Monday, January 31, 2011

The Most Ridiculous Lunch Story Ever

Once upon a time (this past Sunday), in a not-so-far away land (Rhode Island), I went to lunch with my sister and mom to partake in Providence's Restaurant Week.  We selected a restaurant that we had tried countless times and loved.  I will not disclose the name of the restaurant at this time because quite frankly, that's not really the point of the story.  We've been there so many times and this was definitely not normal.  Maybe there was a full moon or something, but in any case, the story is so ridiculous I can't keep it to myself.  Here is some pure entertainment from me to you...

So we arrive at the restaurant at brunch-time with reservations and wait for the maitre d' to greet us.  When we tell him we have reservations he doesn't even consult the book but just starts looking around to see where to seat us.  I was under the impression that making a reservation reserved a table at a certain time, but I must be crazy, right?  Anyway, we're seated and handed menus.  No Restaurant Week menu.  We have to ask for it.  They give us one copy to share.  We place our order for our chosen entrées, since the first and last courses are the same for everyone... a salad to start and sorbet for dessert.

We wait for over half an hour it seems and yet no salads.  These are simple, small mixed green salads, nothing special.  Why is it taking so long?  Moments later we see a cook walk in through the front door (right next to our table) and walk by us with bags of mixed greens and other salad fixings.  Two minutes later our thrown-together salads arrive, barely enough dressing to coat the greens.  Really?  How do you offer a menu and then not have the ingredients to make the dishes, and yet our server didn't tell us anything.  We figured it out ourselves.  Our salads were supposed to come with French bread and butter, and that was delayed even longer than the salads.  Finally we get some bread and scarf it down.  We're starving.

She tells us our entrées are almost ready and asks if we want more bread.  We say not if the food is almost coming.  She brings us a couple ramekins of ketchup for the fries that were being served with the bison burgers my sister and I ordered.  Then she brings over some more bread "just in case."  Hmm, okay.  She says she will get us more butter and then disappears again.  We're so hungry we start eating the bread anyway.  My mom and sister start spreading ketchup on the bread!  The waitress returns and tells us she can't find any butter.  Seriously?  It's brunch, how do you not have butter?

More time passes.  We've been there for an hour and still no real food has arrived, only some poorly-dressed greens and a few pieces of bread.  The same cook walks through the front door, now with a box of what seems to be pre-formed burger patties, from my sister's observation, along with a tub of some kind of condiment.  We start complaining, tell our server that this is ridiculous already.  She claims that they are just really busy, and I snap back that I've eaten at lots of "busy" restaurants and never had to wait this long for food.  My sister tells her that she's embarrassed because she brought my mom and me there to treat us to lunch, and added that it was a birthday that was now ruined (it really wasn't, but my sister wanted them to realize they had screwed up big time).  The waitress says the owner will come talk to us in a minute.  And so we wait.

Finally, after well over an hour from when we arrived (people came and left in the time we had been waiting for our food), our waitress and the owner emerge from the kitchen carrying our food.  The owner brings us some complimentary appetizers and profusely apologizes for the situation.  She offers us free champagne as well.  Our food is distributed.  My sister's bison burger is incredibly soggy and is lacking the pickled onions that were advertised.  Mine isn't soggy, but is cooked well done, as is my sister's, while I asked for medium/medium-rare and she asked for medium-well.  They return and ask if the food is at least okay and I tell them the truth.  My burger is super overcooked.  The owner says she won't charge me for it, and then returns a minute later and tells me to stop eating it and they will make me another.  I tell her that after waiting over an hour, I will not wait another minute to eat my meal, and will just eat it anyway.  It was dry and bland, and obviously made from a pre-formed patty.  The cheese isn't even melted.  Also, the fries are supposed to be hand-cut garlic fries, and these appear to be frozen steak fries seasoned only with salt and pepper.  Definitely not as advertised and our dishes once again look hastily thrown together (in a restaurant which usually serves beautiful food).

This is definitely not the food expected from a restaurant of this caliber.  It seems that they didn't have any of the food that was offered on the RW menu, maybe assuming people would simply order off the brunch menu if they didn't offer the RW menu to people up front.  So because of that we were made to wait for ages for our food and then served crappy food.  The only good things were the free appetizers, one of which I had enjoyed on a past visit.

After we finish, our waitress tells us that we are all set, that we don't have to pay for anything.  We're a bit shocked, but we nod and start gathering our things to leave.  As we have our coats on, the owner anxiously tells us to wait, that they had made a special cake for us.  They made this extravagant chocolate mousse concoction with chocolate meringues sticking out of it, and lit a couple candles and came over to sing happy birthday.  As we sang, we weren't really sure whose "birthday" it was supposed to be, and my mom quickly sang my name into the chorus. Happy birthday to me! Haha.

