Sunday, November 30, 2008

Holiday Flavors at Ici

It's been awhile since I dropped by Ici Ice Cream in Berkeley, but I did this afternoon after some holiday shopping. There was hardly a line, I guess because a lot of people are out shopping or think it's too cold for ice cream (it wasn't), so it didn't take me long to get my two scoops. One was Gingerbread and the other was Cardamon Rose. The Gingerbread had a subtle ginger flavor, and not super sweet like ginger cookies. The color really reminded me of coffee. They also had a Cranberry Orange Sorbet for the season. But I went for the Cardamon Rose, which was lovely with a distinct rose flavor. I felt like I was eating flowers at a spa. I'm a big fan of Ici because of the interesting seasonal flavors, but also because the texture is always so creamy and solid, not icy or clumpy like other ice cream shops. Ho ho ho.

Ici Ice Cream, 2948 College Ave., Berkeley (Elmwood neighborhood). PH: 510.665.6054.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Fro-yo at the Mall -- CLOSED

UPDATE (1/02/10): Walked by the mall today and noticed Cefiore papered up. Not sure when it closed, but it's definitely donesky.

You’re probably like me, hitting the malls trying to get some of your Christmas shopping done early. When your feet gets tired and you’re so done elbowing your way into the stacks of half-off sweaters, it may be time for a fro-yo break.

I discovered last month that a new frozen yogurt store has made its way into the San Francisco Westfield Shopping Centre on Market Street. I don’t know why it took so long because a mall seems like the most logical place for fro-yo.

With a fancy logo and an Italian-sounding name, Céfiore is a pretty tiny shop. In fact, there’s no seating inside except for a small round-top table near the wall for standing-room only. Awhile back, I went to check out the store to see how Céfiore stacked up in my continued search for the best fro-yo in town.

Céfiore offers a wide variety of flavors in addition to the original. It also has green tea, raspberry and pomegranate. But what caught my eye was the acaiberry flavor. Some of you may have heard of this flavor, which has been getting a bit of controversy in the food world on whether it really is as healthy as it claims.

I decided to give it a try, ordering a mini cup (which I guess is the kid’s portion because there’s also a small size) topped with strawberries. (The specialty flavors are a bit more expensive than the original flavor. The mini cost $3.25 and 75 cents for each topping. The original cost only $2.75 for the mini.)

My acaiberry wasn’t what I expected. First off, it had this really weird light purple-grey color to it. And then when I tasted it, it didn’t taste good. It was really sour and I didn’t really enjoy it, although the texture was fine (and not icy).

I felt kind of bad going off my usual taste-testing with original fro-yo, so I gave Céfiore a second chance, this time returning to try the original flavor. This time I got a mini original with cantaloupe topping.

The original tasted just as sour as the acaiberry, but without the weird color. It’s not the same slight tart flavor that can be addictive if done right. This was just plain sour, almost like spoiled milk.

Céfiore had a really nice look and feel and the service is friendly enough (although on both visits they weren’t able to really put a nice swirl to the fro-yo) but I just can’t get used to the sourness of the yogurt. It’s too bad because Céfiore has prime real estate being at the Westfield. But convenience can’t be the only criteria when looking for the best fro-yo in town.

Single Guy's Fro-yo Rankings:

1. Red Mango, Palo Alto
2. Pinkberry, Southern California
3. Tuttimelon, San Francisco
4. YoCup, San Francisco
5. Fraiche, Palo Alto
6. Icebee, San Francisco
7. Jubili, San Francisco
8. SoGreen, San Francisco
9. Yogurt Harmony, Berkeley
10. Yogen Früz, San Francisco
11. Céfiore, San Francisco

Céfiore, 745 Market St. (second floor of the Westfield Shopping Centre). (A second location is also near the Financial District at 59 New Montgomery St.) PH: 415.987.8017.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Single Guy Thanksgiving Essentials

Oh. My. Gawd. I can't move. How about you? Why do we do this? OK, I can barely blog, but I thought I should. So as a Single Guy, I don't do a big Thanksgiving since my family is in Hawaii and I'm not. But I still try to do a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for one. At the very minimum, this is what I need to have:

1) Turkey and gravy, of course. But instead of a whole turkey, I roast just a turkey breast. So convenient because it takes just a little over an hour to bake instead of the 2-plus hours for a whole turkey. And it sure helps to have a thermometer to check that it's 165 degrees while resting. Gravy turned out nice using the drippings and a bit of Marsala wine.

2) Stuffing. This year I made one with leftover sausage I had in my refrigerator and red chard for a bit of color.

3) Cranberry. I made my cranberry-pear marmalade that was featured in last year's Chronicle Turkey Cook-Off that I participated in.

4) Pumpkin pie. Yeah, some people don't like the texture, but I loooove pumpkin pie. This year my pie turned out needing a bit more sugar, but the pre-made crust from Marie Callendar sure made it simple.

My simple dinner was finished off with some roasted brussel sprouts and a bottle of Malbec wine from Argentina. Sigh.

Ok, now for the clean up. Thankfully, I have one day to deal with that.

Hope you had a filling and happy Thanksgiving!

Top Chef: Season 5, Episode 3

A Very Special Foo Fighters Thanksgiving

Previously: The cheftestants cook at Tom Colicchio’s Craft restaurant for about 50 bitter rejects. Jill decides to go big or go home, so she buys gigantic eggs (ostrich to be specific). Nervous Ariane goes extreme with the sugar in her lemon meringue and nearly chokes Padma to death. In the end, Fabio wins for Italy and Jill is sent packing after an incomprehensible defense of her ostrich quiche.

