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Sunday, March 9, 2014

Eating My Way Through Portland

I had the opportunity to visit Portland, Oregon for the first time last month, and as excited as I was for the training I was doing, I was even more excited to hit up a dining scene I had been hearing about for years. Fortunately, so much has been written about Portland (especially since the debut of one of my favorite TV shows, Portlandia) that I had no trouble making a list longer than my arm of all the places I wanted to eat.
But first, I had to decide on a hotel and I made the right choice with Hotel Lucia. The staff was incredibly helpful, the rooms were modern, stylish, and comfortable...
...and the hallways featured the largest permanent collection of work by photographer David Hume Kennerly.
 A cozy living room features more art...
...that continues into the lobby, which is worth visiting just to browse the collection. 
And you have to see the tight-whities made out of silver Crayola crayons. Interestingly, even though it was in a case, you could smell the waxy crayons if you got close enough.
Another great thing about the hotel was walking right next door to Imperial by Vitaly Paley. I didn't stop in until my last night, and only had a drink, but what a drink it was! The "Chef's Breakfast" had aged rum, falernum, becherovka and cinnamon. 
The staff was friendly, and I was entertained watching the bartender chop ice from a huge block (on the red tray), and talking to the nice couple next to me who were about to move to Hawaii.
My second favorite dinner of the trip was Tasty & Alder, which took two attempts and getting there early in order to get a seat at the bar. A delicious dinner of cavatelli with a rich, slow-cooked meat sauce, a glass of a fantastic red blend from Ransom winery in Oregon, and a chocolate potato donut with creme anglaise for dessert. Now that was a proper meal!
That being said, my meal at Nostrana was the best of my trip. It shared a lot of qualities with Pizzeria Mozza, but without the urgency and claustrophobia. I loved everything about this cozy, sophisticated place--the bread and fresh California olive oil, the wide-ranging Italian wine selection that included a dry sparkling rose, the polpettone pizza with lemony meatballs and delicate house-made mozzarella which is served with a pair of scissors to cut it...
...the house-made pappardelle with goat cheese and beets, and the "Pizzeria Mozza Butterscotch Budino." Yep, they actually called it that. And I don't blame them for having it on the menu, it's the best dessert ever. Nostrana will be on the list again for next time I visit Portland.
I had to get to the famous Pok Pok on my visit, after reading so many hyperbolic descriptions of the food, in particular, Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings. I have to say, they really were as good as everyone says. Now to try the recipe at home...
And considering my work, I had to try the Som drinking vinegar. The bartender mixed up a cucumber version of the sweet & sour soda flavoring. I was expecting something a little more bracing and less sweet, but I could see how these drinks could be interesting.
Hair of the Dog Brewery was next door to my training location, and I stopped in to have a small glass of one of their "from the wood beers"--a barrel-aged ale with currants.
My last night I decided I had to sample the storied food cart cuisine of Portland. I found a pod at 4th & Stark with a cart called Chez Dodo that featured Mauritian cuisine, which, according to the sign, is a blend of African, French, Chinese and Indian flavors. When would I ever have a chance to try Mauritian cuisine again? The owner was incredibly sweet and he fixed me up a huge plate of pan-fried noodles, with a garlicky curry sauce and fall-apart tender chicken. 
So what was I doing in Portland anyway? I was there to learn everything there is to know about coffee, espresso, steaming milk, and opening a coffee shop from American Barista & Coffee School.
Did I learn everything there is to know? Maybe not, but I think I'm off to a good start. And now I can work as a barista if things at my day job don't work out!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Sichuan Fragrant Duck, Duck, Goose from Hank Shaw

