Monday, May 31, 2010

Tea Week: Did You Know?

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Welcome to the First Official Tea Week at Mission: Food!  What better way to kick it off than with a little history on tea, its benefits, and some current tea trends!  I really hope you will follow me this week through this wonderful exploration of tea, learn to appreciate it more, and take part in the contest and giveaway that I will be announcing at the end of the week!  Welcome to Tea Week, y'all :)

Reflections
Growing up, I believed all of the stereotypes about tea regarding who predominately drank it (British and Asian people for the most part) and was acutely aware of the tradition of tea parties, as I had my own little porcelain set with which I would serve room temperature water and invisible foods to myself and my dolls. I also believed that all tea came in tea bags with labels like “Lipton,” and that all tea tasted the same. It wasn't until I was an adult that I started trying other types of tea leaves such as green or white, and even discovered the magic behind loose-leaf teas. In addition to coffee shops, tea shops started sprouting up all over cities in which I lived. Tealuxe was probably the first I tried, impressed by the variety of teas that were available. At first I stuck with the simple, tried and true teas before I ventured out for some unique blends and flavors. Every cup of tea I enjoyed was sweetened with honey. I couldn't stand the somewhat bitter flavor of unsweetened tea.

That is until I attended a very special private tea tasting with Cynthia Gold, the tea sommelier at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel last summer, which honestly changed my life and my outlook on tea. I had liked tea a lot before this experience, but learned to really love and appreciate it through the tasting and lessons that I learned. I left that tea tasting with excitement in my heart, and a desire to learn more about tea. I purchased a grown-up tea set, along with several high quality loose-leaf teas that I have had the pleasure of enjoying since that special day, and also learned how to properly brew teas at various temperatures and for various lengths of time depending on the leaf. There is so much to learn about tea, and having a proper tea education can help elevate the tea offerings of any restaurant, be it through a more extensive after-dinner drink menu, or even using tea in cooking.

Back in the Day
Historically speaking, tea is believed to have come to exist by accident. Supposedly, around 2737 BC, the emperor of China was enjoying a cup of hot water when a few leaves from a nearby tree blew into his cup. The color of his water changed, and upon tasting what was in his cup, he was surprised and pleased with his discovery. Soon thereafter, tea became more prevalent and an immediate status symbol in Asian culture. Tea did not make a mark in Western culture until many centuries passed. In the late sixteenth century, the Dutch adopted tea after discovering it in their trade routes in the Far East and decided to ship it back to Europe. From Holland, it spread to other parts of Europe, and was eventually introduced to England in 1662. Tea immediately became a fashionable beverage in England, as the royal family enjoyed it and thus set this precedent for the rest of the culture to adopt. Tea was too expensive to be enjoyed by all of society, and thus was enjoyed more by the upper classes. Taxation of tea made it even more expensive to acquire and led to smuggling. Eventually, the tax was lowered and tea became affordable again. The practice of afternoon tea was established around 1840. Stories suggest that “Anna Maria, the seventh duchess of Bedford… was feeling a bit hungry late one afternoon… she asked her maid to bring tea and a tray of bread-and-butter sandwiches to her room. Anna Maria enjoyed the ‘taking of tea’ so much that she started inviting her friends to join her” thus beginning the tradition of afternoon teas among the highest in British society (Tea and Crumpets).

It's Good For You!
At the time, the medical benefits of tea were only understood by the Asians who had been enjoying this beverage for centuries. They had used it as antidotes and remedies for all kinds of ailments. More recently, other beneficial elements of tea have surfaced, which have led to widespread consumption of tea by consumers across the world. In his book The Ultimate Tea Diet, Mark Ukra discusses how tea can boost the metabolism, shrink appetite and thus lead to weight loss. He points out three “secret ingredients” in tea which when combined make tea a healthy and natural weight loss “drug.” The first is caffeine, which is a “natural stimulant that has been shown to boost the process known as thermogenesis, or the generation of heat in the body. This process is at the center of weight loss; it is the way in which fat molecules are ‘burned.’” He goes on to explain that studies have shown that “the consumption of [green] tea will increase the burning of calories and promote weight loss without increasing your heart rate.” This suggests that green tea can be used as a substitute for stimulant-based diet drugs because it lacks the adverse effects of an increased heart rate for obese individuals with heart problems. The reason for this comes from the next two “secret ingredients” in tea. L-Theanine is a non-protein based amino acid found in tea which produces a “relaxed and effortless alertness, thus canceling out the harmful effects of caffeine,” and allowing tea-drinkers to get the boosting effects of caffeine without the jitters associated with other caffeine drinks. It is also considered to be a natural way to relieve stress, anxiety and tension. Stress usually leads to more eating, and thus when lowering the amount of stress in the body, the desire to eat will go along with it. The third “secret ingredient” is highly advertised by tea purveyors. EGCG is basically an antioxidant, which is responsible for ridding the body of free radicals, which are cells that can cause damage to other cells. This leaves the body healthier, and when combined with caffeine and L-Theanine, it makes tea the perfect weight-loss drink. Tea also offers many other health benefits outside of its ability to help drinkers lose weight. The EGCG also helps the body's immunity and helps prevent inflammation and arthritis. Tea helps lower blood pressure and has even been showed to decrease the risk of getting cancer in some individuals.

