Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Following The Panda

So, I don't cook for myself day and night, 7 days a week. I'd be too tired if that happens. Especially when I'm out running errands, I have to grab a quick bite from somewhere. I'm going to be honest and reveal that one of the places I often go to is Panda Express, the fast-food Chinese franchise. I'm addicted to its Orange Flavored Chicken. Orange Chicken is actually a common Chinese dish that you might find in many restaurants. It's as common as Lemon Chicken, and done pretty much the same way where they deep fried chicken nuggets and coat them in an orange sauce. Below is my healthier version of Panda Express' Orange Flavored Chicken. It's healthier because I pan-fry instead of deep fry the chicken. I also use Japanese panko bread crumbs for a bit more crunch.

Celebrating Citrus
Speaking of oranges and other citrus, the San Francisco Ferry Building is placing the spotlight on everything citrus this Saturday during its regular farmers' market. There will be cooking demonstrations and other things related to cooking with citrus. It's still worth celebrating these bright fruits despite the hard hit the crops in California have received. I can't really vouch for how interesting the Ferry Building's program may be (the last time I went to its mushroom festival, it was a bust), but it might be fun to check out if you're in town. (Pictured above are satsumas. I think their color is so beautiful.)

Orange-Glazed Chicken

Copyright 2007 by Cooking With The Single Guy

1/2 lb. chicken breast
3/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 T orange zest
1 cup plus 2 T cornstarch
2 cups panko bread crumbs
1 egg
1 red chili, julienned or 1/2 T red chili flakes
2 T sugar
1 T soy sauce
1 T ketchup
1 t freshly grated ginger
extra virgin olive oil
sesame seeds for garnish

Cut chicken into 1-inch cubes or strips. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Put 1 cup of cornstarch on a plate. In another plate place egg, whipped with fork. In third plate, spread out the panko bread crumbs. Dredge chicken pieces in cornstarch, then egg and finally in the panko crumbs. Warm extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet or pan, filling enough oil to cover entire pan with a thin layer. Pan fry chicken over medium high heat, about 4-5 minutes on each side until golden brown. Remove cooked pieces and place on paper towels.

In saucepan, combine orange juice, zest, chili, sugar, soy sauce, ginger and ketchup and bring to a boil. In small bowl, blend 2 tablespoon cornstarch with about 1/4 cup of cold water and then slowly pour into boiling liquid until sauce thickens. Remove from stovetop and toss in chicken, coating all the pieces. Remove and place on serving dish. Sprinkle toasted sesame seeds over plate.

Makes two servings. Serve with steamed rice and broccoli.

Pair with Gewurtztraminer.

TIPS: To get the best results from pan frying, make sure you don’t crowd your skillet or pan with too many pieces of chicken. Give each piece its own space. You may need to cook your chicken in two patches. If you do a second batch, add more olive oil if needed to make sure you still have a nice thin layer of oil to pan fry. Because I’m not a big fan of deep-frying, I suggest pan frying to reduce the amount of oil used. To help in the cooking process, cut your chicken pieces thinly and in small cubes, almost like chicken fingers. It’ll cook faster, which means less time bathed in oil. (Although frying in olive oil is healthier.)

QUICK THICKENER: In most Asian cooking, cornstarch is the frequent ingredient used as a slurry to thicken a sauce or create a quick glaze. (Most Western recipes calls for flour as the thickening agent.) Here’s how I do it to avoid clumps and problems. First, I blend however much cornstarch I use with some water to create a liquid. Be sure to mix with cold water only. Then when you add it to the liquid you want to thicken, make sure the liquid is boiling. The thickness of the sauce depends on how much cornstarch you add. I generally find that 1 tablespoon is good to create a nice glaze. About 2 to 3 tablespoons is good to create a gravy. The nice thing about this thickening agent is if you find you’ve made it too thick, just add some water or broth to thin out the cornstarch. It’s all about trial and error.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Travel Food: Savory Streets of Saigon

This is the first in a special series of food reports from my recent trip to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Return every Sunday and Monday for the latest postings.
Walking the streets of Saigon, you'll past a whiff of fish sauce or the crackling sound of oil frying up something savory. The Vietnamese are an entrepreneurial people, so many will just cook up something from home or, most likely, right there on the sidewalk and sell it to anyone who strolls by with an appetite.

During my trip, I found that there were two types of street food: First, the ones from vendors who pushes a cart or wagon and are selling things from snack foods like fresh fruits, local-style drinks or crunchy favorites, or second, the street food vendors who have elaborate set ups to sell pho or bun and encourage people to just pull up a plastic chair and eat on the sidewalk.

You'll see street food vendors all over the city, but with the growing tourism trade, the government is cracking down on street vendors near the touristy areas. One day I was strolling near the square that features the Notre Dame Cathedral and it was near the end of the day and you could see workers sitting on plastic stools enjoying several cheap street meals like bun when I saw another vendor quickly pack up his things, hopped on his motor scooter and took off, honking his horn all the time. He was escaping a police officer who was coming down the street and his honking was a warning to the other street vendors, who quickly packed up and scurried away. I felt sorry for all the customers who were eating at the time because they quickly had their food taken away.

As for me, I have to admit that the most daring thing I did street-foodwise was buying the yummy bahn mi sandwiches as an instant snack as I walked around Saigon/HCMC. You've probably already heard me complaining about the humidity during my trip, so it was unbearable for me to sit in the 90-degree weather and eat a hot bowl of pho or bun. I stuck to the restaurants where I could at least get some air-conditioning with my pho.

So I can't give an expert review on the street food of Saigon. But it is diverse. Some looked good, some mysterious while others a bit scary. It definitely is a gastronomic adventure to eat on the streets of Saigon.

These women were frying up something interesting close to the tourist district and not too far from Ben Thanh Market.

This was a cafeteria-like local street restaurant where people would pick what they wanted at the counter and then sit on plastic stools and tables on the side of the building. It seemed really popular.
Coconut juice straight from the coconut was a popular seller around town. I've had coconut juice growing up in Hawaii so it wasn't anything new to me, but it was definitely refreshing.

