Sunday, November 29, 2009

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: An After Thanksgiving Colombian Tapas Party!

Since I started with Foodbuzz last December I have wanted to be a part of their 24, 24, 24 feature, in which 24 different bloggers post 24 different meals in 24 hours. The problem until now has been my shyness about presenting the idea (pauses to let those who know me throw their heads back in laughter at the very thought of my shyness. Okay, you can stop laughing now. No, really.), because I wasn’t too sure of how it would be received. Fortunately, the stars have a way of aligning themselves properly and with 2 extra days to work with, one very enthusiastic mom and one visiting aunt, I felt a bit more confident about presenting my idea to the fine editors at Foodbuzz. And by some odd twist of fate, I was selected to be a part of this month’s festivities.

What I’m about to present is decidedly different and unique for me: an After Thanksgiving Colombian Tapas Party (N.B. Though this was just a party of three, Colombians will invent holidays and celebrate anything no matter how big or small the group or event may be; ergo, this was a party!). Until now, my basic idea had been to serve certain traditional Colombian dishes tapas-style, something I have yet to see. Empanadas, buñuelos, pan de bono, manjar blanco, dulce de guava con queso – truly, some of these Colombian staples scream “tapas” once you get them into more manageable sizes. I’ve had visions of yucca and dreams of pique dancing in my head for simply months now. But when I received the email announcing the submission details for November’s feature, I thought it would be fun to experiment and create my own fusion menu of Colombian tapas with a Thanksgiving twist. You all know how much I love recycling my leftovers to reduce my food costs and have something new, and being selected to be part of this month’s 24, 24, 24 held during the holiday weekend really gave me the room to stretch my budget and my creativity to create something different.

I knew I could count on my Mom to help me with my bizarre little endeavor (she’s seriously my biggest cheerleader and fan and I love her for it), but was made even happier about this whole meal when we learned my Tia (Aunt) Matilda would be dropping by for a very unexpected Thanksgiving visit. I hadn’t seen Tia since I was about 14, so I was really excited to see her. I was even more excited to listen to the banter between my mom & her sister, reliving their childhood in Colombia in that delicious accent of theirs. Nothing like getting a pair of chatty Colombian sisters together with a bunch of food to prepare and stories that make you laugh so hard you cry! Plus, I would finally get to learn a lot of the secrets behind making some of my favorite Colombian foods from women who actually know how to prepare it, something I’ve been dying to learn for a long time.

After spending the actual Thanksgiving holiday at my Mom’s place in San Jose, the three of us packed up our leftovers and specialty items and took the train back to my place here in Sacramento. Because the weather was kind of nasty over the weekend we didn’t take Auntie to do as much sightseeing as I would have liked, but I was able to show her some key spots in the Downtown area and point out the beauty & history of the Sacramento River. On Saturday morning we went shopping for some produce and other items at Safeway (stopping briefly at another store to get the queso fresco for the buñuelos; I wonder why Safeway stopped carrying this kind of cheese?), then headed back to Casa de Poor Girl to get our cook on.

On the menu for the evening:

~ Empanadas con Guiso de Pavo y Hogao (cornmeal pockets filled with shredded turkey and savory tomato-scallion sauce)
~ Yucca Fries with Pique (chunky scallion-cilantro sauce)
~ My Grandmother’s Buñelos (cheese fritters)
~ Patacones (fried green plantains)
~ Papitas de Paseo con Hogao (“Picnic Potatoes” with tomato-scallion sauce)
~ Candied Orange Yam Empanadas (cornmeal pockets filled with my Mom’s candied orange yams)
~ Platanos Maduros con Chocolate (grilled sweet plantains with chocolate drizzle)
~ Bocadillo de Guayaba y Brevas con Queso (guava paste candied green figs with cheese)

I planned the menu around some of my favorite Colombian finger foods & appetizers that could easily be served tapas style. Except for the Thanksgiving inspired empanadas, I enjoyed many of these platillos as snacks or side dishes as a child during my family’s yearly visits to Colombia. Most of these recipes are borrowed from various aunts and my grandmother, lending a warm, cozy feeling to this small family gathering. Mama and Tia were very gracious about letting me run the show and happily chopped away as I worked on the two new empanada recipes, but I made sure to ask for help when it came to things like the right ratio of masa (dough) & guiso (a mixture of meat, spices and sauce) for the empanadas, or how to peel that darned yucca without severely injuring myself. As they challenged each other with who could remember the most about their childhood in Colombia, I snapped pictures of their hands in action. To me all hands are beautiful and tell a story, and I find both my Mom’s and my Auntie’s hands to be just lovely.