Opening scenes of the condo, and EU Stefan is bonding with EU Fabio over their two wins. Get a room already, guys. Nervous Ariane is still talking about her too sweet dessert, saying she needs to shine this time around. Richard the Bear is giving a rundown of some nicknames for people in the house. Hmm, wonder if any would be fun to pick up? He calls Jeff the Hair, Don Johnson (not bad) and calls Leah “fun and flirty and the one with a nice rack.” Huh? That’s not really a nickname as much as it’s an unusual description from a gay man.

The cheftestants arrive at the Top Chef kitchen for their next Quickfire challenge, and they see the dreaded knife block. Padma says “Happy Thanksgiving,” which probably throws them off since this was maybe filmed in the spring? Standing next to Padma is guest judge Grant Achatz of Alinea restaurant. Now, anyone in the food world knows of Achatz, the molecular gastronomical genius of Chicago who also battled tongue cancer recently. Padma gives him one of the grandest introduction I’ve heard her do yet, and all the cheftestants treat him like a rock star. Achatz tells them that as chefs they have to roll with the punches. With that, they each grab a knife, which has a variety of numbers on them.

Padma says the number corresponds to a page in the Top Chef cookbook. (OK, who out there bought one? You are a Top Chef junkie.) They have one hour to put their own spin to the recipe from one of the past cheftestants. Hey, that’s actually a pretty cool challenge.

The cheftestants grab their copy of the cookbook and then start prepping the dish. What’s weird is everyone’s talking about whose recipe they’re making, but they’re not saying how they’re going to personalized it. All of a sudden, Padma comes in shouting “STOP!” like someone dared to put chocolate in her peanut butter. She tells the cheftestants that they’re now in the mood for soup, so they have to use the ingredients they have and turn them into a soup. Curveball No. 1 as well as Product Placement No. 1 with Swanson’s Broth, which is supplied as the base for everyone’s soup.

So now everyone’s making some weird soup, like Leah who has to make her tuna tartar into some kind of soup. Or Carla’s olive oil poached shrimp (that actually sounds like something nice to top the soup). BTW, I’m now going to call her Cosmic Carla, because she’s so in touch with the universe, you know? Right now she’s talking about building flavors in her soup and adding the most important ingredient… love. Gotta love her because we all need a little crazy now and then with our Top Chef viewing.

Padma and Chef Achatz go around tasting the soup. It must be his refined taste buds because Chef Achatz is quick to give a thumbs up or thumbs down. (Or maybe it’s just because he’s from Chicago and he watched one too many of Roger Ebert’s movie reviews.) So he likes Stefan’s broth, thinks Nervous Ariane’s Colorado rack of lamb soup is overcooked, Daniel’s black forest ham and egg soup is a nice complement to the original recipe, Richard the Bear’s Mexican soup needs acid, Melissa’s Italian wedding soup blurred the lines in a not so good way, Fabio’s mushroom asparagus soup’s flavor was flat, and he likes Carla’s shrimp coriander soup.

Chef Achatz says he liked Jamie’s soup, which was balanced, Daniel’s hearty and rustic ham and egg soup, and Leah’s, where she used white asparagus topped with her tuna. He names Leah the winner, and she has immunity.

Commercials. Wow, am I in the 80s or is that a Calvin Klein fragrance commercial? Eternity, wear it when running on the beach with your kids dressed in gauzy white clothing.

For the elimination challenge, Padma tells the cheftestants that they’ll be cooking Thanksgiving dinner for some very special clients. They’re split into two teams, and Leah as the winner of the quickfire gets to choose her team and she picks: Jamie, Hosea, EU Stefan, Melissa, EU Fabio and Radhika. Fabio pulls the Euro card again, saying how he and Stefan will unite to make an all-American Thanksgiving.

Padma plays a taped message from the special guests and it’s the FOO FIGHTERS! (Like you didn’t already know.) All the cheftestants get excited about cooking for rock stars. Hey, you know if you add a “D” to their name, they’re actually the FOOD Fighters. No wonder they’re fans of the show. Ha!

The cheftestants will cook at the Foo Fighters’ next concert venue for the band and their entourage. And the winning team gets invited to the concert while the losing team does clean up work. (Wow, doesn’t that sound like some sad Thanksgiving where all the popular people in your family goes to the movies and you’re left cleaning up. Didn’t happen to you? No? Guess it was just me, then.)

They jump into their black SUVs and take I-490 to Rochester, New York, home of the Blue Cross Arena. They meet a “roadie” who shows them the arena and then takes them to the kitchen. They keep walking and walking until they’re outside. Curveball No. 2: They have to cook a turkey in a makeshift outdoor kitchen.

The cheftestants are freaking out because all they see is a bank of microwaves. But in reality, some of them aren’t microwave ovens but miniature convection ovens from Calphalon (Product Placement No. 2), which isn’t an oven but still pretty good for cooking.

They have 15 minutes to plan, and of course all the cheftestants are freaking out (especially Jamie) about the lack of burners and the caterers are feeling pretty confident (not-so-Nervous Ariane and EU Stefan). Jeff the Hair again emerges as the calm in the storm and starts to organize his team (he’s a natural leader). Ariane gets assigned to the turkey, which I think is a pretty daring move giving someone who’s been at the bottom from the beginning of the season such a big responsibility.

