Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Minnesota: Where in the World Wednesday!

Today, we fly to Minnesota, in particular, Minneapolis to meet our tour guide, Tracey, aka Tangled Noodle. Tracey and I first met on the favorite foodie website, foodbuzz, and I've been following her blog ever since (you should check it out too, here!). Thanks so much for taking part Tracey -- I definitely learned quite a bit of Minnesota reading through your entry and one of these days, I would love to try some of places you mentioned. In particular, those breakfast places made my mouth water... and I'm always a sucker for fair food (mmm, fried food on a stick :)).

Tracey presently lives west of downtown Minneapolis, "in a lovely little community near Lake Minnetonka, with my husband and our relentlessly clownish dog." Before moving to Minnesota, Tracey has lived all over! She was born in the Philippines and grew up in Ottawa, Canada. During her freshman year in high school, her family moved to San Francisco, CA; two years later, her family was in Northern Virginia after her parents (now-retired diplomats) were assigned to the Philippine Embassy in Washington, DC. Since marrying her husband, they've lived in Raleigh and Charlotte, NC; Atlanta, GA; and Chicago, IL. They moved to the Twin Cities area nearly 5 years ago and she's finally starting to get used to the winters! Her top 5 food cities are Chicago, Manila, New York, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles (she also notes that she would also say San Francisco but it’s been ages since she's eaten there!).

Now for our tour of MINNESOTA EATS:

1) How would you describe food in Minnesota in 10 words or less?

Hearty, comforting, diverse, natural, unfussy

2) Do you find that the food in Minnesota has been greatly influenced by certain cultures/ethnicities/religions? If so, which ones?

There is a tremendous Scandinavian influence in the foods with which Minnesotans identify: lefse (a potato-based flatbread), lutefisk (Norwegian dish of cod soaked in lye, which I’ve never tasted!), and krumkake (a waffle-type cookie shaped into a cone and filled with cream) are some of the most popular. If religion has any kind of influence, it would be in the classic hotdish, which is pretty much any kind of baked casserole and has been a staple of church basement suppers for generations. It’s quite representative of the Minnesota character: warm, generous, resourceful, and unpretentious. In recent years, the ethnic make-up of Minnesota (and particularly Minneapolis/St. Paul) has become more diverse as Asian, African and Hispanic communities have begun to thrive. I’m excited to see what new flavors they bring to the local food scene.

3) If you were putting together a food gift basket representative of Minnesota for a friend that was visiting you from somewhere else, what would you include in it? (Feel free to include perishable items)

The first thing in the basket would have to be hand-harvested wild rice, which grows in abundance along the banks of Minnesota’s northern lakes. I would also include two apple varieties that live up to their sweet-sounding names: Honeycrisp and the recently released Sweetango, both of which were developed by the University of Minnesota. The UMN’s horticultural programs has also produced cold-hardy wine grapes, so a bottle or two of wines made with deep, port-like Frontenac, pinot-noir descendant Marquette, or La Crescent, reminiscent of Riesling, would find their place as gifts. Finally, no basket would be complete without some walleye, a flavorful fish so highly prized by Minnesota anglers that the ‘Walleye Opener’ – the official start of the fishing season – is as eagerly anticipated as Christmas.

4) Is there anything about food in Minnesota that would surprise people that have never been there? Anything that you’ve found unique about food from Minnesota?

Minneapolis/St. Paul may not immediately come to mind when people think of top food cities but they should reconsider: this past May, Tim McKee of La Belle Vie was awarded Best Chef – Midwest honors by the James Beard Foundation, while 3-time nominee Lucia Watson of Lucia’s was just named a ‘Chevalier du Merite Agricole’ (an honorary knighthood!) by the French Ministry of Agriculture. There is a wealth of talented chefs and delicious food throughout the Twin Cities, from the most upscale dining establishments to the tiniest diner, and I look forward to experiencing as many as possible.

5) Do you have a favorite secret foodie spot (that you wouldn’t mind sharing)? If yes, where is it and what to do you love about it?

My husband and I recently stumbled on a gem hidden in the suburbs: a wonderful little Mexican spot with the rather unusual name of Chaska, My Love (Chaska being the town’s name); they serve delicious plates of our favorite tacos lengua (tongue) and menudo. Although it’s not so secret within the Twin Cities’ Hispanic community, Mercado Central deserves even more attention and recognition from everyone else for the bakeries, grocers, and small eateries that provide the most authentic and regionally-varied Mexican food in the metro area.

6) Say that you’re taking me around town – what would we have for breakfast? What would we have for late night eats? Is there anywhere that you always take out of towners?

