Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Best of 2009

Despite the fact that I am a blogger-come-lately and have not been blogging all year, I am determined to do a year end wrap up of the best food I have eaten in 2009.  I wish I would have blogged it all, but I didn't and it's too late now, too bad.  We forge ahead.

My best meals this year are distinguished by the cities I was in at the time, so I will separate them as such.

My first trip of the year was to San Francisco, where I enjoyed:

1. Jamón Ibérico - good grief, glorious stuff.  This is the first year it has touched my palate.  How did I live so long with out it?  My friend was cooking dinner that night and served it as an appetizer.  We peeled it off the wax paper and it just melted in the mouth.  Afterwards, there was a bit left and she said "please, someone, finish that." No one stepped forward. I could not let it go to waste. Clearly. I finished it all. Glorious slice after slice of it. This is why I have a fat roll that defies my waistbands.

2. Dinner at Contigo, a new (at the time) Spanish restaurant that was already doing a very brisk business.  I had cava and my friend and I shared several small plates. I will try to remember them:

* coca de txistorra: catalan flatbread with housemade basque sausage and raddichio
* calamares a la plancha: squid with harissa and arugula (so very perfectly cooked, was fab)
* sardinas fritas: fried sardine filets, fried sardine bones, fried slices of meyer lemon (so good!)
* croquettas de buey: crispy beef fritters and mizuna

We finished with a cup of thick, perfect Barcelona style chocolate caliente into which we dipped churros that were so crisp and so fantastic, I kept eating them until I was well past the point of pure enjoyment and more into the territory of embarrassing overindulgence with chocolate dripping off my face and sugar coating my blouse. Unattractive, yes.  But so worth it.

3. Dim sum. OMG. Dim sum! What could be better than spending Saturday morning in a dining room surrounded by hundreds of Chinese people (I was literally the only caucasian person to be found) and dish after dish after dish of dumplings (pork and shrimp, shrimp, shanghai, shark fin) and sliced meats (five spiced beef, cold sliced pork with vinegars) and buns and rice porridge with thousand year eggs and just endless cups of jasmine tea?  What could be better than the heavy clink of crockery, the sweet steam wafting from towers of bamboo steamers being wheeled around the room on carts, the steady sound of Chinese being spoken and contented, happy, yumyum sounds all around me?  Nothing.  Really, nothing could be better.  Afterward, I was full for a week.  I don't remember the name of the restaurant now, but it was truly a pleasure and  joy.  I wish I could go every weekend.

Next trip was to Berlin, where I had:

4. Life changing bouillabaisse at KaDeWe in the Feinschmeckeretage.  KaDeWe is a huge, high end department store (similar, I suppose, to Harrods in London) with a floor devoted to gourmet delights... and folks, it is truly a sight to see.  Food stalls as far as you can see, run by some of the best gourmet purveyors in all of Europe.  In addition to food of every variety, one can belly up to the many bars and enjoy exquisite culinary examples of cuisines from around the world.  We went to the bouillabaisse bar and there, I learned what fish stew is supposed to be.  I'm not the same since.

5. Facil - At the Mandala Hotel in Berlin, the restaurant Facil serves a "refreshing combination of elegantly light fare accented by purist luxury and modern avant-garde since July 2001. Facil is the perfect place for unconventional gourmets seeking a culinary experience, people who prefer casual clothes to formal dress codes and simply want to relax and spend an enjoyable evening downtown." which is a well-worded way of saying that if you eat here, you will have beautiful, incredibly lovely haute cuisine served, paradoxically, in the most blissfully un-pretentious way, all the while being treated like royalty.  Your handbag, should you have one, will have a stool of it's own, so that it needn't be sullied by resting on the floor.  Your waitstaff will smile at you so fondly and with such a glitter in their eye, that you will believe, for a minute or two, that somehow you are not only their favorite person ever, but also are in on a very, very special secret and that just you and these lovely people know it.  The wine will be perfect, the food will be perfect, the dining room will be minimal and serene and gorgeous and the entire experience will make you wonder why you were not born much, much richer and much, much more interesting so that you could live life surrounded by such perfection all the time.  At least, it did me.  I have no notes or photos of the food at Facil.  I was too busy soaking in the experience to do anything other than LIVE it.

