Sunday, May 31, 2009

Spring in a Bowl

Farmer's Markets around the area have been open for about a month now. But produce in May is usually on the light side. No peaches or cucumbers yet. Strawberries aren't quite here. Tomato plants are just starting to flower.

Spring produce is all about the color green. Peas are choice right now. The English shell peas are such a tasty snack. And everyone loves cracking open the shell to find the spherical sugary treasures inside. Asparagus has pushed its crown straight up through the dirt. But now is the time to snag these veggies because the season is short!

I've been trying to fit in a new recipe here and there from "The Art of Simple Food" by Alice Waters. A while back I tried the minestrone and thought it would be a good idea to do the Spring variation when the time was right.

Minestrone is Italian for "big soup". There are countless variations, but the idea is to add lots of different veggies and some beans at different times in order for everything to be cooked properly at the end. Something to note...this recipe refers to the term "soffritto" which means the basic aromatic vegetables in the soup. You may have heard of the French "mirepoix" (usually carrot, onion, and celery).

Here is the Spring Minestrone:

Heat in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat:

1/4 c olive oil


1 large onion, finely chopped
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and cut into bite-size pieces

Cook the soffritto for 15 minutes, or until tender. Add:

4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped (or 2-3 stalks of green garlic)
5 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
2 tsp salt

Cook for 5 minutes longer. Add, and bring to a boil:

3 cups water or broth (go for the broth!!)

When boiling, add:

2 small leeks, diced

Simmer 10 minutes, then add:

1 c shell peas (a little over 1 lb in the pod)
1/2 lb asparagus, trimmed and sliced on the diagonal into 1/2 inch pieces
1 can cannellini beans
More water as necessary

Simmer 5 minutes, then add:

2 c spinach leaves, coarsely chopped

Cook 5 more minutes. Remove the bay leaf. If the soup is not to be eaten right away, cool it down quickly in an ice bath so the asparagus doesn't lose its bright green color.

Serve in bowls, each one garnished with:

2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil (soooo good)
1 TB grated Parmesan cheese

In addition, I thought this soup would be great with a big crouton in the middle! It tastes just like spring. The only downside is, with all that work, you might just forget that this is just a really great soup, essentially an appetizer or a light lunch. I'd recommend a little protein along side of it.

Happy Spring!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Birthday in Bothell

Saturday night was a birthday celebration for my bff. Our sweet husbands let us go out by ourselves! Her choice was newish seasonal/local spot in Bothell (yes, Bothell!) by the name of Preservation Kitchen.

A stylish classic brick house turned fine-dining establishment (the Kaysner Estate), PK offers the main restaurant, a bar, and two private rooms upstairs to accommodate all kinds of diners.

We were seated in the pretty dining room detailed in dark woods and warm earth tone paints. A fire was blazing for ambience, I presume, but having been a warm day outside, I was quickly feeling the heat!

Perusing through the appetizers, we opted for salads. The birthday girl ordered the house salad, simple greens and some cherry tomatoes topped with a goat cheese-smeared crostini. I opted for the arugula (but they were out, so it was spinach) salad with pears and shaved Manchego cheese. And since I mentioned longingly the crostini, the waiter kindly brought me out my own goat cheese goodness!

My friend was eyeing the Ling Cod entree, but they were out of that, too. However, the chef was substituting Halibut for the Ling Cod, so everything worked out there. A beautiful piece of fish, seasoned oh-so-well, on top of homemade gnocchi and asparagus diagonals all topped in a magnificent beurre blanc sauce. Va bene!

Oh, that I had ordered that as well. I really wanted a bit of meat. But I was trying to channel my inner-husband, coming to the conclusion that he would get the Wild Mushroom Risotto. It was alright, but soooooo peppery. Even some big chunks of black peppercorns. And after I was about halfway through the bowl, I was out of mushrooms, a little sick of rice, and really wishing I had a little protein to accompany my dinner.

But never fear, dessert was on the way. The birthday girl was very enthusiastic to see the dessert menu. Her favorite sweet obsession came from Preservation Kitchen. Coffee-flavored donuts with donut-flavored cappuccino. To her utter disappointment (and it was a lot of disappointment!) the item had been removed from the menu several months earlier.