This woman is selling the popular fresh spring rolls or goi cuon with fish sauce for a dipping sauce all ready to go.
This vendor near the Chinese district of HCMC called Cho Lon is selling some Chinese stir-fry noodles.
Barbeque pork on the grill. You always feel hungry walking the streets when you can smell that great scent of burning meat. Hmmmm.
A cart full of jackfruit for sale.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Postcard from Saigon/HCMC

I'm home from my brief vacation in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. It's weird, I already feel like it was a lifetime ago. I guess it's because Vietnam seems so far away, and life there is so different than I'm used to everyday so my time there seems like a dream.

I've mentioned how it was hot and humid, and that was the challenge for me maneuvering the city in the heat. I stayed primarily in Saigon, where much of the innovation in Vietnamese cuisine is happening. But I did take a side trip to the Mekong Delta to see farmers living along the river that cuts through several Asian countries such as China and Cambodia but ending in Vietnam.

Starting tomorrow, I'm going to start my series of blog posting on my food adventures. I decided that I'll post my Vietnam posts every Sunday and Monday for the next few weeks instead of doing it all at once and turning this blog into a travel blog. So later in the week I'll continue to post recipes and rants about local Bay Area food, but come back especially on Sundays and Mondays to travel to the city once known as Indochine.

As a teaser, I put together this quick highlight reel of just a few of the things I saw. Sorry for the fuzzy quality. I tried to upload a bigger file but it crashed my computer and I lost the edited version of the movie and didn't want to start all over. Luckily I had already exported this smaller file. Hope you enjoy it.

P.S. For all of you with a keen Asian ear, you'll realize that one of the songs in the background is by a Hong Kong singer and he's singing in Mandarin. Yes, I realize I'm mixing Asian ethnic groups, but I didn't have any Vietnamese songs to play and I liked the mood it set. Anyway, the ethnic Chinese are everywhere! ;-)

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Viva Vodka

Hi, this is chez Stella posting here for my pal, Chef Ben. Can't wait to hear about your travel experiences, Ben- we miss you!

But in the meantime, I have a food (and drink) story of my own...

For my husband's birthday that just passed a couple of weeks ago this month, I gave him a visual treat of a cookbook called "Viva Vodka"- a fabulous book of recipes for vodka-based drinks (of course!) I also wanted to buy him a Polish vodka to go along with the book. He's Polish, a vodka aficionado, and very proud of the vodkas that come out of Poland. So that's why it HAD to be a Polish vodka.

In this book author W. Park Kerr mentions the premium Polish vodkas like Belvedere and Chopin, but he also mentions one named Quotes. No luck finding it on the internet, my local wine/spirits shops, etc. so I decided to call his company for info. They passed on my inquiry to him, but I soon forgot about my quest until...last weekend W. Park Kerr walked into the downtown SF shop I manage! I didn't know it was him until he made a purchase and I saw his name on his credit card. He happened to be in town for the Fancy Foods Show. Talk about a small world...

Park is the founder/owner of a specialty food business called El Paso Chile Company- and for more than 20 years has been busy devising new and delicious ways to celebrate life south-of-the-border stye. If you like this type of cuisine-check out for a look at his products: cookbooks: "Sizzlin' Suppers", salsas such as Chipotle Cha Cha Cha, and dips like Cuban Black Bean Dip. I was introduced to his company when I lived in El Paso for a brief stint many years ago. I even picked up a couple of his cookbooks then. Some of you might have seen his Key Lime Margarita Mix in stores like Williams-Sonoma.

Back to the meeting...Park told me where he bought this vodka (at a little shop half a block from where I work!), and a couple of days later brought back a huge bag of goodies for me to sample. The book photographed above was included in my gift bag. Park even distills his own tequila under the name Tequila Nacional. I am an even bigger fan after meeting him- he is such fun and is so passionate about food AND especially drink!

Friday, January 26, 2007

Birthday Baking

January is a very busy month for a baker like me. My husband, four-year old son, brother-in-law, and dear friend all have birthdays this month. I want to make cakes for all, but don't have a lot of time. So... this next recipe is quite versatile and EASY. I made a cake, the next week--24 cupcakes for my son's class, and a bunch of bars--all with the same basic recipe. My sister passed on this recipe to me. She has two little ones--and has made this countless of times for different occasions!

Frosted Banana Cupcakes

Copyright 2007 by Cooking With The Single Guy

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 cup sour cream
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp.salt
1 cup mashed banana (about 2 bananas)

Cream Cheese Frosting
Combine and beat until smooth:
3 oz. package cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 tsp. vanilla
gradually add 1 cup sifted powdered sugar, beating until smooth

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a muffin tin with cupcake liners.

In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, then stir in the sour cream and vanilla. Combine the flour, baking soda and salt; stir into batter. Finally, mix in the mashed banana.

Pour batter into the liners until about 2/3 full.

Bake 20-25 minutes. Allow cupcakes to cool completely before frosting.

Notes: If you want to make bars, you can use a 9-inch x 13-inch glass pan; heat oven to 325 F and bake for about 35 minutes.
Ben- I know you don't bake because you end up with 2 dozen cupcakes, but I cut the recipe in half and wound up with a very manageable 8 cupcakes!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

If this works, there is a God on the Internet

I've been trying to connect to my blog from Saigon for the last two days. It hasn't been easy. The girl at the Internet cafe says all the country's Internet connection goes through one cable that connects through Taiwan. Ugh. Once I get a connection, then I have problems logging onto my blogger account. But enough Web whining.

So earlier this week I spent two days on the Mekong Delta, visiting two main cities: My Tho and Can Tho. It was amazing to see how the people live such a simple and carefree life. As I drifted on a boat down the river, I saw a guy swimming in the middle of the day and thought, hmm, what would it be like if we switched lives? I think that was a Meg Ryan movie, wasn't it?

The highlight was visiting the floating market, Cai Ran, in Can Tho, which is the largest city on the Delta in Vietnam. The floating markets are filled with boats of all sizes with people selling a variety of produce from pineapples to coconuts to your typical varieties of Asian greens.

Yesterday I got back to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City and the highlight was taking a class from the Vietnam Cookery School. It was a half-day class where we learned three dishes and we ate what we cooked for lunch. I have to say, my dishes turned out pretty nice. And they were all simple to do. I'll be posting the recipes for what we made when I return, so look forward to learning how to make spring rolls, caramelized fish in clay pot, and sour fish soup.

OK, this might be my last post from Saigon. Tomorrow is my last day and I'd rather spend it exploring the rest of the city than waiting for a Web connection. So check back Sunday when I return and I restart my posts of recipes and food explorations, from Vietnam and back in the Bay Area. (Sigh, the Bay Area, how I miss home.)

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Eating My Way Through Saigon

Good morning from Vietnam. OK, so it's actually Sunday afternoon, but I felt the urge to say, GOOOD MORNING Vietnam. There. That felt good.

So I've spent three full days in this humid, South Asian metropolis and all I can say is, it is HOT. And not in a hip, Paris Hilton way. Saigon/HCMC is in the 90s and humid. I've basically been walking around the city and trying not to faint in front of the locals. This is a bustling city that wakes up pretty much at 6 a.m. and plays hard until way after midnight. Except today, on Sunday, when it's somewhat more quiet.

I've discovered that there aren't very many sights in this city, give a few old French villas and museums. What everyone is here for is the cheap food. So that's all I've been doing the last few days, eating from morning to night. I wish I could post some of the photos I've taken so far, but I'm in this Internet cafe where I swear they have a dial up connectiong. It's just. So. Slow.

So for now, you have to take my word for it when I say the cuisine here is divine. Fresh ingredients, simple sauces, excellent preparations. Dining isn't intimidating because everything is so cheap, so if you order something you didn't expect to get, then you know what? Just order another dish! It's just another dollar!

Tomorrow I'm off to the Mekong Delta so I'll have a couple of days break from this hectic city and will spend some time just drifting along the river. Chao ban! That's goodbye, but also hello, it's like Aloha! :)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Time To Cook Myself a Vacation

The Single Guy Chef is on vacation for the next 10 days (Jan. 17-27). I'll be in Saigon, Vietnam, exploring the city. While I'm gone, I hope you'll catch up on my archives in case you missed some of my recipes or reviews. And hopefully my friend Stella (she's now a contributor to this blog as "chez stella") will be posting a few of her baking recipes. She loves to bake and I don't (mostly because that means I have to eat two dozen muffins) so she'll be filling that void for you who love to bake too. (See Stella, I've put it out there, so now you have to do it! ;-)

I'm also hoping to figure out how to post from Vietnam if I can find a good Internet cafe, so you may still here from me (from the future, you know, since they're 11 hours ahead or something like that).

Also, you might want to check out my CafePress storefront. I've created a few food-related items such as novelty T-shirts that says "Amuse My Bouche" or "Salt Seeking Pepper." They're perfect to order for Valentine's Day (yep, that's coming up soon) so order now so you'll get it in time. Just visit my store at See you in 10 days!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

24 Hours and Counting

So it's less than a day before I board my plane for that 15-plus hour flight to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. I was so excited I couldn't sleep last night, which is why I may be rambling right now. So why Vietnam, you ask? First, I had a whole lot of vacation time to take (I had been saving them last year in case I made the finals for "The Next Food Network Star." Of course, not one call. But I'm not bitter.) and second, it's been more than 2-1/2 years since my last foreign trip (that was to Spain in 2004). I'd been traveling to Europe often the last few foreign trips, so I thought I should head to Asia this time. Asia is expensive to get a flight, but so cheap to stay and eat. I love Vietnamese food so it was a no brainer to go to Saigon and spend my days strolling the old French-inspired boulevards and discovering the many foods. And it's funny because I'm not the only food blogger in Vietnam. Another Bay Area blogger, Cooking With Amy, is already there. And here's another blogger preparing for her trip to Vietnam. I have to credit much of my prep for the trip to this Noodlepie blog. This London bloke lived in Vietnam for two years and basically ate his way through the country. Now that's a guy to admire.

To reminisce about my last trip, below are some photos of my Barcelona trip when I traveled in Spring 2004. Any of you who traveled to Barcelona will have fond memories, as I do, of La Boqueria.

Travel Market: Barcelona

When I visited Barcelona with my sister and brother-in-law, one of our favorite things to do was to stroll the stalls of La Boqueria, the colorful and amazing market of fresh produce, shellfish and meats in the heart of La Rambla. Sure, it's full of tourists and may not be where the local shops, but it is such an adventure for the eyes and stomach!

See what I mean about color? This fruit stand was just overflowing with local and imported fruits of all kinds. I felt like I was on Mars because they were so unusual.

White asparagus was plentiful in Spain, and they looked so beautiful. I fell in love with them, which is why I cook with them whenever I see them at Bay Area grocers.

Speaking of unusual, I still don't know what kind of shellfish these are above. Anyone knows?

On some days of the week, the market (or mercat) gets so full that it spills over into side streets with extra vendors. Above, this guy was selling candied fruits. (By the way, all the men and women in Spain were so beautiful and thin. Must be the lifestyle.)

La Boqueria has several food stands where people pull up a stool and order fresh dishes. This particular stand is in the back and has been written up by many travel guides. We ate here for breakfast several times. Their specialty is grilled fresh cuttlefish (or calamari) with a delightful olive oil and basil sauce. It was so clean, fresh and tasty.