I chatted with the owner and told her that I loved this restaurant and that we had come here on many occasions in the past and so we realize this was completely out of the ordinary for them.  She said she was glad we had been there before and knew this wasn't normal, and said that this had never happened before, and that it would teach her humility.  She seemed really sweet and I know that unlike the rest of her staff that just let this situation get out of hand, her reputation was on the line.  I'm pretty sure the server didn't even inform her of what had been going on until we finally complained.  Truthfully, as the owner who was in the dining room the entire time, she should have known anyway, but still.  I hope the rest of the restaurant staff learned a lesson too.  If it's on the menu, you should have the ingredients on hand!  If you run out of food, don't walk in the front door with it!  And if you have to, then at least be honest with your patrons or offer them an alternative instead.  Waiting for crappy salad, bread with ketchup, overcooked pre-formed burgers (which as far as I'm concerned weren't even bison) is not worth it, even for a free meal.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Brunch Worth Waiting For


Dear World, I know I've been MIA lately, and I have some really good reasons.  First of all, I sprained my ankle last weekend.  No, I didn't slip on ice (which would make the most sense considering the weather we've been having in the Northeast).  I fell down the stairs and came crashing down with all my weight on my ankle, twisting it completely in the wrong direction.  Ouch is right.  As the incident occurred, sadly the only thought going through my head (amidst the screams of pain) was that my leg better not be broken because I don't have health insurance.  Yes, folks, only in America can an individual be screaming in pain and yet only be concerned about the crazy debt they will accumulate if the injury requires serious medical attention.  FML.  Fortunately, my leg didn't appear to be broken, and so I've been limping away and icing, wrapping, and resting it throughout the week.

I didn't really cook anything this week either because I didn't want to stand around the kitchen, putting pressure on my ankle.  Also, we had a bit of a blizzard here in NYC this week, you may have seen it on the news or experienced it yourself.  Since I'm not currently working, I didn't leave the house for days, also because of my ankle, so there wasn't a lot of food exploration going on to write about.  At times I felt like James Caan in Misery, obviously less injured than he was, but already going stir-crazy, and just waiting for Kathy Bates to show up and smash my legs with a sledgehammer, permanently crippling me.  When I'm bored my imagination goes wild.  Fortunately, I made myself leave the house today and convinced my friend Sydney to join me for a late lunch at the über-popular Clinton St. Baking Company.

Clinton St. Baking Company
4 Clinton St
(between Stanton St & Houston St)
New York, NY 10002
(646) 602-6263

Clinton St. Baking Company is notorious for having exceptionally long waits for weekend brunch.  It's also considered to have the best pancakes in the city.  I had wanted to try it out for a while, but had held off due to its reputation for impossibly long lines.  I figured going for a late lunch on a weekday may be the best option, since the same menu is offered.  When we arrived at 2:30 this afternoon, we still had to wait about 15 minutes to be seated.  That's obviously not as bad as prime weekend brunch time, but you get the picture.  This place is small (only 32 seats) and mad popular.  They also sell baked goods to go, from a variety of muffins and scones to cupcakes, cakes, pies, and more.  The entire menu is also available for take-out.

Sydney and I both opted for iced lattes with our meal.  Pretty standard and offered in a tall glass.  I had been eying the Southern Breakfast for months, and although it's clearly not green tomato season anymore, I had to order it.  The plate consists of two eggs any style (I chose poached), sugar-cured bacon, cheese grits, and fried green tomatoes.  Let's go backwards (just to keep things interesting).  The fried "green" tomatoes were more like fried "pink" tomatoes, which I imagine is the best one can do in January in New York City, but for what it's worth, they were delicious, perfectly seasoned, great crust, nice and juicy on the inside.  The cheese grits were flavorful, creamy and super cheesy!  Even as they cooled, their texture remained soft and pleasant.  I couldn't stop eating them.  The sugar-cured bacon was perfectly crispy with a touch of sweetness, and for a girl who usually drenches her breakfast sausage and bacon in maple syrup, this combination of sweet and salty was delightful.  The poached eggs may be an unusual choice for "eggs any style."  I think most commonly people go with fried or scrambled, but I'm a poached eggs girl.  These were poached perfectly.  And I mean it.  I was actually able to peel away the white which was completely cooked through (not slimy whatsoever) to reveal the soft, unblemished yolk, a perfect yellow orb, barely kissed by the heat of the simmering water just enough to warm it, but not cook it.  For those of us who love our yolks runny, but our whites not, this is what it's all about.  In retrospect, since I ordered poached eggs, it would have been smart to get a side of toast to sop up the yolk, but I used some of my fried green tomatoes instead, and those worked pretty great too :)

Southern Breakfast - Two Eggs Any Style, Sugar-Cured Bacon, Cheese Grits, Fried Green Tomatoes $14

While I went savory, Sydney ordered something sweet, one of the specials on the menu, the Vanilla Buttermilk Waffle.  Although this single Belgian-style waffle cost $15, it was thick and fluffy, and the amount of fresh berries over the top almost made up for the price.  A combination of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries were enhanced with some raspberry sauce and whipped cream.  The obligatory warm maple butter was served in a small ramekin alongside.  This warm maple butter is a pretty big attraction in these parts.  The pancakes are not only famous in their own right, but this sweet and rich accompanying sauce doesn't hurt either.  They serve it with all their sweet breakfast staples, from pancakes, to French toast and beyond.  We both loved this waffle, and could really taste the vanilla inside.  The warm maple butter was as good as we had expected, a perfect alternative to the typical combination of maple syrup and butter pat that generally finds its way onto these breakfast sweets.

Vanilla Buttermilk Waffle - Mixed Berries, Whipped Cream, Raspberry Sauce, and Warm Maple Butter $15

We both agreed that our entrées were perfectly filling, without the keel-over-in-pain-because-you-ate-so-much after effects.  Neither was cheap, but the quality of food and ingredients, along with the attentive service (it better be after waiting in line!) really makes a visit to Clinton St. Baking Company worth it.  Keep in mind that this restaurant is CASH ONLY, so come prepared.  They also have recently released a cookbook, which I am hoping to review in the near future, so keep your eyes peeled for that!