Our day of cooking proved to be educational for all of us, as Tia had forgotten what went into some of the recipes and I had no idea what I was doing in some instances. Mama was an excellent coach and teacher, especially when it came to making and shaping the empanadas. Because I was scaling down their size, she made sure to point out that they couldn’t be overfilled. I learned the difference in oil temperatures when preparing buñuelos versus empanadas and patacones, and finally learned the proper ratio of ingredients for making pique. What is pique? The best way I can describe it in English is that it’s a slightly chunky scallion & cilantro sauce which is pickled in cumin spiced vinegar. You can think of it as Colombia’s answer to chimichurri, using the green onions and cilantro as opposed to the Argentine parsley and garlic. Like chimichurri, it can be used in just about everything, from meats to soups, or as a dipping sauce for hors d’oeuvres, as illustrated in this meal. Let’s check out the recipe for the pique and the yucca fries.

Yucca Fries with Pique (serves 4; total cost per serving of fries: ~ $1.00)

2 medium yuccas (fresh, not frozen!)
8 c lightly salted water
4 c light cooking oil (canola, etc.)

Begin by peeling the yucca. To do so easily and safely, cut off each end of the yucca root then cut the yucca in half. Take one of the halves and hold it firmly (as illustrated by Mom in the photo) and cut into the peel down the length of the yucca. With the knife, gently begin to dislodge the peel from the flesh, finishing the peeling process with your fingers and plenty of elbow grease. Once this part is done, the rest is a piece of cake! Cut the yucca into 1/2" thick fries that are about 2-3” in length. Cook them in rapidly boiling, salted water about 10 minutes or until they just become tender. Do not overcook as these will finish cooking in the frying process. Drain them from the water and allow to cool to room temperature.

In a large saucepan heat the cooking oil until very hot (use a small piece of yucca to test the oil; if the yucca begins to fry and rise to the top immediately, the oil is ready). Cook the yucca fries until they’re a light golden brown and drain a plate lined with plenty of paper towels. You can salt them if you like but you won’t really need to, as the yucca’s distinct flavor is delicious on its own. Serve them with pique, a small side of hogao, or your favorite salsa. Enjoy!

Pique (yields 3 cups as written; total cost of entire recipe: $4.50)

2 c finely chopped scallions (greens & tops)
1 c finely chopped cilantro (leaves & stems)
1/8 c white wine vinegar
1/2 c water
1/8 t sea salt
1/4 t ground cumin

Combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl and mix well. Put the prepared pique in a medium jar and refrigerate for about an hour before using. You can put pique on top of steak, chicken, or pork, in soups and stews, over rice dishes, or as a dip. It can be slightly addicting, so enjoy it while it lasts!

My Grandmother’s buñelos proved to be more challenging than I thought. Colombian buñelos are round cheese fritters that are commonly eaten during the Christmas and New Year holidays with things like brevas (candied green figs) and manjar blanco (similar to dulce de leche but a lot sturdier). Made correctly and from scratch, they are wonderful little spheres of cheesy goodness, and even if they’re fried, you’ll find they’re not greasy at all. When my Mom started to scold me about not working the dough correctly, saying I’d seen her make them dozens of times, I reminded her I was just used to eating them, not making them. She rolled her eyes at me but walked me through each step anyway, with my Aunt helping to explain the quick fixes that one can use in case the cheesy dough turns out too moist or too dry. Because the method for this recipe is a bit lengthy, I’ll save that for its very own recipe post next month. For my first try I think I did pretty well! I only had to sacrifice about 5 of the 45 that the recipe yielded, and the rest turned out perfectly. My only problem was trying to keep all our hands away from them while we finished the rest of the spread because it's impossible to eat just one. In order to conserve buñuelos, we worked on the patacones and platanos maduros next.