You’ll have to stay for at least two breakfasts in Minneapolis! The first morning would be at Hell’s Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis for a bowl of Chef Mitch Omer’s warm and rich Mahnomin Porridge, made with the aforementioned wild rice, and savory bison sausage toast slathered with a stupendous homemade peanut butter. The next day, we’ll head over to Victor’s 1959 CafĂ© for some platter-sized Cuban corn pancakes that will keep you satiated for the rest of the day. A great spot to bring guests has been The Local, an Irish pub on Nicollet Mall, for some great people watching during the summer, some incredible Irish coffee during the chill of winter, and a shot of Jameson Irish Whiskey anytime. (By the way, The Local has the distinction of serving the largest volume of Jameson in the world for the third year running.) As for late night eats, I’m the wrong person to ask . . . I’m early to bed!

7) Are there any fun food events that take place in Minnesota or in the area that you’ve enjoyed?

There is only one fun food event that cannot be missed – the Minnesota State Fair. If it can be battered, fried and stuck on a stick, you’ll find it here. Although it’s possible to find some healthy treats, why not indulge in some terribly-tasty food just this time?

8) If you could pick one food that is traditionally or originates from Minnesota to have with you always, what would it be?

You may notice a trend here: I would have to have a bag of wild rice in my pantry at all times.

9) What was your last amazing meal in Minnesota and what did you have?

Last weekend, my husband and I went all-pork at Tea House Szechuan restaurant in nearby Plymouth, MN with Spicy Pork Intestine and Shredded Pork with Smoked Tofu. Wish I could have these dishes every week.

11) Given the current economic times, where would you go for a meal and a drink for $15 or less?

At Quang Vietnamese restaurant on Minneapolis’ Eat Street (Nicollet Avenue), we can get an order of goi cuon (fresh spring rolls) and two huge bowls of excellent pho (noodle soup) or bun (noodle salad) for under $20.

12) If you had to put together your ‘last meal’ based on Minnesota restaurant eats, what would you have?

Hmmmm. I don’t think I’m ready to answer just yet – I’m still discovering so many fantastic foods in Minnesota that the menu would constantly change!

Thanks again Tracey for participating!

Cookie Carnival: Coconut Black Bottom Bars

This month's Cookie Carnival brings us COCONUT BLACK BOTTOM BARS. The recipe comes from the lovely Martha Stewart -- you can check it out here.

I was really excited for these bars... I mean, a brownie with a coconut bar on top? How could one go wrong? ... I admit though that I wasn't particularly in love with these bars in the end. Although I liked the flavor combination, I found the bars on the bland side, the coconut part of the bars a little bit dry, and the black bottom parts of the bar a little too moist. I could have though enjoy just the black bottom part by itself!

Looking forward to next month!

Monday, September 28, 2009

MY TOP 10 DISHES - Happy Blog-versary!

In celebration of my one-year blogersary (anniversary?), I put together a compilation of my favorite dishes from this past year. Call it, my greatest hits. Call it, my best bites. Whatever you want to call it, I hope you enjoy them visually as much as I enjoyed eating them. (I also took a few liberties with this, lol... I started my blog in September 2008, but have included here dishes starting from May 2008, when I got married :) Gotta include those memories!). Cheers!

In chronological order - MY TOP 10 (+ one) DISHES OF THE PAST YEAR!

(1) My Wedding Cake
As one of the most memorable and important days in a girl's life, my wedding meal was a definitely a meal to remember. But the cake itself was amazing. We enjoyed a slice at the wedding, enjoyed slices of the cake after the wedding (they placed slices up in our room!), and then a year later, we pulled the top tier of the cake out of the fridge (that we had carefully wrapped per our cake maker's instructions) and celebrated our first year together with bites of our cake (which was still delicious!!). Our cake was two different sets of flavors -- two tiers were vanilla cake with passion fruit mousse and the other two tiers were chocolate chambord -- chocolate cake with raspberry mousse and chocolate ganache. Amazing, just like our wedding :)

(2) Malassadas
For the first part of our honeymoon, we went to beautiful Hawaii. One of the places that my family frequents when we visit Hawaii is Leonard's, so I had to take Mr. J there for breakfast (nearly every morning). Our favorite thing are the malassadas -- basically Portuguese donuts. Deep fried fresh by order, my favorites are filled with various tropical fruit custards. Lilikoi, mango, pineapple...mmm.

(3) Alan Wong's Soup and Sandwich
This past year, I was fortunate enough to have this dish TWICE. The first time was over our honeymoon as well. Alan Wong's is one of my absolute favorite restaurants in the entire world. Located on Oahu in a non-descript building, Alan Wong's serves up delicious Hawaiian regional cuisine along with some of the best service. This is their "soup and sandwich" combo, served with their 5-course dinner. Chilled Vine Ripened Hamakua Springs Tomato Soup with Grilled Mozzarella Cheese, Foie Gras, Kalua Pig Sandwich. Wish I had one right now...

