show for. This, however, is foodie land, and perhaps you see another image. Chicken Tikka Massala, boiled so that it’d have that authentic British flavour (with a “u”). Yes, my friends. Today we go after a sensation that makes some writers want to double their exclamation points in horror… Fusion!

As some of you may remember, (some of you being those who’ve looked at The Gourmetro in the past two days) this week I attempted to create samosas at home. For those who actually finished reading my post may have remembered, my samosas wound up being a bit bland and so I felt the need to create a sauce to go along with them. But what sauce? What would complement this salty potato dish?

When I went to Whole Foods (my trip to find Indian spices), I decided to pick up a small bag of tomatillos. Perhaps it was foresight. Perhaps… madness. Probably!... boredom. I’d never made a tomatillo salsa. I love salsas. My father makes lots of them and I decided to give one of his, a chipotle salsa that perhaps I’ll divulge at another time, a twist. (His is based upon one from Rick Bayless, a fantastic writer of Mexican cookbooks.)

As far as ingredients go, you won’t need many. Tomatillos, obviously. Also, you’ll want dry chipotle peppers (canned will do – with slightly different results), garlic, an onion, and perhaps some lime, depending on your taste.

For starters, we reconstitute the dry chipotle peppers. (Note: this is only for dried chipotles) Use three or four, depending on how hot you want your salsa. You’ll want to toast these in a cast iron pan. Cast iron is preferable because you need the pan to be really hot, and stainless steel just isn’t going to give you the proper sort of heat. Before you get your pan ready, boil up some water. When the water is about boiling and the pan is really hot, pour the water out into a bowl or cup or anything that’ll hold it really. Next up, take your chipotles one at a time and just give them a hard press on either side with a spatula. You should hear a little sizzle on each side. Then, just take them out and put them into your hot water. Let them soak for about 20 minutes.

Next up, the tomatillos. Stick them under the broiler and Get these roasted before you start up. You’ll want to put them under a broiler until each side is slightly blackened, then put these aside. Try and save whatever liquid came out of the tomatillos while they were cooking. The easiest way to do that is to put some tin foil on top of whatever you cook the tomatillos on before you stick them in the oven. When you're done, you can lift off the sheet of tin foil and save all the tomatillos and the juices as well. MMMMM! Juices.

While your tomatillos or roasting, toast up some garlic. To do this, just use your iron pan again. I don’t like to use a lot of garlic in this salsa. It’s a strong taste and you don’t want to overpower the tomatillos. Just use two or three small cloves. While they’re still in their paper, throw them onto the pan until the paper’s a little blackened on a couple sides. Put these aside as well. You’ll also want to sauté your onion in olive oil until it’s a little browned. I used a whole onion, but I’d recommend using a bit less, maybe half an onion.

Once everything’s cooked up, take your garlic out of the paper and cut it up. Also, chop up your chipotles. If you want your sauce a bit milder, feel free to seed the chipotles. Throw the tomatillos, chipotles, garlic and a liberal pinch of salt into your food processor and make it nice and saucy. Then, just throw it into a frying pan with a touch of olive oil and let it all cook together. You’ll want to let it cook together a little before adding your onions to the sauce. At this point, if you want it a bit more citrousy, feel free to add a lime to the mixture. Your sauce is now done.

Mine came out a bit too sweet, probably because I used too much onion and because I didn’t let the sauce cook long enough without the onions. Learn from my mistakes, o best beloved readers.

And now, we get crazy. I put the tomatillo on top of the samosas. I know. Crazy. Mexican and Indian foods were really never meant to mix, but for some strange reason, I thought it worked. The tanginess of the tomatillo really added to the saltiness of the samosas. I can’t say that my stomach’s going to be too happy with me tomorrow, but I think that’s why god invented antacid tablets.

Experiment with your own sauce, learn from my mistakes and come up with something fun. Your stomach will hate you, but your tongue may give you birthday presents. I’m off to buy more pepto. And milk. Enjoy, my aching belly.

September 9, 2007

Somewhere between good cooking and cookbooks...

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and I know that most of you out there in internet-land don’t notice when a fresh face arrives on the Gourmetro, but I think I’ve developed a sort of calling card around here, and I think it’s time for me to write a preface. The stuff I’ve blogged about has three things in common: it’s easy, it’s cheap, and it’s unhealthy. What I am about to go into here is neither easy, nor cheap. However, it is entertaining. And unhealthy. Fabulously unhealthy. Enjoy.