6. Hot chocolate and apple strudel at the original Café Einstein on Kurfürstenstrasse.  Here, your hot chocolate arrives in its own small pitcher, accompanied by a dish of dense cream and a cup.  You spoon the cream into the cup and then pour the rich, thick chocolate over the top.  Then, you die a little.  And then, you eat the same fabulous Apfelstrudel that has been eaten by artists, authors, philosophers, musicians, intellectuals and the bohemian gliterati for decades.  And you die a little more.  *sigh*  Oh, Berlin.

Back in New Orleans, I had some wonderful meals this year.  Highlights included:

7. The tasting menu at Restaurant August on my birthday. Spectacular. Five courses of decadence, 5 glasses of lovely paired wines.  Also, a beautiful vegetarian tasting menu for Kid Cayenne that rivaled my dinner in deliciousness.  Absolutely wonderful.

8. A food lover's trip through Acadiana, which included a stop at Richard's Seafood Patio in Abbeville, where I ate 3 pounds of boiled crawfish and a bowl full of grilled oysters in butter with bread for the sopping up.

You remember that fat roll I told you about?  A lot of it was made eating the above.

9. Duck, duck duck.  I love duck (as I'm sure I've mentioned ad nauseum) and I've had some very nice duck dishes this year.  Two of my favorites were were the roasted Muscovy duck breast with Tuscan kale, butternut squash, sage, and satsuma coriander jus at Lilette and smoked duck and chestnut pasta (below) at the Green Goddess.

I should try to round this list out to 10, but I feel like these 9 truly represent my best eating experiences of 2009.  May the new year bring many more for all of us.  Happy New Year!


Monday, December 28, 2009

In Contemplation of Cabbage and Pasta

Ever since having the Smoked Duck and Chestnut Pasta at the Green Goddess a couple of months ago (a dish that includes caraway and duck fat braised Napa cabbage, 5 year Dutch gouda and wild mushrooms and about which I have longing-filled daydreams continuously), I've been thinking about cabbage with pasta.  Since I am neither worldly or wise, it was a small revelation to me.  Initially, I thought I had never before eaten the pairing, but deeper consideration reminded me that I have done so frequently... just, in Asian noodle dishes instead of Italian.   I've been looking for an opportunity to stick cabbage in pasta ever since.

Last night, I was seeking inspiration from one of my new cookbooks, Italian Easy: Recipes from the London River Cafe, and found a recipe for Rigatoni, Cabbage, Fontina. It seemed a good place to begin.  

Here is the recipe, as shown in the book.

I made a few ingredient alterations to accommodate what was available to me.  The grocery was out of Savoy cabbage, so I substituted regular green cabbage.  There was only one Fontina at Whole Foods which was much too expensive and seemed as though it would be wasted if melted into a pasta dish instead of eaten in it's own right, so I substituted with a more commercial grade Fontal.  Additionally, I cut all of the measurements in half, to make a dish that feeds two.

I also made a few minor changes to the process described in the recipe.  I cooked the pasta and potatoes in the same boiling water I had cooked the cabbage in (not at the same time, of course).  The recipe doesn't mention salt at all, so I added it where it felt appropriate... to the boiling water and to the final dish, just before serving.  The finished product was warm, creamy and deeply comforting.  One disappointment was that there were no stand out flavors.  The cabbage blended in to the whole seamlessly, both in texture and in flavor.  I may have been better served to blanch it, rather then let it boil until tender.  Since there is still plenty of time for it to cook, between the time it leaves the boiling water and when it is joined with the pasta, I think I would have preferred it to have held on to a bit of crispness and tang. When I think of the dish at Green Goddess, I instantly remember the wonderful assertion of the cabbage ribbons against the smooth tenderness of the tagliatelle.  While these are two very different dishes, I would have liked mine to have a bit more of that contrast.

All in all, it was a nice but not standout meal.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Cookbooks For Christmas

My Christmas loot included three great cookbooks:

* Real Cajun by Donald Link
* Italian Easy - Recipes From the London River Cafe by Rose Gray and Roth Rogers
* Jean-Georges: Cooking At Home with a Four-Star Chef by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mark Bittman

Three very different types of cuisine with one connecting theme: simple, flavorful dishes for the home cook.  I spent yesterday reading them, cover to cover, and am really looking forward to digging back in and putting them to good use in the new year.

If you have cooked out of any of them, can you recommend a favorite recipe?