A tropical country that straddles both sides of the equator, Colombia very proudly boasts about their wide variety of fruits and vegetables that seem to be perpetually in season. One fruit that is commonly used in Colombian cuisine is the plantain. Whether green or ripe, it is used for appetizers, soups and desserts. Patacones are made from green plantains that are cut into thick slices and flash fried. They’re then removed from the oil and allowed to drain a bit before flattening them into a thinner round, then flash fried again. Salted immediately after cooking, patacones make for a wonderful snack or side, especially when topped with pique. You can think of them as a larger, softer plantain chip. Platanos maduros are used in many dessert dishes in Colombia, and I chose to prepare them the way my Tia Gladis did: they’re simply sliced into thick rounds and flash fried until golden brown. She would then melt some dark chocolate and dip each slice into the chocolate, making for an absolutely sinful little snack or dessert. Both of these recipes are easy to make and only cost about $2 for 2 servings.

Bocadillos (which literally translates into "little mouthfuls") are simple little treats made with either guava paste or candied green figs with cheese. Other variations will also pair the figs and guava paste with manjar blanco. My Mom checked in with one of my cousins in Colombia to see what the latest cheese pairing was these days and a medium cheddar was the winner. Again the creamy saltiness of the cheese enhances the sweetness of the guava and figs, and these can be eaten on their own or paired with crackers or even a buñelo or two. For a different, savory treat, try the papitas de paseo, which my great-grandmother used to make for my mom and her siblings whenever they went to visit one of the family’s many coffee or sugar plantations. These are ridiculously simple to make and go well with salsa, hogao, pique, you name it! Simply boil baby red potatoes in chicken stock until tender, remove from heat and salt immediately. Place them on a plate to dry for about 5 minutes so that the salt has the chance to adhere to the skin of the potato and they’re ready to eat!

My last tapas were the two Thanksgiving inspired empanadas. Because they were my own little creation, I wanted to work on them myself. The only problem was that I’d never actually made empanadas before, so at first I was lacking the coordination to properly shape & form these little pockets. Traditionally, Colombian empanadas are filled with a cumin-spiced ground beef & onion filling and are about the size of a French roll. I decided to make two different types, one savory and one sweet, incorporating some of the leftovers from Thanksgiving. My first set was made with a mixture of minced turkey meat (both dark and white meat) and hogao. After my Aunt had helped me with all the chopping, I worked on cooking the hogao. Mom declared it to be “beautiful” which was nice to hear since this is the first time she’s tried mine. The sweet set of empanadas was to be filled with my Mom’s candied orange yams and extra spices. Both my Mom and my Aunt looked at me like I was crazy for trying this recipe but they went along with it anyway. In my mind I could almost taste the juxtaposition of slightly salty cornmeal with the sweetly spiced yams and knew the combination would be quite tasty. As luck would have it, this was declared the best dish of the evening. And now for the recipes!

Empanadas con Guiso de Pavo y Hogao (yields about 12-15 mini empanadas; total cost of recipe: ~$4.75)

1 c Goya Masarepa (yellow corn meal that can be found in the Hispanic foods aisle of your grocery store or at Hispanic markets; be sure to use yellow, not white!)
1/2 t salt
1½ c warm water
1 T vegetable oil
1/2 c minced cooked turkey (white & dark meat)
1/3 c hogao (see recipe here)
About 4 c cooking oil for frying

Other supplies:
1 sandwich size plastic bag, sides cut open
Wooden cutting board
Smooth bottomed juice or water glass

Combine the first 4 ingredients in a large bowl and mixing well until you have a firm but malleable dough. Roll small pieces of dough into small spheres that are about 1½“ in diameter and set aside. In a separate bowl mix the minced turkey with the hogao and set aside.

Lay the plastic bag flat on the board and place one of the dough balls in the center of board. Fold the outer half of the bag over the dough ball and using the glass, press the dough into a flat circle that’s about 1/16” thick. Be sure that it is not too thick or too thin as this will seriously affect the finished product. Peel back the top layer of the plastic bag and spoon about ½ teaspoon of the turkey & hogao mixture in the center. Using the top layer of the plastic bag to help you, fold the empanada together and press the edges together to seal in the filling. Carefully peel back the plastic and remove the empanada. Continue this process until they’re all formed.

Fry the empanadas in very hot oil for about 5 minutes or until they turn a light golden brown. Remove from the oil and drain on a plate lined with paper towels. Serve with plenty of pique and enjoy!