For anyone planning to dine here on weekdays during the month of February, it's apparently Pancake Month.  Clinton St. Baking Company will be featuring special pancake flavors day and night during the week.  Did I mention their pancakes are considered to be the best in the city?!  Here is the schedule!

Monday, January 24, 2011

When I Play The Maracas I Go Chick Chicky Boom, Chick Chicky Boom

Cafe Habana
17 Prince St
(between Elizabeth St & Mott St)
New York, NY 10012
(212) 625-2002

This Cuban/Mexican spot has been on my To Do list for quite some time now, and I finally managed to snag a table Friday night with fellow blogger Joanne from Eats Well With Others (PS she is an awesome dinner companion!).  The restaurant is tiny, and fortunately has a To Go outlet next door with more room for diners unwilling to wait for a table (and oh do they wait!).  Joanne and I were seated elbow-to-elbow with another couple of diners at the table next to us.  To our other side, the door.  Hoards of wannabe-diners filled in the gaps, waiting for tables to become free, far too cold to wait outside.  They don't accept reservations, so if you come to Cafe Habana after 7pm, expect to wait.  Period.  Small, cramped tables are "cozy." That's fine.  It's part of the charm.  The walls feature painted palms, while the music is a loud eclectic mix containing everything from pop songs to rap (I squealed when Mo Money Mo Problems by the Notorious B.I.G. came on, reminding me of the random rap phase I went through in the mid-90's).  It's definitely a loud and boisterous atmosphere, topped off with the super dim and warm yellow lighting that regardless of my photo editing efforts, made all my pictures look yellow (they looked red before I edited them!).  No amount of fixing the white balance will improve it enough, so please forgive the photos :)

We started with a round of mojitos (duh) and the famous grilled Mexican-style corn.  It was recently featured on Food Network's The Best Thing I Ever Ate (yeah yeah, you've heard it before).  It's insanely popular.  Of course going into it I thought, it's just corn.  It's not even in season!  Well, trust me when I tell you, this corn deserves its own food group, a pedestal on which to stand.  It's everything corn on the cob should be.  It's smoky, salty, sweet, and spicy, with a touch of acid.  Hot grilled corn cobs are slathered with a mayo/sour cream mixture, then rolled in grated Cotija cheese, topped with hot chili powder, and finally a wedge of lime for a do-it-yourself final touch.  It's gooey, cheesy, spicy, get-stuck-in-your-teeth awesome, served with a side of individually wrapped toothpicks.  You'll need them!

Grilled Mexican-Style Corn (2 per order) $4.25

Mojitos $9 each

After noshing on the incredible corn, our entrées arrived.  Joanne decided to try the vegetarian tacos, which contained nopales (cactus), onion and queso fresco with a side of salsa verde to top with.  The salsa was much needed to spice up the tacos, which were overall very enjoyable.  The nopales almost reminded us of bell peppers in their texture and flavor.  On the side were black beans, which were very flavorful, and rice which was unfortunately a bit bland.  Definitely a lot of food for under $10!

Vegetarian Tacos - Nopales, Onion and Queso Fresco with Salsa Verde, Black Beans, and Rice $8.95

I had to get the Cuban sandwich, which was voted best in NYC (I'm not sure by whom, though).  It was different than other Cubans in that instead of featuring sliced pork loin, it had roast pulled pork, which made the sandwich insanely juicy!  It also had the traditional ham, Swiss cheese and pickles on pressed Parisi's bread (from Little Italy, right down the street), and was served with hand-cut French fries.  Like I said, this sandwich was incredibly juicy because of the roast pulled pork, and the other components balanced out the sandwich well.  Instead of the traditional mustard, it contained chipotle mayonnaise, giving it a more Mexican twist (the original Cafe Habana opened in 1952 in Mexico City and still exists).  I thought the pickles were too mild, and far less acidic than I'd usually prefer.  I expect to taste that pickle in each bite, and that layer of flavor was lacking for me, but then again this isn't an entirely traditional Cubano.  The bread was crisp on the outside and chewy inside, a great vessel for this sandwich.  Overall, I really enjoyed the sandwich and polished off the entire thing, but unfortunately there was one fairly large hunk of fat amidst the pulled pork chunks, which I had to remove myself.  It may not have bothered other people, and I'm sure it was an oversight, but it definitely wasn't very pleasant to me (and Joanne agreed).  I don't like surprises like that in my sandwich, haha.  Would I call this the best Cuban sandwich in NYC? I don't know, I haven't had other Cuban sandwiches in NYC, but I loved how juicy it was, unlike any other I've had before.  It's definitely in a league of its own in that regard, and I give Cafe Habana huge props for making the juiciest Cuban sandwich I've ever had, albeit slightly untraditional :)

Cuban Sandwich - Roast Pork, Ham, Swiss Cheese, and Pickles on Pressed Parisi's Bread, with Hand-Cut Fries $9.75

Inside the Sandwich

I originally wanted to swap out my fries for the sweet plantains, but was told there would be an additional charge of $2 or so.  Considering the plantains only cost $3.25 as a side order, that seemed like a ripoff.  We decided to just get them to share, in addition to our meals.  First of all, the fries that were included with my sandwich were actually really good!  They had a great crunch on the outside and were piping hot and fluffy inside.  Definitely not disappointing!  I expected the sweet plantains to be fried, as most sides of plantains have been in my life, but when these arrived they were more charred around the edges and were not sitting a pool of residual oil.  These babies were roasted!  I really enjoyed not having that additional oil slick in my mouth with each bite of hot, sweet plantain (and the guilt too), and the roasting had imparted its own flavor to them.