(4) Fresh Seafood on Morro Branco Beach, Brazil
This past September, I visited Brazil for the first time with my family. One of the highlights of our trip was visiting Morro Branco, a town/beach about 2.5 hours from Fortaleza, Brazil (for more details, see here!). The beach is known for its amazing sand cliffs... and should also be known for their seafood, right on the beach. The seafood was incredibly fresh... and CHEAP. We ate up this seafood platter with fried whole fish, prawns, lobster... and another plate of prawns. This couldn't be beat -- literally feet from the ocean, feet in the sand.

(5) Grilled Oysters at the Maryland Oyster Festival
Every year during the third weekend of October, oyster lovers come to Leonardtown, Maryland, for the annual Maryland Oyster Festival. This past year was our first year going (read more here!). The weather was gorgeous, perfect for a day at a festival. And oh my, oysters as far as the eye could see, cooked up in any way that you preferred. My favorites were these grilled oysters -- I never had grilled oysters before, but the taste was both fresh and smoky, with loads of garlic and a bit of hot sauce. Delish.

(6) The "Cheesesteak" at Jose Andres's Minibar
For my birthday this year, my family and Mr. J took me to MINIBAR, Jose Andres's version of El Bulli, and a fabulously whimsical adventure of food. I had been wanting to go for ages and we made this the year to go! I certainly owe everyone a full entry on my Minibar dinner. This was one of my favorite bites of the night -- the "cheesesteak" with barely charred slices of beef atop a mini hollow "baguette" that was filled with delicious cheese.

(7) Ginger Ale at the Kapiolani Farmers Market
One of our favorite places to frequent in Hawaii is the Farmers Market held at the community college on Oahu every Saturday. Their options for tasty dishes are endless, but one thing I keep coming back to is the FRESH GINGER ALE. This tropical drink is made to order by Pacfikool -- fresh ginger with pineapple... or lilikoi... This day was especially warm, and I remember clearly waiting with the growing crowd for my ginger ales. Definitely worth the wait. This is my dad holding the drink.

(8) The pork slider at Side Street Inn
I definitely owe everyone some entries about all my food eating this year in Hawaii. When we went in May, I tried all sorts of places I hadn't been to before. One of these places was Side Street Inn. My parents had been before and I had heard of it before as, of course, the local after hours hangout for the famous chefs in the area. I also remembered seeing it on Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations." So my parents made it a point to take me there this trip. We got there on the early side to ensure little waiting. My parents had already picked out things they wanted to get again from the last time they were there, but this one dish caught our eye that wasn't on the menu before. The PORK SLIDERS. And...they...were...drool. Sandwiched in the buns that you would often get with Peking duck was moist shredded Kalua pork, with a slightly sweet sauce and a slice of pineapple. The flavors melded together into this fusion of sweet, salty, smoky, and just plain deliciousness.

(9) Negihama Tartare at Sushi Izakaya Gaku
After hearing much talk from my Hawaiian foodie friends about Sushi Izakaya Gaku, we also made sure to eat here while in Oahu. We wanted to try a number of the izakayas that have sprung up around Oahu (see my friend Steph's Where in the World Wednesday about Japan for more info on izakayas...) and this was at the top of my list. We quickly understood why Sushi Izakaya Gaku had such a following. The food was fresh, inventive, and memorable. The service was wonderful -- friendly, attentive, but not overbearing... and with a touch of aloha :) This was one of my favorite dishes (although hard to choose!) -- the negihama tartare -- a mix of finely chopped fish, mayonnaise, sambal, sesame oil, and a secret ingredient :) It is topped with tobiko and a quail egg. On the side, you're served sheets of seaweed/nori -- we took dollops of the fish and placed on sheets of seaweed, wrapped it up like a very mini burrito, and as you bite through the crunch, you experience a mix of flavors and creaminess.

(10) Uni at Sushi Izakaya Gaku
Also at Sushi Izakaya Gaku, I had my first experience with UNI. My mom is officially obsessed with uni and tries it almost any time a restaurant serves it to see how it measures up with past experiences. She took one bite of this uni and that day and since then, she has continued to say that this was the best uni she ever had. So of course, I had to try it. The uni (sea urchin) was completely different from what I expected. It has a custardy consistency and is sweet, salty, and incredibly delicate in flavor. Since then, I've tried it multiple times, and have been pleased with what I've had ... but I agree that they don't measure up to the uni at Sushi Izakaya Gaku.

(11) Homemade Barefoot Contessa Brownies
Finally, I was looking through my pictures of food from this past year, and was like, well, there must be something that I made that would make this list? I've cooked up quite a few dishes over the past year and although most of them were good, I wouldn' t rank them in the best of the year. Except for these. These brownies were ... simply the best brownies I've ever had. They were made as part of Barefoot Bloggers, a group that shares a mutual love for the Barefoot Contessa and cooks up two of her recipes every month. For the recipe and more info, see here! This was the first time I ever made brownies from scratch and I would use this recipe every time in the future. I brought them in to my office to share (so I wouldn't eat them ALL), and they were devoured within an hour. If you're ever in need for a chocolate overload, this is your ticket.