We wrestled with the decision...Strawberry tart or S'more made with homemade graham cracker and marshmallow? The S'more won out. The presentation was pretty...almost reminding me of an ice cream sandwich between two cookies drizzled in warm dark chocolate sauce.

What did the homemade graham crackers taste like, you ask? Well, something like a mushy spice cookie. Not a bad flavor, but definitely not very "crackery". And, in my opinion, homemade marshmallows are best enjoyed in their cooled phase...once they are melted, they could easily pass for "jet puffed".

All in all, Preservation Kitchen would be a great place to check out if you want to stay local and seasonal on the Eastside. Just make sure you try a protein.

Happy Birthday, K!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Senorita Huevos

Yes, this was once (briefly) my nickname. Nine years ago I decided to be industrious and take a science course during the January break of Interterm at my university. Natural History via a three week camping trip in Baja California (Mexico) seemed like just the thing to appease those credits...especially for a fine arts major!

The group was divided into daily chores, rotating every day. A few days into the trip, I was on a breakfast team. Scrambled eggs were on the menu and I was determined to show off my cooking skills, considering that I was to be married in a few months. I must have felt like I had a lot to prove.

The eggs were probably overly dry and not that flavorful, but those campers didn't care or didn't know the difference. They kept coming back for more, particularly some of the bigger guys. And I was aiming to please, perhaps to be known as the good cook in camp.

So, more eggs went into the pan. In fact, we cooked up every last one of the dozens of eggs in the food cooler. Well, I was pretty proud of myself until the science prof and trip coordinator bellowed, "What happened to all the eggs?" mean those were supposed to last us the whole trip? Uh oh. It was no secret who had kept the eggs cooking. That terrible proverb "pride comes before a fall" rang loudly in my ears (at least it should have!).

From there on out, I was humorously referred to as "Senorita Huevos"...Miss Eggs.

I never knew that eggs weren't supposed to be brown and rubbery until an episode of Top Chef a couple of years back when Gail Simmons wouldn't shut up about how much she hates overcooked eggs.

After that night we tried some new recipes, particularly Alton Brown's method in "I'm Just Here For the Food"...a French double boiler action. The eggs and cream and salt were all combined and then cooked together. They were good and our first experience with moist and luscious eggs.

But it was my husband who wanted to try another method. HIs favorite chef (Gordon Ramsey of Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares) demonstrates a totally different way to cook scrambled eggs. He portends that the eggs should not be mixed with cream or salt before cooking as the salt breaks down the eggs somehow. The following recipe is his method with a little bit of our own touch!

Scrambled Eggs

6 eggs
A TB or two of butter
A touch of cream
A touch of sour cream
A good pinch of salt
Freshly snipped chives

Sorry for the subjective amounts, but this is the creative process here!

Break the eggs into a smallish saucepan adding in the butter, stirring over medium heat with a spatula. Break the yolks and fold the eggs constantly (think "risotto"). The eggs will start to firm up, turning into curds.

When they are just set (not dry-looking!!), take them off the heat. Stir in a pinch of salt to taste and a bit of cream (not too don't want them to be runny) and a dallop of sour cream.

Run out to the garden and cut some chives. Snip them on top of the eggs. Serve over a crusty piece of sourdough.

Unfortunately, cooking these eggs in a stainless steel saucepan will make for some messy clean-up. It sticks like something nasty. Make sure your husband has a good scratcher pad when he's washing the dishes!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Just Say No To Yucky Labels

For a while now I've been wanting to discuss a certain term applied to those of us in the culinary blogging world. No doubt you can guess what word this is.


Every time I hear this word, I cringe a bit. Not that I don't enjoy learning about and appreciating food, but, ewwwww, if I don't absolutely hate being pigeon-holed by a word like that! I mean, what happened to upscale words like "connoisseur" (and yes I had to spell check that one) or "aficionado". In contrast, "foodie" is so base, so much like the Wal-Mart Americana that has replaced quality and refinement in our country.