They go shopping and that’s where we learn that they’ve given names to their teams. Leah’s team has decided to call themselves Team Sexy Pants (no one knows why) and the other team is Team Cougar, which for some reason is all about Ariane, whom Alex explains is mature and kind of hot when she works out in her shorts. So from now on, I’m going to call Nervous Ariane, The Cougar.

Commercials. Those V8 commercials are so wild. You know who needs a V8? That creepy Benjamin Button in that Brad Pitt movie. Is anyone really going to go to a movie when Brad Pitt is all wrinkly and short? I’m just sayin’.

The cheftestants start cooking and Eugene gets this brilliant idea to make a grill after buying some charcoal at the store. (He probably learned that from years of grilling at the beach growing up in Hawaii!) Team Cougar is making turkey, roasted potatoes, sweet potatoes, pork roast and other sides with banana s’mores for dessert.

Team Sexy Pants is pretty much making the same along with mashed potatoes, gravy, side vegan salad, and a pumpkin tiramisu and fruit crisp. For some reason, EU Stefan is annoying Jamie to no end. I think it’s the whole Alpha Dog thing where you have two Alpha Dogs in the kitchen.

As the teams are busy finishing up their cooking, it starts to sprinkle (Curveball No. 3 from God). The TC Production crew tries to put up tents and I have to say, those cheftestants don’t miss a beat because they’re still grinding away at the cooking despite the rain. Luckily, most of them are done and they start packing up and taking the food inside for the turkey chow off.

Inside, they’re setting up like a buffet line, and Team Cougar is really helping each other out. They really are working like a team, and Cosmic Carla says they have more to prove because they weren’t the chosen ones.

In walks the judges: Padma, Chef Tom and Gail, and then comes the Foo Fighters. Despite the rock stars, Richard the Bear is again getting all hot over fellow bear Colicchio. It was cute the first time, but now it’s borderline stalking, me thinks.

Team Cougar is up first and the Foo Fighters grab some “spoonbread stuffing with figs” and some macaroni and cheese with bacon. The band members (well, mostly Dave Grohl talked the most) liked most of the food like the smoked pork loin, but didn’t care so much for the stuffing and the potatoes are slightly “al dente” (meaning undercooked). Chef Achatz says that some things are classic like stuffing and should be prepared the classic way. Which is kind of an odd comment for Top Chef land where the cheftestants are always told to be innovative and dinged for being boring and predictable. And does anyone else think Chef Achatz doesn’t look like he wants to be in this episode? I know he’s a genius and all, but he really looks like he was only on the show to promote his new book, Alinea.

The judges and Foo Fighters go to Team Sexy Pants’ buffet line, grabbing turkey, vegan cornbread stuffing, roasted corn salad and more stuff. Seems like EU Fabio has been the designated presenter because he seems to be doing all the talking. The Foo Fighters don’t seem to be as excited about Team Sexy Pants’ turkey, but they do like the caramelized marshmallows over the yams.

They head for the desserts and The Cougar is busy eating so Jeff the Hair tells her to stop stuffing herself. Doesn’t matter because the group goes to Team Sexy Pants first, who serve up their roasted pumpkin with honey and cinnamon tiramisu, and a peach and blueberry crisp with cinnamon cream.

The Foo Fighters like the tiramisu. Chef Tom thinks it was resourceful for EU Fabio to use pumpkin with the tiramisu, which isn’t a classic Thanksgiving dessert. They also love the crumble. Did anyone else notice Gail was really bossy during this segment, like she wanted to control the discussion with the Foo Fighters around? She’s such the groupie.

At Team Cougar, they serve up a pumpkin mousse and the banana s’mores. The Foo Fighters come up with the worst comments for this round, calling the pumpkin mousse “barf-fait” and comparing the vanilla cream on top of the banana s’mores as spit. Ouch.

The cheftestants are anxious to hear who won because they want to go to the concert. Daniel says he has his party hat and party underwear on. Woah, way too much information there, Daniel.

The Foo Fighters say it was pretty close, but they choose Team Sexy Pants. Team Cougar is pretty upset and Eugene is swearing up a storm (or bleeping up a storm). I feel bad for them because it was pretty close. Looks like dessert was their downfall yet again.

Team Sexy Pants attend the concert and of course they’re having a lot of fun (what is Jamie wearing on her head?) while Team Cougar is cleaning up inside. None of the guys are talking but The Cougar and Cosmic Carla are talking a lot.

When the two teams meet up at the stew room, you get the typical gloating from Team Sexy Pants and then Danny flips the bird. Uncool, dude. What a sore loser.

We know who’s heading in to the Judges’ Table, so in comes Team Cougar who lines up. Padma asks if they were surprised they lost, and Jeff the Hair (who hasn’t really smiled since losing) says he thought they did a good job given all the curveballs. Chef Tom says Jeff looks really pissed, but Jeff says it’s because he has a lot of heart, that’s all, when competing.

Chef Tom tries to give them a bone and says that it wasn’t a runaway win for the other team, and Gail adds that The Cougar’s turkey was the better of the two teams. They talk about the dry spoonbread stuffing (Jeff) and the undercooked potatoes (Danny) but most of the discussion focuses on the desserts.

Gail says the pumpkin mousse had an odd combo of flavors with the pumpkin and the berries. Chef Achatz says the s’mores should be like s’mores with the burnt sugar and the gooey chocolate but what came out didn’t resemble s’mores at all. Gail repeats the band’s spittle comment.