Sichuan Fragrant Duck from Duck, Duck, Goose
Remember when I wrote that I don't do cookbook reviews? Well, after almost five years of writing A Beach Home Companion, I recently got a chance to write about Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese for my friends Stephanie and Garrett. Now I have the chance to write about another friend, Hank Shaw, from Hunter Angler Gardener Cook.
His second book, Duck, Duck, Goose, arrived at my door just before Thanksgiving, but it wasn't until a couple weeks ago that I finally got to cook a recipe from it. It was a bit of a hunt, even here in Orange County, to find duck breast for the recipe. I found plenty of frozen whole duck, but the recipe for Sichuan Fragrant Duck called for just the breast. So, if you are trying to find it yourself, Bristol Farms has fresh Muscovy duck breasts from Grimaud Farms.
Anyway, back to the book itself. Duck, Duck, Goose is a book that someone who has never seen a duck before could pick up and easily become a proficient butcher and cook of duck. He'll walk you through duck varieties (including photos), how they taste, their use in recipes, how to pluck them, and how to break them down (with photos as well).
You'll start with recipes for the whole duck or goose, beginning with a simple Slow-Roasted Duck all the way to Peking Duck--"the Mother of All Duck Recipes." Then it's on to "Pieces," where you'll try your hand at Duck Jagerschnitzel, Goose Meatballs, and Mexican Duck with Green Mole.
Though I haven't cooked any of the recipes in the "Extras" section yet, I particularly enjoyed this section, which makes use of the giblets (heart, liver and gizzard) and fat to make Duck Liver Ravioli, Ganseklein, Smoked Goose Sausages, and Duck Fat Saffron Aioli. Hank relates how he was not a big fan of the innards before he became a hunter, but came to see the necessity of using all parts of the animal he killed. Now they are among his favorite parts of the bird, having learned how to cook them to bring out their unique flavor. I can personally attest to Hank's love of the "extras," having tried bone marrow and lamb fries (testicles) for my first time with him a few years ago. While they weren't the best things I've ever eaten, Hank was gleeful as he ate them, and I was glad I had the opportunity to try something I normally wouldn't have tried.
Before Hank started writing about well, hunting, fishing, gardening and cooking, he was a political journalist, and you'll recognize that in his precise and intelligent writing style, which leaves you with no doubts about how exactly to wet pluck a duck with paraffin wax. But his friendly, personal side comes through in his stories about hunting with friends, his loving notes on the recipes, and historical and informational sidebars.
If you are anything like me, you'll love the photographs by Hank's long-time girlfriend and hunting partner, Holly Heyser. I think it's important for many of these unfamiliar recipes (like Red-Cooked Duck or Salmis of Duck) to be illustrated, and Holly's photos are not only instructive, but beautiful as well.
So, after finally scoring some duck breast, I tried my hand at the recipe that I thought I would enjoy the most--Sichuan Fragrant Duck. It has some specialty ingredients such as chile bean paste and Chinese Black vinegar, but if you do any amount of Asian cooking you'll have them, and even if you don't, they are common staples at any Asian market. I also picked this recipe because it calls for "velveting" the meat, a process of marinating it and passing it through oil quickly, then stir-frying it a second time. It keeps the meat exceptionally tender, and I've been using this method with chicken since I first read about it on Hank's blog.
I loved this dish because the combination of onion, sesame oil, vinegar, chiles and ginger was assertive enough to stand up to the earthy duck. You got a little of everything in each bite--sweet, sour, salty, spicy. As Hank puts it, "a spicy umami bomb."
I'm looking forward to getting outside my comfort zone and working on more of these recipes. I'm not sure I'll get around to shooting and plucking my own duck, but a girl can dream.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Palm Springs and the San Jacinto Mountains