Sweet Plantains $3.25

Even though the restaurant was crowded and loud, and our food wasn't absolutely perfect (hey, this isn't Le Bernardin... I think a little imperfection is acceptable, don't you?), we both had a wonderful time here, and I know that I personally would love to come back.  Come early so you don't have to wait as long, and definitely order the corn!  I would happily order the same items I had all over again, and yet there were several other options that had me drooling, like the variety of enchiladas (I'm a sucker for those) and the fish tacos (huuuuuge addict).  I have a feeling I'll be back...

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ramen Wars


Okay, so I realize that Serious Eats discussed their Top 10 Ramen in NYC about 3 1/2 months ago. "Wow, Victoria... took you long enough to get with the program."  Yeah, I know, people, but it actually took me this long to get to try the top two picks on their list (I'm not even about to attempt to try them all, I'm a poor busy girl).  First of all, shortly after the article was posted, Serious Eats' #1 choice Hide-Chan Ramen changed their menu, and no longer offered options on the richness of the broth and the firmness of the noodles.  This was a big selling point in the review, and since then a disclaimer has been posted in the article.  When I went to Hide-Chan, a mere week after the article was released, this change had already taken place, and I had what is now the only option, medium-rich broth with al dente noodles.  I recently finally got to try #2 on the list (which is actually #1 to most people I know), Ippudo NY.  Here is my side by side comparison, and my thoughts on which is better overall.

Hide-Chan Ramen                                                        Ippudo NY
248 E 52nd St                                                                       65 4th Ave
(between 3rd Ave & 2nd Ave)            vs.                     (between 9th St & 10th St)
New York, NY 10022                                                        New York, NY 10003
(212) 813-1800                                                                   (212) 388-0088

Appetizer: Steamed Pork Buns

I know the original article was for the best ramen in NYC, but I ordered steamed pork buns at both locations and figured I would compare these as well, to get a better general sense of the restaurants.  I'm not limiting my analysis to one dish.  This is Mission: Food, and we play by different rules :)

The pork buns at Hide-Chan were "okay" but not really a highlight whatsoever.  The buns themselves were somewhat thin and soft, with well-cooked, tender pork neck inside, along with iceberg lettuce and mayonnaise.  While the pork was moist, overall the buns were pretty dry, and reminded me of a Japanese BLT (hold the tomato).  There was nothing really outstanding, and the pork was cut too thin for the application.  The price is cheaper than the ones at Ippudo, and rightfully so... they aren't as good.

Steamed Pork Buns $6

Ippudo's steamed pork buns (Hirata buns) win this match hands down.  The bun itself is thick, warm, soft, fluffy, and chewy, filled with thick-cut perfectly tender and juicy pork belly, Ippudo's special sauce (a mix of tangy and spicy), iceberg lettuce and mayo.  In this case, nothing about this pork bun reminded me of a BLT.  This was a pork bun, perfectly executed, but costing a couple bucks more than its counterpart at Hide-Chan.  I think it's worth the extra $2.  These are killer!  If you go to Ippudo, you need to get the pork buns.  Just sayin'... *drool...*

Hirata Buns $8

Ramen: The Main Event

These are ramen restaurants, so let's talk about the ramen.  For those of you who aren't in the know, ramen is a traditional Japanese noodle soup.  Yes, you can buy "ramen" at the supermarket super cheap, but this isn't that kind of ramen.  This is the good stuff.  The real deal.  This is the ramen that people wait in line outside in the cold for... first up, Hide-Chan.

Like I said before, between the time the review was posted on Serious Eats and the time I (and the rest of the Serious Eats-reading world) got to try it, they had changed their menu (don't they read the news?).  I had the Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen, which is their basic variation, boasting a rich pork broth with a good unctuous mouthfeel and intense porky flavor, tender slices of pork, perfectly al dente house-made noodles, scallions, and mushrooms.  Even though this wasn't the richest broth they originally offered (the original one had bits of pork fat floating in it), I honestly really enjoyed this ramen, just as it was.  It was simple, but satisfying.  For $9.50, it's a really good deal.

Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen $9.50

Moving on to Ippudo NY.  I should preface my discussion of the actual ramen by sharing Ippudo's tremendous popularity.  People have been known to wait for hours (PLURAL) to get a seat at Ippudo.  When I got there 15 minutes before it even opened for dinner, there was already a line forming outside.  By the time the doors opened, I felt like I was at Disneyland waiting to ride Space Mountain (well, maybe not so much, but I rarely wait in line to get into a restaurant before it even opens).  So anyway, the ramen.  I ordered the one my waiter said was the most popular, the Akamaru Modern.  It's their traditional soup, but basically the toppings are a little different, less traditional.  It comes with Ippudo's special sauce, pork belly chashu, cabbage, kikurage (mushrooms), scallions, miso paste and fragrant garlic oil.  Oh. Em. Gee.  This really is awesome ramen.  The noodles are excellent and keep their al dente bite down until the last slurp.  The broth was rich and almost seemed creamy, and with the addition of the special sauce, miso paste, and garlic oil, it really puts this broth over the top, so incredibly intense and flavorful.  You've got the slight crunch of the mushrooms, and then add the tender pork belly (basically reminds me of meat butter... oh yeah!) and you have a truly exceptional bowl of ramen.  At the truly exceptional price of $14... for soup.

Akamaru Modern - 'The original tonkotsu' soup noodle with Ippudo's special sauce, pork belly chashu, cabbage, kikurage, scallions, miso paste & fragrant garlic oil $14

All mixed up!

Ambiance and Service: These matter too :)

Of course, they do!  So first up is Hide-Chan.  The restaurant itself is fairly small, and located on the second floor, at the top of a narrow flight of stairs (similar to Yakitori Totto).  There are several tables, and a long bar area, which is where we sat.  The decor is pretty simple, classic.  Service is efficient and polite, but not memorable.  The prices overall are cheaper at Hide-Chan, and the ambiance lives up to that simplicity.  It's not in your face, and that's just fine.  With the exception of the pork buns, which were just "okay," there was nothing negative about my experience at Hide-Chan worth mentioning.  If in the neighborhood, I would happily eat their ramen in the future.

As far as ambiance and service is concerned, Ippudo is a whole other story... in a good way.  First of all, I mentioned above that people actually wait in crazy lines to eat here.  The decor is trendier and funkier, with a wall of soup bowls hanging over the bar, large wooden communal tables, and a vast open kitchen area that is completely visible to diners.  All of the cooks wear Japanese-inspired attire, kind of kitschy.

When the hostess enters the dining room to seat a party, she loudly announces the table number in Japanese to the cooks, who shout back "Irashaimase" or "Welcome" in Japanese (I asked my waiter).  They do this every single time someone is seated in the dining room.  I'd like to take this opportunity to point out that most of the staff is not Japanese.  As part of their requirements to work there, the staff must learn certain Japanese phrases, as well as all the numbers so they can translate table numbers that are shouted to them in Japanese.  When food is ready, the cooks shout in Japanese for it to get picked up.  Sitting at the bar, directly in front of some of the cooks, was a really fun experience!  I thought the environment of the restaurant was energetic and fun.  Apparently this shouting in Japanese is a traditional part of the ramen experience.  They don't have it at Hide-Chan, and I'm not sure about other spots in the city, but I'm pretty sure Ippudo is known for this aspect of their service.  And speaking of service, overall it was really great, friendly, and personal.  Having the entire kitchen welcome you into the restaurant doesn't hurt!  The entire experience was smooth and turnover is pretty fast, no waiting around for your food with a growling stomach.  And as a final thank you, a complimentary cup of tea.  It's like they know me personally :) Arigato!

My final thoughts are these... both restaurants have something good to offer.  Hide-Chan has better prices, a more modest setting, and good ramen, even though they no longer offer the same options as before.  The pork buns are a pass for me, although other people seem to like them.  At Ippudo, you have the energetic vibe, the screaming in Japanese, and of course the exponentially better pork buns, and the really awesome ramen.  The prices are higher, but I think you expect that walking in and noticing the differences in decor, service, food, and plating (I watched the cooks in front of me meticulously saucing plates of mouthwatering food).  I think when all is said and done, even with higher prices, I truly prefer Ippudo both for the experience and the delectable food.  It's not even a contest really!  I would eat at Hide-Chan again if in the area and craving ramen, but I would go out of my way for Ippudo.  Ippudo wins hands down.  And that's all folks!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Buffalo Chicken Nachos


Two of the most popular game day snacks are Buffalo wings and nachos.  At least that's my educated guess.  I don't watch a whole lot of sports outside of the Olympics, but I do support all the Boston/New England teams when I can (and usually if snacks and beer are involved).  Since the Patriots were eliminated from the playoffs (don't remind me!), I can honestly tell you that I will not be watching the conference championships or the Superbowl.  I don't care enough about the commercials to waste half my day watching something when I have no interest in the outcome.  I do realize that many of you will be watching these games, or simply enjoy Buffalo chicken and nachos and want to spice up your repertoire with something new.  I introduce to you these Buffalo chicken nachos!  I made them last weekend to enjoy while watching the Pats game, but that soon turned into channel surfing to avoid actually watching the game.  It was a doozy for Pats fans :(

These nachos were easily the highlight of the day!  The words "best nachos ever" floated around the room several times.  Imagine this... crisp, warm tortilla chips, some infused with spicy Buffalo sauce... tender, spicy Buffalo chicken... crisp, clean celery... gooey, bubbly sharp cheddar cheese... tangy, robust blue cheese bits... all in one bite.  If there is a snack food Heaven, these nachos are in it.  And when football season is inevitably over, break out this recipe for other sporting events, poker night, movie night, PMS, whatever occasion gets you craving some unhealthy and delicious sustenance.  We all have those days :)

Buffalo Chicken Nachos
Serves 4 to 6 as an entrée, 8 to 12 as an appetizer

1 cup hot sauce (such as Frank's Red Hot)
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
4 cups cooked, shredded chicken (from 2 large breasts)
12 oz tortilla chips
2 stalks celery, trimmed and sliced
8 to 10 oz sharp white cheddar cheese, shredded (2 to 2 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese

Place a rack in the top third of the oven and preheat the oven to 475 degrees F. Line a half sheet pan (13-by-17 1/2-inches) with foil for easy cleanup, if desired. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the hot sauce and butter. Heat and stir until the butter emulsifies into the hot sauce and the mixture heats through, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the shredded chicken and stir to coat with the sauce and heat the chicken through, another 5 minutes. Remove the chicken from the sauce with a slotted spoon and reserve the chicken and Buffalo sauce separately.