Monday, December 21, 2009

Slice Pizzeria

What I Love About Slice Pizzeria:

1. Great salads. My favorite is the Mescalun, shown below. It features organic petite greens, chevre goat cheese (which is wonderful, by the way), toasted walnuts and local berries. Depending on the day, I have gotten blueberries, strawberries and blackberries in it which are always fresh and sweet.  Much appreciated. I've never been served a served a bad berry.  The caesar has a proper dressing and is topped with roasted red pepper, shaved peccorino, a crostini and a lemon wedge.  I wish the romaine leaves were served whole, but it's not a deal breaker.  Best part is that the salads can be ordered in Half ($3.95) or Whole ($6.95) which is a pretty nice price considering the quality of the ingredients.

2. Really nice pizza by the slice.  New Orleans doesn't have great pizza.  Honestly, this isn't great pizza either, but it is pretty good.  Nice toppings options like Chesesi ham, andouille, capers, caramellized onions, and gorgonzola are a treat.

3. Newly opened second location at Magazine and Joseph, across from Whole Foods in the old Italian Pie location.  Convenient!

What I Don't Like About Slice Pizzeria

Last night, we made the mistake of deviating from pizza and salad and ordered the cheese ravioli.  Despite being cute, with yellow and green striped pasta, it was flavorless and disappointing.  Six raviolis, swimming in sauce that tasted like it was straight out of the can, with dried out pasta and an unimpressive 4 cheese filling....  Bust.  Next time, I'll stick with the pizza.

Slice Pizzeria on Urbanspoon


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Espresso, Panettone and My Soapbox

I am just back from La Divina on Magazine Street, where the Society of New Orleans Baristas (S.N.O.B) were preparing for the South Central Regional Barista Competition coming up in January in Austin, TX by offering free, beautifully pulled espressos to one and all.    I got a chance to talk to Drew Cambre (a New Orleans barista) and Kirk Knipmeyer (of Coffee Roasters of New Orleans) about S.N.O.B. and their endeavor to better the coffee scene in New Orleans.  Their goal, they say, is to improve the quality of coffee and espresso everywhere in New Orleans, so that you can be sure to get an excellent cup no matter where in the city you go.

As I sipped a stunningly lovely shot of espresso, pulled on a Cimbali machine by talented barista Anderson, I learned more about S.N.O.B. and the Barista Competition.

S.N.O.B. is an independent collective of baristas from many local New Orleans coffee houses who share a passion for the art of coffee and are "preaching the gospel of espresso".  They meet weekly at Dee's Coffee on Baronne.  Baristas from the city's best coffee spots are represented including Dee's, Z'otz (on Oak St), La Divina (with locations on Magazine Uptown and on St. Peter in the French Quarter) and Tout de Suite Cafe in Old Algiers.  2010 will be the first time that more than one barista from the entire state of Louisiana will compete in the South Central Regional Barista Competition.  This is strange, considering that New Orleans is the largest coffee port in the nation, with 14 warehouses, more than 5.5 million feet of storage space and six roasting facilities in a 20 mile radius.  S.N.O.B. is hopeful that if they can get enough baristas from Louisiana to compete, the next competition will be held in New Orleans.

S.N.O.B. believes that New Orleans should demand more from their local coffee houses and I have to wholeheartedly agree.  The coffee culture in New Orleans is far from where it could or should be.  Drew says that the key is to communicate our expectations to the baristas and management at our favorite haunts.  Don't accept sub par espresso.  Do something about it!  Tell your barista when your espresso is bitter or doesn't have the beautifully caramel colored head of foamy crema that it should.  Speak up when you are served coffee that lacks depth and flavor or has been sitting past its prime. If you aren't sure whether you are getting quality brew or not, just visit any of the excellent establishments listed in this post for an example of what you are missing.  Then, go back to your favorite coffee house and let them know what is lacking.  Tell them that you expect better.  Tell them that the bar is higher than what you are getting.  We expect good ingredients, prepared properly.  This is not too much to ask!  Communicating these expectations is crucial and even more valuable than simply avoiding the establishments that can't meet them.  It tells them that their customers care and what they can do to improve.  Complacency is an epidemic in our beloved city, affecting everything from coffee and cuisine to politics and crime.  Only we, the average, every day citizen, can do anything about it.