Elizabeth and I recently passed our two year anniversary, and I got exactly what I wanted. Cookbooks! Three of them, to be exact. She had me pick them out. One is interesting, but a little bit useless. One is possibly the greatest cookbook that you could own. Marcella Hazan’s Esentials of Classic Italian Cooking which YOU SHOULD HAVE ON YOUR SHELVES!! I already yelled at Skip once for not knowing who Marcella Hazan was and I’m reminding him again: Marcella is awesome. Seriously. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. What I want to talk about is Yamuna Devi’s The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am nuts about Indian food, especially Indian appetizers. I have long dreamed to be a master of Indian cookery, and I think it’s going to be a long while before I am. I made Samosas once before while I was staying with with my buddy Burfy in Houston and we had a blast making them. This time, however, it was just me and Devi.

I should mention that I am not a cookbook aficionado. I tend to use the web for my recipes. However, I thought it was time to expand my repertoire, and this was certainly an expansion. I mention that because I have to say something about this cookbook. The biggest problem with my experience making samosas was Devi herself. She’s terribly unorganized and seems to write as though you should already know everything you need to know to make whatever dish she’s bringing you through. I’ll explain as we go.

Before we get started with the actual cooking ingredients, let me say that there are a few things you’ll need for this cooking which you might not have. A wok or karai is one. A karai is an Indian sort of pan which is kind of like a semi sphere. It’s very deep, and you need a deep frying pan for samosas. I don’t have a karai. Woks are much easier to find and I would recommend one. You also need patience. A lot of patience. Devi thinks that you should be able to get the samosas prepared in an hour, but since I work and only have a couple of hours a night, it actually took me several days to get my samosas made. You’ll also need to make a trip to a health food store or Whole Foods to get spices.

Now then, two recipes here. First is Devi’s, and second is how I faked it.
1 ½ cups unbleached white flour
¼ cup farina
½ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons mint-lime butter or unsalted butter, softened
6 to 7 tablespoons ice water

Just to cut in for a second. I should mention, because Devi didn’t, that these are the ingredients for the crust of the samosas. I mention that because she mentions salt again in the coming ingredients, and I didn’t notice, so I used the wrong portion of salt in the crust. Like I said, she explains really badly. Anyway….

1 ½ teaspoons black mustard seeds
2 tablespoons mint-lime butter, ghee, or unsalted butter
2-3 hot green chilis, seeded and minced
½-inch ginger root, scrapped, finely minced and shredded
¼ teaspoon yellow asafetida powder
6 medium sized potatoes, boiled, diced, peeled, and cut into ¼ inch dice
1 ¼ teaspoons of garam masala or chat masala
2 teaspoons salt (SEE! RIGHT THERE!!)
1 teaspoon raw sugar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander or lemon basil
flour for dusting
ghee or vegetable oil for deep frying.

So! Lots of stuff. I used too much potatoes. Also, I wound up putting the two teaspoons salt into the dough instead of the potatoes. Besides that, I couldn’t find fresh coriander, so I used powdered. Couldn’t find black mustard seed so I used yellow. Also, I had no luck finding yellow asafetida powder (also known as “hing”), I skipped the sugar, and I added in about a half jar of this Madras red curry sauce I found at Whole Foods.

The dough itself is pretty easy to make. Basically, you combine the flour, farina (I used Cream of Wheat which worked just fine) salt and butter in a mixing bowl. A note here. Mint-Lime butter is easy to make if you have a food processor. You put in your butter, some fresh mint leaves, about half a lime and just process the crap out of it. If you don’t have a food processor, that’s fine. Use regular butter, the results will be about the same. Mix up the dry ingredients and the butter by hand, and keep on just working it all together until it’s sort of like heavy bread crumbs. Then, just start adding ice water, mixing up the ingredients, and adding ice water again until it gets to be a nice hard dough. Kneed it for a few minutes, and then form into a ball, rub some oil into it, and cover it up. Keep it in a dry place until you’re ready to actually make the samosas. If you’re like me and it’s going to take you some time to actually get the samosas made, cover it up tightly and put it in the fridge or freezer. You’ll have to wait until it’s near room temperature before using it again, but it stays fine for a couple days.

