Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Oh Sweetness

I've played around with a lot of chocolate chip cookie recipes, and I've finally come up with one that works for me. I've made these cookies a lot, and I've gotten several requests to post my recipe. C and I made these again last night without the nuts. It's quite easy and always really chewy with slightly crisp edges.

Baking tip: The cookie dough is a lot wetter than other cookie doughs I've made, so it's very important to chill the covered dough (in the freezer for at least 30 min., or in the refrigerator for several hours) until it firms up before baking. Saves you from making a mess and also makes for a much better cookie!

Cookie from last night lying atop smears of milk and bittersweet chocolate

* * *

Urban Tartlet Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 cup butter at room temperature
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs at room temperature
2 teaspoons Mexican vanilla extract

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup of dark chocolate chips
1 cup of milk chocolate chips
(optional: 1 cup of walnuts or pecans, roughly chopped)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F

In a large bowl, cream together the butter, brown sugar and white sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well with each addition, then stir in the vanilla.

Combine the flour, baking soda and salt; gradually stir into the creamed mixture. Finally, fold in the chocolate chips (and nuts, if desired).

Cover cookie dough and chill thoroughly. Roll chilled dough into balls and place onto silpat or greased cookie sheet.

Bake for 9-11 minutes in the preheated oven, until edges are light brown. Allow cookies to cool on baking sheet for 5-10 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ubuntu, Napa Valley

I need to make a hearty qualifier. I'm no vegetarian. In fact, I don't feel balanced unless I consume at least two meat or fish courses per meal. With that qualifier behind us, I have to say that I was dazzled by the vegetarian fare at Ubuntu.

When our knowledgeable sommelier at the Oxbow Market recommended Ubuntu, I answered somewhat dismissively that I had reservations already at Cafe La Haye in Sonoma. Uhm, what's more, Ubuntu also has an attached yoga studio upstairs? REALLY, no thanks.

Not to be deterred, our sommelier pressed on: "It's also in Frank Bruni's top ten restaurants in the nation." Well. Now I was intrigued.

We were able to snag a spot at Ubuntu's large community table opposite the naked sculptures holding yoga poses. At least, I think they were holding yoga poses. I felt like a fish out of water. Bring on the wheatgrass teas and goji berry soups.

Only after tasting our starter plate did I realize how wrong my assumptions were.

Marcona almonds toasted in a generous coat of lavender sugar and sea salt.
Now I've had lavender and sea salt sprinkled on a lot of things, but this was different. The generous lavender sugar coating gave the almonds an intense burst of brightness, while the crystals combined beautifully with the toasted texture of the nuts to make the almonds light and crunchy. The plate showcased the lavender flower by bringing out its sweet notes with both sugar and the right amount of sea salt to create a sweet, savory balance. The sea salt really helped to steer the flavor away from being overly floral or overly-"soapy."

Beets with fork-crushed avocado pistachio “soil”,
ruby grapefruit and chickweed.
The beet tartare was not only a play on words, but also a fun way to highlight how natural the ingredients and preparation were. Who knew food could be so ethical and fun at the same time? Ubuntu has its own garden down the street too, and the menu made sure to point out which ingredients were home-grown.

Next came fresh picked greens, asparagus with parmesan and macadamia nut crust, brioche sandwich with black olive caramel layers, and egg.
The egg was interesting. I was expecting a poached egg that would run all over my plate, but this was like a soft creamy egg that was light without being frothy. Looked like an egg, tasted like an egg, but yet wasn't entirely what I expected.

Carta da musica with young mustards, truffled pecorino,
royal trumpet chips with rosemary.
Allow me to be cheesy for one second, but this was the pièce de résistance of the meal. It was visually stunning and deliciously difficult to eat (I felt like I was ruining art just by lifting it). The crust was so thin and crispy, it crackled under the heap of thinly shaved greens, radishes and flowers. Again, I was pleasantly surprised by the flavors ~ crunchy, sweet and spicy from the radishes, earthy and nutty from the truffle pecorino, and a different spicy from the little flecks of red pepper baked into the crust.

Cauliflower in a cast iron pot,
roast-puree-raw-“couscous”, our vadouvan, coriander, toast (not pictured).

Pizza with strawberry, burrata two ways and fresh chives.
This pizza was both sweet and savory, with the strawberries being the substitute for tomato.

Finally, dessert...

Lightly stewed strawberries, rose geranium mousse, lavender meringue straws and strawberry "dust".

Needless to say, Ubuntu was enjoyable in so many respects. The food was sourced and prepared with utmost care, the atmosphere and service were wonderful and the prices were surprisingly low. Not only did I spare the environment a wee bit by not driving the extra 25 minutes to Cafe La Haye in Sonoma (which I still want to try someday), I also found that I can eat a staggeringly good meal without meat. Perhaps this is the new me? Or at least, the me when I eat at Ubuntu.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Gem in Old Town ~ Elements Kitchen, Pasadena, Los Angeles

B and I went to Elements Kitchen again last month. Definitely try this place if you want to be in the heart of Old Town Pasadena, yet don't want to bother with mediocre tourist food. It's really a gem in a tangle of tourist traps like the Cheesecake Factory and A'Float Sushi. They have outdoor seating, but I recommending asking for a table inside.