Now that I've got that off my chest, I've also got to say that if you are looking for excellent coffee beans for brewing at home, La Divina is a great spot to get it.  I've been getting my espresso beans and their Windsor Court roast (they use it for their French presses) from them for quite a while and couldn't be more pleased.  They also have panettone, a Milanese Christmas bread, from Flamigni, one of Italy's top panettone makers.  These small, rustic cakes are housed in charming cartons designed to be hung on the Christmas tree and then eaten on Christmas Day with coffee or tea.  I sampled some while I was there and had to get one for my own tree.

Now, I just have to convince myself to wait til Christmas to open it!


Friday, December 18, 2009

Duck, Three Ways

I love duck, but Kid Cayenne does not. Consequently, I am always on the lookout for somewhere that sells fresh duck breasts, as opposed to a whole one, with the idea that I can cook myself a nice piece of duck breast while making a chicken breast for Kid. So far, I have only found the occasional frozen breast fillet, often pre-seasoned or sauced, and at prices that don't compel me to buy. Maybe my expectations are too high.

Fortunately, I have discovered that roasted duck is a mainstay at Asian markets. I have always seen them, hanging in the prepared food section with the roasted pork and other takeaway items. I never thought about actually taking any away until my Vietnamese hair stylist and I were discussing congee. I was telling her about how in love I am with the duck congee at The Slanted Door in San Francisco, and how I wondered if any of our local restaurants had it on the menu. (I have since discovered that 9 Roses does, and can't wait to try it). I told her that I enjoy making congee at home, but since I am unable to find reasonably priced duck, I can't duplicate my favorite version of it. She told me to check any Asian supermarket for reasonably priced roasted duck and make it with that. Brilliant girl!

Hong Kong Supermarket in Gretna is where I shop for produce, frozen dumplings, sauces and condiments... pretty much all of my Asian food ingredients plus some. If you haven't been, you really should visit. It is a massive store, filled with all the essentials of Asian cooking and way more. The produce is cheap and abundant. There are shelves and shelves of Pocky. It is everything a good Asian grocery should be.

If you go to the prepared foods area, you will see cooked ducks hanging from hooks. Don't be dismayed. They are delicious. You want them. You can buy a whole or half duck. The man behind the counter will ask you if you want it kept intact or cut. I wanted mine cut. This meant that I received an entire half duck, including the head (discreetly tucked under the rest of the meat), chopped into manageable pieces, along with some pickled vegetables and a sweet dipping sauce.

Since I am the only one in the household eating duck, I found that I could get three meals out of it. The first is the most obvious. Grab slices of duck breast, a portion of the pickled carrot and daikon, and your dipping sauce. Eat exactly as it is. Warm or cold, it is quick and wonderful. I had already begun snacking on mine before I had even left the parking lot and then kept dipping into it all across the Crescent City Connection. I am greedy and impatient that way. If you can wait 'til you are home, cook some rice and stir fry a vegetable or two to eat as a side dish for a quick and delicious dinner.

The second way is to prepare a cold duck sandwich. I shredded more of the duck breast and loaded it into pistolette bread along with slivered cucumber, radish and scallions.

I drizzled a bit of the sweet sauce over the whole thing and had a side of pickled veggies, to use what was left of those. You could use whatever bread and accompaniments you like.

The next morning, I made duck congee, a rice porridge of which some version of seems to be made in just about every Asian country I've ever read about. Congee is warm, comforting, infinitely adaptable and deserves an entire post of its own, preferably written about by someone far more knowledgeable than myself. I will just tell you that ever since I learned that you could make an absolutely wonderful breakfast using only a tiny bit of leftover rice from the night before, I have been addicted. You can change the additions, making it different every time, or you can eat it simple and plain for a nourishing, soothing porridge that is perfect for when you are under the weather. Here's how I made it with the last of the duck.

Take approximately half a cup of leftover, cooked rice and add it to a pot filled with about 2 cups (maybe even 3) of water. Add a small chunk of peeled and smashed ginger (it's not necessary to chop the ginger). Bring the water and rice to a boil and then decrease the heat to Medium-Low. Take a duck leg or any leftover piece of duck you have. Shred the duck from the bone, but don't throw the bone or the skin away. As long as the bone is large enough for you to fish back out, use it to season your congee. Put it all in the pot with the rice and water. Now, you will let it simmer for a good while. Congee takes a long time to cook. You are waiting for the rice to break down and give up it's shape, joining with the water to create a porridge. For me, this usually takes about an hour and a half, but I make very small batches. It can take longer or shorter depending on the consistency you like. Stir occasionally and add water if it seems to be getting too low before you have gotten the right consistency.