Monday, January 15, 2007

In the Kitchen: The Healthy Saute

When I lived in the dorms at Columbia University (I was getting my graduate degree, so I was a bit older at the time and surrounded by other older students; I note this so you don't think I was hanging with the beer-guzzling frat boys), I would make dinner for myself in the common area. I'd usually make some chicken dish for protein, and have it with a cup of broccoli. I'd quickly saute the broccoli, using a technique my sister taught me. I know everyone prepares vegetables differently and you're probably still doing it the same way your mom taught you. The way I was taught is actually a very healthy way to saute vegetables because it uses less oil or butter. A floor mate at my dorm commented once that my broccoli always looked so bright and fresh even after I cooked it, while hers always would turn a bit darker and looked tired. Anyway, I told her my technique and hopefully she's still preparing her broccoli the same way since. This video demonstration shows my quick saute technique for vegetables that uses less oil and keeps the brilliant color of whatever vegetable you're cooking.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Dish on Dining: Malacca (Update: Closed)

South Asian-Style Restaurant Makes a Move
4039 18th St., San Francisco (before Feb. 1, 2007)
2367 Market St., San Francisco (after Feb. 1, 2007)
Castro neighborhood
Lunch, M-F, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Brunch, Sat-Sun, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner daily, 5-10 p.m. (until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday)

UPDATE: This restaurant closed in 2007

I was planning to do my review of this Castro restaurant after I returned from my trip to Vietnam. But then I found out Malacca was moving, so my review would be old hat by the time you read it.

Malacca, named after an ancient empire in South Asia that is now modern-day Malaysia, calls itself a restaurant featuring fusion styles of Malaysia, Thailand, China, India and Portugal. (Any restaurant that still uses the word fusion is probably still stuck in the '80s.) Its owner, Suchitra Hutachinda, is also behind Crave restaurant that opened last year on Market Street, also in the Castro. But Crave didn't really win over many fans (and if you read my review, you'd know I wasn't one of its fans either). So you won't be surprised to hear that Crave is disappearing and Malacca will move from its 18th Street location to the prime Market Street venue.
I first went to Malacca for brunch, and it wasn't bustling with patrons like most brunch spots. My friend had suggested it because he'd been there for dinner and wanted to see what I thought. For brunch, they had the traditional menu of omelets, pancakes, French toasts and eggs benedicts. And then they'd spice it up by calling it the "Malacca."

So not to argue, I ordered the Malaccan crepes (with Thai green curry) and my friend had the Malaccan eggs benedict. The dishes arrived oddly looking like plastic food -- for some reason everything looked soooo yellow or soooo green. Despite the presentation, I dug into my crepes, which I found edible but not enjoyable. The crepes tasted too sweet and the sauces too thick.

Because Malacca isn't necessarily known for brunch (as the near empty dining room demonstrated), I decided to give it another try for dinner. So I returned tonight to see if the fusion worked better at night.

I ordered the Basil Prawns as a starter. Four deep-fried shrimp came with a green dipping sauce which I assumed (and hoped) was the basil. The menu said it was a tamarind-cashew dipping sauce. Although the prawns, made with shredded phyllo dough, tasted like a Triscuit cracker, it was enjoyable. (I couldn't really say that when they first arrived to the table because they came with a whiff of bad seafood, which always turns me off.)
For my entree, I ordered the Rendang Beef Curry -- pan-seared top sirloin topped with a red curry sauce and served with kaffir lime leaves, yellow rice and green beans. The meat was tender and delightful and the curry sauce was nicely spicy. I wasn't that impressed with the rice, which was basic fried rice using butter to make it "yellow" and the green beans came with too many slices of red onions for my taste. But still, I felt it was a nice meal overall.

While Malacca didn't transport me to ancient Malaysia, it was a decent meal despite the odd, strong coloring of its food. It's probably a smarter move that when choosing between Malacca and Crave, that Malacca should be the one to survive.

Single guy rating: 2.25 stars (perfect for new foodies who like colorful food)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Look Seth -- Mangoes!

Last month when I gave the recipe for my Mango Chicken, I talked about how the dish was inspired by a Mango Noodles dish I ate at a Burmese restaurant. Well, blog reader Seth posted a comment saying he would like to see a recipe for Mango Noodles. Since he asked, I delivered! (Because, you know, that's how I roll.) So if you ever have an ingredient you'd like me to come up with a dish for (ala Iron Chef) or you have a dish you want tips on making (ala Food 911), then post a comment and I'll try to help you make it tasty and quick.

You can still see a few mangoes at the grocery stores (mines came from Peru via Chinatown). Mangoes are great for you because they're packed with antioxidants, vitamins and fiber! What more can you ask from a fruit? Just be sure that you pick mangoes that are ripe. Don't just judge by the color. They shouldn't feel hard when you press them. They should have some give but not very soft like mush. Enjoy!

Mango Garlic Noodles

Copyright 2007 by Cooking With The Single Guy

2 ripe mangoes, diced
1 lb. fresh Shanghai-style Chinese noodles
1 cup green cabbage, shredded
3 cloves garlic, julienned
1 T sesame oil
2 T oyster sauce
2 T fish sauce
1 T soy sauce
2 T Mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine)
4 T canola oil

Bring pot of water to a boil and add fresh noodles. Salt the water and cook noodles until tender (about six minutes or per packaging instructions). Drain and rinse with cold water. Set aside.

In a small bowl, blend sesame oil, oyster sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce and Mirin. Set aside.

In a large wok or skillet, heat two tablespoon of oil over high heat. Add cabbage with about a teaspoon of salt and stir-fry for a minute until soft. Remove from wok and set aside.

Reheat another two tablespoon of oil in the wok over high heat. Add garlic and quickly brown (don’t burn your garlic or it’ll be bitter), then add noodles and stir-fry, trying to loosen it up in the wok. Add marinade from the small bowl to the noodles and continue to stir fry with the mangoes. (About a minute.) Toss in the cabbage and plate. Garnish with green onions and sesame seeds.

Makes 3 servings.

Serve with a glass of Riesling.

TIP: The success of this dish depends on your skills at high-heat stir frying. Getting the caramelization on your noodles require the sugar from the Mirin to dry out from the high heat. So it helps when you’re able to moderate your wok to ensure it’s not crowded with ingredients or overly filled with liquids. That’s why I recommend cooking the cabbage first by itself because the cabbage gives off some moisture after you salt it. You don’t want all that moisture mixing in when you’re stir-frying your noodles. That’s also why I recommend a high heat. But high heat can cause your wok to dry out and then your noodles will start to stick to the pan. So be sure there’s always enough of oil and your marinade liquid to keep the sizzling action going but not too much that it settles into a soup in your wok. (Like I said, it's a skill.) Because you’ve pre-cooked your noodles and cabbage, they don’t really need that much time in the wok other than to get a nice brown color and to mix them with the mangoes. Everything will happen in fast order so be sure you have everything prepared before you fire up your wok!