The judges deliberate and talk about which dessert was the least offensive. Chef Achatz says the s’mores were conceptually a mess. Doesn’t look good for Team Rainbow.

OK, we went to commercials and then all of a sudden there’s this short clip of the cheftestants in the stew room and Daniel is eating a peanut butter thing and dropping food every where and Jamie is getting annoyed. (I think I’m going to call her Alpha Dog from now on.) She says Daniel gets on her nerves and then the segment is over and we’re back to commercials. What was that? If it’s like an extra segment, I wish they would label it or something. It’s throwing me off.

Back at the judge’s table, Team Cougar reassembles and Chef Tom says they did like Eugene’s pork dish, so he’s safe and can leave. Alex is also safe, and Carla’s dessert was the best of the three, so she’s safe as well. Ariane’s turkey was excellent, and Chef Tom says she redeemed herself this week, so The Cougar can leave.

That leaves Richard the Bear, Jeff the Hair and Daniel. Tom says something about traditional dishes being the way to go and the non-traditional is what didn’t work. Padma sends Richard the Bear packin’. And there goes Team Rainbow. Now it’s just Jamie the Rainbow (but I already called her Alpha Dog, so really there’s no rainbows left for this season).

Richard is really emotional during his exit interview, talking about how it took him three seasons of trying out for the show before he finally got selected. He’s proud that he did make it to the show. And we learn now that, yes, even bears cry.

Next: It’s cooking in the morning at the Today Show kitchen, and someone makes something that forces Kathie Lee to spit it out (like she hasn’t done that before). And be prepared for the return of The Rocco.

“Top Chef: New York” airs every Wednesday at 10 p.m. (9 p.m. Central) on Bravo TV. Photos courtesy of Bravo TV’s Web site.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Travel Dish: Le Bar (Buenos Aires)

This is part of a series of reports recapping my recent trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Check back every Monday and Tuesday when I’ll be giving you a taste of my food adventures in this South American metropolitan city.

Taste the World at This Hip Martini Bar
Tacumán 422, Buenos Aires
Microcenter (downtown)
PH: 11/5219.0858
Open for lunch and dinner with a lounge
Major credit cards accepted
Web site (it’s a Spanish language blog about music/DJ events at the bar)

The allure of this city has attracted creative people from around the world to call Buenos Aires home, and several of them have started fun new restaurants such as Le Bar, a martini bar serving global tapas and started about 1 ½ years ago by a bunch of French ex-patriots.

Le Bar is hidden along a busy street of hotels and shops near the city’s Microcentro district or Microcenter, which is considered the downtown of Buenos Aires. While popular in the evenings because of its lounge feel and upstairs terrace, Le Bar is also a fun place for a nice lunch.

That’s how I found myself at Le Bar one day, walking up its stairs in a space that almost had the feel of a converted home. (The wooden moldings and faux fireplace really reminded me of a Victorian in San Francisco.) On the first floor, a bright orange-colored bar is to your left and the dining area to the right is a more muted purple with tear-drop lighting from the ceiling and a wall that can only be described as psychedelic.

The approach to the food is eclectic, just like the décor. Don’t expect to find any Argentine specialties here because Le Bar is truly trying to introduce new global flavors to the locals. So instead, the menu has a mix of influences from three primary areas: Rabat, the capital of Morocco; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Pondicherry, India. How the owners decided to zero in on these three disparate cuisines, one can only guess.

But I dove right in, starting my lunch with the Biruat de Pollo (AR$10 or $3.45). This was one of those times that I didn’t know what I was ordering but knew it was chicken (and haven eaten beef all week, I was ready for some white meat). What came out was a golden-brown looking turnover, almost like an empanada but flakier.

Despite the fact it was probably made with a lot of lard or butter, I loved it. It was different, tasty and so filling. My waitress told me that this was a type of Moroccan dish. It reminded me a lot of samosas, but bigger.

Next came the ensalada de calamare or calamari salad (AR$14 or $4.80), which looked pretty big. The calamari was tangy and tender to eat, but the dressing was a bit heavy on the greens. And I really didn’t get why it was served with the tortilla chips on the side.

Finally, I got the Croque Madame sandwich ($AR19 or $6.55), which I guess is a tribute to the French owners. A Croque Madame is basically a Croque Monsieur (ham and cheese grilled sandwich) but with a poached egg on top. Everything was done really well, from the poached egg to the grilled ham and cheese. The chef used a slightly cinnamon-flavored bread for the sandwich, which gave it almost a French toast feel. It was all good, but really quite filling. I had a nice lingering lunch as I sipped my glass of Malbec wine and chomped away at this huge sandwich.

While Le Bar has a chic reputation, close up it really feels worn in and comfortable. It has a lived in feel compared to a lot of the stylish and spotless restaurants I had visited earlier. The eclectic menu, friendly service and reasonable prices also make it a great place for lunch or bites with drinks.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (Charming little gem)

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

Bueno … life in BA
Le Bar is just a stone’s throw from the popular shopping street known as Avenida Córdoba, where you’ll find leather stores and places selling shirts for popular soccer teams. And on this street is a galleria known as Galerías Pacífico, with luxury brand names and this amazing painted ceiling in the middle courtyard. It was such a surreal experience to see such artwork juxtaposed next to store signs like Timberland or Hugo Boss. The galleria also has a very large food court on the ground level that was packed when I went through. It was your typical food court, with an assortment of Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Italian and Argentine food choices. Since I ate at Le Bar, I didn’t have to worry about succumbing to mall food.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Mini Travel Dish: La Salamandra (Buenos Aires)

This is part of a series of reports recapping my recent trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Check back every Monday and Tuesday when I’ll be giving you a taste of my food adventures in this South American metropolitan city.