Once you have achieved a creamy, thick texture, turn off the heat and fish out the bones, skin and the chunk of ginger. Season the rice porridge with a pinch of salt and a nice bit of pepper. Spoon it into your bowl and add whatever condiments you like. In this case, I added chopped scallion, a splash of light soy sauce and some kimchi. The sharp tang of the pickled cabbage was a perfect counterpart to the rich, warm taste of the duck. It was wonderful. I ate 15 bowls of it or something like that. If you are less of a glutton than I am, you can refrigerate your leftovers and reheat the next day, adding a bit of boiling water to it to thin it out.

Tada! Duck! Three ways!


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Kim Anh's Noodle House

It would be impossible for me to overstate how much I love Vietnamese pho. It's is my go-to for any situation in which I need to be soothed, comforted, or pampered. If I'm sick, if things just don't feel right with the world, if I am cold or lonely... pho cures it. I just lose myself in the warm curls of fragrant steam that waft from a huge bowl of luscious, herb and anise scented beef broth and everything topsy turvy begins to right itself.

Of course it also makes a sunnier day a bit sunnier, a happy occasion that much happier. If hard pressed, I might admit that I think pho could bring about world peace and cure cancer, but thankfully no one is pressing me too terribly hard today. In summary, pho is where it's at.

The best pho I've ever had was in San Francisco at one of the many noodle houses in the Sunset area. Filled with sliced rare beef, beef meatballs and tripe, it was a sensory delight. I haven't been able to find anything as good in New Orleans, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying what we do have.

Living in New Orleans uptown/Carrollton area, I am a bit farther away from all of the best areas for Vietnamese food than I would like to be. I also am usually on my own when I go out for pho and therefore, don't venture as far into neighborhoods I am less familiar with as I might if I had a lunch partner. Consequently, I haven't tried any of the better known pho shops in New Orleans East or on the Westbank. I am certainly open to suggestions for ones that are worth going out of my way for.

Currently, my go-to place is Frosty's on Cleary in Metairie. While I don't often go to Metairie, when I do, they are always my favorite stop. Coupled with the fact that they have absolutely divine bubble teas made from fresh fruit (no syrups), their pho is a delight. The ingredients are always crisp and fresh, the broth is richly flavored. It's lovely.

Yesterday, I had reason to travel out to Harahan and decided to try Kim Anh's Noodle House for the first time. Way, way down Jefferson highway, past the Huey P., past several river bends, I found it. It's housed in a tiny strip mall across the street from Colonial Bowling Lanes, a bit run down and understated. The dining room is very casual, as is usually the case in noodle houses, but clean and larger than I expected. I knew I wanted to order pho tai (pho with sliced beef) but thought I'd try some eggrolls as well. The spring rolls all come in quantities of 2 but I wanted the deep fried, crispy Chả giò rolls which the menu states are in quantities of 4. I was alone and didn't want all 4, but the server offered to let me place a half order.

They arrived perfectly hot and crisp, accompanied by a small salad of lettuce and pickled carrot and radish. The filling was delicious, a balanced blend of pork, shrimp and vegetables that had just the right amount of pepper. I was very pleased.

The pho was nice but not exceptional. I found the broth to be a little too bland for my taste and had to add more sriracha than I generally find necessary. I didn't detect any depth or the layers of anise, clove or beefiness that I look for in good beef pho broth. I even wondered if it had a chicken broth base instead. The plate of accompanying ingredients included the requisite bean sprouts, sliced jalapeno, lime wedges and herbs, in this case thai basil (Frosty's offers cilantro. I find either to be lovely). While not the absolute freshest, it was certainly within the realm of acceptability. The bowl was slightly smaller than I generally see, and cost $6.49. There is the option to upsize to a large bowl for an additional $1.29. I find this convenient, as I've never, ever been able to finish a whole bowl and appreciated the ability to waste less. I did enjoy my meal at Kim Anh's and would visit again if I were in that area, but I don't plan on making it a pho destination.

Where should be next on my list to try? Who has the best pho in the city? Extra points for options that include more than just sliced beef.

Kim Anh's Vietnamese Noodle House
6624 Jefferson Hwy
Harahan, LA 70123
(504) 739-9995
Mon-Fri 10am - 8pm
Closed Saturday and Sunday

Kim Anh's Noodle House on Urbanspoon


  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP