Sunday, September 25, 2011

Five Years and a New Chapter (and Blog)

It all started with my first post featuring my pork and peaches stir-fry recipe. It was my attempt to impress readers to this blog that I could be creative, marrying my Chinese cooking techniques with seasonal California influences (that would be the peach). And of course, the servings were just right for The Single Guy.

So that’s how Cooking With the Single Guy was born.

Five years later, I still post recipes, but not as often because I’ve pretty much gone through my repertoire of recipes. My blog has grown to include more dining reviews, food shopping and events (and maybe the occasional cupcake or frozen yogurt).

But you know what it’s like when you reach a milestone – like the seven-year itch, or a mid-life crisis. You reflect. You go down memory lane and get all emotional about a pork and peaches recipe. And you wonder about whether you still want this.

I’ve seen a lot of food bloggers who actually slowly disappeared, with no new updates. And you figure they probably just went on with their lives, leaving us behind with just the memories.

I just realized that I’ve now written myself into this hole where it sounds like I’m about to announce some bad news. But it’s actually good news. Really.

I will be moving on from this blog, and will no longer be updating it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still single. And I’m still cooking. It’s just I felt like I needed a change, something fresher, and something that focused more on my love of food photography. I'm not giving up food blogging. Just moving to a new address.

So I’m happy to announce that I’ve launched an entirely new food blog, one that showcases my photos better. I’m still writing about eating out, food shopping, events, and the occasional recipes. I’m just doing it now at Focus:Snap:Eat.

I’ve spent the last two months setting up this site, so I really hope that you’ll follow me over there. You’ll continue to see my photos and read about my food adventures. If you go there this week, for example, you’ll find photos of this weekend’s Eat Real Festival in Oakland, along with reviews of Nojo in San Francisco, a look at orange wines, and even a chicken recipe from my childhood.

I want to thank everyone who’ve taken the time to stop by and read my blog. I’m always amazed at how people find me, from all over the world. This blog will remain as an archive of my reviews and recipes. And I hope to read your comments at Focus:Snap:Eat as I begin the next chapter in my food blogging life.

Ben aka The Single Guy

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tyler Florence’s Angry Lobster with Tomato-Chile Butter Recipe

For this month’s Test Kitchen, I get to eat lobster thanks to your votes. Some 47 percent of you wanted me to try the “angry lobster” recipe from Tyler Florence’s “Tyler’s Ultimate” Cookbook that I got awhile back.

That far exceeded the other three choices: Ultimate chicken wings (23%), hunter’s minestrone (16%), and lemon ricotta crepes (12%).

The recipe keeps things simple, with minimal ingredients. I think when cooking lobster, the simpler the better because the lobster meat is just so great by itself.

The trick is finding the live lobster. Most places sell just frozen lobster tails, but whenever I need live seafood, I can always count on the seafood markets in Chinatown. So that’s where I went, and found the above huge lobster that weighed more than 2 lbs. (Florence’s recipe really only called for a 1.5 lb. lobster.)

The recipe gets its name from the fact that you have to kill the live lobster, which would make anyone angry. But in Chinese households, a quick chop to a lobster (or crab) between the eyes is a quicker death than boiling. And Florence agrees with me as he instructs you to first pierce a chef’s knife between the lobster’s eyes, then twisting off the claws, followed by cutting through the back and finally chopping the lobster tail into four sections.

I’m not going to photograph the cutting process, mostly because I have yet to figure out a way to shoot photos of myself while wielding a knife. So instead, here’s the end result with the lobster all chopped up. (One thing, though, is I didn’t really keep the body section, which really had just the gills and very little meat. Florence’s instructions made it sound like you should cook them too.)

Once I got my lobster ready, I prepped the other ingredients, which was a pint of cherry tomatoes, two handfuls of fresh basil, a teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes and 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced.

To prepare the dish, I started by warming a little less than a quarter cup of extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet. Then adding the garlic and red pepper flakes to infuse the oil (over medium high heat). With some flour that’s been seasoned in salt and pepper, I dredged the lobster pieces and tossed them into the pan. I cooked the lobster in two batches because it’s important not to crowded the skillet. Florence says to brown the lobster pieces for about 3 to 4 minutes on each side.

When the lobsters are all browned, then they all get combined in the skillet along with the cherry tomatoes, cooking for another five minutes to soften the tomatoes. Then add half the basil along with the juice of half a lemon.

