Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Calamari Please Hold the Ketchup

In the last few weeks I’ve been hit with an overwhelming craving to eat calamari, aka “fried calamari in the typical fashion." To me that translates to breaded rings and tiny tentacles of squid that are deep-fried and served hot and crispy. When I refer to calamari I am never referring to grilled calamari on top of greens or that newish fad of calamari sticks—a stack of breaded calamari planks that when picked up flounce up and down like a rubber pencil. Nope, those latter types of calamari are just not for me.

Calamari is one of those proteins in which I suspend my disbelief about 80% regarding what I’m actually eating. What can I say, I could barely look into the famous and breathtakingly gorgeous jellyfish tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and while I know that jellyfish are not quite the same as squid, still, this type of creature is not what I like to imagine ingesting with full cognitive awareness. Calamari is squid after all, and personally I do not find squid attractive to look at or think about chewing. That said, the tiny tentacles pieces on a typical fried calamari plate is pretty much the squid sticking its tongue out at me proclaiming, "See, how could you NOT know you're eating me, the squid." Alas, how true, and that is likely why 20% of my brain always gets that eating delicious fried calamari equals eating pieces of a once squiggly, icky squid.

Could be why most savvy restaurateurs in these parts call the dish fried calamari instead of fried squid. In this food blogger's opinion, that move was a little dose of menu engineering magic on menu pages everywhere. This not-obvious word appearance on an appetizer list could even lead McNugget-eating youngsters to try some, even if in the end it doesn't quite taste like chicken.

A while ago I blogged about the best calamari ever, and that would be from Carmine’s in NYC. Their fried calamari isn't just a culinary delight; it's also a cultural one. As I wrote in 2009:

Carmine's, by www.foodspotting.com
 “The famous calamari appetizer arrives on a white platter measuring roughly a foot and a half long. The calamari on the platter is piled about 6 inches high, and this is why you shouldn’t be shocked that the ever-climbing price for the best calamari in the city is now topping out at $25.50 a plate. No one can finish this on their own, so the thing to do is order it, eat what you will, then pick a neighbor to your left and/or right to pass it down to when you’re through. That is what’s done, almost expected, and is all part of the homey feeling inherent in the place. The best is watching the shocked and pleased faces of newbie tourists crammed at the bar anxiously waiting for a table, when you start to pass down the calamari, look 'em in the eye and say 'Please, I’ve had enough. Enjoy.' Even when you've had your fill, the platter looks untouched! So it is a little confusing for sure. But by the time the tourists nervously utter “oh, um, that’s ok” the bartender has already moved the platter in front of them and insisted on your behalf, to which the tourists take a sigh of relief that New Yorkers are ok afterall while they start chowing down on their free calamari.”

It's also fun to enjoy calamari when it's co-starring in fritto misto. Then you get other treats beyond fried squid. My new favorite spot to get this dish is a local wine bar in the Los Feliz neighborhood of LA called Vinoteca. The dish there is called Frito Misto di Pesce, it costs $13 but during happy hour is only $7! This is a great deal considering the dish consists of perfectly prepared calamari, soft chucks of white fish, shrimp and spicy zucchini. I’ve had it about three times now, and two times ago I was halfway through eating it when I realized the shrimp were missing. I asked the server if the kitchen changed the recipe. She checked with the kitchen and came back to my table to shrug and say something refreshingly honest: “They just forgot to put the shrimp in this time.” That was good news on two fronts: 1) Turns out they make each batch fresh, and 2) The shrimp hadn't been removed from the dish. As I was leaving that night, the kitchen insisted they fry up some shrimp for me to take to go as a way to apologize. Not necessary, but a very nice touch.

The other place I just realized makes fine fried calamari is Dominick’s in Beverly Hills (it's the sister restaurant of Little Dom's in Los Feliz). I'm usually in that neighborhood Monday evenings, so a few weeks ago I stopped by and thought it was time I try something other than their famous rice ball. Dominick's calamari was straight-up what you would expect from a very good Italian place, and it did not disappoint. The dish also went especially well with a dirty Grey Goose martini.