But, in addition to the cringe-inducing sound of the word, I am uncomfortable with its close association to "gluttony". This unpopular term is largely ignored in modern American culture as our sensitivities to calling someone else or ourselves being called fat. With such a national obesity crisis, I propose that "gluttony" (one of the seven deadly sins, mind you) be reinstated into our modern vernacular.

And, in the "foodie" world, gluttony needs to be expanded to include "delicacy" as well as "excess". So whether you are thick or thin (my children like to remind me that my Mii firmly falls into the "overweight" category on our Wii Fit), the vice of gluttony may be yours. You can be a glutton on good food as well as bad.

Let me leave you with a passage by that ever-so-smart and painfully relevant C.S. Lewis from The Screwtape Letters (1942). If you haven't read this very tongue and cheek short novel, let me give you a little background. It is supposed to be one devil (Screwtape) writing letters to his nephew devil (Wormwood) giving instruction on how to best tempt his "patient" into sin, and ultimately hell. It's very funny and viciously convicting. Even the most non-religious would find it an insightful read into human behavior.

"One of the great achievements of the last hundred years has been to deaden the human conscience on that subject [gluttony], so that by now you will hardly find...a conscience troubled about it in the whole length and breadth of Europe. This has largely been effected by concentrating all our efforts on gluttony of Delicacy, not gluttony of Excess. Your patient's a good example. She would be learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed from her by that fact that the quantities involved are small. But what do quantities matter, provided we can use the human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern?...She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile 'Oh please, please...all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.' You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognises as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. At the very moment of indulging her appetite she believes that she is practising temperance...

...The real value of the quiet, unobtrusive work...on this woman can be gauged by the way in which her belly now dominates her whole life. The woman is in what may be called the 'All-I-want' state of mind. All she wants is a cup of tea properly made, or an egg properly boiled, or a slice of bread properly toasted. But she never finds any servant or any friend who can do these simple things 'properly' -- because her 'properly' conceals an insatiable demand for the exact, and almost impossible, palatal pleasure which she imagines she remembers from the past...

...Now your patient is his mother's son...Being a male, he is not so likely to be caught by the 'All-I-want' camouflage. Males are best turned into gluttons with the help of their vanity. They ought to be made to think themselves very knowing about food [feeling any conviction yet fellow foodies?], to pique themselves on having found the only restaurant in the town where steaks are really 'properly' cooked. What begins as vanity can then be gradually turned into habit...

...Mere excess in food is much less valuable than delicacy."

Well, there is no way I can compete with such an articulate Englishman! And lest I become legalistic, a pendulum swinging in the opposite direction to "Good Food Doesn't Matter", I will continue to cook and write to the best of my abilities. Good food with loved ones is meant for our enjoyment. Pleasure is good and comes from the Creator. But the abuse of any pleasure needs repentance so we can get back to joy!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Grill it Whole!

Chicken again, I groaned...the steak-lover in me longing for a fix.

Alas, big juicy steaks are a rare commodity in my freezer. Well, let's do something special with that chicken. Forget the adobo, forget the braised thighs. Let's grill the whole bird!

During the day on Friday, I got the chicken ready. Washed it, removed the "bits" (my husband asked me to save those for skewers next time...we've been watching too much of No Reservations lately!). Pat dry and get out the kitchen shears, those heavy duty scissors that come with most knife sets. Flipping the bird so that the breasts were down and the back bone up, I cut my way straight up the spine and with a few cracks and pops opened up the chicken flat.

Then for some seasoning. Sprinkled it generously with kosher salt and some freshly ground black pepper and then massaged it with some olive oil. Hmmm...maybe that was backwards...better add some more salt and pepper!

Into a pan into the fridge, ready for dinner that night.

But, as things rarely go according to my was to be a grocery shopping night. We were totally O.U.T.! of everything. Oh well, it'll be fantastically seasoned for Saturday night, I thought.

After a long walk down to Lake Washington to enjoy the beautiful shining orb in the sky, we decided on an earlyish dinner Saturday night. About 3:30, I got the chicken out of the fridge to let it warm up a bit before grilling. This is a very important step to proper roasting and grilling...the meat MUST not be refrigerator-cold!! It will not cook properly. So, warm that bird up to room temp (or at least close to room temp--it'll take 30 minutes to an hour).

