January 31, 2010

The simple pleasures: Beef with Thai basil

As we wrap up another month of frugality, I have to admit that this year was much easier than previous years. I didn't miss eating out all that much---it helps when your favorite restaurant is closed to move to a new location---and I only really craved a drink whenever I watched an episode of Mad Men...

With all of the cooking we did at home, we cycled through lots of the old favorites: hot pot, chicken poached in sake, tagine, pizza... and the thing I noticed most was how truly delicious the simplest dishes can be. Sure, it's nice to have an opportunity to eat a perfectly prepared sous-vide beef short rib with peanut and broccoli puree with a dehydrated gelatinized sheet of Guinness, but there's something special about the pleasure of simple, well executed dishes. No production, no esoteric flavor combinations, no unexpected twists. Just undeniably tasty food...

...like a 15-minute bowl of spaghetti, adorned only by brightly flavored San Marzano tomatoes and a bit of garlic, basil and chili flakes. Maybe a rich, warm soup with good crusty bread on a cold winter evening. Or hamachi kama, always a favorite, dressed only with a touch of salt and oil before being broiled for 10 minutes to crispy goodness in our toaster oven.

A good stir fry is also always a winner: quick, simple and satisfying. For me, stir frying is all about knowing the different temperature zones of your wok so you can be sure to get the best caramelization and flavor you need to make the dish sparkle.

We had some really nice Thai basil on hand, with a bit of good quality, thinly sliced beef, so I threw together this quick dish for lunch. The Thai basil is the star here, its sweet, enchanting aroma and flavor enveloping the tender, seared beef.

Stir-Fried Beef with Thai Basil

1/2 lb beef top round steak
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons ginger, finely chopped
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 yellow onion, thinly sliced
3 green onions, cut into thin strips
1 red pepper, finely diced
1 bunch Thai basil
1 teaspoon chili sauce or chili oil (optional)

Cut the beef thinly against the grain. In a bowl, combine the soy sauce, rice wine, sugar and corn starch. Add the beef and marinate in the refrigerator for 1 hour. Drain.

Heat wok over high heat. Add the oil and heat until smoking. Add garlic and ginger and cook for 10 seconds. Add the beef and cook until caramelized, about 2-3 minutes (depending on the heat of your wok). Remove beef and set aside. Reserve 1 tablespoon of oil in your wok.

Bringing wok back up to high heat and stir fry yellow onion (with a pinch of salt) until softened, approximately 2 minutes. Add red pepper and cook for an additional minute. Add the beef and green onions and stir fry for 60 seconds. Add Thai basil leaves and chili sauce/oil, toss well, and turn off heat.

Serve with steamed rice.

January 24, 2010

A second fundraiser for Haiti relief efforts

The menu and just a few pictures from last night's Fishes+Loaves fundraiser for One Day's Wages Haiti Relief and Rebuild Fund. For the full rundown of the meal, please check out the Fishes+Loaves blog.

j cuvee 20, strawberry

hamachi crudo
beet foam, meyer lemon zest, greens

2007 catalina sounds, sauvignon blanc

“ssam gyup sal”
coffee-cured pork belly, perilla, carrot,
pickled daikon, nori paste, cilantro

ozeki sake, warm

miso-marinated black cod
baby bok choi mui, carrot

2006 efeste, ceidleigh syrah

syrah-braised oxtail
celery root risotto, chevre, beetroot “gastrique”

meyer lemon tart
chocolate, mint oil, cream

January 20, 2010

still in the midst of dungeness crab season

At Whole Foods this past weekend, we saw a "weekend special" of fresh, cooked whole dungeness crab from Oregon for $3.99/lb, 50% off their regular price. Two things: (1) I usually like to get live crab from the local Asian market and cook it at home myself, and (2) I'm wary of "weekend specials," especially for highly perishable seafood... but these crab looked fantastic, and at that price, it was super convenient and no more expensive.

It reminded me that we're in the midst of dungeness crab season, one of my favorite times of year. There's nothing quite like the ethereal sweetness of fresh cracked crab---no garnish, no condiments, not even drawn butter is needed when the crab is at its peak.

But when I do want to dress it up a bit, it's hard to beat the simplicity of a crab and avocado salad... one of those flavor matches that will never get outdated. Add just a couple of other ingredients like the acidic sweetness and striking visuals of blood oranges, a bit of shallot and red pepper to add complementary dimensions to the flavor, and a light dressing to tie it all together.