I wouldn't say the menu is exceptionally innovative. Rather, it's simple food, done well and prepared with an attention to detail.

I really liked my quinoa salad. Toasted pistachios and fresh oranges flavored the quinoa with a delicate sweetness. It was delicious. I'll probably have to resist the urge to order this dish next time so I can try something new.

The Mac and Cheese with Truffle Oil was definitely not the highlight of the meal, but I can't really say it was bad. The truffle oil was a bit gimmicky since it really didn't do much for the dish in terms of flavor. There was an initial aroma, but that's about it. The sauce was also too runny for my tastes. Still I'm sure some would prefer its lightness to a traditional, heartier mac and cheese.

B got the Chicken Escabeche, which is a sandwich of white wine cured chicken, pickled carrots, jicama, red onions and sriracha mayonnaise. I had a bite and I remember it being delicious.
(Random note: I like the pickles ~ they taste and look homemade.)

Now for the criticism... when they say Elements kitchen, they're not kidding. It's literally a kitchen with space for two small tables (seats 4-6 total, I think). While intimate, pint-size restaurants are usually right up my alley, I think size is a limitation here. Even under the inviting yellow umbrellas, I was much too hot sitting outside to enjoy my food. January in L.A. might as well be June in L.A. The intense sun exposure and noisy Fair Oaks traffic made it difficult for me to concentrate on my food.

In short,
I'm sure Elements has a few kinks to work out since it is relatively new and in transition. The waitress told us they were moving to a new location (hopefully with better seating). Who knows? It might change a lot over the course of the next few months, so I'll have to wait and see. Overall, it's a refreshing and much needed change to Old Town's restaurant repertoire.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sugar to cure the winter blues...

As depressed as I was over the Lakers' loss in double overtime tonight, I rallied with a simple recipe ~ white chocolate cranberry cookies. I love quick and simple, especially when baking with friends. C and I made these cookies in less than ten minutes, and devoured them in a heartbeat.
Warm and gooey on the inside, slightly crisp on the outside
(Do I sound like Giada?)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Dreaming of...

Almond cake!

For all you marzipan lovers out there, Amanda Hesser has a great recipe in her book Cooking for Mr. Latte. I've made it countless times, and it's fool proof. Plus it always looks so cute because it's sunken in the middle. Top it off with some pretty powdered sugar, and you have moist, almond paste swirled into every bite.

* * *

Almond cake (from Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte)

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened, more for buttering pan
1 cup sour cream at room temp
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups sifted all purpose flour, measured after sifting
0.5 teaspoon sea salt
1.5 cups sugar
7 oz. tube almond paste, cut into small pieces
4 egg yolks at room temperature
1 teaspoon almond extract
confectioner’s sugar for sifting over cake

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F
Butter sides/bottom of 9” springform pan

Mix sour cream and baking soda in small bowl. Sift flour and salt into another bowl.

Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add almond paste little at time at medium speed and beat for 8 minutes. Beat in egg yolks one at a time, and mix until incorporated. It will look curdled, don’t worry. Blend in almond extract and sour cream mixture. Reduce speed to low and gradually add in flour mixture just until blended.

Pour batter into prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake about one hour. It is done when you press the top and it returns to its shape and also shrinks from the side of the pan. Remove from oven and place on baking rack.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Chez Papa Resto, Soma, San Francisco

After a busy day of shopping, I walked over to Chez Papa Resto to have dinner with a bunch of friends. Their food for the most part was quite tasty, but what really stood out to me was the impeccable service.

The restaurant was crowded (Friday night) and we had to wait a while for our table. In their defense, I had made it difficult by adding 3 people to our reservation last minute. Once there, we happily sat down in the waiting area to nurse our cocktails and catch up with old friends. About halfway through our aperitifs, one of the hosts in the front presented us with a plate of amuse bouche. I'm not certain if this was an apology for the wait, or if this was customary on their end, but it was certainly appreciated.

After several courses, one of the servers got wind of the fact that it was my friend's birthday and the manager presented our table with a celebratory round of drinks. Overall, it was a great experience.

Amuse bouche of lightly seared tuna over a bed of haricot vert and scallions

Tapenade duo for the table

Labelle Farm Foie Gras Two Ways: Terrine with Quince, Seared with Apples and Banyuls Reduction
Most of the time, I really enjoy terrine foie. This time, however, I really think the seared easily won out over the terrine in terms of taste. I wasn't fond of the heavy bitter wine undertones in the terrine version, and I wish the sweetness of the quince were a bit more potent. The seared foie, on the other hand, was excellent. I also thought the accompanying bread strips were quite out of place, considering the richness of the foie; I would have preferred some crispiness to complement, but that's not really a big issue here.