So there it is! I hope that you enjoyed the dishes... this was fun to go back and think about my food experiences from this past year. Needless to say, there were many dishes that were fantastic, but didn't make the list. I'm sure there are many that I didn't take pictures of, so they are somewhere in the recesses of my memory and will surface in the next few days. Many of my most memorable dishes also came from vacations and trips -- other meals that stood out were dinner at Gordon Ramsey's and Mario Batali's Pizzeria Mozza in LA. There were certainly memorable dishes that took place here in DC... and I certainly eat out my fair share in DC :) In particular, I discovered and heart the strawberry cupcakes at Baked & Wired, can't get enough of the chocolate ganache cupcakes at Georgetown Cupcake, my recent discovery of Fojol Brothers food truck, my first time at Amsterdam Falafel... There are those places that I always go back to and this year, I'll make a more concerted effort to keep track of the dishes as they stand out to me. Here's to another year of good eats, good travels, and good times.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Four Foods Friday!

Decided to join in on From Val's Kitchen's Four Foods meme... A little bit of fun for Friday! She asks the questions, we provide the answers!

This week's Four Foods questions...
  1. What color is your refrigerator? White! But covered in all sorts of colorful magnets, photos, and souvenirs from various trips and adventures.
  2. What kind of toaster do you have? We have TWO. Hah. A toaster oven that is perfect for mini baking and broiling and a regular white toaster.
  3. Do you use a tablecloth? When - always, when eating, etc. We have a tablecloth (a wedding prezzie) on our "dining room table" but we rarely eat at the table. So, I suppose, no.
  4. Do you use paper or cloth napkins? Paper at home, cloth everywhere else.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Where are you lunchin? DC Lunch Spots

So I meant to post this...apparently months and months ago. Oh how time flies...

For your lunching enjoyment...

In an effort to lend some variety to my DC lunch experiences, I made an informal poll of friends of favorite places for lunch in DC. I asked for each friend to send in their top three picks and offered just one rule -- a meal plus a drink must be $10 or less. I expected that several contenders would come out on top, but was (pleasantly) surprised to find that the resulting list was quite extensive with only several places receiving multiple votes.

The three that received multiple votes are as follows:

Bread Line (1751 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW -- Farragut West)
  • Different options daily! Check the website for daily menus -- opened Monday thru Friday

  • Favorites include... portobello piadine (caramelized onions, spinach, portobellos, and fontina cheese), italian sausage sandwich, spicy chicken sandwich (west african chicken, caramelized opinion, fried plaintain), french madrange ham sandwich, oyster po'boy, cuban sandwich

  • AND the salad combos -- choose 1, 2, or 3 toppings -- our picks: curry chicken, lentils and feta, nicoise, and potato green beans.
Brown Bag (2 locations in DC -- 818 18th Street NW (Farragut West); 1099 14th Street NW (McPherson Sq))
  • Noodle bowls (pad thai, chicken marinara, chicken pesto, "build your own noodle bowl")

  • Salad bowls (Bayou chicken caesar, cowboy steak, kitchen sink chef, remember the alamo)

  • Grilled Sandwiches (Parisian (brie, tomato, basil, olive oil, salt & pepper on baguette); golden gate grill (roast beef, artichokes, red peppers, onions), coltrane chicken (grilled chicken, goat cheese, roasted red peppers, pesto mayo)

  • Stuffed Sandwiches (big apple turkey, portabello sandwich, voo doo chicken wrap)
Chop't (menu) (NOW 5 locations in the DC area! Chinatown (730 7th St NW), Dupont Circle (1300 Connecticut Avenue), 19th & L St NW, and Metro Center (618 12th St. NW), Rosslyn (1735 N. Lynn St.))
  • Famous for their salads -- array of fresh ingredients all "chop't" up together to make a very tasty (and fairly massive) salad. Pick your own ingredients or from one of the salad mixes... highlights below

  • Santa Fe (Romaine lettuce, pepper jack cheese, avocado, tomato, corn, and fried onion)

  • Beverly Hills Chef (Iceberg lettuce, grilled chicken, italian salami, mozzerella cheese, tomato, and chickpeas)

  • Palm Beach Shrimp (Romaine lettuce, cucumber, tomato, avocado, hearts of palm, and grilled shrimp)