A few minutes before I deemed my bird warm enough, my sweet honey lit the grill. This was after chasing down some propane. The gas station down the street has been out twice now! Very irritating when you're halfway through grilling something.

Oh, and during this resting time, I embellished the chicken with a little more flavor. More salt and pepper, some garlic powder, and just a bit of paprika.

Onto the hot grill it went, bone side down for about 10 minutes. Flip it onto the skin side for another 10 minutes to brown up the skin. It may get a little black in places, so be careful. Then flip it back to the bone side for 5 minutes, doing the flippity-flip every five minutes until you've reached a grand total of 35-40 minutes on the grill. If it looks to be browning too much, scoot it over to a cooler part of the grill.

Remove the bird to a platter, cover loosely with foil and let that baby rest for about 10 minutes. This is just enough time to saute up some fresh green beans with garlic and lemon. I also served mine with some potatoes roasted with olive oil, salt, and pepper (400 degrees for around an hour).

This chicken was just the thing to whet our appetites for summer. The crispy brown skin and the moist meat were soooo good. Nothing dry about this bird!

Of course, we needed a little summery dessert. Naturally, I've been eyeing the strawberries, fully aware that the Northwest season is almost upon us. And you know how a few weeks before the NW strawberries arrive at the farmer's markets you find yourself salivating for those juicy, sweet, red all the way through berries only to settle for those large, bland tasting, white-cored California poser strawberries?

Yeah, that's what I did. But sliced up and sprinkled with a bit of sugar, left to marinate during dinner...they weren't too bad! Plus, we went old-fashioned and poured a tiny bit of cream over the top. Strawberries and Cream! Yum.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cream Cuisine

We're in that most fortunate of the end of the pay period with a 1/2 gallon of heavy cream. I'm a little embarrassed to admit to such a thing in my refrigerator. I like to think that I cook mostly healthy foods. Although, a large percentage of my blog posts seem to be about baked goods requiring inordinate amounts of butter, I swear those are the exceptions!

It just so happens that they are much more interesting post material then spaghetti or salad or toast or leftovers. They are special occasions enough that I'm excited about them.

So back to that cream...last week was Teacher Appreciation Week. I volunteered to bring scones to the teacher's lunchroom. Vacillating back and forth between Dorie Greenspan's Scones and the Boat Street Scones recipes, I was unsure how much cream to buy. Also, I had not decided whether or not to double the recipe...and one recipe of the Boat Street Scones requires 3 cups of cream.

I found myself at Costco last shopping trip, as you know from the pork shoulder post. And of course, Costco only sells in QUANTITY, thus the 1/2 gallon of heavy cream.

Well, I opted for the Dorie Greenspan Scones, requiring less cream leaving me with a bunch o' cream in the fridge.

Now, maybe it's a bad idea to base a dinner around such an ingredient as heavy cream, but that's what I did.

Chicken Cutlets with Cream Sauce

4 smallish chicken breasts, pounded flat (about 1/4 inch thick)
1/2 cup fine bread crumbs
salt and pepper
1/2 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 c heavy cream
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked
2 TB fresh chives, chopped
olive oil
One package of dried gnocchi, prepared per package instructions

Season the chicken breasts with the salt and pepper a few hours ahead if possible. Bread lightly with the bread crumbs. Fry in the olive oil until you get some nice color on the meat. Remove from the pan, wipe clean, and add some more olive oil to the pan.

Add the onions and garlic, sauteing for a few minutes. Add the bay leaf and the thyme. Cook for a minute or so. Add the chicken back in and pour over the cream. Simmer for 5 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat. Remove the bay leaf and add in the chives. Taste the sauce, adding more salt and pepper if needed.

Pour the sauce over the plate of gnocchi and top with the chicken breasts.

Their were initial complaints by certain small people in the family, but then they tasted it. And good it was! The baby gummed down a dozen gnocchi, and the kids tucked in like it was spaghetti (their all-time favorite dish). Of course, we adults had our fair share, too.