Candied Orange Yam Empanadas (yields 12-15 mini empanadas and about 1 cup extra yams & syrup; total cost of recipe: $7)

1 c Goya Masarepa (once again, use the yellow, not white!)
1/2 t salt
1½ c warm water
1 T vegetable oil
About 4 c cooking oil for frying

Candied Yams:
2 medium yams
1/2 jar of orange marmalade (with rinds)
1 c firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 c orange juice
¼ t ground nutmeg
½ t ground cinnamon

Other supplies:
1 sandwich size plastic bag, sides cut open
Wooden cutting board
Smooth bottomed juice or water glass

Peel and cut the yams into 2” cubes. Toss lightly with oil and roast in a preheated 400° oven for about 20 minutes or until the yams become slightly tender. Remove from oven and set aside. In a large saucepan combine the orange juice, orange marmalade and brown sugar and bring to a low simmer, making sure the sugar has completely dissolved. Add the roasted yams to the syrup and simmer over low heat for about 15 minutes.

To prepare the empanadas, spoon about 1/3 of the yams into a bowl along with plenty of syrup. Mash with a fork until almost smooth, adding more syrup if the yams are too dry. Follow the above procedure for shaping the empanadas, this time using the candied orange yam filling. Fry as instructed above and drain on a plate lined with paper towels. Serve with a side of extra syrup, garnish with orange zest and enjoy!

As I mentioned earlier, the Candied Orange Yam Empanadas were definitely the stars of the evening, although Mama and Tia said everything turned out delicious and beautifully presented. This was no small feat and definitely took a lot of time to put together but we all felt the end result was well worth our combined efforts. We had so much fun doing this that I want to do it again, but perhaps on a slightly less elaborate scale; my kitchen just isn’t big enough for all of my big ideas!

Seriously though, between the good food, the interesting stories of a completely different time and place, and the quality time I got to spend with my mother and my aunt, this was a fabulous experience that I will never forget. I was finally able to learn how to prepare food that is part of my heritage, and I was happy to note that I am far more creative in the kitchen that I’d originally thought. But most importantly, I was able to spend this holiday with two of my favorite women in the world, bonding with them more than I ever imagined. Thanks for the opportunity, Foodbuzz! It was a blast!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Review: Grange Restaurant - Sacramento, CA

Grange Restauarant on Urbanspoon        One of the greatest things about attending the Foodbuzz Festival was being able to network with bloggers, restaurateurs, and other folks in the food industry. Though I grew up behind the scenes of this unique world, it’s quite a different thing to experience these things firsthand as an adult. It was through one of these new connections that I was able to learn about an interesting event happening at Grange Restaurant in Sacramento this month: the “Duck-Off”. It sounded like such an interesting idea and the restaurant seemed to be a place I'd truly enjoy, so I jumped at the chance to have my very first meal at this celebrated local restaurant.
Grange is well-known around Sacramento and the Northern California area for their farm-to-table inspired menus created by Chef Michael Tuohy (you may remember him as our great benefactor of olive oil knowledge during the Olive Oil Tasting at the Foodbuzz Festival). Using all regional ingredients, Chef Michael creates dishes that are inspired by the food, the geography and the seasons, resulting in menus as distinctive as California and its people. Grange’s wine selection comes also entirely from some of California’s best regional wineries, making this the perfect type of restaurant to make its home in the state capital.
So how does a Duck Off figure in with this acclaimed restaurant? And what exactly IS a Duck Off anyway? Aside from being an amusingly inspired event name, it was a special showdown between Chef Michael Tuohy of Grange and Hank Shaw of Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook,to see who could come up with the best duck inspired menu. Local celebrity judges from The Sacramento Bee, Corti Brothers Market and the California Waterfowl Association were present to cast their votes for the best dishes. The winning meal was to be featured as a special 5-course, prix-fixe menu, with 10% of the proceeds going toward the California Waterfowl Foundation. Since I was unable to attend the actual showdown and judging (which would have been great to watch!), the wild duck menu was to be a complete surprise for me, though as a first-timer at Grange, the entire experience was to be new & exciting.