It's Trendy
Although tea is a very ancient drink and remedy, it has found a very modern, health-conscious, and trendy home in the world today. It is more than just a hot drink to start the day, drink in the afternoon or even after dinner, it is an excellent source of antioxidants, it prevents and helps cure many diseases and ailments, and in growing in popularity, more people are leaving their personal Lipton prisons to try different types and qualities of tea, both in their own homes and in many restaurants and cafes which are now much more tea friendly. Not only are entire diet books being written advertising the benefits of tea, but even those who care less about health concerns are still finding enjoyment in this more popular drink. New York City, home to the best restaurants in the country is also home to many places that are offering tea in a trendier setting. There is even a small chain of restaurants in the city called Alice’s Tea Cup, inspired by Alice in Wonderland and offering Wonderland-themed tea specials, just like in the book with the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Stores like Teavana are opening up all over the country offering teapots and loose-leaf teas of all kinds for consumers who are jumping on the bandwagon. Look around, and you will see tea everywhere, even at Starbucks with more and more popularity.

Personally, I have learned to truly love and appreciate this ancient beverage over the past year of my life. Through all of this research, I have also come to discover more reasons to continue my pilgrimage to find the best teas and tea houses around, starting with my tasting in Boston, and everywhere else I can find great quality teas and maybe even a tea sandwich and a scone to much on, or perhaps some dim sum will do the trick. Either way, tea can and should be enjoyed with food, just like any other beverage. It can easily be enjoyed on its own, but as a compliment to a meal it adds something very special. Even more so if you include the tea in your food, it brings yet another element to the table. I hope that more and more Americans will continue to jump on the tea bandwagon as Europeans did centuries ago, and learn to appreciate what the emperor of China did, purely by accident. Sometimes the greatest pleasures in life are never planned, but they manage to affect our lives just the same.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Fame Leads to Fortune (Hopefully?)

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Some of you may recall that very special day in my life where I got to meet Thomas Keller at his book signing in Providence.  Since that glorious day, I have been informed that the Williams-Sonoma store that held the book signing had received an email with a link to my blog about the event.  Apparently the corporate office had found my blog and forwarded the link to the store!  How crazy is that?  I guess you never know who's reading, right?  Well the store printed out my blog entry, which is now on display in their cookbook section!  If you're in the Providence area feel free to go check it out, haha.  Maybe someday my "fame" will get me some fortune to go along with it.

Until then, I've used some of my well-earned graduation money to buy myself a little something special.  I've wanted this for a while, and this seemed like the perfect occasion to treat myself to something that any cook or chef would love to have: A 10-piece Wusthof Classic knife block set from Williams-Sonoma (thank God for the professional chef/culinary student discount!).  It came with a free Wusthof knife sharpener as well.  I can't wait to start chopping away!!





Sunday, May 23, 2010

Tastemaker: Buitoni Riserva

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As a featured publisher on Foodbuzz, I'm occasionally given opportunities to try out products and discuss them here on my blog.  Most recently, the Tastemaker program sent out coupons for free Buitoni Riserva products for us to try, and with several flavors available, making a choice wasn't easy :)  I opted for the simple Quattro Formaggi Agnolotti filled with ricotta, grana padano, parmesan, fontina and garlic.  I knew up front that I wanted to fry these as opposed to boiling them the traditional way.


Fried Four-Cheese "Ravioli" with Arrabiatta Sauce
Serves 3 to 4 as an appetizer

1 9-oz package Buitoni Riserva Quattro Formaggi Agnolotti
4 tomatoes
1 T. olive oil, plus more for frying
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 tsp. red chili flakes
1 egg
1/2 cup milk
1 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs (Italian style)
Salt and pepper, to taste 

Start out by making the dipping sauce.  Core and then score an X onto the bottom of the tomatoes, and then blanch them briefly in boiling water.  This will help the skin peel off very easily.  Immediately shock the tomatoes in an ice water bath afterwards.