THICK LIKE WORMS: I recommend Shanghai-style noodles for this dish because I like the texture with the mangoes. Shanghai noodles are thicker than regular noodles. (They remind me of worms growing up.) You can find freshly made ones in the refrigerated sections of your Asian grocery stores. But if you can’t find them, you can substitute with two packets of frozen or refrigerated Japanese udon noodles, which are also thick but made with rice starch.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

What's in my frig?

I always have in my frig a pitcher of freshly brewed iced tea. I make my iced tea from premium loose leaf tea and then add half a cup of sugar. By doing this, I'm in control of how much sugar is in my beverage and I know there are no other extra preservatives. But mostly, I love having a glass of iced tea with dinner and taste the depth of flavors in the tea of the week. My favorite is Earl Grey with Blue Flowers that I get from the T Salon in New York City (yes, I have them shipped in because they're just that good) but currently I'm drinking a special tropical brew from Lupicia tea.

And another tip: It's nice to have my glass of tea with a slice of lemon. But I always thought it was a waste to cut a lemon just for a slice and then the rest of the lemon dries out. I was talking about this a few years ago with a coworker in New York and she had the genius suggestion of cutting up the lemon and then keeping it in a plastic bag or container. So I got myself a small plastic container from Target (pictured above on the bottom right) and the lemon stays moist for a week, just as long as it takes me to get through the pitcher of tea.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Dish on Dining: Out The Door

Dressed up Street Food at Restaurant Pricing

865 Market St., San Francisco
(Basement level of the Westfield San Francisco Centre at Union Square)
Open daily
No reservations, major credit cards accepted

Some of you may already know that I’ll be traveling to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon next week (whoo-hoo!), so I decided to put myself in the right frame of mind for that country’s tasty, fresh street food. Some of the best culinary delights in Vietnam are purchased from street vendors scooping up bowls of pho (the noodle soup) and bun (rice vermicelli noodles without the soup) or assembling fresh ingredients sandwiched in a crusty French baguette to create a banh mi.

When it comes to Vietnamese food in San Francisco, the platinum standard has been set by The Slanted Door, the elegant Ferry Building restaurant that had its humble beginnings in a cozy old storefront on Valencia Street in the Mission District. The Slanted Door and its Executive Chef Charles Phan (a James Beard award winner) has raised the profile of Vietnamese cuisine in the United States, creating new twists to Vietnamese standards that have delighted many Bay Area residents, visitors and even President Bill Clinton.

I fondly recall eating at the original Slanted Door, bustling with dot-com dressed twentysomethings enjoying dishes accented with fish sauce and chili. Phan, who opened the restaurant with several family members but is essentially the face of The Slanted Door, could often be seen visiting tables and talking with diners, his brow still moist from the heat of the kitchen.

The dishes served at The Slanted Door can hardly be considered Vietnamese street food. I doubt I’ll be finding Meyer Ranch shaking beef or pan-seared boat scallops while strolling the busy streets of Saigon. Phan has created a dining experience with his sleek Ferry Building restaurant, which is many times larger than the original Mission location. People from all over the world continue to visit The Slanted Door to try Phan’s innovative dishes.

But last month, with the grandiose opening of the Westfield San Francisco Centre, Phan has entered a new phase of his Slanted Door empire with the opening of Out The Door, a casual nod to his Slanted Door restaurant and a clear homage to Vietnamese street food. Tucked in the corner of the Centre’s basement Food Emporium, Out The Door offers several selections of salads, pho, bun, porridge and banh mi.

Phan has experimented with his Out The Door concept with a stand behind his Slanted Door restaurant in the main lobby of the Ferry Building. But this version of Out The Door dwarfs the Ferry Building’s tiny counter in many ways.

Out The Door at the San Francisco Centre is made up of a sit-down dining area, a take-out counter and a mini store selling Asian cookware and ingredients. Reflecting Phan’s eye for architectural design, the location is elegantly designed and lit with ambient lighting to create something close to a club environment, attracting maybe a younger, hipper crowd than the eating establishment who visit The Slanted Door.

On my first visit to Out The Door, I decided to dine at the small restaurant area. The nod to casual dining was obvious in the attire of the front and wait staff. I was greeted by a young gentleman dressed in a simple long-sleeve shirt (untucked) and jeans. The servers wore uniformed T-shirts and jeans.

The menu was quite extensive, including several versions of the street foods I mentioned earlier and some recognizable favorites from The Slanted Door, such as the jicama and grapefruit salad and ahi entrée. But there were signs that the menu didn’t include very traditional Vietnamese dishes (actually, I guess I can’t really judge what’s traditional Vietnamese dishes until after I come back from my trip). For example, there were the Niman Ranch beef and the Niman Ranch pork ribs with hoisin sauce, and chicken dishes made with five spice. (Phan’s family is ethnic Chinese, having fled China to Vietnam soon after the communist gained power, and then later fleeing that country for San Francisco following the fall of Saigon. So his menu definitely reflects his Chinese heritage.)

Despite the many selections, I was swayed by my server, who recommended the daikon cakes with shitake mushrooms and spicy soy sauce (an often suggested appetizer here and at The Slanted Door). I also ordered the special off-the-menu Lemongrass Grilled Pork Chops because I love the fragrance of lemongrass and I love Vietnamese-style pork.

The daikon cakes arrived sitting in the spicy soy sauce in a shallow bowl. I would have preferred the sauce on the side, but I enjoyed the texture of the daikon cakes. Again, influenced by his Chinese background, Phan fashioned these daikon cakes after the popular pan-fried lo bok gau (listed often in English as turnip cakes) eaten at dim sum restaurants. I didn’t find Out The Door’s version especially different.