As my friend Rich & I approached the restaurant, I mentally kicked myself for not noticing that all that "inconvenient construction" I'd griped about last year was actually meant to help design Grange and its parent hotel, The Citizen. As we were to find out later, this was a very big project that ended up taking over part of the sidewalk on 9th & J in Downtown Sac. I think the city of Sacramento must be quite happy that they did, as Grange has proven to be one of Downtown's prime dining spots, gaining great press and being voted as Best New Restaurant by Sacramento Magazine. We were greeted warmly and taken to one of the better tables in the restaurant, according to our hostess. Located on what was once the sidewalk, we had a great view of the original exterior of the building and all its historical, architectural beauty. After being introduced to our highly recommended server, Roger, we had a chance to look at the menu (well, I did; Rich was far more fascinated by his new Droid). So who won the duck-off? Chef Michael of Grange. But according to other reviews and his own account on his blog, Hank Shaw gave Chef Michael some very stiff competition. On the menu for the evening:

~ Duck Charcuterie Plate with Duck Prosciutto, Duck Rillette, Foie Gras torchon, duck sausage stuffed in the neck (sausage made by Hank Shaw).
~ Local Farm Lettuces with Warm Confit, Pickled French Prunes and Duck Fat Vinaigrette
~ House Made Tagliatelle with Duck Sugo
~ Duck Cassoulet with Rancho Gordo Beans, Confit, Sausage and Pork Belly
~ Pear Tart with Huckleberry Compote and Orange Zabaglione (crust made with duck fat)

Right now I’m a little jealous of myself as I read over this menu. The entire meal was of such exquisite quality that I felt almost guilty for having it (an obvious sign that I’ve been working in a Catholic environment for awhile, lol). Our first course was a lovely introduction to the different flavors of wild duck, our favorite actually being Hank’s duck sausage. It was perfectly salted and tender, with special flavor that only duck could lend and I thoroughly enjoyed Roger’s description of how this sausage is made. I loved the prosciutto on the crusty bread provided and the rillette was another delectable appetizer to nibble on. I found the foie gras to be a little greasy (which is natural for duck, as it’s a fatty bird), but it might have been because the portion was a lot larger than the rest of the featured samples; perhaps in a smaller portion it would have been a little easier to handle. This first course was paired with a lovely little white sparkler from Domaine Carneros of the Napa Valley. Our salad of local farm lettuces, confit, and pickled prunes was a delightful blend that was wonderfully complemented by the vinaigrette. Because the lettuces came directly from regional farms, their fresh crispness came through beautifully and the combination of the savory confit and tart, tangy prunes was truly amazing. A fruity rosé from Tablas Creek accompanied this lovely salad.

The House Made Tagliatelle with Duck Sugo was by far our favorite dish of the evening, quite an accomplishment considering we were only on our third course (N.B.: this was another one of Hank’s creations! He is an imminently talented cook, so major kudos to him). The sugo was rich and savory, its meatiness dulcified by the just the slightest touch of Meyer lemon rind, and the tagliatelle perfectly al dente, the noodles wide enough to handle plenty of the scrumptious sugo. Paired with this course was the Dolcetto from Pavi, also from the Napa Valley, which I felt truly enhanced the flavors of this dish. Our main course quickly followed once I was able to tear myself away from the sugo, and I fell in love with the presentation. The Duck Cassoulet was chock full of umami rich goodness like pork belly, more of the fabulous duck confit and Hank’s duck sausage, as well as a generous amount of perfectly cooked Rancho Gordo Beans. Paired with another dark red wine, this time a blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Sangiovese and Petite Syrah called B24 (B Cellous), I think I officially fell into the most pleasant food coma at that point; not the kind that makes you fall asleep because you’ve eaten entirely too much, but the kind of bliss one can only reach by having a truly amazing meal. But I had to snap out of it! Dessert was next.

Now, it’s not every day you see a fruit tart on a menu whose crust is made with duck fat. Upon first reading this Rich made a strange face and immediately dismissed it as “too weird for [me]” but once again, he had to eat his words (and dessert). Made with local orchard pears, a huckleberry compote and orange scented crème fraiche, this dessert was a mid autumn dream to me. And the crust? Slightly flaky and rich with nary a duck in sight. Our final wine pairing for the evening was an orange muscat from Essensia, one of the few muscats that I’ve tried which I have actually enjoyed (to me, most muscats taste like Triaminic).

Overall, this combined effort was a true success in the eyes of both judges and diners alike. I had the chance to briefly catch up with Chef Michael, and though we were seated next to Hank’s wife and colleagues, I was unable to thank and congratulate him for his amazing work. Though this was a special event that is not usually part of Grange’s regular menu (which I made sure to peek at before I dove into my duck rillette), I know I will definitely come back to this restaurant. From its beautiful fusion of classic, historic architecture and modern décor to its superior staff and executive chef, I find Grange to be an outstanding addition to Sacramento’s growing collection of fine restaurants. And after looking over past specials and events on Grange’s website, I feel like this is a place even Poor Girl can revisit in order to enjoy a day off from my own kitchen. Specials like Chef Michael’s Thanksgiving spread offer diners a delectable 3-course prix-fixe menu for just $39, a phenomenal price for a holiday meal. Poor Girl gives this experience at Grange 5 stars and cannot wait to come back for more.