Easily my favorite dish of the night was this lamb appetizer. It was simple, grilled lamb chops with ratatouille, herbs de Provence, and lavender sea salt, but it was done very well. For me, the ratatouille clearly took a back seat to the meat. The chops were grilled a nice medium, and had a great crust on the outside. I wish I could smell a tiny bit more of the lavender, but I think that's because I love lavender. My friend, who understandably dislikes associations of flowers with his meat, disagreed with me, and loved that there was only a hint of it in the salt sprinkled on top.

Butternut Squash Agnolotti with Brown Butter, Sage and Parmesan.
I wasn't a huge fan of the agnolotti, even though I love all the components above. It was somewhat bland. I'm wondering if a bit more salt could have brought out the sweetness of the squash. That said, it wasn't bad. Just not my favorite.

Sautéed Bluenose Bass with Braised Leeks, Meyer Lemon Beurre Blanc and Black Truffle Emulsion.
I had a few problems with this dish, mainly with the texture of the fish. I know this bass is less oily than, let's say, a sea bass. But I definitely felt my bass was slightly overcooked. Flavor-wise, the black truffle emulsion was lacking heavily in the truffle department ~ I wanted more. I know people say less is more sometimes since you don't want the truffle to become a crutch for otherwise ordinary foods. In this case, however, I felt the other flavors, namely lemon, leeks and butter, were pretty mild. An additional healthy dose of truffle would have upped this dish. I also found the fish to be a wee bit salty.

Châteauneuf du Pape Braised Lamb Daube with Market Vegetables, Rosemary Oil.
The crowning moments of the meal were clearly the two lamb dishes. I think the appetizer outshined this entree lamb daube, but this was good in its own right. The lamb was braised beautifully in a rich red wine sauce and the meat was very tender. The turnip-like vegetable (reminded me of Jerusalem artichokes) was nice too.

Orange Blossom Panna Cotta, Blood Orange and Port Gastrique.
The panna cotta was simply delicious. I would go back for dessert just to get this dish. The citrus and port provided bolder flavors without drowning out the more delicate orange blossom and rose flavors infused in the custard. It was really a great end to a meal.

Kabuto Sushi, Richmond, San Francisco

I had dinner at Kabuto in the Richmond last night. It was my second time, and I've really been quite satisfied both times. The fish is fresh, and the prices are quite reasonable. Next time I will try omakase when the sushi bar isn't completely full. I like how warm and inviting the small restaurant is. The service was nothing special, but it was fine.

Admittedly, I was dying to peg this place as a fushion sushi place, especially after viewing their menu online. However, I was impressed with their menu ~ it offered a good variety of traditional sushi/sashimi, as well as a separate menu of jazzed up fish dishes. I ordered mainly from the former menu, as I tend to enjoy those a lot more. Overall, with the exception of a few dishes, a great experience. I'll definitely be coming back again!

I liked the Hamachi (on the right), and the Shiro Maguro wasn't bad either.

The monkfish liver was quite good. Beautiful round taste, and buttery texture.
I like the plumped, dried cranberry that garnishes each dish ~ it tastes like they soak it in a bit of plum wine for extra sweetness.

The "Valentino" dish is going to be geared toward lovers of Japanese fusion cuisine. Unagi is mixed in with seared foie gras, dark chocolate and sweet yellow gelatin cubes. Personally, this dish is not for me, since I tend to favor the fish itself over the tastes of the surrounding sauce. Plus, I felt like the whole dish really just tasted like Unagi (the kind that you find on a dragon roll, but without the rice) and was a waste of foie. It definitely sounded more interesting than it tasted. But maybe I'm too much of a purist.

Toro ~ nice and rich chutoro (I think). Smooth texture, buttery taste ~ still somewhat lean yet melts in your mouth ~ no complaints here.

Not a huge fan of the torched toro ~ the flavor of the toro was a bit more fishy (not because of bad quality ~ I think the cooking process plus extra seasoning intensified the fishiness). The texture became chewier too. I would have preferred to eat this un-torched.

Hawaiian Tuna and Escolar

One of my only major complaints about the meal came toward the end with this dish. We ordered the Halibut Sushi with pickled shisonomi topped with Yuzu-Kosho Paste. The peppery yuzu paste was fine, but the fish was extremely chewy and difficult to eat. For someone who's focused 90% on the fish quality and 10% on everything else, this dish was a disappointment.

By the time this seared black cod dish arrived, we were anxious to leave since we had waited for a long time to get this dish, and had to rush to the airport. I love black cod, but this dish was entirely unremarkable. I would have preferred just a piece of black cod, seared, without the thick soupy substance on the bottom, and without the rice. That being said, however, I felt like most of the meal was entirely enjoyable and I will come back again!