From my experiences in this country, calamari is served 95% of the time with marinara sauce on the side. With the exception of Carmine’s, I almost never dip my fried calamari into that sauce. To me, it’s like dipping my food into thick fancy ketchup, which in my opinion hides the true taste of food. The only reason I may use some of that Carmine’s sauce is because there’s so much calamari on that plate, your palate needs a little something to break up the fried monotony (not to mention Carmine’s sauces are always amazing so it’s hard to deny them). Of course it is never my intension to ignore that little ramekin of red sauce and hurt the chef's feelings. It's simply that I prefer to eat calamari in the traditional Italian style: with a demure squeeze of lemon, from the slice that is always included on the plate. The acid in the lemon helps break up the fried monotony too, yet it doesn’t cloud any of the flavors; it only enhances them.

It should be noted that I completely respect the fact that most people wouldn't dare eat a plate of fried calamari without marinara sauce. These same people—most people—wouldn't eat a burger and fries without ketchup either. Live and let live! I just think some things taste great as they are. Of course there are degrees and levels to everything and to some people, I'm the nut in the first place for covering up the true taste of squid with breading and deep-frying it. Hmm, I can see their point. Well, the glories of fresh grilled squid is another topic for another day, but not on my blog.

Until we eat again,

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Salty & Sweet

Food and Wine's milk chocolate tart with pretzel crust

Now that this blog's grad school hiatus is officially over, I can tell you about one of my all-time favorite pleasures. It is the taste of salty and sweet on the palate, and here are just a few of the ways to enjoy this:
  • the Canadian tradition of dipping bacon into maple syrup
  • a cheese plate with wine and some salty & sweet accoutrements  
  • adding plain M&Ms to movie theater popcorn (some prefer M&M peanut)
  • the trend of adding salt to caramel and other desserts: 1) here is a recipe for a caramel sea salt tart from Saveur magazine in 2009; 2) you can buy bittersweet sea salt chocolate chip cookies online now from Saint Cupcake in Portland, and you should! One of the best cookies I ever tasted.

My favorite salty/sweet combo has got to be chocolate-covered pretzels. Chocolate paired with the salty crunch of a pretzel makes more sense than many things in this world. Their coming together is as relevant as the food marriages of bacon and eggs, steak and french fries, chocolate and peanut butter, and all those other popular flavor combinations we now can't live without. When people think of chocolate and pretzels, the result is often smiles and visions of old-time summer carnivals.

The combo has always been popular, and in 2004 it entered the mainstream when Hershey’s introduced its Take Five bar. This was seen by my chocolate-and-pretzel-loving family as a brilliant addition to our blasé national candy mix. Things don't change often in the candy aisle. Most "new" candies are simply adaptations of a Reese's or a Snicker's, since those are the top-selling candy bars in the country. The Take Five was refreshingly new, and it made this favorite flavor combination both accessible and reasonably priced. The addition of peanut butter and caramel fit like a glove, and people really liked the combination of silky and crunchy, salty and sweet.

So it makes perfect sense that in the last few years pretzels have become the new salt, and therefore the new darling of pastry chefs. Incorporating pretzels into desserts is the rage, and customers are as happy to find such desserts as they were in the '90s when restaurants started putting s’mores on menus. My initial exposure to pretzels in cuisine was in the '90s too, when I read about chef David Burke's unique new dishes like angry lobster and chicken with a pretzel crust. His creative use of "pretzel as menu ingredient" was definitely ahead of its time.

Sprinkles peanut butter pretzel chip
The first time I noticed pretzels in pastry was while leafing through a 2009 Food and Wine magazine in 2011. I came across a recipe for a milk chocolate tart with pretzel crust (see photo above). At first I experienced a kicking-of-self moment for not making this when I read of it two years earlier, and this was followed by relief—hey, I can make this now! Which is what I did at my friend Jen’s house. (Part of this was recorded in a short video clip.) It took awhile to make but it was worth it—what a tart! The only thing I noticed is that the pretzel pieces on top soon became soggy. That was also the case last Tuesday when I bought a delightfully chunky peanut butter pretzel chip cookie for $3 at the Sprinkles Ice Cream store in Beverly Hills. That’s right America, there is fattening food for sale in La La Land. People eat what they want and then go hiking is all. Or get lipo.

