Monday, May 23, 2011

Quinoa Two Ways

Quinoa, as my readers know, is one of my favorite superfoods to use in my kitchen. A grain from the South American Andes, quinoa is a complete protein and filled with fiber - it's really fantastic. So I decided to play the culinary experimentation game and make two very different quinoa dishes with the same base grain, to show the great range you can do with this soon-to-be staple. Here were my two dishes:

1) Indian-spiced quinoa with fresh mango, chickpeas, bell peppers, tofu, and dried cherries: toast Indian spices in a dry pan on low heat (I used tumeric, cumin, chili, tandoori spice, mustard, ground ginger, and curry) while quinoa cooks, sauteeing chopped bell peppers and tofu in skillet. Add a cup of water into the toasted spice pan and pour into the quinoa, stirring to coat the grains in the spice mixture - this will give it a vibrant yellow color. Mix in the chopped fresh mango, chickpeas, peppers, tofu, and dried cherries - the sweet fresh mango and tart dried cherries will pop in your mouth with the savory Indian spices, creating an unexpected harmony of strong flavors.

2) Pesto quinoa with sauteed mushrooms, roasted grape tomatoes, and spinach: this quinoa dish uses classically Mediterranean elements with the South American grain - such international fusion in these dishes, I love it - that works incredibly well. Make pesto while the quinoa cooks, roasting the grape tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and a pinch of salt, until they burst. Heat the pesto on the stove in a pan and saute the mushrooms with olive oil and minced garlic, seasoning with pepper and thyme. Wilt the baby spinach into the warmed pesto and pour the quinoa in the pot, stirring to cover the quinoa in pesto - this should give it an earthy green tinge. Stir in the tomatoes and mushrooms and season with salt and pepper to taste - you won't believe how well quinoa and pesto work together!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Light and Tart

Limoncello fruit tart (turned into a double layer cake ...) with raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries; cream whipped with lemon curd, mascarpone, limoncello and fresh lemon juice, and lemon zest grated over top of the fruit

Friday, May 20, 2011

Smokin' Betty's

Smokin' Betty's restaurant in Philadelphia's brunch is ... well, smokin'. The bar and restaurant is a happy hour favorite, I've been told, but our visit for brunch was truly epic.

The thing about brunch is that it's an exquisite dichotomy of sweet vs. savory, and eternal tug-of-war that will never be won. It doesn't have to be, of course, because with brunch you get the best of both worlds: the breakfast-lunch fusion to satisfy all salty and sweet cravings and appease all appetites.

Smokin' Betty's has the sweet for the sweeties: the pancakes and waffles, and the cinnamon bread pudding french toast, which is every bit as decadent as it sounds. Our server told us they actually make classic bread pudding the night before - douse the cinnamon bread in custard, chill to set into thickness - and then cut thick slices of the bread pudding to fry up on the griddle and coat in fluffy powdered sugar. Served with honey butter and maple syrup, the french toast is super-rich sweet with a few nibbles of apple mixed in, a towering pile of bread pudding-french toast that one can only hope to finish. We ordered one french toast for the table of seven to share, which sounds impressively constrained until you take into account that this was the "appetizer" to the meal. Go big or go home in Philly.

The selection of savory dishes on the menu never failed to impress as well - from smoked salmon hash topped with sweet potato, bacon and a fried egg, to the breakfast burrito filled with bacon and guac, to the country gravy and biscuits - homemade Southern-style biscuits doused in sausage gravy, done right to make your grandma proud, everything was a hit. For the lunch side of brunch, the grilled cheese sandwich is what I call "grown-up gourmet grilled cheese" - fresh melted mozzarella, prosciuto and fig jam, a perfect combination of chewy cheesey goodness and the unexpected sweetness of fig on toasted sourdough bread - delectable. The signature dish, the Betty Burger, was a truly epic gourmet burger (see photo above), with 1/2 pound sirloin, confit pork belly, avocado, cheddar, lettuce, tomato, roasted garlic aioli and a fried egg on top (just in case it wasn't already enough for you), so tall it needs a knife skewered through it to keep the burger upright. The fine cut of juicy meat with the soft, almost creamy avocado and perfect meld of flavors takes a massive bite to get every layer, which can only leave you with meat juice dripping down your chin. Now I'm rarely a red meat eater, but even I took a bite of this infamous burger and appreciated its finesse. Paired with sweet potato fries - I'm a huge fan - and you will be ready for a Sunday afternoon nap.

The gastropub chic decor provided a nice, serene atmosphere (my fellow diners were particulary impressed with the modern brick sink in the bathroom ... yeah), and the large French doors overlooking the street let in the Sunday morning light and provided a nice view for people-watching. The staff was friendly and accomodating, offering to substitute prosciutto on my vegetarian friend's open faced omelette for anything on the menu (she chose mushrooms to go with mozzerella and fresh arugula drizzled with balsamic) and not a coffee cup was left unfilled. Smokin' Betty's has great food at a reasonable price - all the brunch menu items I described are around $9, such a great value for the quality of food - and really hits the spot, for whatever spot you're craving.

