Thursday, June 24, 2010

Bunk and Voodoo in Portland OR

Dear Mouse,

There ought to be a word for food tourism (besides "food tourism", or heaven forbid "gastrotourism", which I bet is what the word is. (Well, if I go look it up now I'm just going to have to think of another opening gambit.)

In any case, I want to share some more food discoveries I made while "in the field", if you will. My trip to Oregon! last weekend was not intended to be a gastrotourism (blech!) jaunt at all. The point of going to McMinville was my friend Titania's appropriately fairytale wedding (on the summer solstice under the apple tree in her grandmother's backyard, a harpist, a horse and carriage, a guided meditation, yoga on the lawn before the ceremony, ice cream sandwiches and pink champane after. Uh-mazing). I went there with no preconceived notions, not even knowing I was heading to the heart of Oregon wine country...!! as in, even the hippie grocery store with seven kinds of agave syrup (I do not exaggerate) sported a wine tasting and a a guy playing an acoustic guitar. Oregon, in a nutshell, is wine, coffee, live music, and men determined to abstain from facial hair grooming ('homeless chic'?). Also, as it turns out, some pretty delicious deliciousness.

If you do visit McMinnville OR - stay in the quirky, haunted Hotel Oregon where all the rooms have names like "The UFO Room" and "The Coaches Room" (mine -- inspirational bios of local football coaches handpainted on the walls). Have a drink at the rooftop bar around sunset. Kill an afternoon eating hot gougeres and tasting all the 'Big Fire' wines at R. Stuart & Co. Winery, which I loved not just because they are named after one of my songs. I went home with a bottle of the Big Fire Pinot Noir in my suitcase: Blackberrylicious, easy and dark at once, smooth, I dont know how to describe wines. Bistro Maison (two words: pommes frites) is a great great, light, airy, pleasant place to have lunch and feel like you actually stopped off in France for the afternoon. Oh, and the Red Fox Bakery next to the hotel is where you wanna go in the morning with your paper to eat a just-from-the-oven "cinnamon snail" pastry. I saw one of the cute young women on staff pull an actual red wagon full of baguettes up to the door and I deeply regret not taking a picture.

Wow. Well, that was pretty much all the space I allotted for this post and I haven't even gotten to Portland yet, where the real gastrotour-Oh, I can't do it - adventure took place. Basically I found myself with several hours to kill in Portland before my flight home, and two die-hard 'foodie' companions, who had already mapped out that afternoon's itinerary: Bunk Sandwiches for lunch, and Voodoo Donuts for dessert. I went along for the ride.

I'll switch to mostly visual aids for this part.

One rail journey, one bridge, one park, and then through these winding empty streets and abandoned buildings we bravely marched in search of sandwiches.
We joined the other hopefuls lining up for lunch.

Then we had lunch. Pulled pork sandwich on toasty buttered bun with pickles and chips. Tasty, tangy, satisfying. A little dare I say it too greasy. I didn't need the mayo, but then I rarely do.

Voodoo Donuts is most famous for its 'Maple Bacon Bar' (rectangular donut iced with deeply maple frosting and crowned with a strip of bacon) but I couldn't do it. This is the 'Marshall Mathers' Donut: a modest offering from the 'cake donut' menu (they also have a 'raised donuts' for the Krispy Kreme types) with vanilla frosting and yes, tiny eminems. Voodoo is a hole in the wall with no seats, but the magnificent Stumptown Coffee two doors down makes a perfect eating location. (Warning: not even this delicious, fully charged cup could lift my food coma.)

So, there you have it, Mouse. Another beautiful destination wedding with pleasant unexpected fringe benefits. Traveling is great. But, as they say, home is where the Hart is:

This pressed sandwich (the famous pernil (pork shoulder), sliced pickles, home-pickled onions, provolone, chipotle mayo ), made by you and the Boyfriend and served toasty warm to me at the Mouse House with black beans and rice, trumps it all. Next to it, 'Bunk' is, well, just that.


The Boo

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Sauce That Changed Everything

Dear Boo,

You know that feeling when all of a sudden in a stroke of ingenuity or practicality, you try doing something differently, something new, make one tiny change, and think to yourself, why didn't I do this ages ago? My life would have been so much easier/better/less expensive! You know what I mean, right? Like when you turn your desk 90ยบ and suddenly realize that you have a better view and your productivity has shot up, or when you walk past your normal lunch place and try that other spot on the corner only to find that their salads are fresher, their prices cheaper, they carry your favorite brand of chips, and the old guy behind the counter tells you you look nice today in a way that makes you happy, not skeeved out?

Well, I just had one of those moments.

I love Vietnamese food. Pho, barbequed beef, spring rolls, summer rolls, bun. From my (albeit limited) experience, it's all delicious. And the thing that usually makes it so good, is the ubiquitous nuoc cham sauce that's served alongside so many of these dishes. I'm a sucker for dipping sauces, and this one really takes the cake. Like so much of vietnamese cuisine, it hits notes of sour, salty, sweet, and spicy. It's light and fresh, (even healthy!) but so flavorful, and it tastes good on everything from stir-fried veggies to gym socks.