Mesa Grill's chocolate pretzel tart
So pretzels are appearing in magazine dessert recipes now. One could always buy or make chocolate-covered pretzels, and this was a welcome twist on the theme. I don’t think pretzel desserts are too far-spread yet, which is why I was thrilled in Las Vegas last month during dinner at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill. An item from Clarisa Martino’s dessert menu was tattooed on my brain before the plane even landed in the desert, so I made it very clear to my party that this particular dessert would be my destiny that night: "chocolate pretzel tart with spicy peanut butter and chocolate swirl ice cream." Seriously, they had me at chocolate pretzel, and spicy peanut butter flirted with me too. Someone else at the table ordered the same, because the desserts seemed too small to share. The result was a dessert at the high-end of the chocolate/pretzel continuum: a chocolate brownie sitting in a buttery pretzel crust with a molten moat of chocolate sauce to soften the blow. Did I know where the spicy peanut butter part existed? Nope, and I didn't care. This was a humble yet spectacular dessert featuring various textures and temperatures, and complimentary flavors.

What I liked too about the Mesa Grill dessert is that there were pretzels in the crust, like the tart above, and the crust was crunchy. The crushed pieces of pretzel in the crust may not be crunchy as they were in their original form, but after being mixed with flour and butter and baked, the pretzel bits transform into a crust that one envisions as having the same crunch of a pretzel. Not so in the case of Sprinkles’ peanut butter pretzel chip cookie, which had a crunchy fabulousness when I ate the one half on day 1, yet on day 2 the second half lost most of its pretzel crunch! Lesson: always eat the whole cookie, heck especially if you live near mountains or plastic surgeons.

Marly's dipped pretzel cookies
After making the chocolate pretzel tart in 2011, the crust tasted so good I decided to experiment and make cookies out of it. (Let me know if you'd like the recipe.) And next time I venture into the kitchen to make cookies, I'm going to try to make a version of the Sprinkles peanut butter pretzel chip, with pretzel pieces, some peanut butter and chocolate chips too. But I don't want my pretzels to get soggy, since my willpower and desire to fit in clothes will not allow me to eat all the cookies in their pretzel-crunchy state in one day. So here's an idea: instead of pretzel pieces, I'll mix in pieces of chocolate-covered pretzel. This will protect the pretzels from getting soggy and allow me to enjoy the cookies days later with no less crunch.

Until we eat again,

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries...

“Cough," I said. "Cough cough.” It seemed natural enough to cough my lungs up at Rite Aid, where I arrived much in need of some cough syrup. Not even a week after the big spider bite (consensus says it was most likely a black widow), I had picked up my first case of bronchitis, and who knows if this was due to my body fighting off spider venom or because of several hours spent in the most crowded and poorly managed ER in Los Angeles County.

The coughs notwithstanding, at least I could still roll my eyes at the typical drug store scenario of each and every bottle of cough syrup being cherry flavored. Cherry flavored? How come the children's cough syrup is grape flavored? Adult cherry cough syrup is so vile that pharmaceutical companies must clearly only take pity on coughing children since they're the only ones given a less repulsive flavor option. As an asthmatic child, I was in need of cough syrup often and it was always cherry flavored and thankfully my parents usually bribed me to take it down with a YooHoo chaser.

I spent most of my life hating cherries by association. Which is ironic considering my sister and I spent our early years singing "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries" at the Newark Y where my great-grandpa George ran the stage show. I remember loving that song, but the lyrics suggesting a positive association with cherries was lost on me. All I knew was that cherries equaled disgusting sick medicine, a fact I've been reminded of since as my mom's favorite throat lozenge is cherry and each time I visit she inadvertently puts a cherry lozenge in her mouth and its potent perfume leaves me no choice but to leave the room (thanks Mom :P).

One of life's pleasures is that not all foods become part of an eating repertoire at once, and that can lead to a fun discovery process over time. Chicken liver was a Jewish staple that I despised growing up, so the first time I had no choice but to try seared foie gras at a business dinner in 1999 (the client ordered a round of it for the table) I truly feared for my tastebuds. To my surprise, the dish was euphoric and despite any lingering duck guilt I try to enjoy it every couple of years.

The same goes with oysters. A plate of them were put before me for the first time at a Rockefeller Center tasting meeting with management and chefs in 2000. When I winced at the plate, my new boss suggested without words that I was a miscreant. Hoping to nip his assumption in the bud, I tried one. To my surprise, those fresh oysters were so incredible that now I'm a huge fan, especially when they're served with a good mignonette.