Peel the tomatoes, cut in half or into quarters and then squeeze the juice and seeds into the garbage.  Then dice up the tomato and set aside.  Heat up about a tablespoon of olive oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, add the minced garlic and red chili flakes.  Sauté for a couple minutes and then add the peeled, seeded, diced tomatoes.  Season with salt and pepper.  Cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes.  The tomatoes will break down and get very soft.  Use a potato masher to mush up the tomatoes further, and then cook for a few more minutes.  The sauce is now ready to serve, so keep warm until ready to eat.


Next, for the fried "ravioli," beat the egg and milk in a bowl, and then in another bowl add the panko bread crumbs.  I used Italian style panko, but you can use plain and then add some dried or fresh herbs for flavor if you like.  Bread the "ravioli" in the egg wash, and then the panko, pressing down to make sure it coats nicely.  I had exactly 13 agnolotti in my package, a baker's dozen :)


Fill a pot about 1/2 an inch deep with olive oil and then heat it to about 350 degrees F.  Add the "ravioli" and fry on each side until golden brown.  Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel-lined tray.  Serve with the sauce for dipping!  Yum!!!



I really enjoyed these piping hot morsels dipped in spicy and garlicky tomato sauce.  I think the mixture of cheeses in Buitoni's Quattro Formaggi Agnolotti is perfect for frying, since it not only has the fluffy ricotta but also the great melting quality of the fontina, which works well in the high heat of frying this tasty appetizer.  I'm sure it would be delicious served traditionally as well, boiled and topped with pretty much any sauce.  A cheese filling lends well to so many added flavors!  Thanks, Buitoni and Foodbuzz for letting me try out these delicious agnolottis :)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Graduate

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Today, I graduated from culinary school... sort of.  I still have to complete my internship this fall at the Food Network, which will be the final credits required to receive my degree, but as far as formalities are concerned, I walked across that stage today along with this year's fellow graduates.  I am a graduate.  Again.  I graduate with honors and the distinction of summa cum laude, which is the highest honor.

I can't believe it went by so fast.  I started culinary school last September, and this September I start on the last leg of my journey, an internship at the Food Network!  What could be more perfect for me?  I already have a bachelor's degree in film and television along with years of television experience.  I think it was meant to be, but the process of getting there was not easy.  I cannot share the details of the testing I underwent before the Food Network offered me this incredible opportunity, but I can assure you there were several challenges involved.  I'm so grateful to have spent this year learning everything I have (even if there were many moments of frustration) and to finally see the finish line around the corner.

I'm especially glad I decided to attend the ceremony today because one of our honorary degree recipients, and this year's speaker, was none other than Danny Meyer, NYC restaurateur extraordinaire.  Among many others, he owns one of my absolute favorite restaurants, The Union Square Cafe and also the Shake Shack, which serves the best burgers this side of In-N-Out :)  I hope in moving to New York this coming fall, I will find many opportunities to dine at his restaurants (if my wallet allows it, of course, haha).  All in all, it was a very special day, which was punctuated with lunch at my new favorite spot in Providence, The Duck and Bunny :)



Posing with a few of my chefs!  I took a million pictures with my mentors, but I won't be posting them all... you're welcome, Chef Aukstolis :)



Doctor Danny Meyer giving his speech :) 

Truffled Pommes Frites at the Duck and Bunny $6

The Dougie Boy - Smoked Salmon Crepe Purses $10

Cupcakes to go! 

Buttermilk with Honey and Lavender, Yum! 


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lemon Angel Food Cake

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When you like food that is bad for you as much as I do, sometimes you need a little something that tastes like it's bad for you, but is really pretty healthy comparatively. An angel food cake is an excellent example. While it may have its fair share of sugar, it's actually 100% fat free, which means I can have seconds without any guilt, and trust me, you will want seconds.


I used to hate angel food cake because every time I had it, it was a dry store-bought version. The first time I had homemade angel food cake, it changed my life. This was angel food cake? It couldn't be! This had flavor! What a difference it makes being homemade.  Ever since my first time having homemade angel food cake (thanks AJ!), I have made it in culinary school and at home with great results.


It really helps having a stand mixer.  This recipe is so easy and whips up (literally) in no time.  I used the egg whites (plus some extra) that were leftover from all the egg yolks I used in my ice cream this weekend, so there was very little waste.  You can also buy cartons of egg whites if you don't want to throw away a million yolks and don't plan on making ice cream or Hollandaise any time soon.


I also usually use cake flour as the recipe specifies, but had run out recently so I substituted all-purpose flour.  My cake turned out well, so keep that in mind if you want to try this cake but don't have the correct flour.  It will still work, but the crumb just won't be as fine as if you used the cake flour.


For topping, in the past I've drizzled melted chocolate over the cake (which is a huge hit), and this time decided to macerate some strawberries in sugar and serve that alongside.  You can make a berry coulis if you'd like (basically just pureed and strained berries), or offer some lemon curd.  There are so many options depending on your preference.  Even serving it alone works just great!  This cake is so fluffy, moist, and sweet, with just that light lemony tang, that it really doesn't need anything at all!

*Update 11/30/14* I updated all the photos in this post to new ones!


Lemon Angel Food Cake
Makes a 10-inch Cake
(Adapted from Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa Family Style)

2 cups sifted sugar, divided
1 1/3 cups sifted cake flour (not self-rising)
1 1/2 cups egg whites, at room temperature (10 to 12 eggs)
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Zest of 1 lemon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Combine 1/2 cup of sugar with the flour and sift together. Set aside.

Place the egg whites, salt, and cream of tartar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment and beat on high speed until the eggs make medium-firm peaks, about 1 minute.

With the mixer on medium speed, add the remaining 1 1/2 cups of sugar by sprinkling it over the beaten egg whites. Whisk for a few minutes until thick and shiny.

Whisk in the vanilla and lemon zest and continue to whisk until very thick, about 1 more minute. Sift about 1/4 of the flour mixture over the egg whites and fold it into the batter with a rubber spatula. Continue adding the flour by fourths by sifting and folding until it's all incorporated.

Pour the batter into an ungreased 10-inch tube pan, smooth the top, and bake it for 35 to 40 minutes, until it springs back to the touch and a toothpick comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and invert the pan on a cooling rack until cool.


Monday, May 17, 2010

The Duck and Bunny (A Real Place!)

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The Duck and Bunny
312 Wickenden St
Providence, RI 02906
(401) 270-3300
http://theduckandbunny.com

A snuggery is a "cozy and comfortable place," such as The Duck and Bunny on the east side of Providence.  I was lucky enough to spend part of my Saturday afternoon here this past weekend with a British-born friend who swears the high tea service here is the best she's had in the states, and at the best price ($18 for the whole shebang)!  While the tea tasting aspect of my experience at the Swan's Cafe in Boston was incomparable and I would recommend it over and over again to anyone who loves tea as much as I do, the overall experience here (and the food especially) was a lot better than what we were offered (at almost twice the price!) in Boston.


The Duck and Bunny really is as cozy as its name suggests.  A sign above the menu stand tells customers to take one and seat themselves, while a basket of fluffy white blankets beneath invites visitors to curl up and stay awhile.


It also boasts three fireplaces, free wi-fi, funky chandeliers, giant armchairs, white rustic decor with light gray striped walls, fresh sunflowers in tall glasses, a cupcake bar, Victorian-style paintings of ducks and bunnies, and more.  One of the owners is an interior designer, and you can tell when you walk in here and are met with a sense of comfort that you just can't place.  Somehow, you feel at ease to grab one of those blankets, find a chair, order some tea, a couple cupcakes, and make yourself comfortable, literally.





The teapots are all white but shaped differently, making each person's tea experience a little unique.  Also, you are less likely to confuse your tea pot with your neighbor's :)  I love the whole matching, but mismatching aspect of it.  Another draw (probably the biggest) is their cupcake selection.  They have several varieties daily, in both regular and mini sizes, and in addition to serving tea and coffee, they have wine and beer, and even suggest pairings with each of their many crepes (in case you need something a little stronger than tea, haha)!


After perusing the menu extensively, I opted for probably the most obvious choice for my first visit here: the High Tea, which is served all day!  It's $18 per person and includes a selection of sandwiches, scones with jam (locally produced) and Devonshire cream (imported from the good ol' UK), mini-cakes and sweets, and a pot of tea.  We also decided to split an order of bacon-wrapped dates, because how can you not order bacon-wrapped dates when they're on a menu? You tell me.  My friend ordered the Rachel and Monica, which is one of their many humorously-named crepes, this one filled with spinach, goat cheese, and sun-dried tomato.

My Afternoon Apricot Tea :) Delicious!