To finish everything, I added in two tablespoon of unsalted butter, which creates a sauce for the butter. And then I just plated everything up and garnished with the remaining basil leaves. Looks pretty good huh?

My tips and warnings about this recipe:

  1. I don’t know if this is true for all lobsters, but mine had sooo much water in him (or her, I didn’t check) that when I chopped into it, a lot of liquid came out. Be very close to your sink to not mess up your counter top.
  2. Try not to use a lot of flour on your lobster pieces, dust them off a bit. The reason is the flour residue in the skillet will turn the butter you add later into a nice thick sauce. But too much flour can mean a super thick sauce. So use less flour or add more liquid or lemon juice at the end to thin out the butter sauce.
  3. Definitely serve this with bread to fill you up but also to soak up the chile butter sauce.

Ease of cooking: Although I’ve done it before with Dungeness crabs, it was a bit tougher killing a lobster, especially the one I got which was huuuge from Boston. The killing part is probably the toughest part of the recipe, and then after that it’s pretty easy.

Taste: Keeping it simple, the taste was pretty nice, with the butter and slight heat from the red pepper flakes. I really enjoyed it.

Overall grade: A, because this was a simple preparation, tasty, and really looks vibrant in the red and green when presented. I’m definitely going to try another recipe from this cookbook. (Maybe the lemon ricotta crepes!)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Joong Demo by Chef Alex Ong

This past weekend was the Dragon Boat races in the San Francisco Bay Area. It's a great outdoor event to watch teams maneuver dragon boats near Treasure Island.

The event is actually tied to the ancient Chinese folk festival celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth moon on the lunar calendar (which is roughly around the summer). The festival honors a Chinese poet who jumped into a river, and people raced in dragon boats to save him. So that's how the races came about.

One of the signature food associated with the festival is joong, a sticky rice delicacy that's wrapped in bamboo leaves into a nice package. The story goes that when the racers reached the poet's body, they found that he was already dead and to keep the fish and other sea animals from eating away at his body, they threw the joong into the river to give the fish something else to eat.

OK, so that's a lot of Chinese folk history. All this is to introduce a chef's demo at Macy's that I went to this weekend featuring Chef Alex Ong of Betelnut restaurant in San Francisco. The demo featured the making of joong in honor of the dragon boat races this weekend. (Even though the festival traditionally takes place around June, the Bay Area holds its races later in the summer when the weather is nicer as we can attest to after having a foggy and cold summer.)

The demo was also hosted by my friend Carolyn Jung, who pens the popular Food Gal blog. Carolyn did a great job telling the audience about the Dragon Boat festival and about Ong's restaurant. And did you know Carolyn used to be on a dragon boat team? I can believe it. I mean, she must have strong arms from all the batter she makes when baking. ;-)

Joong is made with glutinous rice, which makes it more than just sticky, it is almost creamy like risotto, but still firm enough to keep its shape. My mom made these a lot when I was growing up, and she was an expert joong wrapper, with the bamboo leaves and rice in one hand and the twine in another that she'd used to tie up her joong. She'd add the traditional ingredients like fatty salted pork, a salted duck egg, and black eye beans.

Ong made a healthier version, using portabella mushrooms instead of pork belly. The marinated portabella is roasted to make the texture meaty, and then they're added to the glutinous rice and duck egg and wrapped in the bamboo leaves before being boiled at a low temperature for about two hours.

Joong, which Carolyn describes as a Chinese "tamale," is one of those traditional Chinese food that's very comforting, and fewer and fewer people are making them in the United States. Hopefully demos like these will encourage people to make them. (Like Ong said, throw yourself a joong party.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Return to Flour + Water in San Francisco

This is an occasional report on return visits to restaurants that I’ve already reviewed.

Perfecting Pasta for Dinner
2401 Harrison St. (at 20th), San Francisco
Mission District
PH: 415.826.7000
Dinner daily from 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. (till midnight Thursday to Saturday)
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

Original visit: July 2009

When I first visited the popular Flour + Water soon after it opened in the outskirts of the Mission District, I fell in love with its pasta even though more people went for the pizza. But now the pasta dishes have been getting their due, and the restaurant’s chef Thomas McNaughton goes around town leading pasta-making classes.