I remember the first time I tried dates, at a Brooklyn farmer’s stand around 2001. The stand's old hippie proprietor shoved a date-covered vine in my face and said, "Go ahead, try one." That first Medjool was a big slap in the face for all those years of self-inflicted date deprivation. Since then I've eaten them as a snack and made really good sticky toffee pudding with them. Which reminds me, I still need to try a local date shake in Indio, California.

Now the experience of trying fresh cherries for the first time was different than trying other new foods, only because I'd hated the idea of cherries for so long. It probably happened in New York City during a late 1990's summer at a farmer’s market, when the abundant bounty of summer fruit was everywhere along with samples. I gingerly bit into a Bing and to my amazement it was nothing at all like that horrid syrup from youth. It was just a delicious piece of fruit!

That became the summer of cherries. My friends were perplexed as to why I was obsessing about this ubiquitous fruit they’d known and loved all their lives. But it was new to me. At the market I bought dark and robust red Bings and sometimes the tart, pale yellow and pink-tinged Queen Annes to snack on or make pies with (frozen cherries work well for that too). But like most new toys, cherries eventually were taken for granted in my life. I still like them a lot, especially with all their antioxidant health qualities, but to be honest it's hard to eat a bowl of cherries for dessert when Ben & Jerry's is lurking in the freezer.

Last summer I took a day trip to the Villa del Sol cherry farm in the Leona Valley to reacquaint myself with these luscious berries. Only an hour and a half northeast of Los Angeles, having the ability to go to a cherry farm is one of the many benefits of living in Southern California. You basically just walk through the entrance, grab a bucket and start strolling the rows and rows of cherry trees and gently pluck away. I happily collected a 2/3 Bing and 1/3 Queen Anne mix. The idea was to get cherries and go home and make turnovers as if I were McDonald's. When my bucket was appropriately filled for my needs, I casually walked the rows back to the entrance. But then I saw a big tree branch hanging low due to so many ripe cherries on it, and those cherries looked different than the others I’d already picked.

The cherries on this tree had the color and shape of little hearts. I tasted one and fell in love with it (is that why it's shaped like a heart?). It had a more refined flavor than the other varieties, like a cherry plum. And the fact that it literally looked like a heart was just kinda cool. Too bad my bucket was already brimming with cherries, but wait! I had to make room for my new favorite, this mystery cherry I'd likely never see in a market, since I'd never seen it before. (Here it is, between the Queen Anne and the Bing in this photo.)

On the walk out of the farm I asked an employee what kind of cherry this was, and he said it was most likely a Brooks. Ok. The next day I made cherry turnovers using all three types of cherries. It was an important reminder that one should never judge a cherry by its incarnation as cough syrup.

Until we eat again,

Friday, October 21, 2011

Toffee Love

Candy lovers are people I can really relate to, ahem, because I'm one myself. One thing about candy lovers—besides their need for dental work—is as much as they get excited by all kinds of candy, there’s usually one sweet in particular that rocks their world. For instance, my sister is drawn to caramels. Another friend of mine loves sour candies. Others love licorice. Candy lovers usually have at least one must-have item in a candy store, and for me that has always been toffee.

No, not taffy or that kind of thing; I’m talking about traditional English-style toffee, with its sunburnt golden hues, slicks of chocolate on one or both sides, and some kind of nut sparingly integrated throughout. Toffee should be lightly crunchy and even a little gritty when chewed, not sticky or gluey as can be the case with peanut brittle. A good toffee is dental-work safe! It will crunch and then soon dissolve once bitten. Overcooked toffee is a sad thing, stuck in a candy purgatory between what toffee should be and peanut brittle, and that's no good.

The simple matter is that brittle is called brittle because… it is brittle. It gets that way because it’s cooked slightly longer and/or to a higher temperature than is needed to achieve toffee—although some recipes use the same cooking temperature for both toffee and brittle, and this fact probably confuses both of us. All I know is the butter/sugar combo of brittle has simply caramelized more than the kind of toffee I like. Great toffee lives in a place between caramel's softness and brittle’s brittleness. I can't eat brittle anymore. It’s not worth the risk and my dental hygienist would not be happy. Toffee, however, is still fair game.

My first toffee memory is from the college years during the "chocolate overdose period," recounted in the "Overdose" post. After the initial order from Nestle's International arrived, other chocolate companies sent catalogs to my address, and eventually I sent a check to Nancy’s Candies—a local candy shop in Georgia—to try what they were apparently best known for: chocolate pecan crunch.