(Grange Restaurant is located at 926 J Street in Downtown Sacramento)

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Well, the big day is finally here! Thanksgiving has finally arrived and I’m sure that all of us have plenty to be thankful for this year. I know I certainly do! Despite all the hardships of the past year, I couldn’t be more grateful for still having a job (even if I’m still a temp), a roof over my head (though I freak out about how I’ll make the rent every month), and my overall health (even if I’m accident and flu-prone). I have incredibly loving and supportive parents (for those who are interested, my Dad is getting better every day with the help of everyone’s good vibes and prayers), and friends who, though few in number, couldn’t count more if they tried.

But the biggest surprise of this past year, and one of the things I’m hugely thankful for, is how well my little blog has done. Or how well I’ve done to make this tiny little blog what it is today. This time last year I was just starting out and I was thrilled to have about 45 fans who would visit PGEW regularly. The number now is far bigger, of course, but I am still giddy as ever when I see that there’s a new reader, a new subscriber, a new Facebook fan. I know I can’t interact with everyone every day, but I do want to take this moment to thank all of you most sincerely for supporting me, my blog, and my missions: to make sure everyone eats ridiculously well on a miniscule budget, and to bring that knowledge to the folks who need it the most – the poor and the truly hungry (which I’ll be focusing on more in the coming months). I wouldn’t be here without all your words of encouragement and support and I keep that in mind daily. It’s like having 2,500 cheerleaders rooting me on and I want you to know that you’re the ones that keep me on my toes and as creative as possible!

/end sappy moment

Before I go and annoy my mother by pretending I’m official “quality control” (it’s my excuse to pick at stuff throughout the day), I thought I’d remind you of a few Thanksgiving worthy PGEW dishes that you can try this holiday weekend. I know there are a lot of you out there who are doing the last minute thing, so hopefully these will help! They’re tasty, easy to make, will put a different spin on your holiday meal, and will keep your Turkey (or Tofurky) Day costs low so that you can save more of your hard-earned money:

~ Butternut Squash stuffed with Cauliflower-Cranberry Couscous
~ Baked Sweet Potato Fries with Pineapple-Cranberry Chutney
~ Spiced Pear Bread Pudding
~ Linguine with Sweet Potatoes, Spinach and Ham
~ Black Bean, Sweet Potato and Cranberry Salad

That’s it for now, folks! Stay tuned for the big 24, 24, 24 post this Sunday, when I’ll be showcasing my After Thanksgiving Colombian Tapas Party. Have a Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Recipe: Baked Sweet Potato Fries with Pineapple-Cranberry Chutney

I have just a few finishing touches left to add before I post my review for Grange Restaurant in Sacramento (there was a lot to cover so I wanted to make sure I got it all), but before I do that and head to San Jose for Thanksgiving with my Mom and Aunt Matilda who’s visiting from New Mexico, I wanted to share one more little holiday inspired recipe. Some crisp & tender sweet potato fries.

They are everywhere right now: in casseroles, in stuffing, in soups, on Poor Girl Eats Well; sweet potatoes and their fine holiday friends have taken over the world as we embark upon the holiday season. And as much as I swear by my mother’s candied orange yams, I have this thing about sweet potato fries. In valley girl speak, I’m like, totally addicted to them. I wanted them badly and I wanted them now; fortunately I had a couple still hanging out in my Big Giant Bowl.

You can make this healthy, tasty snack a variety of ways with a multitude of different dipping sauces. This time around I gleaned some inspiration from Pyramid Alehouse, one of the many breweries in Downtown Sacramento, conveniently located across the courtyard from the Cathedral in which I sing. They serve their giant portion of sweet potato fries with a curried chutney that’s sweet & tangy enough to make you forget about ketchup. Since I’m not the hugest fan of fried things, I roast my “fries” in the oven with a minimal amount of olive oil to help give them a crisp exterior. I dust them lightly with salt, pepper & garlic, letting the true flavor of the sweet potato shine through and mix with the chutney. Speaking of which, this is another super easy “cheater” chutney that requires little effort to make. If you’re not into cranberries, try my other cheater chutney which uses mango instead.