My lemongrass pork chops came with roasted potatoes and a dipping sauce made of shallots and soy sauce, which was so dark I almost thought it was molasses. Cutting into the pork, I could tell this was a piece of quality meat, undoubtedly from Niman Ranch. But the tricky thing about pork is that if you let it sit a tad too long, it can seem a bit dry when eating. That was the situation in this case where the meat was tender but slightly dry. The potatoes were perfectly browned and cooked, however.

The flavoring of the pork lacked a strong lemongrass essence. Granted lemongrass is very subtle, but I felt like I was eating the tender roasted pork that typically hangs in the windows of restaurants in Chinatown. Although I enjoy those Chinese roasted pork, I typically don’t end up paying close to $17.50 for just two slices, which is what I ended up paying at Out the Door.

Minor point: While I liked the overall décor of Out The Door, I felt my dining experience was affected by two oddities. One, the grilling of meats (I’m thinking the pork) from the kitchen often drifts into the dining area so you’re often greeted by a haze when you arrive. Second, Out The Door’s design allows the visitor to view the kitchen in many ways. When you’re walking in from the outside, windows with streams of trickling water offers your first glimpse inside the kitchen. As you walk pass the take-out counter and into the dining area, you see an exposed kitchen counter where the chefs are busy at work. And finally (althought it was probably unintentional and really only at the table I was sitting at), a row of tables are aligned with the kitchen’s entrance, which does not have a swinging door or curtains. So from that vantage point, you have a clear view inside the kitchen as workers come and go, and servers come in and out with your dishes. The design has given Out The Door too much of an open door policy into its kitchen (and behaviors of its kitchen staff) for my taste.

On my return visit, I ordered a dish from the take-out counter and ate it with the rest of the mall shoppers at the open tables in the food court. Out The Door’s take-out menu is virtually a duplication of the sit-down menu, except served in plastic containers. (I found it unusual that Out The Door’s take out dishes were all in plastic containers while other Food Emporium eateries serve their meals on ceramic dishes with silverware.)

I ordered the 5-Spice Grilled Chicken over Vermicelli rice noodles (the traditional bun dish). It was prepared in the traditional manner with the chicken on top of the rice noodles. Under the rice noodles were the fresh herbs and bean sprouts that add a nice crunch and freshness to this dish.

While the chicken was perfectly cooked, it tasted like any simple grilled chicken. I didn’t detect a trace of 5-spice (not even one). The noodles are typically dressed with fish sauce, but the sauce in my bun seemed mild. I actually had to go back and ask for extra fish sauce to spice up my bowl. I’ve had similar-tasting bun bowls at Tenderloin restaurants but for half the price of the $9.50 I paid for Out The Door’s take-out version.

Out The Door is a clear sign of the success of Phan’s Slanted Door vision. On one of my visit, I saw Phan dressed simply in a light blue T-shirt showing off his new spot to some friends. I believe Phan is sincerely one of the nicest chefs around, so I do want him to succeed. But I feel the growth of his Slanted Door empire is taking him away from the kitchen as he focuses more on the business side. Whenever a chef spends less time in the kitchen, that’s when the quality and taste goes out the door.

While Out The Door is far from being a disappointment (it does offer quality ingredients), it is overpriced for Vietnamese street food. And soon I’ll be in Saigon getting a bowl of bun for $1. When that happens, Out the Door’s pricing will look astronomical.
Single guy rating: 2.5 stars (perfect for new diners and tired foodies/shoppers looking for a nice place to rest)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Out the Door in San Francisco

Monday, January 08, 2007

Hand-to-Hand Blending

For Christmas, my brother got me a Cuisinart hand blender. Ironically, it's the same one I featured in my shopping list for single chefs. (My brother doesn't read my blog, so really, I'm sure he didn't see my list. Unless he read my mind. Hmmm.) Anywho, I was excited to use the hand blender because now I can puree things that I couldn't before, like making sauces and soups.

To break in my new shiny hand blender, I decided to make cauliflower soup. I've been seeing a lot of this soup featured at restaurants this winter, and I personally love the heartiness of cauliflower. Plus it has a lot of vitamins that are good for you. But I put my own twist to the soup by roasting the cauliflower first and adding bacon. Yeah, it's a bit more work roasting the cauliflower and then simmering it to get it more tender, but it adds another depth in flavor that's outstanding. Soup is so easy to make, and with my new handy blender, I'm going to be making more in the future!

Roasted Cauliflower and Bacon Soup

Copyright 2007 by Cooking With The Single Guy

1 head of cauliflower
3 cloves of garlic (skin on)
5 slices turkey bacon
1 can chicken broth (14 oz. low-sodium)
1 cup fat-free half and half
½ cup water
extra virgin olive oil
salt for seasoning
cilantro or flat parsley for garnish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees

Cut head of cauliflower into 1-inch florets. Transfer to baking dish with garlic. Coat with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place in oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes until you see slightly golden brown edges.

Remove cauliflower and garlic from oven and transfer to medium pot. (Remember to remove the skin from the garlic. It’ll be easy after they’ve been roasted. Just squeeze them out of the skin.) Add chicken broth and water and bring to a boil. Then reduce to a simmer and cook until cauliflower is tender where it breaks easily with a fork. (About 20 minutes.)

Use a hand blender or place small batches into a blender* and puree until smooth. Add half and half and season with salt to desired taste.

Pan fry bacon until crispy. Pad off excess oil with paper towel. Roughly chop into bits and add to soup. (Reserve some for garnish.) Spoon into bowls and add cilantro or parsley (finely chopped if you wish) and bacon sprinkled on top.

Makes 2 to 3 servings. Pair with slices of parmesan toasted bread.

Serve with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.

* Do not place hot liquid in blender. Let the cauliflower cool first. Also, never fill blender or food processor by more than half.

TIP: To reduce the number of pans to wash, you can bake the bacon with your cauliflower in the oven. Just place them flat on top of the cauliflower. Reduce the amount of olive oil used because the bacon fat will help keep the cauliflower moist. Also, be sure to check that the bacon doesn’t burn before the cauliflower browns.