If a perfect toffee exists in this world, one that sets the bar and palate at a high level of expectation forever, it's Nancy’s. Why? One reason is it only has five ingredients (butter, sugar, chocolate, pecans, salt), it's DELICIOUS, it’s perishable-fresh and it’s cooked perfectly every time.

How gratifying to know that 20 years later, even after Nancy merged her kitchen with Linda and then both were bought out by Katy, the candy shipped out today from the small city of LaGrange, Georgia (pop: 25,000) tastes exactly as amazing, exactly as toffee-perfect as it did the first time.

I’ve tried to recreate Nancy's chocolate pecan crunch many times at home and many times succeeded. It doesn't always work. In Santa Fe I thought my friend would love it, yet the elevation was apparently too high to produce a toffee batch that didn’t curdle (this realization occurred to us after the 3rd attempt).

Los Angeles isn’t a great place to make toffee either, or maybe just not in my kitchen. The sugar and butter never quite merge in the pot, and I wonder if this has anything to do with the dry LA air or the opposite: my apartment sits directly over the laundry room. Who knows. All this means is I stopped trying to make toffee at home—better for my waistline, better for my teeth!

If you like toffee, here is a short list of personal faves:
  • Nancy's Candies (per above) - Their website is pretty sparse, but you can call to order or just ask them to send a catalog. Either way, they’ll ship out a silver tin of chocolate pecan crunch (or pralines, etc.) and you will not be sorry.
  • See's Candies – Classic California old-fashioned candy maker that offers several toffee options: the Victoria toffee, milk or dark California brittle, and white chocolate cashew brittle are all thick, crunchy toffee goodness. If you buy online, buying a 1 lb. “nuts and chews” box will net you some of the brittles (they chew closer to toffee than brittle to me), or you can buy the Victoria toffee on its own or create a custom box.
  • Littlejohn's Candies – Right before moving to LA, a Burbank friend shipped me a box from this homey sweets shop located at the Los Angeles Farmer's Market. Littlejohn’s makes fantastic toffee, and their fudge is really good too.
  • The Toffee Box – Just tried this California-made toffee at a chocolate show and fell in love. Their delicious “classic dark chocolate” toffee is very close to Nancy's, just with walnuts instead of pecans. Their white chocolate macadamia nut version gives the classic kind a run for its money.
  • Valerie's Confections – While the toothsome toffees of this charming LA candy/bake shop are a bit more costly than others (except you Roger's of Victoria), it's for good reason. Each piece is a purposeful and exceptional square of the perfect height, flavor and crunch; all come with a flavor flourish of some sort and the chocolate dip couldn't be finer. They offered me a few free samples to review for this blog, so I tried their signature almond fleur de sel and it was fab. However it was their seasonal pumpkin seed toffee that truly blew my toffee mind. Gotta go back & get me a 6-pack of those ASAP.
There are other well-known chocolate companies that make tasty toffee, I just happen to prefer the places above for that. And if you don't feel like buying toffee, you can always try to make some yourself! My old college roommate Nanci (I know what you're thinking, but she is not related to Nancy of Nancy's Candies) once sent me an easy toffee recipe torn from the pages of Southern Living magazine (this version looks close), and here's a recipe from Sunset magazine that looks good too.

Now this post isn't suggesting I only eat toffee or my sister only eats caramels (she plans to try "ghost pepper bacon toffee" at a NJ shop soon). My candy adrenaline simply shoots up higher when this favorite is in sight, in the same way my blood pressure shoots up momentarily after a dental X-ray is taken to see if there's any damage. It's a yin and yang relationship and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Until we eat again,

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Danish Red Pesto & Fried Bacon (or Pork?)

While studying in Aarhus, Denmark for three weeks this summer I pondered the possible titles for this upcoming blog post:

"Starving in Denmark" (so expensive to eat there, which is why the photo above is of a cheap meal I made at home), "The Land of Leggings" (de rigueur fashion element for women of all ages), "World Wide Web" (so many spiders and their webs!), or "Allergies my Allergies" (they owned me and my puffy face).