After dinner during the dishes, I felt my body going a tad into "cream shock". This dinner needs to be followed by a brisk walk in the chilly Northwest May evening! Now what should I do with the rest of the cream??? My heart may yet be young, but it's clogging up as we speak...

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Thai Fry

When I say "Thai Food", what do you think of? I'll bet 8.5 out of 10 of you thought of Pad Thai (the other 1.5 percent being tied between green curry and crab delite). I admit, I'm one of those Pad Thai junkies. I love lots of other things, but my heart always longs for those famous noodles when it is Thai time.

We used to be wholly devoted to Chantanee in Bellevue for our Thai. But then we discovered Hanuman on Central in Kirkland. Normally we just get the takeout, but the dining room is really cute...a fun place for a date.

My cooking bag of tricks doesn't include a large amount of Asian dishes, but I've always wanted to get better. A few years back my friend Julia (think "Julie & Julia", only we're the unfamous pair of friends) sent me this great Asian cookbook called Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia I think she bought it just for the pictures, which are great.

But the food has been fun to cook as well. It was to this cookbook that I turned for my first Pad Thai recipe. The list of ingredients was slightly intimidating ringing in at 23 different items! Most of the things I'm familiar with, although I started to get a tiny bit nervous about the tamarind pulp, dried shrimp, and the salted radish.

So off I trekked to Uwajimaya, boy and baby in tow. My boy is of the standing on the end of the cart age, swinging it mightily and often forgetting that I've said not to. The baby is now old enough to throw fits at the grocery store. So maybe taking these two to a store that, although I love it, I am slightly unfamiliar with was a bad idea.

And I'll admit that I felt a little shy about asking for help to find these items. I didn't even know which aisle to look on! I know where the coconut vinegar for adobo is...and the Mochi ice cream balls...and of course the live fish and clams. But would tamarind pulp be on the soy sauce aisle? I don't know. And then I saw "Pad Thai Sauce".

I wanted to be authentic, making everything myself...but things were getting a bit desperate in my cart, so I picked up the jar of sauce. Hey, it's made in Thailand, it must be alright. And it contained dried shrimp in the sauce!

So, on Friday the older two kiddos went with their Grandma to have dinner at their house. The perfect night to make a new Asian dish.

Pad Thai

First, get everything ready.

Assemble the condiments.

Chili Vinegar Sauce: combine 1/2 cup rice vinegar, 2 TB sugar, and 1/2 mild chile (such as banana chile), sliced into rings.

Cayenne Pepper and/or Sriracha Sauce
1/2 to 1 cucumber, deseeded and sliced thinly
1 small head of leaf lettuce, washed, dried, and separated (optional)
1 lime, cut into small wedges

Now for the rest of the ingredients:

2 oz boneless pork, thinly sliced, and cut into narrow strips about 1 1/2 inches long (chicken or beef work too)
1 tsp sugar
1 heaping tsp tamarind pulp, dissolved in 2 or 3 TB warm water and pressed through a sieve...OR...1 TB rice vinegar plus 1 TB water
1 TB soy sauce
1 TB Thai fish sauce (available at most grocery stores)
3 large eggs
Pinch of salt
3 TB peanut or veg oil
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cube (2-3 oz) pressed tofu, cut into narrow 1 1/2 inch strips
1/2 pound narrow dried rice noodles, soaked in warm water for 20 minutes and drained
1/2 pound bean sprouts, rinsed and drained
3 scallions, trimmed, smashed flat and cut into 1 1/2 inch lengths
1 TB dried shrimp
1 TB salted radish (optional)
1 c dry roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
2-4 TB cilantro leaves

Place the meat in a small bowl with the sugar and toss to mix.

In a medium bowl, mix the tamarind water (or rice vinegar and water), soy sauce, and fish sauce. OR...skip all these and just use the Pad Thai sauce from the jar!

In a small bowl, lightly beat the 3 eggs with the salt.

Place a large wok (or cast iron skillet) over high heat. Add half of the oil (1 1/2 TB). When it is hot, add the garlic and fry briefly (about 15 seconds).