  • Harvest Cobb (Spinach and romaine lettuce, grilled chicken, granny smith apples, walnuts, beets, goat cheese)
Below are the rest of the best (and if their nominators provided comments or favorite dishes, that information is below too):
  • Ben's Chili Bowl (1213 U Street NW) The original chili half-smoke, chili con carne, chili fries...
  • Burrito Cart (15th and K) I admit, I didn't expect to find a website when I googled the Burrito Cart, but here it is! Pedro & Vinny's burritos...their slogan "FRESH! never canned or frozen ingredients" ... I heard rave reviews about the burrito cart (and that a line often snakes around the corner...). Check their website daily to see if they are open
  • Busboys and Poets (2 DC locations - 14th & V St NW, 5th & K St NW) More for a nice leisurely lunch as opposed to a quick bite.
  • Casa Blanca (1014 Vermont Avenue NW)
  • Corner Bakery
  • Falafel House
  • Five Guys (love the burgers!)
  • Heidi's (excellent cajun turkey sandwich, all the bread is made on site)
  • Java Green (the stuff may be sort of strange, but lots of vegetarian options, incredibly earth friendly, even their disposable cups are made out of corn, great bulgogi sandwich)
  • Le Bon Cafe
  • Loeb Deli (favorite dish: reuben)
  • Old Ebbitt Express
  • Port of Piraeus (large variety, favorites: 42nd Streeter, Greek Style Chicken, Kolonaki Salad)
  • Potbelly's
  • Ravi Kabob (in Arlington, amazing Pakistani kabob place, looks like a hole in the wall in a strip mall, but always packed)
  • Roasting House (fabulous roast turkey salads/sandwiches)
  • Santa Fe Cafe (great Mexican sit down place, more like Rio Grande, less like Chipotle)
  • Sushi Place McPherson (bulgogi box lunch very good)
  • Teaism (love the chicken bento box, basically panko fried chicken, yum!)
  • Thai Place
  • Washington Deli (favorite: Marylin Monroe sandwich - fresh turkey, chedar, sauteed onions, hard roll)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

New Zealand: Where in the World Wednesday!

Where in the World Wednesday flies us to the southern hemisphere to NEW ZEALAND. Our tour guide today is my friend CARLA who is spending the year traveling the world with her husband Mike! I miss Carla dearly and she's only been away for barely three months. In any case, I keep up with her and Mike through their blog, and she was so awesome to take a break from their adventuring to answer some of my Qs! I mean, let's see, so far they've basked in the sun in Tahiti, gone sky diving, visited the Hobbits village, and seen countless beautiful vistas. Miss you Carla and Mike - hope you're having a wonderful time!! (They were in New Zealand for a month and are now in Indonesia I think?) :)

(1) Are there any dishes that you think are traditionally "New Zealand"? Have you come across any favorites?

Traditional New Zealand: The Meat Pies are definitely traditional NZ as well as L&P Soda. Other meals that stood out: Bangers & Mash: (Huge Sausage on top of mashed potatoes); Lamb Shanks; Toasties (grilled panini type sandwiches: ham, cheese & pineapple mostly); pauoa fritters (spelling is probably off) certain type of fish in NZ that is made into fritters; and whitebait (again certain type of fish)!

(2) Do you find that the food in New Zealand by certain ethnicities or cultures? If so, which ones?

NZers love all different types of food especially Asian since there is a fairly large Asian population in its bigger cities i.e. Auckland. There were a lot of Asian fusion, Indian, and tons of Japanese restaurants in the cities. In the smaller towns not as much.

(3) If you were putting together a food gift basket representative of New Zealand for a friend, what would you include in it?

Fish & Chips; Green Lipped Mussels; Meat Pies; Kapiti Ice Cream (Manuka Honey); Kumara (Sweet Potato) Chips

(4) Was there anything that surprised you about New Zealand eats?

How good everything was - the sandwiches, the soups, the desserts, the coffee - everything was top quality! Like there are no coffee pots - instead they make your coffee (flate white for me, long black for Mike) fresh from their Italian barista machine or they bring your coffee in a small French Press. Every sandwich we had was on GREAT bread. Totally impressed by their food chops!

(5) Is there a "national drink" in New Zealand?

Speights Beer in the South Island; L&P: national soda

(6) What do you usually have for breakfast? For lunch?

Breakfast: usually we switch between oatmeal and meat pies (mince and cheese)

Lunch: wow that depends! A lot of the time we skipped lunch - but sometimes we had sandwiches/ fish and chips

(7) Any memorable New Zealand food experiences? Anything you've heard about that you want to try?

The best food experience we had was catching our fish and lobster and cooking it ourselves. I have never had seafood that tasted so good!!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Japan: Where in the World Wednesday

This week's Where in the World Wednesday flies us to JAPAN, namely, Western Japan! Our tour guide du jour is my fellow college foodie friend Steph. Steph lived in Japan for 15 years (Osaka, Okinawa, and Kobe) and she has been going back 2 to 3 times a year since then. Other than Japan, she's lived in San Diego, Baltimore, London, and New York. She now resides in foodie city New York... perhaps we'll have to have her do a follow up of her favorite New York eats! Thanks Steph :)

On to JAPAN!

(1) How would you describe Japanese food in 10 words or less?

