April 22, 2008

My new favorite doughnut

Donuts are glorious treats, a cross-cultural ambassador of cuisine, if you will. Most cultures have some kind of sweet, fried dough, ranging from Taiwanese yo-tiao to Greek loukoumades to French beignets. If I could only have one kind of donut, it would absolutely be a maple bar. Soft and pillowy dough topped with a perfect maple frosting... simplicity in its best expression, and the king of donuts for me. Until now. More on that in a moment.

Earlier, I denigrated airplane food. I'm going to go in the opposite direction and share a surprisingly good meal I had at the airport in Puerto Natales. Keep in mind that this is a tiny airport. Like three gates, one restaurant. It's called "Restaurant." My hopes weren't high, but I wanted to use their wi-fi connection and power outlet, and we had 2 hours to kill before our flight to Puerto Montt, so we ordered some food. I went for the brochette of beef, which turned out to be some kabobs of really nicely grilled beef, hot dog (!!), onion and bell pepper. Again, the meat wasn't seasoned at all, but the quality of the beef came through. Seared nicely, tender, juicy, flavorful... way better than I was expecting.

We ended up that afternoon in Puerto Varas, where I had my first transformative food moment of the trip. We asked the folks at our hostel to point us to a good panaderia, and they sent us to Cafe Dane, a bakery and restaurant a block from the town square. They're rumored to have the best empanadas in town, but I was craving a sweet snack. Though she spoke no English, the proprietor kindly and patiently pointed us to a small shelf of buns, explaining that they were fried, and each one had a different filling. Hey, a donut... they called them Berlins! Crema (sounded good), marmalade (I was afraid it would be too sweet), and dulce de leche... bingo, I'll take the third one.

One bite of the pastry and I was in a different place... the kind of feeling you get when you stop caring about what's happening around you and you stop in your tracks and just stare at the thing you're eating, chewing slowly to extract every moment of the pleasure of flavor enveloping your senses. The dough was luxuriously soft, with only a deliciously faint hint of sweetness. Inside, the filling was straight up dulce de leche with walnuts... but not at all overly sweet. Instead, the rich flavor and texture of caramel was the most prominent. Basic flavors, but fashioned carefully to avoid what could otherwise be an overpowering amount of sweetness. The best "doughnut" I've ever had. I was still thinking about it when I woke up the next morning.

That evening, we had dinner at Las Buenas Brasas, a cozy little restaurant tucked away in one of the side streets in town. The meal started with a killer bowl of sopapillas (deep fried quick breads) that were both crispy and chewy (a bit reminiscent of the bhatura cholla at Vik's, but way smaller and slightly more dense). Next was an outstanding ceviche of shrimp, conger eel and salmon --remarkably fresh and seasoned simply to let the flavor of the seafood hold the spotlight. One of the best things we've eaten in Chile so far.

We also had salmon a la plancha and a chupe with fresh king crab, both of which were fine, but paled in comparison to the ceviche.

I feel like there's so much to eat, but so little time...

April 21, 2008

The last hope... or is it?

I'm getting jostled left and right like I'm on an old-fashioned wooden roller coaster. While not quite as intense as yesterday's drive (where I'm sure I lost some brain cells), most of this ride over the unpaved roads is a rhythmic mix of myriad bumps and jarring lurches, shaking the sense out of me. And though I'm exhausted from the day before, this is keeping me from getting some needed sleep.

But I couldn't be happier. We're on our way to Torres Del Paines, and in front of me in every direction is probably the most beautifully dramatic, breathtaking and awe-inspiring place I've ever seen.

Chilean food sometimes gets a bad rap, and I suppose sometimes there is a certain lack of technique... but so far the quality of the ingredients have generally kept us happy. We stopped at a restaurant in the middle of the national park, Parrilla Pehoe, for a light lunch. The retaurant has a spectacular, unobstructed view of the mountains and serves simple, but good food.

Seeing the roaring wood-fired grill, we opted to share a steak, our first venture into the wonderful world of Chilean beef. The steak was perfectly cooked medium-rare with that fantastic wood-smoked aroma and was absolutely flavorful and juicy. I'm not sure if it was just in my mind, but the beef had a more intense flavor while at the same time tasting cleaner. I don't know if that makes sense... the fats and juices from the meat didn't seem to linger on the palate as heavily or for as long. It also didn't seem, though, that they had seasoned the meat at all prior to placing it on the grill. Just a simple step that would have made it a really outstanding steak. As it was, the pure quality of the beef still made it a nice lunch.