Serve these at a slightly less traditional Thanksgiving feast or enjoy them on their own; this is a great, low cost snack that you’ll find yourself turning to again and again!

Baked Sweet Potato Fries with Pineapple-Cranberry Chutney (serves 2; total cost per serving: $2.15)

2 large yams (about 1 lb. each)
2 T olive oil
1/8 t salt
1/8 t granulated garlic
Freshly ground pepper to taste

1/2 c pineapple chunks
1/3 c cranberry sauce (or 1/2 c dried cranberries soaked in 1/3 c wine)
1/4 c chopped bell peppers
2 T chopped red onions
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 t salt
1/4 t ground chipotle pepper (cayenne will also work)
1/8 t ground cumin
1/8 t curry powder

Preheat oven to 475°. Rinse & scrub the yams very well and peel if desired. Cut into 1/2" thick strips of about 2” in length. Place in a large bowl, add the olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic, and toss together until completely coated. Spread onto a baking sheet and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the fries are crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.

While the fries are baking, combine the pineapple, cranberry sauce, bell peppers, minced garlic, salt, chipotle pepper, curry powder and cumin into a food processor and pulse until you have a nice, chunky sauce. Once the fries are done, allow them to cool for about 5 minutes before serving. Serve with a generous amount of chutney, garnish with cilantro if you like and enjoy!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Recipe: Spiced Eggnog Cheesecake Dessert Shots

There’s no denying it now: the weather is crisp and cold, decorations are up, there’s talk of shopping all over turkey & canned food drives are everywhere the place – yep, the holidays are definitely here. As my holiday “splurge” the last time I was at my local Safeway, I picked up a quart of eggnog and was perfectly content enjoying a tiny glass here & there when I realized that I just can’t drink that much eggnog all at once. Don’t get me wrong, I like it a lot. But even in its lightest form, I feel like it’s entirely too rich for me to drink too much of it. That doesn’t mean I can’t eat it, though.

I had a different dessert shot planned but decided to put that one on the back burner for a bit so I could share this one with you fine folks (and so that I wouldn’t waste my eggnog) in time for the holidays. This is a very easy dessert to make and is one of those easily doubled, make-ahead recipes that can help you save time when you’re entertaining. It costs a bit more than most of my dessert shots but is well worth it, especially if you’re looking for something different to serve for all those parties that will be starting soon. It’s super rich too, so one shot could easily be enough for one person. I used both light cream cheese and light eggnog in my recipe, and these were still deliciously rich.

Just a quick note about the recipe: I have written it to include gelatin so that these keep their shape. However, if you’re a vegan or strict vegetarian, you may use a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice instead; it will help the mixture become more firm, like a no-bake cheesecake. Doing so will result in a slightly more creamy dessert, with a consistency much like that of zabaglione, but it’s still very delicious and goes quite well with the crust. Give ‘em a try either way!

Spiced Eggnog Cheesecake Dessert Shots (yields 8 shots as written; total cost per shot: $0.95 – still far less expensive than most restaurant dessert shooters!)

1 8 oz. package cream cheese, softened
2/3 c eggnog
3 T condensed milk
1/2 packet unflavored gelatin
1/3 c water
1/8 t ground nutmeg
1/8 t ground cinnamon

1 c crushed graham crackers (preferably cinnamon)
3 T melted butter
1/8 t ground nutmeg
1/8 t ground cinnamon

Prepare the crust by combining the crushed graham crackers, melted butter, nutmeg & cinnamon in a bowl and mixing together until completely moistened. Spoon 2 teaspoons of crust into each shot glass and pack the crust down gently. Set aside.

Dissolve the gelatin into the hot water and stir until completely dissolved. Set aside. Whip the cream cheese with an electric mixer until smooth & fluffy. Add the eggnog and condensed milk and mix for about 2 minutes at medium speed, adding the spices about midway. Add the gelatin and beat until firm. Spoon the cheesecake mixture into the prepared shot glasses and chill for at least an hour before serving. Dust with extra nutmeg for garnish and enjoy!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Recipe: Grilled Ahi Tuna with Avocado Chimichurri

Thanksgiving is right around the corner (have you voted in the Thanksgiving poll yet? Go ahead and do so now… I’ll wait. :) ), which means a LOT of turkey and a LOT of other leftovers. As much as I adore Thanksgiving fare, the endless leftovers can get a bit repetitive, so I try to make sure I have as little poultry as possible before the big day. This way I’m very much into all that turkey I’ll be ingesting for the next month or so. Of course, there are many creative things one can do with Thanksgiving leftovers, like my mom’s Arroz con Pavo (which will get a much better photo this year), and I’m going to be covering my After Thanksgiving Colombian Tapas Party next Sunday, November 29th, so you can read about me really getting my cook on. But there are still 6 days left of regular eating and I wanted to make sure I could have something completely different from the standard autumn, harvest-time cuisine. Some grilled ahi tuna drizzled generously with chimichurri sauce seemed like a good place to start.