Healthy, seasonal, and adaptable.

(2) Are there any dishes that you think are traditionally Western Japanese? Do you have a favorite?

Popular regional dishes of the Kansai area (Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, etc) would be okonomiyaki (a Japanese-style savory pancake-like dish, which is my SOUL food), takoyaki (octopus balls, sounds weird but it's a ball of batter with a slice of octopus in it) and udon (Eastern Japan, like Tokyo, tend to favor soba).

I think my favorite would have to be okonomiyaki... it's the kind of dish that represents Japanese food to me, but it's hard to find good okonomiyaki overseas because Japanese food = sushi to a lot of people. But growing up, my grandma would always make this dish for me, and it's also street food that you can get in the stands when you're at a summer festival, or on-the-go. I miss it! (See below for picture of okonomiyaki!)

(3) How would you differentiate Western Japanese food from Japanese food from other regions?

There's regional specialties for every prefecture, but the basic differences between kanto and kansai (eastern and western Japan) is that kansai dishes have a lighter flavor, the miso is also lighter as well (used to always be a whiter miso, now that's more often used for celebrations than everyday), the broth of the udon is different, basically the more north you go, the darker and spicier the flavoring gets (although Japanese food never really gets too spicy), miso is different in regions as well.

Kansai people are often not a fan of natto (fermented soy beans, I hate them) and there tends to be more salt in kanto food, compared to kansai which is a bit sweeter. A lot of flour-based dishes come from kansai, such as the okonomiyaki or takoyaki I mentioned before.

(4) Do you find that the food in Western Japan has been greatly influenced by certain cultures/ethnicities/religions? If so, which ones?

Japanese food has been influenced by different cultures - Chinese influences especially in Okinawa, tempura and castella coming from Portugal, etc. But i don't think western Japanese food has had any particular outside influences.

(5) If you were putting together a food gift basket representative of Japan for a friend that was visiting you from somewhere else, what would you include in it?

I'd probably include some Japanese snacks, called wagashi - probably yokan (which is a jelly dessert made of red bean paste), senbei (japanese rice crackers), manju (rice cake with red bean paste inside), etc. Castella is also a popular snack to bring, for example, when you're visiting someone's house. (you usually don't go to someone's house empty-handed!)

(6) Say that you’re taking me around Osaka, where would we go for breakfast and what would we have? Where would we go to cap off the night for late night eats and what would we have?

Breakfast in Japan has been really westernized - a lot of people just eat a piece of toast, an egg, some sausage for breakfast. However, a traditional Japanese-style breakfast that you might have at a ryokan would usually be a set of of rice, miso soup, small vegetables, and fish (often salmon).

As for late-night eats, there are plenty of stands and street food (takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and others), ramen stands are open late-night so ramen & gyoza after drinking are always a favorite, and izakayas are popular (Japanese tapas-type restaurant/bar where you can get lots of small dishes and share with friends over cheap drinks). I love umeshu (plum wine) and there's a bar that I like to go to in osaka that has a menu of only plum wine, so many different types, and lots of delicious small dishes to go along with all the alcohol!

(7) Where was your last amazing meal in Japan and what was in it?

I feel like every meal I have in japan is amazing, but I do appreciate kaiseki, kind of a fancier, multi-course meal with lots of different small, beautifully prepared seasonal dishes. It's very artfully prepared and balances the taste, texture, and appearance of the food, decorated with a theme in mind and often times dishes are arranged to look like real flowers, and plants, etc. I had a kaiseki lunch with a former neighbor of mine in Kobe and took a picture, but there were lots of other dishes that came as part of this lunch! (See top picture!)

(8) Are there any special "holiday" foods that you used to have to celebrate particular holidays?

There are quite a few Japanese holidays and foods that are associated with them, but the main holiday would be New Years. Osechi ryouri is eaten during the New Years, always prepared prior to the New Years by the women in the family, and its all preservable foods that are kept in jubako (like bento boxes) usually around 3-5 stacked on top of each other. All the ingredients of the jubako often have symbolic meaning - kamaboko (broiled fish paste), red and white are alternated to look like the rising sun, mame (soybeans - my grandma likes to dedicate an entire box to beans, for some reason) symbolizes good health, tai (red snapper) associated with Japanese word "medetai" which is like good-luck, celebratory. Gobou (burdock root) for long life, and kazunoko (herring roe) for numerous children in the coming year, etc... it's usually home-made (although of course now there are delivery services where you can buy prepared osechi, and even grocery stores sell them).

Originally it used to be a taboo to cook during the first few days of the new years (plus no stores were open, although of course now stores are starting to open on the 2nd or 3rd, instead of the 5th or so) so families ate osechi for a while (I used to get tired of it though). Also, we eat toshi-koshi soba (year-crossing soba) on new year's eve and it's supposed to lead to long life and energy in the coming year.