But, since this is a food blog it made more sense for the title to refer to the two regional food items I loved most on the trip:

1. Red Pesto
This condiment is popular in Denmark! I found it at our school cafeteria next to the mayo and mustard. Thinking it was spicy harissa I took a bit for a burger and it sure was something else. A chef walking by seemed surprised for my red pesto lust, then kindly gave me the recipe: "It's just dried tomatoes, olive oil, salt & pepper." This thick red puree is like a Danish foodie ketchup that I never knew existed and now can't live without! Though to locals it's just "(yawn) red pesto," to me it's a new toy.

American recipes for red pesto start as a recipe for green pesto (basil/nuts/olive oil) just with sun-dried tomato pieces added in. The Danish kind is not that at all. I attempted to make it at home using paper-towel-drained canned San Marzano plum tomatoes even though the few online Danish recipes I saw contained sun-dried tomatoes, because I imagined sun-dried would kill my food processor and when the chef said dried tomatoes he could have meant fresh tomatoes that were dried. Well I got that wrong. My resulting "red pesto" was like a thick fresh tomato sauce that kept weeping tomato water. Still good but not like what I had. I'll try sun-dried next time.

9/17 addendum: After a month I finally figured out the red pesto recipe (see photo). Anyone interested just lemme know.

2. The mysteries of stegt flæsk vs. flæskesteg
Before coming to Denmark I thought of an old food magazine article—"Danish Christmas"—in which a beautiful pork roast with a crackling top was served to a family in a modern country home. This article left an impression, so I really wanted to try this dish during my stay. Lovely Danish classmate Julie (pronounced yule-yah) said the dish I was looking for was called "stegt flæsk med persillesovs," literally translated via my laptop to "fried bacon with parsley sauce." Hmm it made sense, since the top of the pork looked fried like bacon.

Menus across the city did not often list this dish and if they did it cost $40 which was too much (the town didn't take kindly to U.S. credit cards). One day a man giving us a media house tour said the best traditional Danish restaurant in town was the only place the Danish royal prince dines at when he visits Aarhus. Score! A plan was made, though when I mentioned this to my professor he said it was only a Monday-Friday lunch place, when we were in class. Sigh. That's when local classmate Jarle suggested Raadhuus Kaféen instead. So housemate Kami and I ended up there on my third-to-last night in town, and they served the dish I was seeking for $25.

Everyone in Aarhus, Denmark knows English, but in spite of that our waitress had trouble translating the dish for me. I asked if it was fatty. She said yes but I can cut it off. No problem. Then just as I thought we understood each other she said, "We also have it as a roast. Would you prefer that?" (She was apparently not a big fan of stegt flæsk med persillesovs!) This confused me even more because I thought I was getting a roast in the first place. In any case, I had to get what Julie recommended, which for weeks had been living on a slip of paper in my wallet so there would be no misunderstanding.

The dish set before me truly amazed me because it was in fact fried bacon, a big fat dish of it! I felt terribly rebellious for eating so much thick fried crunchy bacon, topped with cream sauce no less! It was glorious and made me very happy. My vegetarian dining companion was supportive even though she thought I was a little crazy. The next day I told Julie about my good fortune at Raadhuus Kaféen, plus the part that I thought I had ordered a roast. She explained, "Ah, there are two versions of the dish. One is a roast, and one is like you had it (because I showed her a picture)." Ah. All right then.

Once home I looked for that old article about the pork roast and crackling. Couldn't find the original but this one shows what I imagined quite well if you scroll down through the photos to the recipe. The name of this dish is flæskesteg (sorta the same as stegt flæsk just reversed + "e" - "t"). Translated it means roast pork. So I translated stegt flæsk again in LA, the dish I ate, and this time it also translated to "roast pork" instead of "fried bacon." Can I get a consistent desktop translator please?? In the end I guess you have to be Danish to thoroughly understand how to order the version you want. Even though I didn't get the literal roast pork, lucking out with the fried bacon was okay by me! For more info on the fried bacon version click here.

3. Additional food and beverage highlights of Aarhus

These crunchy rye crackers were made at local bakery Det Gyldne Brød (not too hard to translate that one ;). Not only did this wonderful place take Amex and sell cheap coffee, they also made these satisfying regional Danish crackers blanketed with dense layers of sesame or poppy seeds (in either black or tan). These sturdy, toothsome crackers beat the pants off of dry and dull WASA bread.

Danish Butter Cookies
The best I experienced here were made with brown butter, nuts and vanilla and were only offered after paying a hefty admission to Den Gamle By or The Old Town. The bake shop was filled with lots of delicious cookies and just as many angry bees (they must have had good taste). The butter cookies are in the photo in front along with traditional crispy sugar pretzels in back. These cookies were soooo good I had to keep going back for more.