Toss in the meat and fry for about 1 minute.

Add the tofu and press it against the hot sides of the wok to scorch it a bit (10-20 seconds...but I skipped this ingredient).

Pour in the egg and let it cook until it starts to set around the meat and tofu (less than a minute). Use your spatula to cut it into large pieces, then transfer everything to a plate and set aside.

Place the wok back over the heat and add the remaining oil (1 1/2 TB). Toss in the drained noodles and stir-fry vigorously, pressing them against the hot wok to sear them, then turn them and press again. They are a bit unwieldy, but just keep folding them over for about a minute.

If using a smaller pan, remove the noodles during the next part. But if you have a large wok, just move them up the sides.

Toss in about half of the bean sprouts and all of the scallions. Stir-fry vigorously for about 20 seconds to wilt them.

Add your sauce...either the soy sauce mixture plus the dried shrimp and radish OR the jar of sauce (about six ounces plus a little water to thin it out). Cook another 30 seconds, folding everything together and then add the meat/egg mixture back in. Toss gently together.

Turn out onto a large platter or individual plates. Place the remaining bean sprouts on top. Sprinkle on some peanuts (we used sunflower seeds because I forgot the peanuts) and the cilantro.

Each person can add the lime, cayenne, sriracha, and chile-vinegar sauce to their taste. I suggest a good bit of sriracha! We like lots of stars...but if you leave a bit without the heat, your baby may love it as much as mine did!

Finally I feel like I can make a decent rendition of this Thai favorite at home. If you do try it, I'm sure you can skip the Asian store and get the Pad Thai sauce at a grocery store and probably the rice noodles, too. Mmmm, good comfort food!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

My Baby is One!

Today my baby turned one! Part of me is thinking, "Thank God I'm done with that year!". But the other part of me feels an eensy bit sad that this is the end of the baby era. Not too sad though, considering that my third child was by far my worst sleeper and I happen to be rather fond of sleep.

We've always thrown big parties for our kids. Lots of friends, lots of food. Time-intensive (but ever popular) Filipino Lumpia, smoked ribs. A pinata and cake. But if you know me at all, you'd know that secretly I hate throwing parties. Don't get me wrong, I love having people over for dinner which is not that same thing as throwing a party. Parties stress me out...will anyone show up? will the food be done? will the food be good? It seems I never have time to do my hair on party day, so every picture of me is with some sort of ponytail or bun, looking stressed and maybe even a little sweaty!

So I begged to have a small party this time. The poor third child does get a little bit of the short stick. No birth announcement, no hand-made first birthday invitation, no horde of well-wishers. But lots of love and savory affection knowing she's the baby forever.

When Julie Jams is your mama, you know it's going to be as homemade as possible. And so I set about to make a sponge cake from The Art of Fine Baking by Paula Peck (who studied under James Beard, no less!). I've made some scrumptious tarts from her book before. She has really detailed information on all things "baked".

Old-fashioned Sponge Cake requires the separation of eggs, sugar, flour, vanilla, and in this case lemon zest and juice. I separated the six eggs, whipping the whites with a little salt until they formed soft peaks. Then the cup of sugar was added tablespoon by tablespoon until those whites were stiff and shiny. Perfect for making a light spongy cake.

The zest and lemon juice were added to the egg yolks along with the teaspoon of vanilla. This mixture was poured on top of the whites. Then I sprinkled on the cup of flour. I folded the mixture gently by hand, making sure not to overmix (the deadly sin of sponge cake!).

There were two options for baking...a tall 9 inch tube pan or two 9 inch layer cake pans. I opted for the layer cake pans, envisioning a fluffy white birthday cake. I was planning on using my grandma's No-Cook Marshmallow Frosting to finish it off. The batter split evenly between the greased pans, it went into the oven for 35 minutes.

And did they turn out perfectly? Of course not. Because I am a baking amateur. No matter how carefully I follow directions, my baking has a tendency to flop, terribly in this cake. Why didn't those cakes rise up a bit? They climbed the sides of the pan, as indicated in the recipe, but nowhere else. They looked terrible, like a big crater. Maybe they'd be better once I stacked them, I naively thought.