Until this week, I thought I could only indulge my passion for nuoc cham-dunked bites (I'm salivating as I type this) when I got it together to take a trip to Nha Trang in chinatown, or a couple extra bucks to go to O Mai nearby, or in a pinch to Saigon Grill for some take-out Goi Cuon Tom. Then it occurred to me. Why can't I make this at home? It's only got a few easy to find (and cheap) ingredients. I have access to the internet, home to a bajillion recipes, and I own the necessary equipment: bowl, spoon. How had I never thought of this before??

Well, I hadn't. And I regret that. But my discovery has left me forever changed. I suggest you try it too. Prepare to have your mind and tastebuds blown. And try not to obsess too much over all those times you could have eaten this and didn't. We live and learn. Onwards and upwards.


The Mouse

Nuoc Cham Sauce (adapted from Food and Wine)

Like most staples, there are a million different recipes for this sauce, and it varies depending on where in Vietnam it comes from. This is the version I made and loved, and will probably stick with because the proportions are so easy to remember. Of course, you can taste and adjust to make it sweeter, spicier, more acidic, or add more water to dilute it. As for what to eat it with, I poured some over a bowl of simply stir-fried veggies and rice. I also stirred some into a bowl of sauteed kale and scallions. It would be delicious with grilled beef, pork chops, shrimp, rice noodles, or over a salad with some tofu and crushed peanuts. Vietnamese food features a lot of fresh herbs such as cilantro, basil, and mint, all of which go well with this sauce. Make a double batch and keep it in the fridge--it'll last in a jar for a month. Though I dare you not to eat it before then.

2 red thai chiles, 1 medium jalapeno, (or a hefty pinch of dried red pepper flakes which I used because I didn't have a chile on hand)

2 medium garlic cloves, thickly sliced

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons water

In a mortar, pound the chiles, garlic and sugar to a paste. If you don't have a mortar, which I don't, you can mince the garlic and chile and then mash it into a paste with the sugar using the back of your spoon against the bowl. Stir in the fish sauce, lime juice and water. If you'd prefer a smoother sauce and have an extra couple of minutes, use hot water to dissolve the sugar. Feel free to garnish with crushed peanuts or finely shredded carrots.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Schmoo To You, Winnipeg

Dear Mouse,
There are many ways to answer the question 'What is Winnipeg?' For example:

It's the capital city of the Canadian province of Manitoba.
It's where you and I and spent last weekend at our friend's beautiful wedding.
It's the home of Tim Horton's, a coffee shop chain that strikes fear into my heart for reasons I can't quite fathom.
It's the city where our dear friend and former New Yorker the Cat Lady lives with her new husband, the Nicest Guy in the World (NGIW, going forward)
It's (as the kind lady from the city of Regina put it on my flight over) "just one big Regina". And yes, she pronounced it like that. (I'll wait).


It's the home of this cake.

I can stop looking. I've found (him?her?it? whatever), the cake of my dreams.

First some context. Camera, zoom out. Mind, prepare to be blown.

Ladies and gentlemen, the wedding cakes. CAKES. Twenty-two, to be precise. Who knew you could do that? Cat Lady tells us it cost the same as ONE traditional wedding cake which would have been, you know, all white and tall and eaten by no one.

So I know I've had a bit of a theme going this year about Sarah Leah Chase and the various ways she's both nurtured and disappointed me, and I'm just going to go there one more time. In the Open House Cookbook, she has a recipe for something called a French Nut Icebox Cake which she describes as "creamy, crunchy, and intensely nutty, all at the same time". (Yes, Mouse, that was from memory.) I've never made it because -and perhaps here I'm revealing too much about myself- I am so sure it cannot possibly live up to this description. Over the years I've fantasized some really great desserts that might be like it, but I had come to accept that I would never, in fact, taste it in reality. (In my defense, the ingredients involved ladyfingers, which do nothing for me. Also - Icebox cakes: Meh.)

But what a diference a day (and a flight to northern Canada) makes. As I said, there were 22 cakes!!! to choose from. But the moment I laid eyes on (him?her?it?whatever), I knew it was The One. Not even the unfortunate name ("Schmoo" apparently is just an affectionate nickname for the caramel sauce) could deter me from this More Perfect Union.

The thing that pains me is that I know however I describe it here it's not going to sound like much. It's basically a light spongy pecan cake layered with whipped cream, textured with chopped nuts, and drizzled with caramel sauce. There are, of course, variations, but that's basically it. To give you a better idea of the experience, I'll just say that while researching this post, the Internet suggested the following as "Related Searches": Earth Layers, Seizure Types, The Antichrist, Heaven, Hell, Love, and Egypt. Yep. This cake is that apocalyptic, that mythological, that universally themed. Its allure and relevance know no bounds (unless you dont like caramel or something, but... what?)

I have yet to make it, but just to get it out there, this recipe looks pretty solid. On a completely unrelated note, my birthday is coming up pretty soon.