Arrange the tortilla chips in the sheet pan and top with the shredded Buffalo chicken. Add the sliced celery, shredded cheddar, and crumbled blue cheese, making sure to distribute the toppings evenly over the chips, and even tuck some of the toppings in between the chips so the chips on the bottom aren't completely "naked." Drizzle the reserved Buffalo sauce over the top of the nachos. It will infuse more flavor into the cheese and soak into some of the chips.

Bake in the top third of the oven for 5 to 7 minutes until the the nachos are hot and the cheese is bubbly. Serve immediately with a cold beer and plenty of napkins!

PS Check out this Buffalo chicken pizza for yet another great Buffalo chicken recipe :)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Peanut Butter Jelly Time!


Sometimes I think scones were invented to enjoy with tea.  There are few sweets that go more perfectly with a hot cup of fragrant tea, but equally as well with the popular morning cup of Joe.  Fresh scones can be found at bakeries all around, and yet oftentimes are dense and overly sweet.  Sometimes, they're also the size of my head.  A good scone should be flaky and tender, and a more reasonable size than what we find at many bakeries in America.  I love making scones at home because they really are so simple to put together whether you have an electric mixer or not.  I will often just mix the dough by hand instead of getting my mixer dirty.

You can also make so many different flavors of scones, either sweet or savory.  I generally use the same basic scone recipe I've developed and adapt it to fit the different mix-ins that I chose.  I will use fresh fruit like whole blueberries, raspberries, or chopped strawberries, or dried fruit such as plump raisins or dried cherries, and even decadent treats like chocolate chips can easily find their way into these tender pastries.  I recently decided to make scones using one of the ultimate sandwich filling pairings: peanut butter and jelly.

I had seen a recipe in the Alice's Tea Cup Cookbook which I was giving a friend for Christmas.  I decided to test out the recipe and make some scones and include it as part of her gift.  I followed the recipe to a T and sadly, by the end of the process, it was clear to me that the recipe used way too much liquid (and no egg either, which I consider an important ingredient to help scones have structure).  The dough was so wet, that while cutting them with a round cutter was challenging at first, using a spatula to lift the circles from the cutting board to the pan was even worse.  I couldn't believe I needed a spatula to do what my hands would do for every other scone I've ever made.

Alice's Tea Cup PB&J scones spread out more like fat cookies with soft edges, rather than developing the structure that would be expected from a scone

My scone dough is usually fairly wet and sticky and requires its share of flouring the work surface and the dough, but it's never this difficult to work with.  To top it off, the scones baked, spread out flat and looked like cookies instead of scones.  They were tender and tasty, sure, but they looked nothing like a scone, and they were a pain to assemble.  I decided to adapt my scone recipe and make better, more stable peanut butter and jelly scones that actually look like scones, packed full of PB&J flavor.  These were a huge success!  I recommend them to peanut butter and jelly fans around the world, because why can't breakfast time be peanut butter jelly time too!  I suggest using a chunky fruit preserve to allow for lots of "jelly" bits throughout the scone, but jam will work well also, just don't overwork it.

**I'm submitting these scones to Sweet As Sugar Cookies' Sweets For Saturday! Please check out the other submissions as well**

Peanut Butter and Jelly Scones
Makes about 12 to 16 scones, depending on the size you prefer

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 T. baking powder
Pinch salt
1 stick unsalted butter (1/2 cup), cold and cut into cubes
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1/2 cup strawberry or raspberry jam or preserves
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup heavy cream or buttermilk, plus more for brushing on top
Coarse sugar, for sprinkling

Heat oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. In a large bowl combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add cold butter cubes to the flour mixture and work the butter into the flour mixture, using your fingers or a pastry cutter, until the mixture resembles coarse pea or dime-size crumbs. Be careful not to overwork the mixture or the butter will soften too much and the resulting scones will not be flaky. Gently work the peanut butter and jam into the flour/butter mixture, leaving chunks, just as with the butter. Do not overwork the mixture or it will be tough.

Add the egg and the heavy cream/buttermilk to the flour mixture and mix until just combined (you may not need all of the liquid if the flour absorbs it all, add most of it at first and add the last bit if necessary). The dough will be wet and sticky.

Scrape dough onto a generously floured large wooden cutting board or work surface. The dough will be sticky, so take extra care flouring your hands and the sides and top of the dough as well, lightly patting it flat and into a rectangle shape, about 3/4 inch thick (make sure it doesn't stick! Add more flour to the board if necessary). Don't overwork the dough, as you want the butter inside to stay as cold as possible until the scones head into the oven, ensuring a flaky result!

Depending on your preference, you can use a round floured cookie or biscuit cutter to cut circles, or use a bench/dough scraper or knife to cut triangles. Flip each cut scone over and place upside down on the parchment lined baking sheet (the bottoms are flatter and will look prettier as the tops of the scones), spacing a couple inches apart. Lightly brush heavy cream on top of the scones (but not the sides), followed by a sprinkle of coarse sugar.

Bake scones for 15 to 20 minutes until lightly golden on top. Scones can be enjoyed hot out of the oven, warm, or room temperature. If you like them warm, lightly reheat them before enjoying the leftovers (if there are any!)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Dal Makhani: The Queen of All Dals


It's no secret that I love Indian food.  I recently featured a post on some of the amazing Indian restaurants I've discovered in New York City.  I also prepared quite a delicious Indian feast in honor of my last birthday!  I love trying out new Indian dishes and recipes, and enjoy perusing the aisles of Indian markets.  There are so many fun spices to try out, and there are countless varieties of dal, or pulses (dried lentils, peas or beans) which have been stripped of their outer hulls and split. The word dal also refers to the actual thick stews prepared from these pulses.  It is regularly eaten with rice and vegetables in Southern India, and with both rice and roti (wheat-based flat bread) throughout Northern India (Thanks, Wikipedia!) The limitless preparations of these dals make vegetarian diets incredibly easy, cheap, and protein-rich.

One of the most famous variations is Dal Makhani, a popular Punjabi dish which is often referred to as the Queen of all dals.  I have searched far and wide, and was unable to find a recipe for this dish that did not utilize a pressure cooker.  I'm serious.  I looked all over Google.  I don't have a pressure cooker, so I decided to adapt the recipe from Padhu's Kitchen to cook on the stove top.  It was a lot easier than I thought it would be, and I decided to double the recipe as well to make a more generous yield (but you can easily halve this recipe for less servings).  I used dry Anaheim chilies, which are not actually red chilies, but have similar Scoville heat units (measures capsaicin, aka spiciness).  I saw recipes for this dish utilize a variety of chili peppers (including jalapeño, which is decidedly not Indian), so I think you're free to experiment with your favorite peppers depending on your spice tolerance and availability.  I removed most of the seeds because I wasn't sure how spicy the final result would be (better safe than sorry), and was surprised how mild it turned out compared to the spicy Dal Makhani I've had in the past.  When using milder dry chilies such as Anaheim, in the future I would leave the seeds in, but that's just me...

Dal Makhani
Serves 6 to 8
(Adapted from Padhu's Kitchen)

1 cup whole black gram / urad dal
1/4 cup dry red kidney beans
4 dry red chilies, stems removed, and seeds removed for less heat, if desired
2-inch piece fresh ginger, roughly chopped
12 cloves garlic
6 1/4 cups water
1 tsp. ground turmeric
2 T. oil
2 small to medium onions, finely chopped
4 tsp. ground coriander
2 tsp. chili powder
2 tsp. garam masala
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 (15 oz) can tomato sauce, or equivalent tomato puree
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
Kosher salt
1/4 cup heavy cream

Soak both the dals (whole black gram and kidney beans) in plenty of cold water for 6 to 7 hours or overnight. Rinse well and drain.

Soak the dry red chilies in hot water for 15 minutes and then drain well. Add the reconstituted chilies, ginger, garlic, and 1/4 cup water to a food processor and puree until it forms a smooth paste.

To a medium-large pot, add the soaked dals, the remaining 6 cups water, 1/2 of the ginger-garlic-chili paste, and the turmeric and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer covered for 30 to 40 minutes until the dal is tender. Mash it a little with the back of a spoon or ladle, and set aside.

Heat the oil over medium heat in a large sauté pan. Add the onions and sauté until they begin to turn golden. Add the remaining ginger-garlic-chili paste and sauté for another minute. Then add the ground coriander, chili powder, garam masala, ground cumin, tomato sauce, and unsalted butter, and cook until the butter melts and the sauce becomes incredibly fragrant, a few minutes more. Add this mixture to the pot with the dal and its liquid. Add salt to taste. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer uncovered for another 15 to 20 minutes until the mixture slightly thickens and the flavors infuse. Stir in the heavy cream, and cook for another 3 minutes.

Serve hot with any Indian bread or rice.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Blog Awards & Authentic Greek Cuisine

I was recently given a couple blogging awards from one of my favorite blogs, Foodiva's Kitchen.  Maya, the lovely diva who runs the site, has become a great blogging friend in the past several months.  Although she lives on the other side of the world, she has been tremendously supportive and is one of the most creative bloggers I've had the pleasure of following.  She not only introduced me to the amazing purple sweet potato, but continuously shares inspiring dishes on her blog.  Thanks so much, Maya, for passing along these wonderful awards!

I'd like to share these awards with some of the bloggers that I find to be most supportive in the community.  Thanks for always being there, and for sharing your craft with the world!  You are all fabulous!  Please check out their sites if you haven't already :)

Alisha at The Ardent Epicure
Claudia at What's Cookin' Italian Style
Natasha at Five Star Foodie Culinary Adventures
Faith at An Edible Mosaic
Joanne at Eats Well With Others
Christine at Fresh Local and Best
Rebecca at Chow and Chatter
Priscilla at She's Cookin'

Zenon Taverna
3410 31st Ave
Astoria, NY 11106
(718) 956-0133

Zenon Taverna is another of what I should now refer to as "Sydney's Selections."  Now, I must tell you that the Astoria neighborhood in Queens is known for its Greek cuisine.  I must also tell you that while waiting for my friends outside the restaurant, a large group of people speaking Greek (including a Greek Orthodox priest) headed into the restaurant.  I'm pretty sure you want to be eating where they're eating.  Sydney informed me later that they've tried many different Greek restaurants in the neighborhood to find their favorite.  Their criteria in the end came down to which restaurant had the biggest flame on their sakanaki, haha.  I guess Zenon won in the end :)  I must admit, sakanaki is one of my favorite Greek dishes.  It's basically cheese on fire, but more specifically it's baked imported Greek goat cheese (Kefalograviera) flambeed with brandy.  They bring it to your table on fire and then squeeze a bit of lemon over the top to put out the flames.  Man I love food on fire!  Especially CHEESE!  Love love love love love saganaki!  It's also so fun to say.  I tried getting a picture in action, but it was blurry.  Someone at the table also ordered spanakopita, a traditional Greek spinach pie.  I tried a small bite and thought it was good, but I can't comment too much since I only tried a tiny piece.

Saganaki - Baked imported Greek goat cheese (Kefalograviera) flambeed with brandy $9.50

Spanakopita - Fresh saute spinach, scallions and dill with Greek feta cheese wrapped in crispy fillo dough $7.50

For my entree I was really torn.  I wanted to get a more traditional souvlaki type dish, but then I was also craving seafood.  I don't typically think of seafood as being very Greek, but it really is because so much of the country (and it's many islands) is seaside, thus making fresh fish a hot commodity.  In the end I ordered the stuffed fillet of sole, which is stuffed with crabmeat.  I thought the fish was tender and juicy and the stuffing was okay but a bit mushy (not much texture).  Also, the chunks of crabmeat looked like imitation crab (we won't even go there).  With the exception of that, the fish itself was good and I almost polished off my plate.  Entrees came with a choice of sides, and I selected the Cyprus fries, which are basically thick potato chips seasoned with oregano and salt.  Very nice spin on fries!  Others at the table had a souvlaki pita sandwich, and sheftalia (or pork meatballs).  I tried one of the pork meatballs with some tzatziki sauce and thought it was juicy and flavorful.

Stuffed Filet of Sole - Broiled Filet of Sole Stuffed with Crabmeat $20.95

Cyprus Fries

Souvlaki Pita Sandwich - Char-grilled pork kebab in pita bread with freshly cut tomato, cucumber, onion and parsley $7.50

Shefalia - Char-grilled pork meatballs with herbs and spices $13.95

By the time we got around to ordering dessert, we were all pretty full, but we managed to split these fried "cigarettes" filled with ground nuts, cinnamon, and sugar, and soaked with some honey syrup flavored with rose water.  They were delicately floral and sweet, a nice way to end the meal.  Complimentary sliced oranges and grapes were served with our check.

Fried "Cigarettes" Filled with Ground Nuts, Cinnamon and Sugar and Topped with Honey Syrup and Rose Water

I have to say, the meal was satisfying, but I do regret my decision to order the sole.  The fish was good, but I'm on the fence about the stuffing, mainly because I'm fairly certain it doesn't even contain real crabmeat (one of my pet peeves).  Otherwise, I should also say that in dining at Zenon I was hoping to partake in one of their special meze menus.  They offer three different meze menus starting at $19.95 per person and consisting between 14 and 15 different items.  The thing is, you need at least 2 people to order those and no one else in our party wanted to do it.  So I couldn't try it :(  I really think that would be the best meal here, with the most variety, and the best bang for your buck.  I can't officially recommend it because I haven't had the chance to try it myself, but hopefully in the future I will go back and have one of their meze tastings!  Regardless of that fact, overall the meal was enjoyable, the ambiance was decidedly Greek, the service was languid (as I believe is customary for traditional meals of this nature--people spend hours at a single meal), and the food was good.

**Update 2/25/11** I returned to Zenon Taverna to try out one of the meze menus, as I had hoped. A friend and I dined on 16 separate items for under $20 each, and had plenty of food to take home leftovers. We opted for the Cyprus Meze tasting, as opposed to the seafood and vegetarian options they also have. In addition to a generous bread basket, we started off with the cold meze selections, which include tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber dip), melitzanosalada (eggplant dip), scordalia (garlic dip), tahini, taramosalada (red caviar dip), pantzarosalada (beet salad), thalassinosalada (seafood salad), and Kypriaki salada (Cyprus salad). Like in my stuffed sole last time, the seafood salad contained imitation crab meat, which is unfortunate, because the rest of the food was really quite delicious. Some of the eggplant in the eggplant dip was a touch undercooked, but other than those issues, we enjoyed the tremendous variety of our cold meze selection.

Our hot meze arrived in waves. First we received a platter of lunza (smoked pork loin), grilled halloumi cheese, and loukaniko spitisio (Cyprus sausage). We both really liked the smoky flavor in the pork loin. The halloumi had started to cool and was no longer as soft as it once was, but still had a nice grilled flavor. The sausage was one of our less favorite items, as it had whole peppercorns inside, which were annoying to remove, and also the flavor was ok but not exceptional.

Next we tried the calamari, which was tender, but not super crispy on the outside. Overall, it was good, but not the best I've ever had.

We also tried the keftedes (Cyrpus meatballs) which are made with chopped pork and shredded potatoes and fried. These were moist and somewhat smoky due to the spices used to flavor it. They were definitely unique compared to other "meatballs."

Ortikia (quails) were seasoned with lemon, garlic, and oregano and chargrilled. I'm a big fan of quail, and these were definitely enjoyable! Tender meat with a great charred flavor. Very Mediterranean.

Our final platter included sheftalia (pork meatballs) and souvlaki (pork kebab). The meatballs were incredibly juicy and tender (a testament, I'm sure, to their high fat content). The souvlaki had a lovely salty crust with a tender and slightly chewy texture within. We both really loved the souvlaki! It was cooked a bit more than I'd normally prefer, but in Mediterranean cooking, I think it's very common to cook pork all the way through.

With the exception of a few minor issues (imitation crab meat, slightly undercooked eggplant, peppercorns in sausage, too cool cheese), this meal was as enjoyable as I had hoped, and a HUGE bargain for under $20! I enjoyed plenty of the leftovers the next day for lunch, so for the money it costs, you can easily get a couple meals out of it. The dishes were authentic and well-seasoned. I'd happily return for another gluttonous meze experience.


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