Bright, Fresh Spot for Caramel and Cheese
El Salvador 4761, Buenos Aires
Palermo Soho neighborhood
PH: 11/4831.1600

Not all the spring days during my trip to this South American city were filled with sunshine and warm weather. I did get rained on, but luckily on only about three days of my 10-day stay.

Walking around the quiet streets under gloomy overcast skies, it was refreshing to discover little bright spots like the La Salamandra café in the touristy Palermo Soho shopping district.

I walked past this café the day before and it was packed in the afternoon. But on this day I came in for lunch and it was relatively empty, with only a few moms with strollers and men reading newspapers. Still, the bright orange décor and contemporary setting were a welcomed escape from the wet streets.

La Salamandra bills itself as a “dulce de leche and mozzarella bar” — a combination I never really thought of for a cafe. It’s really a reflection of La Salamandra’s owners, an Argentine company of the same name that’s famous for its dairy products, namely cheese and the milk used to create the country’s famous milk caramel, dulce de leche.

The café offers mostly sandwiches and quiches, and a large variety of pastries and petit fours. I settled in and ordered a limonatta (AR$12 or $4.15), a frothy frozen lemonade drink, and the Quichette de espinacas, ricotta, parmesano y mozzarella (AR$28 or $9.75) or Spinach Quiche with Three Cheeses (ricotta, parmesan and mozzarella).

The quiche came as an individual-sized portion with a side salad of mesculan greens, all very light and refreshing in look and feel. The quiche itself had a nice, clean taste to it but I thought the crust was a bit bland. Still, overall it was a simple and delightful lunch.

Sitting on the white leather seats looking out at the trio of potted orange trees outside made me forget about the rainy day. La Salamandra is a relaxing, casual lunch spot perfect for a light meal or maybe some indulging of sweets, whether it’s pastries, desserts or the jars of dulce de leche for sale to take home.

This is a mini review, so no ratings. But I would definitely recommend La Salamandra if you’re shopping around Palermo Soho and want a place to rest your feet and grab a bite.

Bueno … life in BA

What do you think this is? A hot new club? A supply store for dance clubs? It’s the local supermarket. Walking around the neighborhoods, I saw several outlets for this grocery store chain called Disco. It seemed really popular with the area residents who had bagful of groceries heading home after work. I wonder if there’s a mirrored ball inside?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Chestnuts + Roasting + Open Fire

Something about warm, toasty chestnuts in your hands that just makes you think of the winter holidays, doesn’t it? Even for a Hawaii boy like me, I loved the roasted chestnuts my mom would buy at Shirokiya, a Japanese department store in Honolulu.

Around the Bay Area farmers’ markets and even at supermarkets, chestnuts (still in their shells) are widely available — some coming as far away as Italy. What’s funny is that most of these chestnuts have been harvested a few weeks ago, but they’re only popping up in markets now because people only think of buying them around Thanksgiving. (Kind of like Dungeness crab season.)

I spotted these chestnuts for sale at my neighborhood Temescal Farmers’ Market last Sunday. The guy grows his chestnuts in the Davis area, and he had this interesting display of a chestnut still in its prickly exterior. Doesn’t it look like a porcupine? A little kid wanted to pet it because it kind of looked like a chia pet.

Since these were locally grown chestnuts (instead of the imported ones from Italy), I thought I’d give it a try. Plus, a really big bag (looked like 1.5 to 2 pounds) only set me back $4 for the smaller nuts (he had gigantic chestnuts for sale at a higher price).

The guy (I really should have asked for his name) says he boils the chestnuts, but I didn’t like that idea. So I baked them in the oven (since I didn’t have an open fire) on a roasting tray with a little bit of water to keep it moist. The thing everyone warns about the chestnut is that it explodes when heated. So you have to pierce and X on the side of the shell. (Weird. I never noticed this in the chestnuts at Shirokiya.)

The small chestnuts take only about 15 to 20 minutes to bake. You can tell they’re ready when the X mark looks like an exploding entry point. The freshly baked chestnut was so warm and the meat so sweet, it was great. My only complaint about fresh chestnuts is the furry skin. That part can be pretty hard to peel off. (I notice that when I roast at a higher heat and cook them longer, the skin gets crispy and peels off easy but you end up with drier meat.) Plus, individually piercing every nut with an X can get tiring. Still, it really feels like winter. Now all I need is some egg nog and I’m good for the next month.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Starter Snack for Holiday Dining

Some of you will probably be busy in the coming days preparing food for Thanksgiving. One thing I find helpful when working in the kitchen is to keep the wine flowing and have something to snack on.

Easy-to-make savory baked goods are always a good bet. To me, nothing is easier than using frozen puff pastry and creating a galette. Full disclosure: I don’t know anything about what makes an authentic French galette—the circular rustic pastry dish. I just know that all you do is fold over the edge of a circular puff pastry and you’re good to go.

I’ve seen savory and sweet galettes (the sweet ones are often made with some kind of jam base). My recipe below is a mix of sweet and savory, which I think is always good as a bite before dinner. The sweet comes from the fresh autumnal pears (I used red pears I got at my grocer) and the savory from the ham (you could be fancy and use pancetta or jamon but I’m on a budget these days so I just used your basic American-style cooked ham) and blue cheese, in this case gorgonzola.

Making a galette is so easy because you just prep the ingredients, throw them all on the puff pastry, pop it in the oven and you have a fancy looking starter in minutes. (I have to say, my galette’s edges ended up looking loose because I had folded over the edges in a pretty pattern and then realized I should have added the cheese, so I had to unfold it and fold it back, that’s why it looks the way it does.) Serve this up for guests who arrive early or just eat it for yourself while you’re slaving away in the kitchen. You deserve it!

Ham and Pear Galette

Copyright 2008 by Cooking With The Single Guy

1 pear (red or Bartlett recommended)
¼ cup cooked ham, diced
¼ cup gorgonzola cheese (or other blue cheese)
2 twigs of fresh thyme
1 sheet frozen puff pastry
1 egg

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Defrost puff pastry sheet per instructions on the box.

Cut pear to remove the core, and then thinly slice lengthwise. Toss in lemon juice to prevent it from browning.

Roll out puff pastry (you might need some flour for dusting) and create a circle. TIP: If your sheet starts off square, cut off the corners to make a better circle.

Sprinkle a bit of ham on the sheet, then place your pear slices in a pattern. Make sure you leave at least an inch of puff pastry around the edge. Tear off thyme leaves from the stem and sprinkle over ingredients, then crumble the cheese around the top.

Fold over the edges. Create an egg wash with the egg and a little bit of water, and apply the egg wash onto the edge of the puff pastry. (Optional, crack some sea salt on the puff pastry edge.)

Place on cookie sheet with liner like a Silpat or parchment paper. Bake until the puff pastry edge is golden brown (about 20 minutes). Remove from oven and let cool so the pear juices can be absorbed by the puff pastry and serve warm.

Makes four servings.

Pair with a glass of Riesling.

TIP: When assembling your galette, it might be hard to move it from your counter to the baking sheet. So I like to assemble it on the lined baking sheet, then I don’t have to worry about it falling apart when transferring.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Top Chef: Season 5, Episode 2

Free Labor for Colicchio’s Craft

Previously: The cheftestants arrive in the Big Apple and they start by peeling apples. Lauren gets knocked off first so we won’t really remember her at the reunion show, and Team Rainbow forms with Jamie, Richard and Patrick, except Patrick throws a monkey wrench and breaks up Team Rainbow by getting himself eliminated in the first challenge.

What’s at stake? Hey, Glad is every where now, I can’t think of any other brand that does the same. Anyone? I bet a TOP CHEF would know.

Opening scene of typical shirtless guys waking up (thank you Jeff the Hair) and women looking for something. Richard the Bear is sad that Team Rainbow has shrunk, and Ariane is still trying to recover from her near elimination because of her undercooked faro. Fabio is saying some weird thing about how it doesn’t matter how many dragons you slay (translation: challenges you win), all that matters is that you get the princess (translation: named Top Chef).

Hey, did you notice there are two bald guys in the group? It’s going to be tough keeping Stefan and Hosea apart, other than Stefan is the Euro chef and speaks with subtitles.

The cheftestants arrive at the Top Chef kitchen for the quickfire challenge. Waiting for them are Padma and guest judge Donatella Arpaia, who seems to be the career judge for the Food Network after her countless appearances on Iron Chef America and The Next Iron Chef.

Padma says they’re going to have to make a dish that’s the favorite of New Yorkers, eating millions of it a year. What could that be? Hot dogs. Yep, New Yorkers love those ground leftover pork pieces sitting in the same salted water all day. And Padma brings out supposedly the most famous hot dog vendor in the city, which is Angelina DeAngelo. The cheftestants have to put up their fancified links next to DeAngelo’s.

They rush off to make hot dogs, and many of them, of course, have never made one or haven’t done one since culinary school. Luckily, we don’t really get too many shots of cheftestants grinding meat and stuffing it into casing, because, really, how pretty is it to stuff a sausage?

They have 45 minutes to create their own hot dog and then dress it up, but Jill decides she’s not going to bother making her own hot dog and just goes for the ready made. She also decides to give it a Vietnamese spin by turning them into summer rolls. (She’s not the only one doing an Asian twist because Eugene is making hot dog sushi.)

Jill’s summer rolls are up first as Padma and Donatella goes around tasting each hot dog. BTW, there are still so many cheftestants that they don’t bother showing everyone’s hot dogs. So other than Jill, the editors featured Radhika’s kabob-style lamb and pork dogs, Daniel’s pork hot dog, Eugene’s maki hot dog rolls, Hosea’s bacon and roasted pepper pork dog, Stefan’s “world” dog (which Donatella makes a face at when eating), Carl’s lamb-and-pork sausage with quick sauerkraut, Ariane’s chicken sausage, and Fabio’s andouille hot dog.

Last featured is Jamie’s hot dog, and Padma bites into it and there’s a thud. She’s bitten into a piece of bone. At least she’s gotten her calcium supplement for the day.

Then Padma and Donatella tries Angelina’s famous hot dog, and of course they rave about it after only taking one bite. I really don’t get why she was there in the first place, other than they wanted to have someone wheel in a hot dog cart.

Donatella says Jill’s hot dog dish was the worst because she didn’t even try to make her own sausages, and she also didn’t like the taste of Stefan’s world dog, which gets him steaming. She did love Radhika’s Indian-inspired dog, which was “moist and satisfying” and Fabio’s, which had a real Mediterranean feel. She also liked the smoky flavor of Hosea’s, but the ultimate winner is Radhika, who gets immunity.

Commercials. Want to know a secret? Kids can’t keep secrets. Thank you Swanson’s for the heads up. Ugh, that Xbox commercial with the whole game inside the back of the guy’s head is creepy, and the guy looks like his head hurts.

Elimination challenge. Padma says New Yorkers are the toughest customer, so they have to open a restaurant in Manhattan and serve up food to New Yorkers. Wow, is it the restaurant challenge so soon? Oh, not really. They just have to serve three courses of a “new American” menu at some restaurant.

Padma leaves it up to the cheftestants to decide who does which course, and it’s a mad chaotic mess. Wow, I’m surprised so many people want to make dessert. Usually most people avoid that. They’re all clamoring around each other while Jeff the Hair is like this calm executive chef off to the side writing on a piece of paper. He gets them to organize into three groups of appetizers, entrées and desserts and lucky for him the group divides evenly. Chaos averted.

They go shopping at Whole Foods, and this is when you can tell who’s going to do well and who’s in for trouble, at least based on editing. For example, Hosea wants to make a crab salad that he makes often at his own restaurant back home. But they don’t have fresh Dungeness crab (because it’s not in season when they filmed this episode) so he buys cooked crab in a container. Red tag this guy for elimination.

Jill’s at the egg aisle and sees these big ostrich eggs, and she decides to use them to make a quiche. One problem: She’s never cooked with them before. Another red tag here.

What’s funny is that none of the dishes people are talking about really sound like “new American.” It just sounds like everyone’s making dishes that they’ve made before at their restaurants back home. This is really going to be a snoozefest of an episode.

The cheftestants pay for their groceries and head back to the Top Chef kitchen to prep. Jill is trying to get her ostrich egg cracked, and Fabio comes over and helps her by stabbing a big chef’s knife into the top. OK, whatever works for you. (I’ve seen most chefs start by using a drill to create the first puncture, then saw off the top.) Jill instead uses a hammer to push the knife deeper until the egg cracks open.

In comes chef Tom Colicchi, who announces that the restaurant they’ll be serving their dishes will be his, Craft. But they’re not just cooking in Tom’s kitchen, they’re also serving 50 rejected Top Chef candidates from the New York area. Chef Tom says to expect them to be super critical (and way bitter).

The cheftestants pack their knives and head back home, where Fabio is rambling on again about his whole theory of slaying dragons and whoever gets the princess is the winner. I’m not really digging that metaphor for some reason. It’s no surprise that he has bonded with the other European cheftestant, Stefan. They’re like their own little European Union (so from now own I’m going to refer to them as EU Fabio and EU Stefan, or if you like, ewww Fabio and ewww Stefan.)

Commercials. Wow, did you see that 83-year-old woman water skiing? Grandma’s got legs! Hey, what just happened? All of a sudden I’m watching a snippet of Hosea and Leah sitting on a lounge chair flirting with each other. Did I just switch to VH-1 or something? Did the show start again? I’m confused. I think some lowly editor inserted a scene from a future episode. So now we know there’s romance brewing for these two.

Back to the real episode, I guess: Everyone wakes up to open up at Colicchio’s Craft. Eugene is wearing some white cloth around his head, which is kind of odd given that he has a buzzed haircut and is actually almost bald.

(Side note: I ate at Craft about two years after it opened and it is a very beautifully designed restaurant. At the time, the food was this weird approach where the menu lists different elements like starches, vegetables, sauces, and meats and then you created your dishes. It was very ala carte. I think it’s moved on from that but still maintains the simplicity of the cooking style.)

In the Craft kitchen, Jamie is thinning out her corn soup and feeling pretty confident, but EU Fabio is trashing her soup as too simple. He says you have to take it to the next level, so for his beef carpacchio, for example, he’s making an olive out of liquid. He tried to explain the chemical thing about how it works, but I couldn’t follow him and I don’t think they had subtitles for that segment when they really needed it.

We go through the regular shifts of overconfident cheftestants and the worry warts, like Carla who’s fussing about the crust on her apple dessert (oooh, looks like something I’m posting about this weekend but using pears!), and Nervous Ariane (that’s my new nickname for her, like Nervous Annie) is forcing everyone to try her lemon meringue martini. Richard the Bear thinks to himself that it’s too sweet, but he says he’s not going to tell her because, um, this is a competition. But Carla and Radhika do hint to Nervous Ariane that her dessert is a tad too sweet. So what does she do? Nothing.

Oh, she does tell everyone that if she goes down, she’s going to blame everyone for not being open with her. Huh? Why don’t you just blame your cooking? C’mon!

The rejects arrive for dinner, and they already start bitching and complaining about the menu. Meeeeow!

Back in the kitchen, in walks Chef Colicchio in a long blue apron and he introduces Craft’s regular chef Damon Wise who will be working with Chef Tom as “expeditors,” which if you recall from last season’s steakhouse episode, the expeditors are the people who call out the orders and asks how much longer it’s going to take for them to get it.

The judges arrive and it’s ladies’ choice with Padma, Donatella and Gail. The servers start taking everyone’s orders so now we can finally start seeing the finished dishes. Here’s the rundown:

Jamie’s chilled corn soup. Gail thinks it’s beautiful and light with the mint.

Hosea’s crab salad. Donatella says it’s slimy and one guy says he can taste the can it came out of.

Leah’s yukon potato and seared scallops. One guy says the scallops tasted sandy and Padma thinks the presentation is kind of a throwback to the 80s.

EU Fabio’s beef carpaccio and his kalamata liquid olives. Padma says it was beautiful and Donatella liked that he was being different with the olives.

Melissa’s grilled avocado salad. Everyone thought it was boring, and one guy (naturally) says he could have done better if he were selected. More people rip the creativity of the dish.

Jill’s ostrich egg quiche. It looks pretty, but someone says it resembles dog food. Donatella says it taste like glue.

Eugene’s deconstructed open-face meatloaf. Donatella doesn’t like the presentation.

EU Stefan’s pan seared halibut with micro greens. Padma likes the taste, others liked the flavor. It looks like a safe dish served at every restaurant.

Jeff the Hair is falling behind and Chef Tom is waiting for his chicken with honey mustard and chorizo. Everyone likes it but they’re not thrilled by it.

Alex’s stacked pork tenderloins. Donatella doesn’t like the flavor. One woman thinks it’s not up to par with something a Top Chef candidate would make (say like … herself, maybe?).

Radhika’s citrus avocado mousse. Gail says the food is weird and that the avocado mousse is really just a sweet guacamole.

Daniel’s ricotta pound cake. Donatella says it’s good, and most people seem to like it.

Nervous Ariane’s lemon meringue martini with hidden cherries and cookies. Padma nearly chokes from taking the first bite and I think she’s spitting it out now in her napkin. Everyone agrees that it’s toooo sweet.

Richard the Bear’s banana sandwich. Gail calls it an after-school snack.

Carla’s rustic apple tart with ginger peach tea and a lonely slice of cheddar cheese. Padma likes the taste of the dessert, but Donatella thinks the cheese looks like it fell off the diner truck.

All the dishes are served and now Chef Tom does a tasting in the kitchen. He makes a weird face after eating Nervous Ariane’s dessert.

Chef Tom joins the rest of the judges and says there were obvious missteps. He feels a bit shocked because he liked all the food last week, and now he’s wondering where did those cheftestants go? Plus, he doesn’t think anyone defined “new American” in their food and instead went backwards. (I’m still not really sure what the expectations are for “new American.”)

Back in the stew room, it’s Chef Tom instead of Padma who does the roll call, but not before he does a little speech about how unimpressed he was at the cheftestants new American cuisine. He asks for Jamie, Hosea, Nervous Ariane, EU Fabio, Carla and Jill. It’s funny how this season they’re calling the top and bottom people in together.

Padma says there were some bright spots and then starts going over each dish, starting with Carla’s dessert. Tom says the pastry was excellent, but she needed to work the cheddar into the dish. Padma says it was her favorite dessert.

Then they talk to EU Fabio, who really doesn’t know why he’s in this group. He thinks he’s going to get chewed out so he says he’s at a loss as to why people wouldn’t like his beef carpaccio because it’s so popular back at his restaurant in Los Angeles. Gail lets him know that everyone did like it and he’s among the top dishes, so Fabio has to do a 360 and thank the judges for putting him in this group. Everyone laughs.

Everyone raves about Jamie’s soup and the subtle hints of chili in the oil. I’m really tempted to try it because I love corn soup.

Donatella announces the winner as EU Fabio, who throws kisses at the judges. He says something in Italian during his interview about being the winner (what? Does this air in Italy?), and says that he’s now tied with EU Stefan. Um, Fabio, it’s only the second week.

Jill, Nervous Ariane and Hosea are on the bottom and Padma interviews each person. Hosea says he wanted to do something light and refreshing and actually thought he would win, but it sounded like the seasoning was off.

Ariane says she knew her dessert was too sweet, which is when Padma says she literally had to spit it out.

But the most interesting exchange is with Jill, who first of all looks like she’s out of it either because she’s super tired or just doesn’t care at this point. She talks about how she bought the ostrich egg to add another challenge but that she realizes it didn’t work and will try to do better the next time. She was actually going on and on and this is probably when the producers signal to Padma to let the cheftestant go on and on because sooner or later they’ll either hang themselves or make themselves sound incoherent. Judging by Chef Tom’s look, I think Jill achieved that.

Padma sends the trio back to the stew room so they can deliberate more, and Ariane goes back touting the fact that she’s the sure loser to go home this week. Take a number, Ariane.

Judgment. Tom says you have to stand out in this city (we know, because it’s tough). He says Hosea was complacent, Nervous Ariane was just so-so in a really tight competition, and Jill had a good idea but didn’t deliver. Just at the point where Padma is about to drop the knife, Jill makes this odd twitch in her face like she’s motioning to Ariane, telling Padma “pick her, she made you spit in your napkin.” But Padma sends Jill packing.

Jill says she’s disappointed and that Nervous Ariane should have gone home (I guess that twitch really was a signal), and that she’s still trying to figure out what she wants to do in her food career. She promises to crack more ostrich eggs until she gets it right. (Well, not really, but she should.)

Back in the stew room, Nervous Ariane cries and says she doesn’t deserve to be there and that she should have gone home. Carla tries to comfort her, saying something about not mistaking the universe. That universe, it’s a tricky thing in Top Chef land.

Next: They’re cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the Foo Fighters, looks like it’ll be a wet dinner, and did someone just spit on a plate? It’s like Thanksgiving at the Clampetts’.

“Top Chef: New York” airs every Wednesday at 10 p.m. (9 p.m. Central) on Bravo TV. Photos courtesy of Bravo TV’s Web site.