(9) If you could pick one food item that you had in Japan that you could have with you always, what would it be?

Kind of a tough one as there's so much japanese food that i love and would want to cart around with me for life if i could... takoyaki would be an easier one though, I still keep frozen ones in my freezer here so that I can defrost them and eat a few when I come home after a long night of drinking... but I would have to say that if I had to pick my last meal, I would probably pick a simple Japanese meal of rice, miso soup, vegetables, and gindara misozuke (silver cod in miso).

Thursday, September 10, 2009

BB: Birthday...Cupcakes

This month's Barefoot Bloggers brings us LOADS OF CAKE. Both recipes this month are cake recipes, which I quite like, but it may be a bit of overdose for me, lol. The first recipe of the month is brought to us by Susy from Everyday Gourmet -- BIRTHDAY SHEET CAKE. (By the way, HAPPY BIRTHDAY SUSY!!) Or in my case, birthday cupcakes! I LOVE cupcakes, could eat them til they come out of my ears, and love the cupcake mania that has taken over DC. So converted this recipe into a cupcake recipe.

My KitchenAid was out on loan, so I pulled out the eggbeater my mom gave me many moons ago...

I halved the recipe, which came out to approximately 12 large cupcakes. To me, the recipe was...ok. I think I would omit the lemon zest next time, or try something different -- perhaps orange zest. I didn't love the combination of lemon with the chocolate icing... although I did try a cupcake with (store bought) vanilla frosting, and liked that combo a bit better.

My cupcakes came out a bit dry. I think I may have baked them a tad bit too long, would have shaved a minute or two off of the 25 minutes I baked them. I also used reduced fat sour cream, so thinking that might have affected the moistness of the cupcakes.

I liked the basic recipe of the cake and think I would try to use different ingredients to spice it up next time. I did really like the touch of vanilla extract though!



For the cake:

  • 18 tablespoons (2 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 6 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
  • 8 ounces (about 1 cup) sour cream, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1 lemon, zested
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

For the frosting:

  • 24 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • Chocolate candies for decorating (recommended: M&M's)

Oops, broke an egg...


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour a 12 by 18 by 1 1/2-inch sheet pan.

To make the cake, cream the butter and sugar on medium-high speed in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. On medium speed, add the eggs, 2 at a time, then the sour cream, vanilla, and lemon zest, scraping down the bowl as needed. Mix well. Sift together the flour, cornstarch, salt, and baking soda. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and stir just until smooth. Finish mixing by hand to be sure the batter is well mixed. Pour evenly into the pan, smooth the top with a spatula, and bake in the center of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Ready for the oven!

Cool in the pan to room temperature.

For the frosting, place the chocolate chips and heavy cream in a bowl set over a pot of simmering water, stirring occasionally, until the chips are completely melted. Off the heat, add the corn syrup and vanilla and allow the chocolate mixture to cool to room temperature. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk the chocolate mixture and softened butter on medium speed for a few minutes, until it's thickened.

Spread the frosting evenly on the cake. Have the children decorate the cake with chocolate candies.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

San Francisco: Where in the World Wednesday!

Welcome back to Where in the World Wednesday! Last week was... well, very hectic, so I wasn't able to post. But we're back on track and this Wednesday, we are flying from beautiful Miami to one of my favorite cities, San Francisco. Our tour guide today is the wonderful LouAnn, the author of the Oyster Food and Culture blog. LouAnn provides interesting and insightful commentary about food and culture from around the world. Definitely take a stop by her blog, leave your thoughts, and enjoy chatting about food!

A little bit about LouAnn: I've lived in San Francisco for a total of 4.5 years, and am loving every minute of it. I live in a wonderfully culturally diverse part of town called the Richmond, not to be confused with Richmond, CA a city across the Bay. Previous to San Francisco, I lived all over; San Diego, Washington DC metro, Iowa, London, England. My top 5 food cities... Just 5, this is very tough: Besides, SF, Tokyo, Singapore, Milan, Dijon, and Auckland, NZ, I really have a hard time stopping at 5, and if you ask me tomorrow, the list might be different.

Thank you so much LouAnn for offering us so many fantastic San Fran foodie insights... I am personally jealous of your eating adventures around San Francisco, especially after reading through your answers below. :)

Now, for our tour around San Francisco!

(1) How would you describe food in San Francisco in 10 words or less?

Fresh, Innovative, Passionate, Diverse, Extreme, Creative, Cultural

(2) Do you find that the food in San Francisco has been greatly influenced by certain cultures/ethnicities/religions? If so, which ones?

In my neighborhood alone, there is a second Chinatown, so tons of Asian restaurants. Also the Richmond was home to a lot of Russian and Eastern European Immigrants so some really good Russian food, pastries and delis to be had. It also has one of the most innovative Moroccan restaurants, AZIZA that I've tried. Love that place. The Mission has tons of great Mexican and an increasing influx of some tasty Indian/Pakistani places. North Beach is about Italian. Japan town, well, I think thats obvious.