Nils' cookies
My German housemate Nils surprised us all one night when we discovered a tabletop full of his homemade chocolate chip cookies. Not sure what to expect from this young Ph.D. student, I was actually awed at the tasty and uniquely textured cookies he produced. With so much praise (and 2nds, 3rds and 4ths) Nils kindly gave me the recipe, which he got from a friend. I figured the simple secret must be that he made them with high-butterfat Danish butter, something I can easily buy at Whole Foods.

8/21 addendum: Now I know why my expectations were so topsy turvy with these chocolate chip cookies... it's because they are actually an oaty shortbread cookie with chocolate chips. I figured this out while gathering the ingredients and seeing there was no egg or cup of sugar in the recipe like regular chocolate chips. The butter binds it, the oats add texture and bulk, and the chips flavor it. Wunderbar!

Sigfred's Kaffebar
This is the Intelligentsia (Los Angeles) or Stumptown (Portland) of Aarhus, Denmark. Artisinal coffee beverages made with light roasted beans for SO MUCH MORE MONEY THAN STARBUCKS OMG (small latte for $7 anyone?). I couldn't afford this luxury more than twice, and they didn't take U.S. credit cards like Det Gyldne Brød, though I have to say it was one of the smoothest cups I've ever had.

• Turc Kebab
There must be a lot of Turkish immigrants in Aarhus, because Turkish street food ran rampant in this town. On a lazy Saturday I took a chance at this place to buy a rolle kylling (chicken roll) for 35 kroner (I told you, $6.76 is a high price for street food). Had to get this chicken thing two times because it was delicious! Unlike other stands that have cold chopped chicken in a bin, this guy caramelized his chicken in a sauté pan all day until the wrap was constructed. Beyond regular toppings like lettuce, tomato and onion, you could also add fried onions, hot sauce or the magnificent green garlic sauce. Who cares if I only got one napkin and probably stained my jeans with the dripping juices...this was one great lunch!

Summerbird Chocolates
A Danish chocolatier that is light on added sugar and heavy on creativity and marzipan. When a nice salesman at a department counter heard I'd never tasted Summerbird he offered a free tasting along with coffee to cleanse the palate! That was definitely a trip highlight. Summerbird highlights include their flavored coated almonds (which come in pretty colors like silver, purple and yellow), chocolate filled eggs, and especially their original chocolate tapas and chocolate sushi box collections.

Det Gronne Hjorne (The Green Corner)
After my first week of starving I discovered this Turkish all-you-can-eat place for only $19 per person + free water!! (a Denmark rarity). Housemate Kami and I went twice because we liked it so much. Then on my second-to-last night I attended a pre-paid school event where students go out for dinner and drinks. They announced the destination-to-be on the day of and I read it was Det Gronne Hjorne. Ugh... Good for two meals, but not the place for every restaurant meal in a city! Some school friends and I found this quite amusing.

Danish Pastry
Sorry Aarhus, your Danish pastries were nice and so much better than the kind at home, but alas they were no match for the pastries of Copenhagen experienced in 2005. When I asked why this was, someone explained the royal family likes to live among the citizens, so they drop in at various Copenhagen eating establishments unannounced. This is why every restaurant and royal pastry shop in the country's capital must always be at their best. That's good for Copenhagen, but left my need to experience a second euphoric Danish pastry experience, per my Danish Danish post, a little unfulfilled. The forms were similar, but the taste was not as special. Note: the marzipan hazelnut square in the photo from Fremtidensbager was distinct and delightful.

Die Kleine Bierstube
My only trip regret is that I went to this fantastic German beer hall and restaurant on my very last night in town and not sooner. The atmosphere was perfectly Scandinavian in blonde wood (like the original Aquavit in NYC) and homey biergarten decor. And so many kinds of fresh German beer—wheat, lager, dunkel—flowed at the right price. On my last night I went there for hefeweizen-on-tap and good conversation with housemate István. Die Kleine Bierstube was so gratifying I would be there every night if one existed at home (sorry Red Lion). If I had a personal trainer and chauffeur that is ;).

Until we eat again,

Thursday, June 9, 2011

It's Time To Eat the Doughnuts!