The Boo

PS. The delightful blog Mennonite Girls Can Cook (yes), suggests a version with bananas, claiming that "banana and schmoo just belong together, a marriage made in heaven". Like this one:

photos here by Joe Zarrow and by LuckyGirl Photography

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Risky Business, Or how The Mouse gained a recipe and almost lost a finger

Dear Boo,

Call it my Aries nature, but I sometimes have this intense urge that rises up inside me to do highly risky, questionable, and frankly, insane things. Like, say, get a full-scale image of my profile tattooed to the side of my face.* Or to pick up and enter the Race Across America endurance event.** Or to butterfly a chicken without kitchen shears. Most of the time, that other tiny part of my brain that houses practicality kicks in and takes me down a notch. But there are some times when the urge is too strong, when before I can think twice, I find myself in the kitchen armed with a dull chef's knife and gripping a pale, raw chicken in a humiliating position on the counter.

But I didn't mean to write to you about my neuroses. What I meant to do was to thank you for introducing me to the Splendid Table podcast and tell you about a recipe I found there in case you missed it, despite it almost directly leading to me very nearly losing a finger or two.

(apologies for the lame pics--these were taken pre-new camera with built in smell-o-vision)

On your recommendation, I started downloading the podcast a few months ago and was immediately hooked on one Lynne Rossetto Kaspar (even her name conjures up images of canned peaches and gingham, runner beans and noodle casseroles). Listening to Lynne's soothing voice as she interviews an expert about the steel used for an ancient knife-making technique, or cooks lunch with Diana Kennedy in her home kitchen in Mexico became my routine on my sleepy trip to school in the early morning, staving off any anxiety or sleep-deprived crowded-#4 train grumpiness. I look forward to the weekly visit from Jane and Michael Stern, roadfoodies extraordinaire, as they describe in excruciating detail their latest fried/glazed/cheese-smothered local discovery. Doesn't it always sound like Jane is licking her chops when she talks? I worry about their cholesterol, but I always enjoy the vicarious thrill. And then there's the few random tips and tricks Lynne throws in between segments. It was one of these that got stuck in my craw and wouldn't go until I gave in, bought a chicken and set to work, shears or no.

The premise is simple. Lynne says to take a can of chipotle peppers in adobo, throw in some pitted dried prunes, a dash of vinegar, a load of garlic, and some sugar. Whirr it all together in a food processor and you have a hot, sweet, acidic, garlicy sauce for slathering. Then, Lynn says, take your chicken, cut out the backbone and flatten it for optimal roasting. Spread the sauce all over, and roast in the oven at 350 (I think I'd prefer a higher temp, say, 400). Simple, quick, and when the sauce cooks and caramelizes into a sweet, sticky, crispy, gooey, spicy glaze, you'll want to lick your fingers with glee. That is, if you have any fingers left after removing the backbone.

This recipe is awesome. It's easy, yummy, and I think I'm sold on butterflying as the best way to cook a chicken without some parts drying out and some being underdone. But for lord's sake don't let the demons of spontaneity win out over sanity. Be sure you have a pair of shears (or some really stellar knife skills and a one hell of a sharp knife) before you attempt this. The combination of slippery chicken skin, stubborn bones, and delicate fingers, is nothing to take lightly. I'll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say neither the chicken nor I went down without a fight.
The side bar/post script note to this is that shortly after I made this (served with roasted sweet potato wedges and a salad), I slathered the leftover sauce on some boneless chicken thighs, roasted those at 500 for a hot minute, sliced them up and served them as a stellar taco filling. Delicious. I think this rub would work for any meat you plan to throw on the barbie this summer: ribs, pork chops, even maybe some shrimp skewers? I dunno--try it.

Thank you, Boo. Thank you, Lynne. Thank you, instructional videos on youtube. This chipotle-fruit rub is definitely becoming a staple in my kitchen. As are a sturdy pair of shears. I'll save the dare-deviling for the stage.


The Mouse

*Don't worry, mom, I would never.
**Okay, not this either. I don't enjoy sweating. Or exercise.

Lynne Rossetto Kaspar's Chipotle-fruit Puree (an approximation by the Mouse)
Listen to Lynne's recipe here!
1 small can of chipotle peppers in adobo

1 handful of pitted dried prunes
1-2 Tablespoons white or cider vinegar

5 cloves of garlic

1-2 Tablespoons brown sugar or honey

1 3-4 lb chicken, though boneless chicken thighs, drumsticks, or pork chops would work beautifully (cooking temp and times will vary)

Puree first 4 ingredients in food processor until smooth but chunky. All amounts are estimates--adjust to suit your taste. This will make more than enough for one chicken. It keeps well in fridge until you want to use the rest.
With shears, cut out the backbone of the chicken. Flip it over and with the heel of your hand, press down until you hear a crack and the chicken lies flat. Salt and pepper, and spread generously with puree. Roast in pre-heated oven at 350 for 50 minutes, or if you're me, at 400 for 40 minutes, basting every so often. For a built-in side dish, slice wedges of sweet potato, toss with olive oil and salt and lay chicken on top to roast.