Oh, wow, now it was a lot worse...the crater appeared even larger! It would have taken like 4 inches of whipped cream to fill in that hole. Wah, wah, wah (think "Debbie Downer")...

Okay, Plan B...Strawberry Genoise Cake from Hoffman's Fine Pastries in Kirkland. So maybe the party will be a bit smaller and the food less extravegant, but she'll never say we didn't splurge on the cake! Twenty-seven dollars and 25 cents later, I had the beautiful cake in hand, even personalized for my special little girl. Love you, Pensee Lulu, baby bubbers. Happy Birthday Sweet Pea!

Okay the party is all over now and the big question of whether she would eat the cake or not has been answered. Yes, she took bite after bite, shoveling handfuls into her mouth. She ate whole thing. Wow!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Providence intervened in my menu planning this week. Not even realizing that today would be Cinco de Mayo, I had planned to try a new recipe out of Alice Water's cookbook "The Art of Simple Food"...


I decided to do a little shopping at Costco this pay period to stock up on some items...especially some meats. Two recipes on my menu called for pork shoulder for an approximate total of 2 pounds. Of course, I should have known that Costco would never sell a mere two pounds of meat. The smallest package I could find was over 11 pounds.

The thrifty side of me kept thinking...don't get it, you don't need that much, save your money. But then my husband's voice chimed in my head (it's a marriage-telepathic-twitter thing)...just get it. After all, if I bought it at a grocery store, it would be almost as much for a lot less meat. Okay, I'll get it.

Today around 4 p.m., I chopped up the 1 1/2 pound portion that I saved from the freezer. One inch cubes went into my cast iron skillet. Covered it all with just enough water to cover. Sprinkled on 1/2 tsp of salt and 2 tsp of lime juice. After it came to a boil, I covered the pan and turned the heat down to a low simmer. It cooked for about 45 minutes until tender. I removed the lid and cranked the heat to boil away the liquid. When it started to sizzle, the heat was lowered and the meat was gently fried...browning to crunchy perfection in it's own fat.

It was sweet and caramelized, chewy and a little crispy. Topped with a little cheese, salsa, and more lime juice, these carnitas were just the thing to celebrate whatever it is that Cinco de Mayo is about (which is NOT a Mexican Independence Day if I remember right).

Monday, May 4, 2009

Freebie Reviews

Wow, am I ever behind on the reviews. To save you a barrage of product reviews, I thought I'd power through some in one post.

Going way back, let's start with tea. The Tea Spot (Boulder, CO) offered some product samples, telling us to pick 3 flavors from their website. We got one of the three flavors we picked...and a couple of flavors that we definitely didn't pick! Let's start with the tastiest one...

Red Rocks (caffeine-free) was shared by all during March when my sister's family came up for a visit. We nibbled our cake and sipped this great tea made from red tea, vanilla, and almonds. This company uses all loose leaf teas, so when I say almond...I mean literal slivers of almonds! It was really great!

The others were a Mate Lemon Chai (Could there be a worse flavor combination? Think "Theraflu") and Earl of Grey (which might have been great, but I do not like earl gray which is why I didn't choose it). But I would like to try some of their other products and may even order a full tin of the Red Rocks!


It's all the rage right now in health food diets. Full of antioxidants and mysteriously exotic (thought to be the "forbidden fruit" of Eden)...pomegranate juice is in! Pom Wonderful sent me a whole case of cute little bottles filled with the dark red juice. Drinking it straight is a bit like drinking cranberry juice...the same bittersweet flavor, though not quite so bitter as straight cranberry! It is used in various meat dishes (especially Mediterranean dishes) as a sauce component. We like to add ours to a mixture of frozen berries in our smoothies.


An enormous package arrived on my doorstep at least 14 inches on all sides. What could it be? How about a small package of pasta? Good guess. Buitoni let us sample some of their new Wild Mushroom Agnolotti pasta...what looked to be rounded ravioli shapes. My hopes weren't too high as I rarely buy prepackaged foods. There was even a contest to come up with a sauce. But after I cooked them up, I drizzled them with olive oil, salt, pepper, and some fresh parmesan cheese. And they were fantastic! We all really loved them. I don't think they needed much sauce, maybe something a little creamy but definitely not a red sauce. Check them out.