So when my friend David mentioned he had reservations (still pretty hard to come by) and was interested in its pasta tasting menu, I said yes faster than the shutter snaps in my camera.

We arrived for our early reservations at the restaurant, which looked pretty much the same since my last visit with its wooden furnishings and eclectic artwork. There was a steady crowd arriving soon after the doors open, which says a lot considering that we were eating on Monday night.

McNaughton’s summer pasta tasting menu is a six-course menu for $60 (wine pairing available for an additional $40). Everyone at the table has to order the tasting menu, which is brought out family style.

Dinner started off with an amuse that was both delectable and mesmerizing in appearance. This roasted candy striped fig was just slightly sweet from a glaze, but was flavored more by pickled mustard seeds and horseradish cream.

Our first pasta course was an eggplant and ricotta triangoli with cherry tomatoes and basil – classic flavors for the summer. I couldn’t really detect the eggplant flavor in the triangoli (which seemed like ravioli to me but I guess is named for its triangular shape). Still, I enjoyed the bright and bold flavors of the cherry tomatoes.

Next up was a squid ink chitarra with sea urchin (or uni) with cherry tomatoes, chili and mint. I like the dramatic black pasta from the squid ink, but both David and I commented on the distinctive smell of squid ink pasta. To me, it’s almost slightly funky, and it was clearly evident in Flour + Water’s version. David could barely detect the mint, and I commented on how odd it was to have back to back dishes featuring cherry tomatoes. I mean, I know it’s the summer ingredient, but mixing it up a bit makes a tasting menu more interesting.

Then we moved to some of the meatier courses, like this rabbit francobolli with chanterelles and fried sage. The pasta was another filled pasta but the shape was supposed to resemble a postage stamp. The filling was tasty although I’m not sure if anyone could identify the meat as rabbit. Both David and I agreed that the start of the dish was the beautifully prepared chanterelles.

This rigatoni with goat sausage, rabe, roasted peppers and oregano increased in flavor from the previous pasta dish, but I was starting to feel that the pasta dishes started to look the same, with family similar color and sauce.

Our final pasta dish turned out to be my favorite of the night. It was the sweetbread cannelloni with spigarello, savory and cippolinis. The baked cheese that created the cannelloni smelled wonderful, and I loved the bold flavors of the sweetbread filling. David thought it leaned toward the salty side, but I’m used to Italian dishes being a bit more salty.

We ended dinner with a nocciolata semifreddo, which actually looked like a pate when it arrived. Semifreddo is like an ice cream cake, although not as frozen. Flour + Water’s version was made from gelato and served with a grape and terragon granita with candied fennel puree. The semifreddo was nice and creamy, but I thought the hazelnuts inside were a bit too big with each bite. It probably would have been better as just a hint of hazelnut as opposed to the huge crunch of them inside. David felt this (and the fig, both non-pasta dishes) was his favorite dish of the night.

David needed to bring some dinner back to the wife (his trade-off for coming out to dinner with me) so he ordered a basic margherita pizza. I mentioned to David how I wasn’t that thrilled by the pizza the first time I dined here because the crust was soggy or chewy. So he lit me try a bit of the pizza, and the thin crust was way better than I remembered. It might be because a margherita has less topping, making it easier to crisp up the crust, but it definitely made me realize that when ordering pizzas at Flour + Water, the simpler the better.

I had a fun time seeing the progression of the pasta tasting menu, although I thought the progression was steady highs as opposed to creative leaps. David thought the place was a great neighborhood spot, but not much different than the many pasta and pizza spots opening around the Bay Area.

The people behind Flour + Water are actually planning a new restaurant nearby called Central Kitchen (which will also feature a salumeria), but I wonder if some of the new innovations should be tested at Flour + Water before branching out because it seems like while everything was great, there hasn’t been much change since the start.

Update experience (previously 3.75 stars): Bumped up to 4 stars with the perfected pizza making

Flour + Water on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 12, 2011

Happy Moon Festival

Today is the Chinese Moon Festival, which is a folk celebration that coincides with the fall harvest. So sometimes it’s known as a harvest festival and families typically put on a feast. But in the United States, most Chinese-Americans know it as “moon cake day.”

One of the signature dish eaten on this day is the moon cake, a pastry-shelled cake with a creamy filling. The cakes are traditionally round in shape to mirror the moon, but over the years people have been redesigning the moon cake, making them in various shapes and colors.

Over the weekend, San Francisco Chinatown put on its annual Moon Festival Street Fair. And this year there were, thankfully, lots of imported moon cakes for sale (I just find the Asian bakeries a bit more creative than in the United States). I even saw one booth selling durian ice cream moon cakes (it’s actually not that fun to eat).

I got a box of traditional moon cakes, but in miniature size since I’m the Single Guy. These cakes, from the famous Kee Wah Bakery in Hong Kong, were square shaped and have an interesting mold design (all moon cakes are made in a mold with intricate designs).

The filling was the traditional (and my favorite) lotus paste, which was creamy and sweet, but not too sweet. Other moon cakes can come in various fillings like black sesame and one that looks almost like a fruitcake. And of course, it’s always special when you have a salted egg in the center, again to represent the moon.

You’re probably wondering what are the pink and green pastries in the photo above. They’re known as “Teochow” moon cakes and are popular in other parts of Asia, such as Singapore and Malaysia. They’re made with a spiraling technique that creates that interesting layered appearance. (My friend Annie in Kuching makes it all look simple on her blog post.)

The box of teochow moon cakes came from a Taiwan bakery called Emperor. The pink colored ones are made from taro and the green ones are, doh, green tea.

Both the taro and green tea were a little too sweet for me, and the pastry wasn’t as flakey as I imagined they would, but that’s probably because they had to be shipped. I’m sure they probably would taste great freshly made.

One thing about moon cakes is that they are not at all light. With the filling and the pastry shell, they pack a lot of calories. So I’m glad I got the miniature ones. Hope you’re enjoying some moon cakes today too!

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Chez Papa Bistrot in San Francisco

Paris Charm in Potrero Hill
1401 18th St. (at Missouri), San Francisco
Potrero Hill neighborhood
PH: 415.824.8205
Open lunch, Mon.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner daily, 5:30–10 p.m. (till 11 p.m. on Fri.–Sat.)
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

Chez Papa Bistrot is like a first love who charmed you and made you feel special. Over the years your eyes wander and then you start taking your lover for granted. Then you realize over the years that things aren’t exactly the same, but that special “it” factor that made you fall in love in the first place is still there, ready to be rekindled.

Such was my return to Chez Papa Bistrot.

I ate at this Potrero Hill neighborhood bistro when I first arrived in San Francisco a decade ago, and would return whenever I wanted a special dining experience because the tiny space – cozy in red with friendly French-accented service – never failed to deliver in food and ambiance.

But after I moved out of the city it was harder getting to Potrero. Last weekend when I went to a food event with the adventurous Foodhoe, we decided to get Sunday dinner at Chez Papa since we were already in that part of the city.

Chez Papa is still bustling with customers squeezing into the tiny space, which has always been able to bring a little bit of the South of France to San Francisco. Foodhoe ordered off the menu while I decided to go with the 3-course prix fixe menu for $34.95.

With the prix fixe, I could choose from three to four options for each course. For my appetizer, I chose the Grilled Local Sardines, which came out on top of a chick pea salad with a brilliant green pistou coulis. The beautiful plate of fresh sardine was grilled perfectly and brightened by the pesto.

Foodhoe started with the Baby Golden and Red Beets Salad ($10) served with the classic combination of goat cheese and watercress.

Foodhoe wanted a light dinner, so following her salad she ordered Chez Papa’s signature mussels ($14). The mussels can be prepared with four types of broth, and I believe Foodhoe went with the Mariniere style, which is simply garlic, parsley and white wine. Foodhoe said she definitely could taste the garlic, and of course she had the mussels with a side of French fries (or frites for $5).

My entrée was the Pan-roasted Red Trout served with braised cabbage, smoked bacon, pearl onions and lemon-tarragon beurre blanc. The trout was nicely cooked, tender and slightly flakey while the cabbage and broth were full of flavor.

My final and third course was dessert, and I chose the Lavender crème brulee. I’m a big fan of lavender, and the essence was definitely prominent in the custard cream. I really enjoyed it although the sugar top (the brulee) was a bit thick, but not that thick that it prevented me from getting to all of the cream.

The food brought back many good memories of dinners past, and reminded me how I need to make an effort to come back again. Even though the setting does sometimes show the wear and tear of age, the food is still quality stuff, showing that Chez Papa Bistrot still has heart.

Single guy rating: 3.75 stars (French travels without a passport)

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

Chez Papa on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Food Gallery

Hope you all enjoyed your Labor Day weekend. If you were like me, you probably roasted or grilled some vegetables. When I cut into this red bell pepper, I got a surprise with all the little -- and colorful -- things growing inside.

I've never had a pepper like this. It looked like it was a mom pepper with lots of babies inside. Unfortunately, I just dug them out and threw them away. But not before I took a picture of them.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Leopold's in San Francisco

Alpine Dining with Beer Hall Fun
2400 Polk St. (at Union), San Francisco
Russian Hill neighborhood
PH: 415.474.2000
Open daily, 5:30 to 10 p.m. (till 11 p.m. on Friday, Saturday)
No reservations, major credit cards accepted

Walking into Leopold's gasthaus (German tavern), you definitely feel like there's going to be a party. The place is packed and everyone seems to be having a good time. Who wouldn't with free-flowing beer and Alpine-style comfort food?

Leopold's opened in the past year, replacing a longtime Italian restaurant. The new place focuses on Bavarian food, which was explained to me as an area that encompasses Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Northern Italy. I haven't really eaten this type of food (unless you count the Ikea cafeteria), so was willing to explore and learn.

My friend David actually suggested this place, so I met up with him recently for dinner. Because Leopold's doesn't take reservations, we waited briefly at the back bar before being seated at our table. While at the bar, David pointed out the boot-sized glass that some parties would order for their beer. When empty, the boot glass didn't look that big, but I didn't want to push it and just got a normal size mug of Spaten.

The menu was an interesting mix of sausages, traditional Bavarian dishes, and some offal like pig trotters. David and I started off our dinner by sharing the Grilled Duck Crepinettes ($10.25). In learning about crepinettes, I found out they are not mini crepes but instead is similar to a sausage.

Leopold's makes its crepinettes with duck, and serves it wrapped in white cabbage and placed on a mound of mashed potatoes and duck prosciutto. The duck crepinette had a lot of flavor, although it wasn't densely pack but more loose meat inside. The cabbage, nicely tender but not over cooked, totally matched my impressions of the food of this region.

For our entrees, David ordered the house specialty and one of the more traditional foods for this type of cuisine -- the Wiener Schnitzel ($15.25). Of course, David had to order it not just because it's the specialty, but because it's deep-fried so I knew I wouldn't get it. The wiener schnitzel is a pounded piece of meat (I think it was veal or pork?) and then breaded and deep fried, just like a cutlet.

I tried a bit and it tasted OK, but nothing spectacular. David felt the same, but that wasn't the case with the warm potato salad that came with it. The salad had slices of cucumber, which transformed the simple potato salad to a new dining experience for both of us. I especially love the freshness of cucumbers, and wouldn't have thought of adding them to a potato salad. But trust me, it's an amazing combination.

I ordered something different on the menu, the Braised Pork Cheek ($17.25). My plate arrived with a huge mound of potato gnocchi, fennel sausage, mustard greens, cherry tomatoes and corn. But the braised pork cheek was just a little chunk sitting on top.

Still, the pork cheek was tender and richly flavored with the deep, intense flavor of red wine. I enjoyed mixing the pork cheek with the rest of the ingredients. David said he liked my plate better than his, which is a first for me because typically when we eat out, he usually orders the better dish. (Ha! I win this time, David!)

Continuing our culinary lesson, I felt we needed to order dessert because one of the items had the word strudel in it and that seemed so traditional. It was an Apfelstrudel ($6.25), which is an apple strudel. It looked pretty with a dollop of warm vanilla cream. The strudel was nice thin layers of apple and pastry, and I thought it was expertly done. I did wish it was a bit more warm though, like the comfort of a warm apple pie.

Throughout dinner, people kept coming in (and this was a weeknight) checking on availability, and the hosts up front were always friendly and accommodating. In fact, the service was friendly all around. The only downside about the restaurant is the high din of noise, making it really hard to hear each other talk. It really had the acoustics of a beer hall.

The noise, however, just adds to the festive environment, and Leopold's is a welcoming neighborly spot with food that holds up to the noise.

Single guy rating: 3.75 stars (heavy but worth it)

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

Leopold's on Urbanspoon