(3) If you were putting together a food gift basket representative of San Francisco for a friend that was visiting you from somewhere else, what would you include in it? (Feel free to include perishable items!)

Chocolate (by any one of the wonderful chocolatiers that call the Bay Area home), wine from Napa and Sonoma, charcuterie, incredible fresh produce from the Farmers Markets, baked goods from Tartine and Arizmendies, ice cream from Humphrey Slocume and Bi-Rite, cheese from the local diaries (Harley's goat cheese, Cow Girl Creamery, Point Reyes Blue) [My commentary: They actually have a Cowgirl Creamery now in DC! I have it on my list for places to try...]

(4) Is there anything about food in San Francisco that you think would surprise people that have never been there?

While it has an incredible selection some food is not as easy to find - Greek, Turkish, Persian - don't get me wrong, they do have them, but having lived in DC its just not as easy to find. I miss my Moby Dick's. [LouAnn, I love Moby Dick's... I think I must eat there at least once every two weeks!] People are passionate about food here and everyone has an opinion, so its an easy conversation starter.

(5) Do you have a favorite secret foodie spot? If yes, where is it and what do you love about it?

It would not be a secret now would it? I'd say in general, do not overlook the simple mom and pop places to hit the white table cloth restaurants, some of the best food is in the neighborhood joints. U-Lees in Russian Hill, for example, is a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant with some of the best pot-stickers around. Last time we were there, it was a bit later in the day, and the cook was at a table across the room from us dicing up the ginger and mixing the batch for dinner. They are fresh, delicious and huge! [Sounds fantastic... I'm a sucker for good pot-stickers so I'll have to try these out the next time I'm there!]

(6) Say that you’re taking me around San Francisco and I'm only there for one day. What would we have for breakfast?

Breakfast at the Cliff House - good food, but the view is killer. Its the reason to go. This place is history and the location cannot be beat. You are on a cliff with a 180 degree view of the ocean, this place is an institution and a favorite break. After breakfast a walk along the beach or Lands End.

Lunch? Ferry Building, or course, hopefully your visiting on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday when we can also sample the delights of the of the Farmer's Market and some of the killer food that's available.

Dinner? It really depends on who I am with, but a lot of out of towners like the not too fancy but delicious and fun visits to North Beach for Italian, Chinatown for Chinese, or Japantown for a big bowl of noodles, and then the option to walk of dinner with a nice exploration.

Late night eats? Its the Mission, baby, grab a taco, get something from one of the food carts that have multiplied like nobody's business. The options of plentiful.

Both the Ferry Building and the Cliff House or musts.

(7) San Francisco is well-known for being a food mecca! Are there any fun food events that take place there or in the area that you've enjoyed?

The cheese school is not really an event, but if you get a chance to take a class its loads of fun. There are always wine events, chocolate events. Its wonderful, just check the calendar. In the Mission District there is an incubator for food related start ups that does some neat stuff - its not all high tech start ups around here. =)

(8) Each neighborhood in a city often has their own "food vibe" -- which is your favorite neighborhood and what food do they serve up?

Man, these questions are killing me, its so hard to pick one neighborhood as the diversity is the best thing about the place and I do not feel like I am comparing apples to apples. One of my favorite neighborhoods in North Beach, its the first neighborhood that my hubby took me to when I visited and I loved the European flare with all the Italian restaurants and coffee houses. It's great to walk around and explore and get off the beaten path and check out the coffee houses and boutiques. But in the blink of an eye you can cross the street and you are in Chinatown.

(9) If you could pick one food that is traditionally or originates from San Francisco to have with you always, what would it be?

Sourdough bread

(10) What was your last amazing meal in San Francisco and what did you have?

Every meal is amazing, seriously its darn hard to compare. I just had some Szechwan that took me back to some incredible meals in HK.

(11) Given the current economic times, where would you for a meal and a drink for $15 or less?

All the neighborhoods have some great places. I haven't mentioned the Sunset District yet, (right next to Golden Gate Park) but you can score some good food there, and they have Arizmendi's a coop bakery that has some baked goods that are meals in themselves, and their veggie pizza (they only do veggie) is some of the best I've had. Take it and make yourself at home in the park. You can also grab a burrito. In the Inner Richmond and outer Sunset, we love to grab takeout dim sum, and you can gorge yourself for under $5 and that leaves you $10 for the drink.

(12) If you had to put together your "last meal" based on San Francisco restaurant eats, what would you have?

You do not ask easy questions, do you? A good place to start would be this list, Big Eat SF - 100 Things to Try Before You Die which I am about half way through. Serious, I love COI, it's a nice upscale place and I really appreciate the creativity of the cooking. But it's so hard to go wrong here. I've had to really bump up my running mileage so I can keep my clothes size.