CREAM IT: You’ll notice that I used fat-free half and half to reduce the calories often found in soups made with heavy cream. But if you’re still concerned about too many calories (really, nothing is fat-free), then you can try skim milk (or your favorite low-fat milk) mixed with a tablespoon of cornstarch to help thicken your soup. Bring your pureed cauliflower to a boil and slowly stir in cornstarch and milk mixture until thicken.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Wild Blue Crab in Richmond

I was shopping on Clement Street in the Inner Richmond neighborhood in San Francisco this weekend, and it's always fun to see the live seafood at the Chinese fish stores. Here are some live blue crabs at the Richmond New May Wah Supermarket (the biggest Asian grocery store on the street at 719 Clement). They were selling for $3.99 a pound. They're cute and small and pretty. Hmmm, would be nice in a cioppino. ;-)

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Elegance of Lavender

I fell in love with lavender more than 10 years ago when I first moved to the Bay Area and saw these beautiful bunches of light purple flowers dotting the front lawns of many homes. They always looked so sturdy in the cool temperate weather of the Bay Area and would shine under the afternoon sun. And the smell, sigh. It just transports me to some other place. (Not exactly sure where, wish it was Provence but I've never been there so can't really say I can imagine what it would be like to be transported there. But I digress. See what happens when I talk about lavender?) In my old San Francisco apartment, I decorated my bathroom with a lavender theme, with lavender infused laundry water on my shelves and purple towels. I. Love. Lavender.

So when I was in Portland a few months ago for Thanksgiving, I bought a bag of lavender flowers from a local farmer. Lavender is really an herb, so it can be used for cooking. But since most people use it in a sachet to scent their drawers, people don't realize it can also scent your meals. Of course, you have to be careful to not mix uses. Lavender prepared for scents in sachets, potpourri, or other home scents should never be used for cooking. You have to buy lavender that hasn't been chemically treated and have been reserved specifically for cooking. The farmer had a bag full of lavender marked for cooking, so I was set.

Infusing lavender can be done many ways. You can brew some lavender in water and then strain out the flowers and use the scent water to add to desserts like creme brulee or panna cotta. That's the best use to highlight the subtle scent of lavender. What I did today -- because of the recent cold -- was make a lamb stew with lavender. The lavender is slowly perfuming the meat as it stews. When you eat this dish, the lavender taste is very subtle, sometimes overpowered by the lamb. But all of a sudden, you'll take a bite, and you'll get this slight sense of lavender, and, sigh, you're transported. :)

Lavender Lamb Stew

Copyright 2007 by Cooking With The Single Guy

1 lb. lamb (shoulder cut)
1 lb. mini red potatoes (or regular red potatoes cut into 1-inch cubes)
2 medium carrots, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 stalks of leeks (white section only, diced and rinsed thoroughly)
1 cup crimini mushrooms, quartered
1 turnip, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 T lavender flowers for cooking
1 can of beef or chicken broth (14 oz. low-sodium version)
1 cup water
4 oz. crème fraiche (or cornstarch slurry*)
2 T extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

Cut lamb into cubes and season with salt and pepper. Warm olive oil in medium pot or dutch oven and then brown lamb over medium high heat for about 2 minutes. Add leeks and cook for another minute and then add broth and 1 cup of water. Bring pot to a boil and then reduce to simmer. Add lavender tied up in a fine mesh bag, such as a soup sock, into the stock. Slow cook all ingredients at a low heat for 2 hours.

After 1 hour, take stew off heat and skim fat off the top with a large spoon. Return the pot to the heat and add carrots. About 30 minutes before your lamb stew is done, add the mini potatoes. Ten minutes after that, add the turnip and mushrooms. (If you want to reduce the intense flavor of the mushrooms, which might cover up the lavender, then sweat your mushrooms in a separate saute pan before adding it to the stew.)

When lamb is done and meat is pretty much falling off the bone, remove pot from heat and let cool for about 10 minutes. Remove any bone pieces and the bag of lavender. Then stir in crème fraiche.* Salt and pepper to taste.

* If you don’t want to use crème fraiche, you can thicken your stew by creating a cornstarch slurry. Mix about 2 tablespoon of cornstarch with cold water and then slowly add your cornstarch mixture to your boiling pot until the sauce thickens to the way you like it.

Makes three to four servings. Garnish with fresh cilantro or parsley.

Serve with glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.

TIP: It’s important that you buy lavender appropriate for cooking. Many gourmet stores will sell lavender in their spice section, typically under the labels “lavender flowers” or “lavender for cooking.” Do not use lavender salt.

BAG IT: You can use any fine mesh bags to hold the lavender while it’s stewing in the pot with the stock. Most cooking stores will sell a “soup sock,” which is a mesh tube that you can tie at both ends. As an alternative, you can go to a tea store and buy empty tea bags and then fill them with your lavender flowers.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Dish on Dining: César in Oakland

Spanish flavors wake up Piedmont Avenue

4039 Piedmont Ave., Oakland
(Piedmont Avenue neighborhood)
Daily, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. (opened later to 11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays); bar open till midnight
PH: (510) 883-0222
(No reservations/major credit cards accepted)

Piedmont Avenue is one of Oakland’s older neighborhoods. And while it lacks the diversity of offerings of nearby Rockridge, it recently has emerged as a destination spot for restaurateurs. Several new restaurants have opened in the area, including a second location for the popular Berkeley bar César.

The raucous César on Shattuck Avenue gained a reputation for its fresh and innovative play on tapas, the small plates served throughout the bars in Spain. Freshness is a given because its founders are three alums from the venerable Chez Panisse. But under the tutelage of Chef Maggie Pond, César has created a name for itself for good food and fun times. Its rustic wood communal table and loud atmosphere would pack in a diverse crowd every night, often starting in the early evenings with couples with small children to the bar crawlers and hip UC- Berkeleyites experimenting with César’s mixed drinks.