There comes a point for some people when making big plans for New Year's Eve is about as attractive as scrubbing out the bathtub. Sure, there was a time when I wanted to go to a club, stay up all night, and not recall what happened the next day. But that period ended for me when I was about 25. Nowadays, if I have a couple days off I want to go to a good restaurant, shop for vintage stuff, and share a nice bottle of wine with Anson. Yes, I am old, but I'm okay with that.
So this past NYE, Anson and I carried on our new tradition of a local road trip and returned to Palm Springs.    
I can't go to Palm Springs without doing a little vintage shopping, so our first stop was Victoria's Attic Antique Mall in Cathedral City, a few miles southeast of Palm Springs. Sure, there are really pricey, mid-century stores all along Hwy. 111 (Palm Canyon Drive) leading into Palm Springs, but this was a true vintage shop, with great prices and enough merchandise to keep someone like me busy for hours. I bought two beautiful Japanese cork-topped ceramic storage jars for the kitchen for $18.
We moved on to downtown Palm Springs, which was bustling with people on this summery winter day. The main drag through downtown is Palm Canyon Drive, where you'll find dozens of independent restaurants, fudge stores, "resort wear," galleries, and bars. We had a relaxing lunch at Kaiser Grille, where we sat on the patio and had a front-row view of the busy sidewalk.
The biggest draw in downtown Palm Springs seems to be this three-story statue of Marilyn Monroe, which was installed last summer in honor of the 50th anniversary of her death. It was fun to watch the crowd of people patiently wait their turn, and then step up to be photographed between her legs. Full disclosure--had it not been so crowded, we probably would have done the same.
By late afternoon, it was time to move on to our destination--The Mojave Resort. We found this hotel several years ago and have returned a couple times since to take advantage of the great location just off the El Paseo shopping district in Palm Desert (about 15 miles southeast of Palm Springs), the really reasonable room rates, and it's mid-century modern charm.
The fireplace was really the clincher for us. But the large, comfortable bed, mid-century furnishings, friendly staff and a generous continental breakfast with delicious coffee certainly don't hurt.
No matter how cold (and yes, it gets cold in the desert), we always spend some time in the little hot tub.  The front desk will happily provide you with plastic cups enjoy a glass of wine tub-side.
The Mojave Resort, like many in the area, is a remodeled classic motel, and as a result the oversized rooms include a private patio that opens onto a center courtyard. No shoebox rooms with a view of the rooftop air conditioning unit here.
And in the center of the courtyard is a trapezoidal pool for cooling off, if you happen to be there any time other than the winter. 
We dined at Matchbox that night to celebrate our ninth(!) anniversary. Good thing we made reservations because the restaurant was packed with the panicked-people-desperately-feeding-toddlers crowd. Luckily, we were seated on the balcony, where we scarfed down a delicious meatball pizza and spicy sausage pasta.

After a cozy night watching Kathy Griffin and Anderson Cooper in Times Square, warmed by our fireplace and red wine, we decided to take the long way home--south through the San Jacinto mountains. 
First, we made the steep climb on the "Pines to Palms" Highway 74 where we looked back on Palm Desert and the San Gabriel Mountains in the north. In most years, you'll see snow-topped peaks up there.
Then, slowly, the road leveled off, and we found ourselves in a totally different landscape of pine trees, tall grass, horse farms, and...
...Lake Hemet! We never would have guessed there is a lake at the top of the mountains. As I was reading up on the area after, I learned that the San Jacinto mountains are considered a "sky island" because of the vast difference between the ecosystem in the mountains and that of the valley floor. Now you know too.
Hippie tree hugger.
And after a brief detour through the charming town of Idyllwild, we came out on the south end, overlooking the San Jacinto Valley. From there we descended to the valley floor, ending up in Hemet. A quick stop at our favorite winery, Hart Winery in Temecula, with Anson's parents and we were on our way home from a whirlwind trip to the desert.
After living in Southern California for 20 years it's nice to know there is still more to explore.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Wedding That Made Milwaukee Famous

Anson and I were lucky enough to have a reason to travel to Milwaukee last month--one of my dearest, oldest friends, Zoki, got married to a wonderful man, Michael. Both were originally from Milwaukee, and since neither Anson nor I had ever been to Milwaukee, we were excited, not only for the wedding, but to see one of the meccas of traditional American brewing culture.
The wedding was held at The Best Place, the former offices and entertaining facility at the Pabst brewery. The Best Place references Jacob Best Sr. who established the original brewery. 
Captain Frederick Pabst, who gave the brewery it's name, and brought it to prominence.
Anson took the tour of the brewery and was told the style of architecture is called "German-Victorian".

We stayed next door at the Brew House Inn & Suites, the former brewing facility that has been turned into a eco-chic, steam-punk hotel.

The adjacent, empty buildings from the large brewing complex have yet to be restored, still retaining the patina of over 150 years.
We happened to travel on my birthday, so I brought one of those bottles of wine you save for your birthday. I had to laugh as I unpacked the wine and set it down next to the Pabst Blue Ribbon ice bucket. 
We had dinner at Distil Milwaukee, and I was delighted at their creative take on my favorite salad--the Cobb. Where is the egg you ask? It's that battered, deep-fried ball on the bottom right. Curiously, the yolk was still liquid.
Zoki and Michael did not miss a detail in their planning of the wedding, right down to the welcome bags that greeted out-of-town guests--New Glarus beer, Ellsworth cheese curds, and Usinger's sausage. And that half-eaten monster you see there? That was a home-made pretzel at Jackson's Blue Ribbon Pub, the restaurant attached to the hotel. It's worth visiting Milwaukee just for that pretzel.
We ventured outside the Pabst complex to Lakefront Brewery, and came across some local characters.
The beautiful bride, right before walking down the aisle.
Anson and I looking our best, at The Best Place.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Drooling Over "Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese"

Penne with Garrotxa, Serrano Ham, and Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Book reviews are not something I usually write on my blog. In fact, I've never written one ever. I typically stick to photo-heavy posts about our vacations, food photography and my connections to the recipes. You know, personal stuff.
But this book review actually falls into that "personal stuff" category, as the authors of "Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese,"Stephanie Stiavetti and Garrett McCord, happen to be personal friends of mine. (Here we are with the fourth corner of our square, Casey Barber, author of "Classic Snacks Made From Scratch.") Not only do these three all have a special place in my heart since we met at Food Blog Camp, but macaroni and cheese also has a very special place in my heart. So, here goes with my first cookbook post!
Photo: Matt Armendariz
First off, it must be said that this is no regular mac 'n cheese cookbook, unless "regular" in your world is having a selection of Redwood Hill Smoked Goat Cheddar, kefalotyri and aged Mahon on hand to whip up a quick weeknight dinner for your kids. You will find recipes in this book, like Brillat-Savarin with Pears, Fennel & Torn Croissant Topping and La Tur with Conchiglie, Nectarines & Apricot Jam that will make you rethink the whole idea of "macaroni and cheese" and what it means. As much as I love the blue box, this book plays in a whole different league.

Besides the out-of-the-box interpretations of a classic comfort food, the depth of information about cheese and pasta and the resulting magic that happens when they're combined is astonishing. Every single recipe begins with a description of the cheese and the key ingredients in the dish. This is one element I hope for in every recipe I read, and is evidence of both authors' blogging backgrounds.

You'll find sidebars about raw milk cheese, terroir, crusts and much more. There's even a cheese quick reference guide in the back! If you never cook a single recipe from this book, you'll walk away from it knowing more than you ever imagined you'd know about cheese.

But what I like most about this book is the warm, conversational prose. I hear both of their voices variously as I read through the book. (You can experience a little bit of their personalities in this cookbook trailer.) Their explanations are authoritative yet friendly, high-brow yet humble. I keep paging through the book, randomly turning to pages, just to read the recipe introductions. 

So free your fancy cheese from it's prison on that cheese plate next to the water crackers, pick up a copy of "Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese," and call your friends for a dinner party. Just be prepared to have them invite themselves back over!

To win a set of Le Crueset cookware, check out this giveaway celebrating the release of "Melt"!