For the filling, start out by heating up the mustard seeds until they are “jumping in the pan”. At least, that’s what Devi says. Really, you should start by getting your potatoes ready. See, Devi thinks that just because she lists it in the ingredients, that means she doesn’t have to remind you in the actual “this is how you cook this” to boil, peel, and chop up the potatoes. That’s something that bugged me about her. She cuts corners and it’s annoying. Her not cutting corners and perhaps mentioning the portion of salt you use in your crust instead of just saying, “add the salt” could also have saved me from my previous mistake. But she didn’t. Anyway, once your potatoes are boiled, peeled and chopped, put your mustard seed into a nice big frying pan and heat them until they start to jump. At that point, add in the green chili peppers, the ginger, the asafeita and the butter or ghee.

STOP! Do NOT use ghee! It is one of the most vile substances you will ever encounter. I’m sorry if you’re Indian and you’re offended and maybe this is just a New York Jew whose pallet is not sophisticated enough to understand, but ghee is the most disgusting thing in the universe. You say to yourself, “This is authentic, it must be good.” But it’s not. It smells awful from the moment it touches the frying pan and still smells while you’re trying desperately to get it out of the pan seconds later. The smell stayed in my kitchen for a full day and a half afterwards. I washed my hands like fifteen times because I could still smell the ghee on them. I can’t describe to you why ghee is so vile, I can only tell you that it’s gross. Use butter, use oil, use any fucking thing that isn’t god damn ghee.

Anyway, after you’ve scraped your pan free of ghee, started again and put in something rational instead, keep on cooking the mustard seeds, chili, and asafeita until the mustard seeds change color. This shouldn’t take that long, and if it seems like nothing’s changing after a minute or so, just go on to the next step. Add in the potatoes, the garam or chat masala, the salt, and the sugar. Stir fry it all for a couple minutes. It was also at this point that I added my half jar of Madras. I wasn’t originally going to use it, but without the asafeita it seemed a bit to bland and at this point, I had realized my mistake with the salt and was desperately trying to fix it. I blame Devi’s written organization skills.

Once the filling is cooked up, take it off the heat, put it to the side, and let it cool to room temperature. It was at this point that I stopped the first night. You can too. It’s fine. Wrap the potatoes and put them in the fridge if this has taken you too long. If you’re like me, the next part will take way longer than it should.

Get out a nice straight bladed knife, a rolling pin, and some flour. You’ll also want to have a bowl in front of you filled with water. Take your dough that you had previously wrapped up and roll it out into a rope about 14 inches long. Cut the dough into fourteen equal sized pieces and cover them all up with a damp paper towel or cloth. Devi suggests that you also break your potatoes into 28 equal sized pieces. It’s a decent idea, but it winds up taking a while and it isn’t really necessary. Dust your work surface with flour. This next step you’re going to do with every single one of your fourteen pieces of dough. Hopefully the dough’s a little wet, but if it isn’t, that’s ok. I wound up actually dipping every piece of dough into my bowl of water and working the water into it until it was a little sticky before working with it. Roll your piece of dough into a nice ball. After that, mash it into a little patty on the dusted work space. Then, you take your rolling pin and as well as you’re able, flatten and flatten your dough until it’s a circle, maybe six inches across. This next part's confusing, so I’ll type as slowly as possible.

Cut your circle in half. This is the dough for TWO samosas, so when you’re working with the first of your two new semi-circles of dough, don’t worry about the other half. Wet the straight line you just cut across the dough so you can turn it all into one cone of dough. You want to fold the dough in half, connecting the straight edge to itself. Make sure that the dough is smoothly connected. You want as few holes as possible in the dough. If you’re able to get through that mess of grammar, fill the cone about two thirds or maybe a touch more with potato mixture. After that, connect the wind end of the cone together using moisture, pressure, and smoothing. Put your uncooked samosa to the side.

When you’ve done that with all your potential samosas (there should be 28 of them) fill your wok at least an inch high with vegetable oil or, for the sense masochists out there, ghee, and put it at about a medium high heat. For me, it took an entire 32 oz bottle of Crisco Vegetable oil. Like I said at the top. Not cheap. I mean, it only cost like 4 bucks for the bottle, but for god sakes, I needed the entire bottle!

When the oil gets hot, just fill it up with samosas. You’ll want to turn them maybe once, but just keep them in there until they turn a nice brownish color. Then, you’ll want to drain them for a bit on paper towels. Depending on how well you combined the pieces of dough, they’ll need more or less draining.

The samosas turned out pretty well for me. They’re super greasy, just like they ought to be. The salt balance is off, but I’ve already explained that. Actually, I do think that you need more than just the half teaspoon of salt in the dough, but I think one would have been fine. Actually, they came out a little bland, but I have high hopes that with a nice tomatilla sauce on the side (I’m making one for the first time tomorrow, I’ll blog about it and how it works with the samosas later) it could make a really nice little meal.