That Spanish flair for fun has been transported to larger quarters on the often too-sedate Piedmont Avenue. The somewhat larger space has allowed Chef Pond to expand the menu to include charcuterie delights and several platos grandes (large plates). The festive dining area, featuring a large bar that’s front and center, also includes outdoor seating and a small “round room” for private group dinners (although only one group can fit in at a time in this cozy – translation: elbow-to-elbow – round room).

While the menu is a bit more extensive, it still follows the same theme of Spanish, Spanish, Spanish. I repeat that because that’s one of my frustrations when eating at César. The menu includes items listed entirely in Spanish with no translations for the non-Spanish speakers. So be friendly with your waiter/waitress because you’ll have to rely heavily on him/her to explain to you what’s a cecina or what kind of sauce is mojo pieon.

I visited on a Tuesday night when the restaurant was so crowded I couldn’t hear any music playing. Although there were several people waiting, it didn’t take that long for my friend and me to be seated. We started with a couple of glasses of sangria (tasty but no obvious fruits floating in our drinks) and ordered fried cauliflower with mojo pieon and mojo verde, croquetas de queso and jamon (cheese croquettes with Spanish ham) and pollo asado ala costa brava with grilled scallions (one of the large plate entrees, which was a chicken dish from the Northern coastal region of Spain).

The fried cauliflowers were little pillows of delight, tender and fresh. The croquettes lacked a punch of flavor and the cheese wasn’t oozing out like I typically expect them to be. The chicken was perfectly moist but didn’t wow me with any innovative ingredients or technique. It was basically a roasted chicken breast with a grilled scallion on top.

We ended the evening with the orange pound cake and orange-saffron ice cream. This was a subtle dessert that wasn’t too sweet (which is perfect for me) and was a nice riff on the citrus season.

I left the evening wanting more. So I returned on a Sunday afternoon. (Another benefit to having César in Oakland is I can now just walk to this spot from my home.) The bar crowd was no where to be seen, so I felt I could breathe and relax, listening to the lively Latin sounds pumped into the room.

This time I got myself a glass of cava, the Spanish sparkling wine. I noticed that a few seasonal items were changed on the menu, but the bulk of it was the same. I ordered two tapas: the ostiones rostisades (roasted oysters with bacon and smoked paprika) and tres pinchos (a trio of finger food).

First up was the tres pinchos. It was smaller than I imagined, with pieces on toothpicks in a martini glass. It was fun, though, and so tasty. My favorite was the quinces and cecina (if you didn’t find out earlier, it’s a thinly sliced cured beef) and the fig cake and miti crema wrapped in jamon (the ubiquitous Spanish ham). The two played on the sweet and savory combinations that were little explosions of flavor in my mouth. The third pinchos was less than successful. It was chorizo with a slice of hard-boiled egg. While I love hard-boiled eggs, the chorizo was a bit dry and didn’t hold much flavor, so the overall combination was a bit eh.

Then I had my roasted oysters, which came out beautifully in a bed of sea salt. The oysters were huge and plump, but I didn’t quite get all the bits of bacon and smoked paprika on top. It didn’t seem to add much to the natural beauty of the oysters, which I could have enjoyed on their own.

César gets high marks for freshness and seasonal ingredients. The kitchen staff is also expert in food preparation, cooking each dish to highlight the natural flavors of the ingredients. But not every dish is as innovative as the tres pinchos, nor as satisfying.

Tapas are traditionally bar foods that are given out for free or for a nominal price at Barcelona bars so that you’ll drink more. At César, you end up feeling like you’re paying for a main course but getting only an appetizer. Tapas range from $4.75 to $9.75 and the portions are inconsistent when they arrive at your tables. After traveling to Barcelona, I still believe no California restaurant has been able to duplicate the theory of tapas. Instead, the English translation has always been small dishes at entree prices.

Despite the heavy costs, César wins for atmosphere and freshness. For dishes that do satisfy, you’ll end up leaving happy. But if you were really at a bar in Barcelona, you’d be getting ready for your real dinner later that night.

Side note: César understands the power of its brand, and in this second location on Piedmont Avenue the restaurant has set aside a small area against the wall to sell Spanish ingredients and take out meals. This little mercado is only available during the day. At night, the restaurant is too crowded to be selling wares.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (perfect for foodies with an expense account)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Cesar in Oakland

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Like You Need Another Reason to Dine Out

For the sixth year, a group of San Francisco restaurants are offering special prix fixe lunch and dinners this month as part of Dine About Town. The theory goes that January is a slow period for restaurants, coming off the busy holiday season. People are all dined out or they have very little discretionary funds after all that shopping for presents.

I doubt that's really the case. People still like the idea of dining out, even in the cold period of January. San Francisco is a bustling city, especially for after-work drinks, which often lead to weeknight dinners. So basically Dine About Town is a promotional campaign by the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau (and Visa, the corporate sponsor). I actually favor the dining out programs where a portion of the proceeds go to charitable causes such as past events benefiting AIDS programs or the fight against homelessness.

Still, I'm a big believer of supporting restaurateurs. It's a real cutthroat business and let's face it, we can be fussy eaters -- just read my Dish on Dining reviews ;-). So whenever you have the chance to try a meal at a restaurant you normally wouldn't go to, I say that's a good thing.

Dine About Town menus vary by restaurants. And some restaurants don't offer the special prie fixe menus every night. Check the Dine About Town listing and click on the specific restaurant for more information. And you have to make reservations before being able to take advantage of Dine About Town specials. (Geez, I'm getting tired typing in all this fine print for the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Where's my free lunch?)

The following are some of my suggestions for restaurants that might be worth a look. I can't vouch for their Dine About Town offerings, but they have a general positive buzz that make them restaurants to check out. Hurry, Dine About Town ends on Jan. 31.

Absinthe Brasserie & Bar
Acme Chophouse
Ana Mandara
Bix Restaurant
Campton Place
Cote Sud
Foreign Cinema
Lark Creek Steak
Le Colonial
Oola Restaurant & Lounge
PlumpJack Cafe
Rue Saint Jacques
Seasons at the Four Seasons
Universal Cafe
Washington Square Bar & Grill

Photo above courtesy of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau