Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thanksgiving Cook-off!!! Allez Cuisine!

My bf challenged me to a Thanksgiving cook-off. As a joke, I said "I'll let you pick the cuisine, because it wouldn't be fair if we were to do something that you don't cook... like Italian." Like a crazed Barney Stinson, he exclaimed "Challenge accepted!"

We had here on our hands an Italian cook-off. I gave him some leeway because he could not roll pasta. We invited 4 guest judges to score each dish. I have included below their scores and commentary. Scores were out of 10: max 7 for taste, and 3 for presentation.

We broke out the styrofoam plates, cranked up the heat, and.... Allez cuisine!

Course #1: Appetizer course - Quail Eggs

The challenger made a "bird's nest" with sprouts, fries, and quail eggs baked in the oven.

Score: 6.9; Some complained that the eggs fell off when placed on the plates. The slightly chewy quality of the nest of sprouts and fries were the rest of the deduction.

The PBO made a crostini with pancetta, roasted mushroom, and quail egg.

Score: 8; Mushrooms were well roasted, but the bread was not up to par - was too chewy and not toasted. Melted cheese on top was a nice touch.

First course goes to the PBO.

Course #2: Primi

The challenger presented an open faced roast beef sandwich with wasabi mayo, avocado spread, and sliced apples.

Score: 8.1: Everyone loved the well spiced avocado spread, which had a hint of pepper flakes. There was some disagreement over the addition of apples, but both the cook and I agreed that they helped hide the fact that Whole Foods sliced the meet too thickly, on which the judges did not take note.

The PBO presented a perciatelli with home made tomato sauce and fried calamari and jalapeños.

Score: 7.3; Most of the points were lost on presentation and not enough sauce. The thick hose-shaped pasta was quite a mess and flopped onto the plates unceremoniously. The calamari were tender and popular, but it was questionable whether it worked well with the rest of the dish.

Second course goes to the challenger.

Course #3: Pasta course - Ravioli

The challenger cooked a "wavioli". Without hand-rolled pasta, he resorted to wonton skins. Then he ingeniously borrowed from a soup dumpling recipe by turning soup into gelatin, so that the inside of the "wavioli" are liquid. The soup consisted of duck stock, mushrooms, potatoes, and Chinese sausage.

Score: 7.7; Due to the delicate nature of the dumplings, they had to be boiled one by one. The judges in general liked the special quality of being served 1:1, but found the dumplings a little awkward to eat. The flavor inside was quite delicious.

The PBO cooked home made spinach ravioli, presented with just a sprinkle of parmesan.

Score: 8.6; The ravioli were well-proportioned, and the pasta was thin but had a little bounce. Unfortunately it did not come with any sauce, and that would have taken the dish to the next level. I must admit that at this point, I was just tired and the pan was dirty, so I did not make the butter sage sauce as planned.

Third course goes to the PBO.

Course #4: Main/Protein

The challenger put together a classic of his that made me tremble with fear: Chicken sliders with butter pickles and dijon mustard.

Score: 9.1; This dish definitely blew a few of the judges' minds and garnered full scores on taste. After some discussion about opening a restaurant if things don't work out, a few judges even asked for seconds (to my dismay).

The PBO countered with a pan seared steak with sides of beets and brussels sprouts.

Score: 8.5; The steak was perfectly seared but over-seasoned with garlic. It also created a small garlic-jalapeno cloud in the kitchen. The beets were loved by some and confused others and overall resulted in a wash. Brussels sprouts were as popular as ever, and I believe they were my saving grace on this course.

The fourth course goes to the challenger.

Course #5: Dessert

Like any good contest, it all came down to the last course.

The challenger was given the opportunity to buy a tiramisu, but instead took the hard route and made a cool swan-soaked cake with italian shaved ice.

Score: 8.1; The cake was moist and perfectly cooked, but a few judges did not like the "booziness" of the cool swan. Given that it's liqueur, I can see the problem... but it was Thanksgiving! One judge loved the booziness and gave it extra points. The italian shaved ice was very successful and worked well with the spongy cake.

The PBO made panna cotta with cranberry jelly, raspberries, and whipped cream.

Score: 9.5; The panna cotta was touted the best dish of the night, and was awarded 2 perfect 10's. The challenger knew that this was my secret weapon. After all he got to taste some when I was testing it out a couple days earlier and claimed that it was the best thing I cooked all month. The only complaint was that it was a little too sweet, and I admit that I was heavy handed with the powdered sugar in the whipped cream.

The final course and the competition goes to the PBO.

I thought that the challenger put up a great effort. I expected higher scores for his chicken burger, and honestly if the "wavioli" had worked, who knows where we would be.

I hope our 4 judges had a great 10 course meal for their Thanksgiving, and we thank them for their participation and honest comments.

Better luck next time, darling!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Seared Steak with Brussels Sprouts

First of all, who knew that it was brussels sprouts (with the "s") and not brussel sprouts because it's from Brussels?!

A few years ago, brussels sprouts started taking NYC by storm. It showed up as a side on every other menu. And why not? It's soft and buttery on the inside, caramelized and crunchy on the outside, and it's healthy because it's green. And I bet the margins are also great for the restaurant.

This sack of sprouts is 2.99 at Whole Foods around Thanksgiving time. It's about 5 servings of sides.

After a quick rinse, the brussels sprouts are pretty much clean. I just sliced off the dirty brown bit at the end, and the dirtier outer leaves fell right off.

I like to cook them quartered so that the flavors get inside all those folds of the leaves.

I sautéed the brussels sprouts in some olive oil and butter. This is the step where I add salt, pepper, and any other seasoning... but usually just salt and pepper would suffice. When I have extra bacon/pancetta/Chinese sausage, I dice up the meat and sauté it in the hot oil before adding the sprouts so that the flavor is distributed evenly.

I did have extra parmesan cheese, so I threw it on top before baking for 20 minutes at 400 degrees.

Earlier this morning... I took out the left over slab of meat from yesterday. I'm not a great steak cooker, so I sliced this in half so that I have 2 thinner steaks, which would be much easier to manage than this massive slab.

I marinated the steaks with salt, pepper, cayenne, garlic, and olive oil, and wrapped it up and stuck it in the fridge.

A quick sear on each side leaves the steak nice and rare! Just the way I like it! ...and while it was resting...

The brussels sprouts finished cooking!

Someone stuck a potato in the oven. I don't normally eat potatoes with a tablespoon of butter... but it was delicious.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Speedy Boeuf Bourguignon

This is a slightly modified version of Julia Child's recipe. I was in too much of a hurry - it was already 5:20pm and I hadn't even picked up groceries! Normally, the beef would be simmered for 2-3 hours until it's unbelievably tender. But I ended up searing it for a little longer, and simmering it for a little shorter, so it was a tad rough.

Despite the time squeeze, it was frigid outside, and I wanted something warm and stew-y.

Some butt was on sale at Whole Foods, which helped me make up my mind. It all started with cubes of beef - patted dry.

They were seared. Usually the recipe calls for crisping some bacon and then searing the beef in delicious bacon fat, but I don't need bacon for anything else, so it would be a waste of arterial health.

Nice and brown. I'll probably have the rest of the steak in this state tomorrow... with the middle bleeding.

Veggies were browned in the leftover beef fat.

Beef cubes were dusted with salt, pepper, and flour. The flour helps bind the seasoning to the meat and add some body to the stock. It's baked for 8 minutes at 425 degrees until there's a nice brown crust.

Chianti is a pretty good choice for this dish. I like the way it mixes with chicken stock - it makes for a  little lighter and slightly sweet sauce.

Tomato paste, chicken stock, wine, herbs, and crushed garlic were added to the mix and brought to a boil over the stove. It's then moved to the oven to simmer at 325 degrees. I've always wondered about this step - why isn't it left to simmer on the stove? I decided that it's probably just more evenly cooked in the oven.

In the mean time, I prepared some carbs. Diced potatoes were mixed with Lawry's seasoning salt, paprika, minced garlic, and olive oil. Since the oven's already on... why not have it do all the work?

At some point, we got hungry, and I threw some celery into the soup. I then sauteed some mushrooms in butter, and threw those into my boeuf bourguignon as well.

Potatoes are done! I skipped the step where I broil them until there's a nice crust because I had to fit the boeuf pan in the oven, and the potatoes were way too close to the broiler for comfort. I didn't want to light anything on fire.

If I had bacon and another 2 hours to spare, I would skim the fat off the stock, and then strain it and boil it down to a much thicker consistency. But instead I kept the stock relatively soupy, and the boeuf bourguignon was ready to eat! The wine had even been aerated! Bon appetit!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Pulut Hitam

This is what happens when a restaurant doesn't have what I want.

Basically Pulut Hitam is a rice porridge dessert made from black rice (which is actually a deep deep purple). Black rice has more fiber than white rice blah blah blah, so if you're health conscious, you might have come across some.

Cooking the rice is pretty simple.
1. RINSE the rice and dump the water a couple of times to wash.
2. SOAK the rice for 1 hour to 24 hours. Honestly I didn't taste a difference because you cook it to mush.
3. BOIL the rice, about 1/2 rice 1/2 water, and simmer for 30-35 minutes if you like your dessert grainy and plan on adding taro cubes (technically a different dessert), or 45 minutes (shown in picture above) if you want it to be more Pulut Hitam-y.
3.5. STIR the rice occasionally to prevent it from making a burnt patina on the bottom, and taste test!!

The only hard part of this recipe is finding the ingredients (which are all available at New Kam Man in New York Chinatown... and probably also available in your local Chinese food superstore). The next ingredient is.... palm sugar.

Palm sugar comes in these funky discs. I tried to smash it against the counter at first... hence the dents.

I took a hammer to it! Anyway, it tastes a little bit like sugar cane and is very mild. It turns out that I didn't need to smash it into smithereens. This recipe requires A LOT of sugar. I ended up using the whole disk for about 1.5 cups of cooked rice. Either add a little sugar and zap it to soften it up, or stir like crazy and crush it with your mixing utensil.