A "30 Rock" episode from a few years back really illustrated the show's pulse of the times when Alec Baldwin's character brought Jennifer Aniston's character up-to-date on the latest in New York. He said, "Welcome to New York. Let's see, we're using credit cards in cabs now, all the galleries have moved to Chelsea, and we're off cupcakes and we're back to doughnuts. Would you excuse me for a moment?" (He probably ran off to get some doughnuts.)

When cupcakes hit New York there was some dabbling around in it by all. When doughnuts hit, that was better. People can make a great cupcake in their kitchen, but a doughnut? Nope, when doughnuts were back in vogue Krispy Kreme was the one-stop shop. One tiny bundle of glazed "hot now" did the trick and gently wafted in memories of sugary childhood delight.

Krispy Kreme was key in this doughnut history, but the place that truly elevated New York doughnuts was Mark Israel's Doughnut Plant. Each time I visit the city, a stop at the plant is a fixed agenda point. I've tried several flavors including their Valrhona chocolate glazed, mango glazed, lavendar glazed (below left), and on this latest trip I experienced doughnut heaven in a coconut cream-filled with coconut glaze number (below right). Yayayaya.

(Still to try: the blackout, the tres leches, and the stellar crème brûlée doughnut.)

It's hard to give justice to these doughnuts, but I'll try. They're so good because they are light, spongy mostly yeast-raised puffs (they have some cake doughnuts too); everything's organic; and the toppings are seasonal, fresh and creative. The oil used for frying lingers in the dough just enough and takes the texture when you bite in to new heights. The doughnuts (except for the crème brûlée mini) are huge. The price for the quality you're getting is right too ($2.50?). And if you're dieting it's ok, you only live once.

I knew I was gonna miss the Doughnut Plant when I left NY, so imagine my surprise to discover LA has a long-standing famous doughnut culture of its own. A native resident first took me to Bob's Coffee & Doughnuts at the LA Farmer's Market. Omg these are doughnuts. Moist and fluffy, rich in flavor, with special shapes and glazes for kids. The coffee really works here too, with a bunch of varieties for $1 including a Kona blend from Hawaii (and free parking validation). Biting into a Bob's doughnut with a smooth cup of coffee while lounging outdoors in the farmer's market is pure heaven.

When the conversation in Los Angeles turns to doughnuts, which it often does, it's good to listen:

  • A professor introduced Spudnuts doughnuts to me when he brought some to a meeting. These babies are toothsome with just the right texture due to the addition of potato flour.
  • I'm not sure where I heard of Primo Doughnuts, but they came with high praise and the day I trekked to find them their street was being repaved so I had to carry on doughnut-less.
  • On mornings when I'm really lazy I'll just drive over to, that's right, a 7-11 and pick up the local-fave maple bar (long doughnut with maple glaze) or a mere glazed chocolate. Why not, it's a good doughnut! And because doughnuts are big in LA, even a measly 7-11 takes their doughnuts to better places than in other towns.
  • Once after a hike (you have to hike here due to all the doughnuts), an acquaintance said the best in town is The Donut Man in Glendora. Where? This place east past Pasadena, kinda far from home but not too far for a gastronomic road trip! The praise is for The Donut Man's way of stuffing fresh glazed fruit– strawberries or peaches–into doughnut shells. A wonderful thing! A foodie friend in town last April drove all the way out there with me so we could get our doughnut on. Alas The Donut Man is not open on Easter (we happened to drive out there on Easter). So like Primo's, will have to try again. Here's a little video of The Donut Man's doughnuts (from 1:13 note the maple bars) fyi.

Why is there such an affection for doughnuts? Maybe because they're so delicious, the perfect little package of soft and sweet, a quick homestyle dessert that tastes just as good when you buy them than when you make 'em at home. Come to think of it, most people don't make doughnuts at home. Our marker for what a good doughnut is most likely comes from an authentic experience at an old diner or doughnut shop. It's one of the few times I know that the best version doesn't necessarily come out of a home kitchen, which is ideal on a Sunday morning when I'm too sleepy to bake.

Until we eat again,


Monday, April 25, 2011

Foodie Redemption

This past Friday I had the pleasure of dining at Shahnawaz Restaurant with a group from the USC Office of International Services. It was the last meeting of the OIS Diner's Club for the year, and also the last time one of its leaders—@MarciaonTour from Project Quinn class—would have the chance to host such an event at USC.