Simple Crab Salad

1 cup fresh dungenesse crab meat, cooked
1 small avocado, diced
1/4 cup diced cucumber
1/4 cup diced celery
2 tablespoons finely diced shallot
1 red pepper, finely diced
1 blood orange, cut into supremes (save peel for zest)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon nuac cham
salt and white pepper, to taste
a few sprigs of cilantro (optional)

To assemble and serve:

Whisk olive oil and sesame oil with rice wine vinegar and nuac cham. Add finely diced shallot and allow to marinate for at least 3 minutes to soften the flavor of the raw shallot. Set aside.

If using freshly cooked crab, crack and remove the meat from the claw, legs and body. In a mixing bowl, gently combine crab meat, avocado, cucumber, celery and red pepper. Add blood orange supremes, zest and any juice. Season with salt and pepper.

Place a small ring mold in center of a bowl and fill with crab salad. Top with extra blood orange supremes or cilantro and finish with a light drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

January 17, 2010

A fundraising meal for Haiti

This post also appears on my other blog, fishes+loaves.

This week, LaV and I tried to think of what we could do to help raise money for organizations participating in the disaster relief and rebuilding efforts. The outpouring of support from all over the world has been encouraging to witness, but the need is so significant.

According to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the Haitian emergency is the "most serious humanitarian crisis faced by the United Nations" in decades, surpassing those caused by the Asian tsunami, the recent Pakistan earthquake and cyclone Nargis in Burma. In the words of Stephanie Bunker of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs:
"[T]he civil service, police, emergency services, all the organisations which would normally have key roles in responding to a major disaster were affected.... Haiti is very poor. It just does not have the resources or the money to respond to an emergency. What capacity it did have to respond was completely knocked out. This earthquake hit a country which was already barely functional."
After speaking with a few friends, we quickly threw together a fundraising dinner Saturday night. The idea behind the meal was simple. We would serve a four course meal to a small group of six people in exchange for a $50 contribution per person to One Day's Wages, a local Seattle nonprofit (I serve on the Advisory Board) raising funds for two organizations: World Concern and Partners in Health, organizations doing relief and rebuilding work in Haiti.

World Concern has worked in Haiti since 1978 and serves roughly 125,000 Haitians annually. Their office in Port Au Prince is still standing and they are engaged in emergency relief work right now.

Partners in Health has been working on the ground in Haiti for over 20 years. Their mission is to bring modern medical care to poor communities in nine countries around the world, including Haiti.

We figured that with six participants (plus corporate charitable gift matching), we'd be able to raise $600... a small amount in the grand scheme of things, but every well placed contribution counts.

Here was the evening's menu:

kir royal

tender pork belly salad
coffee-cured pork belly, apple, fennel, nuac cham

2001 ockfen bockstein riesling, von othegraven

seared scallop
carrot nage, fried shallot

traditional paella
chorizo, shrimp, mussel, clam, squid

2002 pierre bouree fils, beaune, "les epenottes" 1er cru

chocolate bread pudding
ice cream, fresh walnuts

And a few of the pictures:

Planning and preparing the meal was a blast. But the best part of the evening was seeing this group of friends come together to generously donate to One Day's Wage's fundraising efforts.

Later that evening, after we'd said our goodbyes and cleaned up, I looked at the contributions and realized that these folks had given above and beyond what we had requested. We were able to raise a total of $1,100 (corporate matching included) between just these six people, almost double our goal!

A HUGE thanks goes out to our generous diners: Megan, Carla, David, Lena, Brie and Aaron. You guys rock.

Our hearts continue to think of and pray for those who are suffering in Haiti. If you are looking for a way to contribute funds to recovery, relief and rebuilding efforts in Haiti, please consider the One Day's Wages Haiti Relief and Rebuild Fund, or any of a number of reputable nonprofits assisting in Haiti.

We'll be looking for more opportunities to host additional fundraising meals in the near future.

January 13, 2010

Thinking of Haiti

Photo: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Port-au-Prince destroyed. Unknown thousands of people killed. Survivors at risk without access to food, shelter or clean water. Devastation everywhere.

Yesterday, LaV taught me the Hebrew translation of Psalm 121:1-2...

Esa eynai el heharim mayayin yavo ezri ezri mayeem adonai oseh shayim va’aretz.(“I lift up my eyes to the mountains. What is the source of my help? My help comes from God who made heaven and earth.”

Haiti, you are in my prayers.

If you're looking for an organization accepting donations to support relief efforts, check out One Day's Wages, a local Seattle non-profit organization that is raising money for World Concern, whose team was already established in Haiti and is currently assisting with efforts to provide clean water to survivors.