That night, we experienced more cooking with great ingredients in need of just a few minor tweaks in cooking style. The restaurant, La Última Esperanza ("the last hope," named after the province containing Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine) has been around for a long time and came highly recommended by our guide books as well as by John, our terrific guide for the day. I tried congria (conger eel), a popular fish in Chile -- fresh, moist and meaty, but overwhelmed by a cream-based sauce. Lav's lamb had great flavor, but certain cuts on her plate would have been better slow-braised; grilling made the meat tough.

While we were disappointed in the meal, in the end I'm still excited by the fact that even in a small town in the off-season, there is a lot of care placed on the quality and freshness of the ingredients.

April 20, 2008

Sweets and pizza

I'm getting the feeling that South Americans like their dessert treats sweet and decadent, much sweeter than I'm used to. The Coca Cola is sweeter here, the orange juice tastes like sweetener has been added and chocolate shops seem to pop up everywhere.

Bakeries are one of my favorite ways to get to know local food, and we had a chance to visit our first panaderia in El Calafate (Argentina), which had a small assortment of pastries and empanadas. One of the cookies we bought was a real treat -- a light butter cookie sandwich with a filling of rich caramel and coconut. The cookie was only about the size of a quarter, but packed an unbelievable amount of sweetness in the pliable chewy center.

We also tried some home-spun ice cream from Acuarela Heladeria -- cherry mascarpone and a creamy milk caramel. Luxurious, velvety and rich, this was actually some fantastic ice cream... if it were only just a bit less sweet.

We returned to Puerto Natales after an incredible trip to Perito Moreno at an awkward time to find dinner: 10 pm on a Sunday night during the off-season in a small town where most locals eat at home rather than in restaurants. This probably wasn't the best time to go looking for fresh seafood. With a light rain beginning to fall and a brisk wind cutting into us, we sought refuge in the warm confines of Mesita Grande, one of the local pizzerias. Ok, before I get blasted for having pizza in South America, our friend Jim from the day trip said that everyone in Patagonia loves pizza, locals and tourists alike. Some of the most popular dining spots are simple pizza joints that churn out hot, substantial food at low prices; makes sense.

Mesita Grande was an unexpected surprise. As we walked in, I saw a wood-burning brick pizza oven behind the bar glowing with red hot embers, raising my expectations immediately. We ordered a fantastic neapolitan style pizza with a simple tomato sauce, mozzarella, spinach, garlic, mushrooms, and a cracked egg on top, followed by an order of lasagne baked in a clay dish... The pizza was nice chewy, with just a thin veneer of smoky crispness, and the lasagne was piping hot and rich, the texture benefitting from house-made pasta sheets.

Not a bad way to recharge after a 17-hour day...

April 19, 2008

Trapped in a gastronomic purgatory

Wow... we're headed to Chile!

One of the reasons I love traveling is the promise of new and amazing food experiences. And we've had some real epiphanies in our most recent trips... delicious lamb and jaw-dropping Pinot Noir in New Zealand, simple and soul satisfying noodles, curries, and seafood from hawker stands in Malaysia (not to mention the durian), and crazy good food in Greece, from gyros and loukoumades (insane madness) to spectacularly pristine seafood and Michelin-starred restaurants. So I'm ecstatic that the trip to Chile has finally begun. The plan is to go nuts on great free-range grass-fed beef, organic lamb, uber-fresh seafood and spectacular Chilean wines!
Ironically, as much as I'll anticipate the food on our international trips, they necessarily always start and finish at the opposite end of the food spectrum: airplane food. There is a particularly appropriate passage out of Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour that I was reading at the outset of our trip:

Is there anything so expensive and yet so demeaning as tourist class on a long flight? Look at us! Stacked ten across, staring bleary-eyed straight ahead, legs and knees contorted, necks at unnatural angles, eagerly -- yes, eagerly -- waiting for the slop gurney finally to make its way down to us. That all-too-familiar brackish waft of burned coffee, the little plastic trays of steamed food, which would cause a riot in a federal penitentiary...
So true! But I had no idea how that passage would haunt us. With the craziness of our flight situation occupying my mind, I didn't think to anticipate the onslaught of airplane meals ahead of us.