So, what did I get out of this experience? First off, I don’t think that Devi’s cookbook is all bad, because I actually do like the samosas. I don’t think I’ll do her next recipe so haphazardly, I’ll need to write down every step for myself and see if it all makes sense first and maybe reorder what there is to do, but maybe I should learn to do that anyway. It’d certainly save me time if I want to blog about it later. But I think we should remember that cookbooks are put together, on the whole, by chefs and not by writers, and chefs may not know shit about structuring a piece of writing.

If you need a chef who’s also a writer, a friend of mine from school named Adam Roberts has just put out a book from his own food site, The Amateur Gourmet. Adam’s a good guy and I’ve used a couple of his recipes myself. But I think the biggest lesson is one that I’m only starting to learn now. If you want to experiment with Indian cooking, say goodbye to ghee, and hello to Pepto. I’m in for pink, but my left over samosas just tell me to buy more bottles.

September 6, 2007

Cold reboot (and how)

I can hardly believe it's been over a month since my last post. It hasn't been for lack of eating. I've done some of the best eating in my life, let me tell you. Babbo is an ultimate gustatory experience. Eat at Babbo. If you have to wait for three hours, it's still worth it. Nothing has tasted the same since. No joke.

But this post isn't about Babbo. I know you'd all like to hear about the sardines with lobster reduction oil, linguine with clams, the roasted octopus salad, the beef cheek ravioli with crushed squab liver, or the saffron panna cotta (but not the rabbit), but that's not what I'm here to talk about today.

That's because I'm no longer in New York City. And while Birmingham, Alabama does have its culinary high points, Babbo's not in the cards. My Gourmetro writing is returning to my nearly counterless kitchen. It's for the best. Y'all have lots of people writing about New York restaurants anyway.

So, last night was the first time I'd cooked for myself since I left Apple Fifth Avenue (August 8). I was really busy packing, saying goodbye, driving 1200 miles, unpacking and beginning a new life for myself in the Deep South. It's been an interesting transition.

Since I arrived here on the 22nd I'd felt no desire to cook for myself. In the beginning it was natural, since all of my supplies were either in boxes or still in-transit, but it didn't abate as I settled down. It worked out, in a way, since I got to [heavily] patronize the local establishments and learn about the neighborhood, but I knew that I couldn't make such a habit of eating out. And why would I want to? After one and a half years of Gourmetro, I am confident that I can make very decent food at a fraction of the restaurant prices.

For the occasion, I gave my new Cooking Light All-New Complete cookbook a try with their curried chicken salad and vegetable couscous. It's really hot down here (92 degrees at night), so I opted for the Whole Foods rotisserie chicken. It was a good choice, I think, because one 3-pound bird was enough to double the recipe (to about four servings, as far as I can tell).

When I finally sat down to eat the salad, I was let down. And a bit pissed. In my three or four years of cooking, I can think of only a few times when I'd been completely dissatisfied with something I'd prepared (the $80 scallop dinner for two is still probably the most disappointing). Bland, sticky and sweet.

In addition to the chicken, the recipe calls for pineapple, grapes, apples, and currents. The grapes completely overpowered everything else and I could hardly detect any curry. Lame. I'd omit the grapes next time, and up the curry. Hell, I might double the curry. And the currents -- a good idea -- were much too chewy. Not so distracting that I'd leave them out, though.

As a postscript, I had the chicken salad again today for lunch as a wrap with lettuce. It was much, much better. The grapeyness was mellowed out by the lettuce/radicchio and the whole wheat wrap. Perhaps the salad belongs in a wrap.

The couscous salad was another story. Really excellent. It came together quickly, seems healthful, and tasted quite good. The one real issue I had with the recipe was that it called for a packet of 'Italian Dressing Mix,' and that, I couldn't abide. I converted the .6 ounce package details to 3.6 teaspoons (which I upped to 4) of dried basil, oregano, rosemary, and parsley. It worked out quite well, I think. (and when am I ever going to use up those dried parsley flakes...) The end result was moist and just tender enough, though next time I may bring the boiling water down from 1 1/2 cups to 1 1/4 (as it recommends on the box).

We'll see how the couscous fares tomorrow at lunch, but I expect it'll only get better.

**pre-post update**
So as I wrote this post, I hadn't realized that I'd forgotten to add the feta. So I added it, and today at lunch I was quite disappointed to discover that it made the salad worse. Yes, adding cheese made the couscous worse. It's bizarre. Try it without the feta first.