January 10, 2010

Month of frugality, week 1

Most of you know that every year, LaV and I set aside January as our "month of frugality" to take a break from the indulgences and excesses of the holiday season and focus on simplicity and more modest living. Here's how it works: apart from bills, we can't spend money on anything except groceries. No shopping, no eating out... not even a burger or a cup of drip coffee. I also give up wine (and all other alcoholic beverages) for the month.

This first week has gone pretty well, with the theme being juice and soup. At the end of the year, LaV fell prey to to power of the infomercial and bought a juicer---but it ended up being a fantastic purchase. We've been experimenting with all sorts of combinations each day, and I'm totally hooked on juicing almost everything in sight. So far, my favorite combo has been carrot, kale, apple and ginger. It's crazy how much juice you can extract from vegetables, and it has actually been surprisingly inexpensive... a week's worth of fruit and veggies for daily juices came out to about $5.

We've also got a massive surplus of tea, so we're brewing plenty to keep us warm.

Food-wise, we've been doing lots of soup. We started off the new year with a massive hot pot meal with our friends, which converted nicely to a restorative bowl of steaming goodness the next day.

We also did a soup of pork belly, fennel and chickpea, as well as a Chinese-style oxtail soup, which took care of us for a few meals.

The week's dinners were rounded off with LaV's chicken tagine with israeli couscous and a bit of pasta.

Oh yeah, since they were only $4.99/dozen at the market, we splurged and shucked some fresh fanny bay oysters as a little treat.

Now, we're thinking up a few simple, tasty and inexpensive meals for the week ahead. Perhaps a bit of fresh fish, some stir fry... and more juices, I'm sure.

January 3, 2010

My top 10 dishes of 2009

Now that we're at the end of the year, it's time to take a look back at the last 12 months and ponder how well we did over a full year of eating.

I always like to start off with reading Jonathan Kauffman's list--particularly this year, since he's leaving Seattle to lend his writing talents to the SF Weekly (major bummer for us, huge win for SF). With the downturn in the economy and the unexpectedly crazy bleeding ulcer that put me out of commission for a few weeks, there was a lot less flash and a lot more comfort and simplicity in the food we ate. But that doesn't mean there was a shortage of dishes that absolutely sparkled. In fact, this was probably the best year of eating we've had.

But what puts a dish into the top 10? The dish has to be more than just delicious. It has to have some unique, perhaps intangible characteristic... maybe the surprise of its delectibility, the way it perfectly captures the emotions of the moment, or the transformative impact of its flavor. The following are my picks for the top 10 dishes of a terrific gastronomic year:

Heirloom tomatoes and japanese cucumbers from our garden. I have to start with the results of our first stab at gardening. Our landlord gave us free reign over a portion of the property adjacent to our house with the most fertile soil and the best sun exposure, and the results were amazing. We were blessed with a spectacularly warm extended summer, perfect for the development of our tomato plants. The black crims and sungolds adapted spectacularly to the soil, giving us tomatoes that had the sweet perfume of roses and strawberries with a gentle, but bright acidity. And the most lovely, fresh, crisp japanese cucumbers whose flavor had a hint of ripe watermelon. I'm curious to see if we can replicate the results this summer.

Matsutake dobin mushi, Miyabi. I feel like every time I go to Miyabi, there's something new and interesting to try that I've never seen before. Masa's fish selection is intensely seasonal, and this year we were treated to things like baby abalone, live razor clam, needle fish, flying fish (not just the roe), and fluke belly. Other favorites included their intensely comforting beef tongue stew and the sharply spiced squid stuffed with cod roe. But my favorite dish from Masa this year was the matsutake dobin mushi, a delicate, supremely simple dish of dashi broth, sake, and steamed matsutake mushrooms. Masa's version included chunks of tender chicken thigh and shrimp, all served in a clay tea pot. Magically earthy, slightly sweet broth with the wonderous aroma and flavor of seasonal matsutake... the kind of dish that makes everything else fade quietly to the background.

King Salmon, Hedgehog Mushrooms, Kabocha and Aioli, The Corson Building. This dish was one of the bigger surprises of the year. We were enjoying a simple meal on a Wednesday night, when the Corson Building has its limited, a la carte selection. The combination of salmon, kabocha and aioli wasn't the most appetizing in my mind when I read it on the menu, but for some reason I went for it anyway. Best salmon dish I can remember. Absolutely perfectly cooked, beautiful troll-caught salmon, with the creaminess of the aioli unifying each of the elements. I knew it would be on the top 10 list after the first bite.

Halibut crudo, garden kumquat salsa, Jefftember (Sonoma, CA). Every year, we have the pilgrammage known as Jefftember. This year's festivities were held at an estate in Sonoma with an epic kitchen, which provided more than enough space for Riley and I to collaborate on a few meals. Riley, ever the forager at Jefftember, snagged some fresh kumquats from the garden and made a phenomenal kumquat salsa (shallot, cilantro, vinegar, lime juice) for the fresh halibut we found at the market. The beauty of the dish was the perfect balance of flavor and seasoning, not an easy feat when trying to feed a dozen people. But Riley totally nailed it.

Soft farm egg with potato, alliams, fermented black garlic and pork jowl, Commis (Oakland, CA). With every year that passes, the food scene in the Bay Area feels more and more distant. But I was paying attention to two restaurant openings in 2009: Commis in Oakland and the re-opening of Quince in the old space occupied by Myth in San Francisco. Commis is a special addition to the East Bay dining scene and would have easily been one of our favorites if we still lived in the area. Chef Syhabout's magical sous vide egg dish was clearly one of the best of the year. The genius of the dish is the addictive sweet earthiness of the fermented garlic, creating a connective contrast to the unctuous richness of the egg yolk and soft pork jowl.

Lamb meatballs in tomato sauce, Bar Mingo (Portland). LaV and I took a trip to Portland this year for our anniversary and wandered all over town, enjoying some of the best the city has to offer. During a meal at Beast, we got a recommendation from one of our communal dining companions, Alan, to check out Caffe Mingo. We went, but opted for Bar Mingo next door and had a series of terrific small dishes. The meatballs were an absolute stand-out... some of the best I've ever tasted. Tender in texture with a rich depth of flavor... I wish I could make meatballs like this. And ridiculous at only $5 during happy hour.

LaV's Homemade Peach Pie. An epic summer produced amazing produce in the Pacific Northwest. And after the beautiful late summer trip to Oregon for our anniversary, we found ourselves back home with an abundance of absolutely beautiful peaches. I know Georgia is supposed to be the place to get peaches, but I can't imagine peaches getting any better than these. LaV decided to take a stab at making a peach pie from scratch, and her first attempt at the half-butter, half-shortening crust resulted in, without a doubt, the most delicious slice of pie I've ever had the pleasure of eating. So flaky, so flavorful, and without a single flaw. Seriously.

Prawn, Extebarri (Spain). Every so often, you may encounter a flavor experience so unique and monumental, it changes how you think about food. This year, lightning struck during our lunch at Etxebarri, and the dish that triggered the moment was a single (albeit, gigantic) perfect prawn. Cooked gently over a custom-built grill, the sweetness of the almost-translucent flesh was masterfully paralleled by the sweetness of the aromatic smoke of house-made charcoal. It forever changed what I expect a prawn to taste like, what kind of cooking I expect from a grill, and how ingredients can express their intended flavors. Unbelievable texture and flavor extraction, totally transcendent. One of the best things I've ever eaten in my life.

Steak, Etxebarri (Spain). As much as I hate putting two dishes on this list from the same restaurant, there was no way I could honestly exclude the grilled steak of Etxebarri. The ribeye came from a type of hard working cattle called Galician Blonde, whose tough, lean muscle fibers are softened by a more leisurely retirement later in their lives, combined with almost three months of dry aging. The result is an unbelievable amount of flavor with the most amazingly tender texture. This wasn't just steak, this was a carnivorous revelation. As I said then, I have no expectation of having a better steak. Ever.

Soup of tripe, pork belly and garbanzo beans, Spinasse. We experienced this dish on the evening of December 30th, barely in time for it to make this list. But what a dish! The soup has the most humble of ingredients (and also appears quite humbly tucked away on Spinasse's menu for $9). It made its first appearance on their menu about two weeks ago, and it's one of the most emblematic comfort foods I ate all year. I'm not normally a big fan of tripe. It doesn't bother me as an ingredient, but it hasn't ever been anything I've ever longed for... until now. Slowly braised until velvety and soft, while also absorbing all of the flavor of the deeply flavorful broth, making it a critical ingredient for both flavor and texture. With this dish, Spinasse now has my favorite salad (chicory salad with rabbit), pasta (tajarin with pork ragu) and soup dishes in Seattle.

Looking forward to what the new year has to offer (and hoping that Sitka & Spruce will be just as good in its new location).

Honorable mentions: pata negra, baby octopus, canned seafood at El Xampanyet, hazelnuts from our tree, fresh walnuts from Ener and Tiffany, red velvet cupcake at CupKates, the Arzak egg, Belgian fries at Wurstk├╝che.