But before we get to that, the gustatory portion of our trip had already taken a significant detour. After a 90 minute holding pattern over Dallas (random spontaneous thunderstorm that shut down the whole airport for 2 hours), we had to land at a different airport to refuel, then return to DFW only to miss our connection to Santiago by a mere 27 minutes. For compensation, we were given a one night stay at a local motel and a $20 voucher for dinner at any of the fine participating establishments at the airport. Absolutely ravenous -- it had been about 10 hours since lunch -- we scoured the food courts for options, but McDonald's was the only place open after midnight. No matter; we weren't picky at this point. We gladly wolfed down those moisture-injected, breaded and fried patties of "chicken" in a heartbeat. The next morning, a breakfast of a disturbingly unnatural blueberry-esque scone from Starbucks. Okay, not exactly how I imagined my latest food adventure starting, but the hardest part was yet to come.

Have you ever had McDonald's for all three meals in one day? I've done it on a couple of road trips, and its brutal. You just feel terrible, like you're sweating deep fryer oil and a cocktail of aromas designed by McD's biochemists... all you want to do is take a shower or wash your face -- repeatedly. The worst part is, you're not hungry, but you're not full either. Your appetite ends up trapped in some twilight zone of unfulfillment.

Airplane food is much the same. After our transfer to LAX (that's right... Los Angeles!) the next morning, we were finally on a flight to Chile. The first leg of the flight, however, was to Lima, an 8-hour flight featuring the ubiquitous "meat" and rice or chicken and potatoes with some brackish table wine (though the scotch afterwards was nice)... later, a breakfast omelette (ok, official opinion here: all egg-products should be immediately disallowed on any flights). From Lima to Santiago, a ham and cheese breakfast sandwich. Since we missed a day of our trip, right when we landed it was time to fly to Puerto Montt (chicken and vegetable "spread" on a bun... disturbing) and immediately connected to Punta Arenas (a hyper-sweet platter of desserts). Five airplane meals over an 18-hour period. Ouch.

So we find ourselves on our spontaneous shopping spree for clothing / shoes / jackets in Punta Arenas, not confident at all that our bags will ever join us on this trip, and things are going great. La Verne and I are strutting about town in our latest Chile-fabulous outfits... and hey, WE'RE IN CHILE! The one thing that is bugging me, though, as we wait for our evening bus to Puerta Natales is my stomach. It's completely confused by the wall of airplane food consumed, not knowing whether to be hungry or full, happy or sad... yearning for Chilean treats or ready for hari kari. The absence of hunger is a tragic thing -- it's what makes our tendency to eat beyond our appetite so appalling. When you're stuck just wanting to want something, you're in a bad place.

But then, redemptive gastronomic salvation. We decided to spend our final hour in Punta Arenas relaxing with a couple of beers at Cafe 1900. On the menu, two magical words hooked my eyes: torta and empanaditas.

Tortas hold a special place in my heart... whether a torta lengua at upscale Tacubaya or a down home torta al pastor at any of the favorite taco trucks, a great sandwich just makes things right. Ok, so here's my first Chilean hot sandwich: sliced roasted beef, ham, tomato, onion, creamy avocado, mayo and cheese, all on a just crispy bun. A burst of savory-juicy-rich delectability at first bite.

Then, a platter of mini empanadas, filled with either cheese alone or beef, cheese and olives. Glorious. Warm, flavorful fried food made of real ingredients has never been so needed... a lingering perfume of olives washed away by another swig of cerveza. Una mas, por favor.

The culinary fog has lifted and the sun is coming out. We head out to Puerta Natales, no luggage, some new threads, and a renewed optimism for the trip ahead. After settling in to our hostel, we sit around the fireplace with a glass of simple Chilean cabernet sauvignon... a 2007 Cono Sur... familiar from back at home, but nice to enjoy on its native soil.

I'm restored. And I can't wait for tomorrow.

April 13, 2008

butternut squash soup for my wife's cold

We just had a glorious two days of great weather up here in Seattle, with blue skies and temperatures in the high 70s. That might not sound like much to the folks back in California, but it was a real treat for us up here.

We were also lucky enough to host our first out-of-town guest since we moved to our new home, with our good friend DM visiting from the Bay Area. I told D I'd describe her in a haiku:

name of morning sun
loyal friend, melodic star
great parking karma

D was up for sampling some of our new favorites up here in Seattle, so we packed in as much as we reasonably could... porchetta sandwiches at Salumi, carnitas tacos at El Asadero ("the bus"), regina margherita at Tutta Bella, nico lattes at Vivace, brunch at the Northwest Tofu House, cocktails at Licorous, an exciting late supper at all-time favorite Sitka and Spruce and (slightly heavy) almond croissants at Bakery Nouveau. Whew.

Now that the dust has settled and D's back in SF, the weather has taken a decidedly Seattle-esque turn, with a 20 degree temperature drop and the return of rain. Our fruit trees which were exploding with blossoms from the nice weather are thoroughly confused, and Lav has come down with a cold. So we needed something simple, healthy and fortifying for lunch.

We had some bun thit nuong that Lav got from Pho Thuy Hong to start... really nice, clean flavors and well seasoned pork. Familiar, comfortable and perfect to whet the appetite... but I really wanted to give Lav a good, hot soup to fight her ailment.

Last night, we had a few friends over for dinner and I tried to copy a butternut squash soup Lav and I had a few weeks back at Tilth. Tilth's soup was remarkable... savory, but permeated with the natural sweetness of roasted butternut squash. The soup was served with diced apples, ginger and mint oil in the bowl, with the hot soup poured over... the sweetness of the apple and the gentle heat of the raw ginger were beautifully integrated accents to the flavor of the broth, and the mint oil added a surprising, refreshingly light element that faintly hovered in the background of your palate... a mere wisp of mint.

My first try from last night didn't quite get the flavors quite right. The soup was based on roasted squash, water and a touch of cream... and ended up being a bit one dimensoinal and overly sweet. This afternoon, I added some chicken broth and a healthy dose of white pepper, which did the trick to introduce the balance of a savory dimension.

For this version, we used an asian pear instead of apple--so the fruit would contrast more prominently with the more savory broth (in both flavor and crisp texture)--and added some celery leaves. Once the hot soup was poured into the bowl, the mint oil floated to the top, dotting the surface with subtle flavor accents. The raw ginger, shaved very thin, added a mild amount of heat that paired well with the velvety richness of the butternut squash. The result was exactly what I was trying to make the night before.

Lav's certainly not over her cold yet, but hopefully this warmed her enough to get her onto the path of recovery before we head off to Chile.

April 7, 2008

craving a burger

I love hamburgers. I love them in all their forms (thick, juicy 1/2-lb. patties of wagyu... thin and crusty sliders... mini-burgers... all of it!) and with almost all iterations of toppings (well, I do pause at Auckland's legendary 3 a.m. White Lady). I crave them tirelessly, and I often cause Lav a bit of concern with the number of times I could happily mow down a burger and fries throughout the week. Really, the only reasons I limit my burger intake at all are (1) to keep my arteries relatively clear and (2) the absence of truly devastatingly good burger options in Seattle.

That's right Seattlites... I don't understand your undying devotion to Red Mill or the appeal of Dick's Drive In (yuck). If only we had the easy dependability of In-N-Out or Taylor's Refresher, the old-school classic greatnesss of Joe's Cable Car, the amazing quality-to-dollar ratio of Burger Joint, the refined accessibility of Absinthe and Myth (both complete with terrific frites/fries)... and perhaps my all-around favorite, the unexpectedly great burger at Slow Club (although the price has gone up). Just to name a few.

The mighty burger is also important because its greatest versions can be among the most satisfying, emotionally wrenching, endorphine-cranking highs in food experiences... all while maintaining a pretty egalitarian edge. Food for the masses... great burgers are generally not so expensive as to be inaccessible (excluding this homage to atrociously wasteful decadence... sorry DB, love your stuff, but come on, $120???), but they still require a skilled and attentive hand to achieve their full glory.

Lav and I were up at Cafe Besalu for our usual pain au chocolat and almond croissant, and Lav also wanted an onion gruyère tart. One bite of that buttery, rich pastry with its sweet, earthy flavors and my first thought was... I want a burger with caramelized onions and gruyère! I turned and spotted fresh baked brioche and the plan was in motion.

We had some leftover braised short rib from the night before, so I pulled that meat apart and mixed it with some 80% lean ground chuck (2 parts chuck to 1 part short rib)... just enough for four small slider patties. We ended up making two types of burgers:

caramelized shallot + gruyère on lightly grilled brioche

classic bacon cheddar burger, black cherry tomatoes, field greens, ciabatta

Oh yeah... the braised short rib added seriously unctuous juicy richness to the patties, which developed a nice crust on the iron skillet. Add some crunchy matchstick fries and a glass of 2005 Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon (Colchagua Valley) and my craving was sated... for now. Lav reminded me last night that one of my New Year's resolutions was to eat less meat. Well, of course! That's why these were mini sliders...

Food for thought: the crisis of world food balances... ok, I really should eat less meat.

April 6, 2008

a dinner for... bloggers?

For a few months now, we'd been trying coordinate schedules and find some time to get together with a local blogger and his family. Friday morning, we got an email saying that some time had unexpectedly opened up for Saturday night. So it was on... no way we were going to miss this opportunity! Since I was going to be snowboarding that day with another local blogger (whose wife also blogs), why not make this a little blogger soiree?

There wasn't much time to do cooking and prep since we'd be getting home from the slopes about an hour before dinner. The goal was to make some simple, interesting food that would be accessible to E&M's three children as well. I also wanted to feature some form of nori in each of the dishes--I'm currently in the midst of a serious nori infatuation and am trying to figure out some new ways to incorporate the deep, rich flavor of seaweed everywhere.


potato, leek and cauliflower soup
nori paste, croutons, cilantro, chili oil

tuna "carpaccio"
arugula, ruby grapefruit, avocado, dried nori

kabocha squash curry noodles
taiwanese wheat flour noodles, quail egg, dried nori

"ocean and land"
kalbi-marinated braised shortrib, sake-miso black cod, nori seasoning

meyer lemon mandarin orange curd tart
butter crust, dark chocolate ribbon

I love the rich creaminess of potato-leek soup. Here, I reduced the amount of potato and substituted cauliflower to lighten the broth a bit. I needed the flavor of the soup to be a more muted backdrop to the small drop of nori paste in the center. Croutons added for texture and a slight sourdough flavor, with cilantro and chili oil for subtle flavor accents.

I snagged a stunningly beautiful, deeply red block of sashimi-grade ahi tuna at the market. After slicing the tuna into individual portions, I gently pressed the tuna (covered in plastic wrap) with the cutting board to flatten and break down the tissue and form a carpaccio of sorts, making the flesh even more delicate--hopefully almost melting on the palate. Classic beef carpaccio is fantastic with a squeeze of lemon, leaves of arugula and parmiggiano, so we went the same direction here... sweet ruby red grapefruit, arugula leaves, some avocado for richness, dried nori and a wisp of sesame oil.

Lav found some fresh ribbons of Taiwanese wheat flour noodles at the local Chinese market. The texture of these noodles is awesome... soft and silky, but with a faint chewiness to them. She made a wonderful Japanese curry with kabocha squash, which turned creamy and sweet, along with carrots, bell pepper and onion. This was topped with a fried quail egg and lots of dried nori. The nori really transformed the curry to give it a different savory flavor dimension. A bit too spicy for the girls though... oops!

I have to admit, I was a bit worried about this one. I wanted to present the familiar Korean flavor of kalbi in a different context. Rather than having rich, thin ribbons of shortrib, I marinated whole blocks of shortrib in kalbi sauce, then slow-braised them for overnight to melt the collagen in the meat and develop the intensity of the resulting sauce. We matched this with small strips of broiled black cod, marinated sake and miso, which has a completely different element of richness. This dish really could have used something like spinach or pea shoots to cut through the decadence.

While the kids (and their father) feasted on jelly bellies, the rest of us wrapped up the evening with Lav's homemade lemon tart. Since there weren't enough meyer lemons, she substituted some mandarin oranges which actually helped to round out the tartness of the curd with some additional sweetness. The layer of dark chocolate in the crust was key. J declared it "the best lemon tart I've ever had!"

Each of the people at this meal has had an important impact on our life here in Seattle. It was nice to be able to have a little food together... but even better to share thoughts, laughs, and community for a little window of time on a Saturday evening.