Bacon-Wrapped Dates with Honey Balsamic Glaze $8

The Rachel & Monica - Crepe Filled with Spinach, Goat Cheese and Sun-dried Tomato $10

High Tea - Sandwiches (from Right to Left--Cucumber with Herb Butter, Tuna with Apple, Turkey with Dried Cranberry, Sun-dried Tomato Cream, Smoked Salmon with Dill Cream), Scone with Devonshire Cream and Jam (Chocolate Raspberry, and Strawberry Preserves), Mini Cupcakes (Mocha and Red Velvet) and Meringues $18 (including a pot of tea)

The food was all realllllly good. I loved the chewy-crunchy-sweet-salty bacon-wrapped dates.  They were done perfectly.  The ridiculous array of food that accompanied my tea was almost too much to finish.  I actually took some of my sweets home to finish later :)  The sandwiches were made of super soft and fluffy wheat bread (no stale bread here), and each was perfect in its own way.  The cucumber sandwich was light and fresh with a creamy herb butter beneath, adding just a touch of richness.  The tuna salad was not overly fishy and just tasted simple and light.  The turkey was actually a turkey salad with dried cranberries studded throughout, adding a hint of sweet-sour chewy texture.  The sun-dried tomato cream was incredible, not overpowering, just a creamy hit of sun-dried tomato flavor, and topped with a fresh, juicy cherry tomato (probably my favorite!).  The smoked salmon encased a generous filling of dill cream, and for someone who generally refers to dill as her least favorite herb, hands down, I loved it!  The scone was moist and studded with dried fruits, and served with a rich and delicious Devonshire cream, a smooth chocolate-raspberry sauce and fresh strawberry preserves.  It was the perfect assortment of scone toppings with a perfectly moist scone to boot.  The mini cupcakes were both moist and delicious in their own right.  I can't wait to try some of their other flavors.  The meringues were light, fluffy, and chewy, just as they should be.  No complaints here.




Officially speaking, the Duck and Bunny has won my heart in ways that most men only dream :)  If I had a purse big enough, I'd shove the entire high tea assortment into my bag and just eat it on the run, a fugitive from high tea Heaven.  Their menu makes me sad that I don't live there, and can't eat there every day.  I might camp out outside in an attempt to replicate the pure bliss I experienced here on Saturday every day of my life.  I should be so lucky...

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Fresh Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream with Candied Mint Leaves

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I had been meaning to make some fresh mint chocolate chip ice cream for the longest time, but every time I had some mint on hand, I would forget to put my ice cream maker bowl in the freezer.  I recently acquired massive amounts of mint, and finally planned ahead!  I've made ice cream before where I used whole eggs, which is less rich, but still works well.  This time I decided to go all out and make a very traditional French-style custard-based ice cream using just yolks.  Also, instead of using equal parts whole milk and heavy cream (which would require me to purchase two items I didn't have on hand, since I never buy whole milk to consume), I decided to just get a quart of half and half, which is essentially the same thing.  It made grocery shopping one step easier.

I decided to make some yummy candied mint garnishes for the ice cream.  I lightly beat an egg white until it was frothy, but still liquid.  I dipped each mint leaf into the egg white, lightly "blotting" some of the excess liquid off the leaf along the side of the bowl.  Then I laid each mint leaf in some white sugar and coated it nicely.  I lightly tapped the leaf to release any excess sugar and placed them all on a wax paper-lined tray and set them aside for several hours to dry out.  Half way through the drying process, I carefully flipped them over (some were dry underneath and some were still wet, so I used a metal spatula to carefully release the wet ones) so they could finish drying on the other side.  The candied mint tasted like sugary mint candies!  Delicious and a lovely alternative to using plain, fresh mint leaves as a garnish.

Frothy Egg Whites and Sugar 


Wet Leaves Drying

Candied Mint Leaves

Fresh Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream
Makes 1 quart

4 cups half and half
3/4 cup sugar, separated
2 cups loosely packed mint leaves
8 egg yolks
3.5 oz semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Heat the half and half, 1/4 cup sugar and mint leaves in a saucepan over high heat until it begins to bubble, about 10 minutes.  Lower heat and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally for another 15 minutes.  Taste to see if the mint flavor has infused to your liking, and steep longer if needed.  Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks with the remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a bowl.  
Carefully ladle some of the hot half and half mixture into the egg yolks and whisk.  Tempering the yolks will help prevent them from curdling when you add them back into the hot half and half.  Now, add the yolk mixture into the saucepan and whisk.  Turn the heat up to medium.  Switch to a wooden spoon and stir constantly until thickened, but do not let it boil.  Strain the custard into a bowl over an ice-water bath.  Stir the custard in the bowl constantly until it is cool.  
Then refrigerate the custard for several hours or overnight until well chilled.  Transfer the custard into a container with a spout (for easy pouring into the ice cream maker).  Freeze ice cream according to your ice cream maker's manufacturer directions, adding the chocolate during the last few minutes of freezing.
Transfer ice cream to a plastic quart-sized container and freeze until firm.  If it gets too hard, you may need to leave it out for a few minutes before scooping (this is common with homemade ice creams).


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