Panoramic view of brunch at Smokin' Betty's

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Pecan-Crusted Tilapia

I made this pecan-crusted dish with tilapia because it was fresh at the store, but this dish would work well with other white fish such as cod, or even with chicken if you're looking for a healthier alternative to breaded and fried chicken fingers, while still retaining the crunch and bold flavor. Here's how I made it:

1) Blend pecans in blender or food processor until coursely ground, and pour into shallow dish with panko (about 2:1 ratio pecan to panko.) Add a dash of Cajun spice blend, cayenne, garlic powder and a little salt and pepper, stirring.
2) Sprinkle fish filets with salt and pepper and red pepper flakes, heating skillet coated with olive oil.
3) Rub mixture of flour and cornmeal on to each side of fish, just barely coating it.
4) Dip fish in egg wash, then dredge in pecan mixture. Place fish on hot skillet, cooking a few minutes on each side. Dry on paper towel and serve - these filets have crunchy savory crusts and moist, delicious meat inside - they will vanish off the plate!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Kayuga Sushi

Kayuga was one of those many Boston restaurants that I had walked past hundreds of times (maybe thousands, even) and always said to myself, "I should go there sometime ..."

So last night we went, and I can finally check that place off the list. The restaurant was full on a Sunday night, filled with primarily younger patrons from the surrounding neighborhood - I even saw a pair studying on laptops while eating dinner. That being said, there were two remaining open tables when we arrived so we were seated immediately, and though the service was decidedly slow, taking close to 15 minutes for our server to come take our order, the server was apologetic and kind, and the food came fairly quickly.

The decor is simple-chic with a funky flair, with modern twisted metal lamps and colored lights overhead, creating a more fun atmosphere than the often formal and austere look of more traditional Japanese restaurants. This place is no Fugakyu, mind you, no sliding screens, low tables, and koi ponds here - and the food itself is more east-west fusion rather than purist, as well. The sushi is decent, I'll say, with a standard selection of sashimi and a number of house specialty maki rolls, using the classic seafood and a sprinkling of contemporary sushi ingredients such as sweet potato, cream cheese, and mango. In addition to the crowd favorites California rolls, Rainbow rolls, spicy tuna roll, etc., they offer some area specials such as the "BU roll" and the "MIT roll" - tributes to its college-town location. I chose the Dragon roll, soft raw tuna and crisp fresh cucumber, topped with savory eel and soft avovado, and it was quite a tasty meal:

Friday, May 6, 2011

Cinco de Mayo

For Cinco de Mayo last night we had a fiesta dinner - my Mexican American friend made the tacos so I plead innocence to following ethnic stereotypes - it was his idea! So our menu was:
  • Fresh gaucamole and organic blue corn chips
  • Beef tacos served with shredded lettuce, homemade pico de gayo, grated cheese, and the choice of corn taco shells and/or charred flour tortillas
  • Black bean soup
  • Margaritas and Coronas, of course
Here's how I make my black soup:

1) Saute half an onion, diced, in a pot coated with olive oil, on medium heat until onion is translucent.
2) Add a two bay leaves and a pinch each of salt, red pepper flakes, garlic powder, ground chipotle, cayenne, and then cumin and chili powder to taste (I use about two parts cumin to one part chili; in this case I added probably 1/4 cup cumin but it will vary depending on desired heat level and quantity.) I added a few teaspoons of dried cilantro and a dash of cinnamon to balance the heat, stirring to coat the onions evenly in the spice mixture.
3) Dice some red and green pepper and stir in with onions (here I also added a few slices of diced jalapeno - what can I say? I like it hot.)
4) Pour in 2/3 small can tomato juice, scraping up all the spice bits off the pot and stirring into the liquid.
5) Add black beans, drained (I used two cans for a pot of soup to feed three people - for a family dinner, double this) and turn up heat to simmer, cooking off the liquid. Stir frequently to keep beans from sticking to the pot.
6) After 20 minutes or until the liquid has cooked down to thicken the bean mixture, turn off the heat and chill overnight to let flavors meld and develop.
7) The next day pour the beans into a food processor - remember to remove the bay leaves - adding a handful or blue corn chips (my secret ingredient!) and blend until almost smooth - I like some texture remaining to my soup.
8) Pour blended beans back into the pot and warm on the stove, tasting to adjust seasoning and add more cilantro and a few dashes of hot sauce. Grate fresh lime zest and squeeze the juice of a lime in to brighten it up before serving, garnished with a few serrano chile slices on top and grated cheese for topping if desired. This soup with a Corona is pretty much a fiesta in your mouth.