I feel like it's not a South Asian dessert until you've added some coconut milk. I'd love to make this fresh, but it's just easier to buy the can. Someday when I'm old, I'm going to spend my days smashing coconuts and peeling plum tomatoes.

You end up with this goopy looking light purple thing. It's much more delicious than it looks. I imagine that one day a molecular gastronomist will either strain the grainy stuff out of this and turn it into a flan or a creme brulee; or they will make it even grainier and more concentrated and make it into a cake or cookie.

Monday, November 12, 2012


I have never been to Singapore or Malaysia, so when a friend from Singapore visited (a long time ago) and heard from his friends that Nyonya was a good restaurant, I put my fate in his hands and went there for dinner. Since then, I've ordered from Nyonya more times than I care to admit. The curt service is more than offset by the interesting presentation of a number of dishes, and if you're in town and wanting South Asian, it's worth a trip.

We started our dinner with a dessert called A.B.C. It doesn't stand for "already been chewed" or "American born Chinese." It is but ice kachang by another name.

It has grass jelly, agar agar, red bean, corn, preserved jack fruit, and possibly other things all topped with shaved ice, which is then drizzled with coconut milk and syrup. This thing is so good that I order it melted. Well ice doesn't exactly travel well... but I order it every time. It's only $3.50.

Next must order dish - anything on the menu that says Nyonya tofu. In this case it's sizzling Nyonya tofu, which came in this metal dish that was dangerously balanced on top of a flame, which burned for most of the meal. The tofu is actually egg tofu, which is some blend of soymilk and eggs. It tastes like egg custard that's barely held together by its fried skin.

The way the egg is cooked defies physics. I half expected it to show up during the egg challenge on Iron Chef, but it did not. Some version of this will show up in high end restaurants in no time... just like the xiao long bao technique being used at Alinea, or steamed egg custards at Brushstroke and North End Grill.

Chow Keoh Teow is apparently street food; rice noodles with bean sprouts, seafood, and eggs. Well I love street food.

Chicken in clay pot. It was very tender, but I didn't get to have much of it because my ravenous boyfriend wolfed it all down. (I'm not mad at you, sweetie)

Nyonya has many other delightful dishes such as their skate that's been grilled in palm leaves, fried taro cone, the roti telur, etc. But I was planning on having their black sticky rice (Pulut Hitam) for dessert, and they did not have any! And that is why I am making Pulut Hitam tonight. I guess you will see a post about that soon.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Empellon Cocina Brunch

Empellon is supposedly one of the best Mexican restaurants around, and Alex Stupak is supposedly New York's Rick Bayless. I've been to both of his restaurants now, and I can say that I don't think he's quite Rick Bayless, but he's pretty darn good.

The restaurant bar had bold blue graffiti, and paintings from their Day of the Dead event covered the walls. The whole place had a hip young vibe with an undertone of grunge. The lights even flickered in and out.

We were here for a birthday, and our guest of honor was predictably late, so we started ordering some guacamole and salsa. The masa crisps were thick but crunchy. How could a midwestern girl say no to corn?

The guacamole wasn't great, but it was very good. The 7 different salsas came in little shot-glass sized cups, and we doled them out with little spoons. They came in spicy, really spicy, creamy, cashew, and tomatillo (those aren't the actual names, just the flavors that I remember. And yes this must mean that there was a 7th one that was not easily identifiable).

What better way to celebrate a friend who is on a diet than to order a starter of donuts? They were as soft and puffy as beignets, and came with chocolate, caramel, and strawberry sauces. The chocolate was just a little too liquid to drizzle... because it was actually the same chocolate as their drinking chocolate. It even came in the same cup! I am glad they serve their hot chocolates properly.

For my main, I ordered a poached duck egg with sweetbreads. The nuggets of sweetbread were delightful to eat. The exterior was still a little hot from the frier. The cheese tasted like crumbed cotija and gave the dish an extra kick. I found some delicious green chorizo gravy on the bottom that I didn't notice when I read the menu!

My bf got the melted tetilla cheese with tomato and lobster. It came with a stack of warm wrappers. The melty cheese did not stay in the wrappers very well, but I would not replace the wrappers with anything else. They were light and not too floury and went perfectly with the incredible filling. I was offered a bite and ended up taking 3... and I'm lactose intolerant.

Our party crasher is a regular, and he ordered the scrambled eggs with chorizo, so it must be good. I am not having scrambled eggs for a while after I had it almost every day in the bush, so I cannot tell you first hand how it tastes. The two people who ordered this dish did clean up their plates rather quickly.

The buttermilk masa pancakes were also very popular, and each pancake was bigger than my face. The birthday boy ate 1.5 servings.

If it weren't for the location of this restaurant, I'd come more often. But for those who don't mind visiting the east village, it's a great place to be! I've been to Empellon Taqueria for dinner in my pre-blogging life, and it was also amazing. Their brunch menu looks different though - more tacos and fewer innovative brunch dishes.