And lastly...

Did you know that the cookie company Mother's went out of business in early 2008? I didn't. But that's probably because I don't buy items with hydrogenated oils or 1/3 of my daily allowance of saturated fat in one serving. However, the letter accompanying my Circus Animal cookies informed me that they were bought out by Kellogg's and to fear no more because Circus Animal Cookies are back.

Alright, I guess I'll eat a few...mmm...they did taste good. But allow me to hide them from my children! They did indeed remind me of my childhood (my dad lovingly calling them "dead animal cookies" just to gross us out). I don't know if I should endorse these or not on account of their position perpendicular from my blog's angle on food. But, like I said, they were tasty.

I suppose with reviews like that, I'm not likely to get many more. Oh well...I just lack the ability to suck up (a terrible trait to have when we lived in China, let me tell you!).

Last words...


Friday, May 1, 2009

Succulent Cactus

Date night (as in, kids are at grandma & grandpa's) is almost always a great night! And last night was made even better by company. In a university swamped in nepotism, my husband thought he'd contribute by hiring my cousin this year. We've wanted to get together with her and her boyfriend, now fiance, all year. But you know how that usually goes.

So, to celebrate her last day at work and finding ourselves with clear schedules, we decided to all go out to dinner. We thought about hitting up their favorite diner on Queen Anne since The Five Spot just changed their rotating menu. But after hearing the terrible traffic report, we wussed out and stayed east of the lake!

Enter my suggestion...Cactus! Oh how I love this place nestled in the heart of Kirkland...really one of the only restaurants to bother with other than Zeek's Pizza and Hanuman Thai (oh, yeah, and Trellis, of course). And it's always fun to introduce people to "fancy" Mexican.

Cactus is one of the few restaurants where I'll choose a cocktail over a glass of wine or a bottle of beer. That's because it is connected to the summer season in my head. And yesterday the sun was out and it was kind of warm. People were crowding into the outside patio tables...okay by me...I usually prefer indoors this early in the year.

We ended up with the best of both worlds...right next to the glass windows, but not plagued by the breeze. The menu has changed somewhat since the last visit more than a year ago. Sauces have been revamped, our server informed us. Although she was nice, she was probably the weakest part of the evening forgetting things like a glass for my husband's beer, clearing plates before we were done, etc.

But let's not dwell on the negative. In true nerdy style, two of our party of four lugged cameras along to bring you these sumptuous images of tasty food.

Starting my summer off right, I relaxed with a mojito, all refreshing with it's lime and mint.

Having loved the Indian Fry Bread at Pomegranate Bistro in Redmond (a long flat bread covered in topping like tomatoes or cilantro), we chose to try the Cactus Fry Bread under the appetizer list. What a surprise...we basically received a plate of triangular donuts to dip in a vessel full of honey. It wasn't bad, but should really be on the dessert menu.

In true reviewer style, we ordered four different entrees ranging from Butternut Squash Enchiladas (yummy...the sweet squash complimented the warm sauce well),

to a Seafood Enchilada (shrimp, sea bass, scallops...tasty),

to the Tamale special (best tamale ever!),

to a rather disappointing skirt steak Fajita (too much work! and the huge skillet plus the big plate of "toppings" plus the basket of tortillas left little room on the table. AND no plate to assemble everything on...)

I love the use of pepitas in the rice. A nice crunchy texture and nutty flavor.

Dessert was, of course, Bananas Dulce which I can never seem to pronounce without using the Italian "ch" sound. It just sounds better that way. A big mound of coconut ice cream, self-topped with a banana fried in a brown sugar sauce. Very sweet, but perfect when split four ways.

Cactus is just so delicious. It breathes the life of summer into town. The recipes are inventive and full of healthy ingredients...even my naturopath loves the place! But so do the tons of other Eastsiders who jam the patio on any given sunny day.
julie.jams' items Go to julie.jams' photostream

Food Candy