I’m sure many of you have heard of and tried chimichurri, but for those of you who haven’t, my advice to you is: DO IT! A traditional Argentinean marinade & sauce, chimichurri is a simple but flavorful combination of parsley, garlic, oregano, vinegar and olive oil. It’s commonly served on top of Argentina’s famed steak but is versatile enough to be drizzled atop of almost any food. Similar to Colombian pique (a “sauce” made of chopped scallions, vinegar, cilantro and plenty of cumin, which will feature prominently in next weekend’s 24, 24, 24 post), the tangy acidity of fresh herbs in vinegar will enhance the flavor of many of your favorite savory dishes. Personally, I like to add cilantro to my chimichurri, as it gives the sauce a different coolness than if using parsley alone. Thanks to my coworkers helping me out these past couple of weeks, I was able to do some light food shopping recently and scored some great avocados for just $0.89/each (!!!), and I decided to add some chopped avocado into the chimichurri to soften the flavors with its creamy texture.

My favorite part about this recipe is that looks like you spent hours slaving in the kitchen, when in reality it only takes at most 25 minutes to prepare. It’s healthy and light, a nice way to prepare for the huge Thanksgiving feasts many of us will be partaking of next week. Don’t have access to ahi tuna (or perhaps you don’t eat fish)? No worries; you can use the chimichurri on some grilled chicken breasts or some well-seasoned flank steak. Let’s check out the recipe.

Pan-grilled Ahi Tuna with Avocado Chimichurri (serves 2; total cost per serving: $3.50)
2 6 oz. ahi tuna steaks
1 large avocado
1/2 c chopped flat leaf parsley
1/2 c chopped cilantro
6 large cloves of garlic, chopped
2 t dry oregano (if you have access to fresh oregano, you should definitely use it!)
1/4 t salt
1 t crushed red chilies
1/4 c red or white wine vinegar
1/4 c olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste

Prepare the chimichurri by combining the parsley, cilantro, chopped garlic, oregano, salt , red chilies and vinegar in a food processor (a hand blender will also work) and puree at medium high speed until slightly smooth. Lower the speed and add the olive oil in a slow drizzle and mix until completely combined and smooth. Finely chop the avocado into ¼” pieces and add to about 1 cup of the prepared chimichurri (you may have some left over). Set aside.

Preheat your grill pan (or broiler, if you prefer). Lightly dust each side of the tuna steaks with salt & pepper. Grill the tuna for about 4 minutes before turning, then for about another 2-3 minutes, or until the tuna is no longer pink on the inside (though, a seared tuna with this sauce is also quite good, so give that a try if you like). Serve with a generous amount of the avocado chimichurri and some white rice, garnish with extra red chilies if you like, and enjoy!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Foodbuzz Blogger Festival Recap: Day 3: The Farewell Brunch

After packing as much swag as I could actually carry home (someday I’ll get a good picture of everything we got so you can see just how much Foodbuzz spoiled us), I hopped – literally, haha – into a cab and headed to LuLu Restaurant for the final event of the weekend, our Farewell Brunch. A few folks were already in line but the organizers were kind enough to let me go in early so I could get settled. As I waited for the rest of the folks to come in, I took a few shots of the restaurant and tried not to drool over the menu that would be served to us in short order. I liked the bright airiness of the restaurant and the simple, contemporary décor, and was very impressed at how friendly the wait staff and bartenders were. Nothing like good service to start off a good dining experience.

I was finally joined by Catherine of Munchie-Musings, Kate of Something We Dreamed, John of Food Wishes (who won Best Video Blog - congrats!), and Joel of Six By 10 Tiny Kitchen and we shared our impressions of the previous night’s dinner while we waited for the brunch to begin. Soon enough we were told we could proceed to the Build Your Own Bloody Mary bar, which I was definitely looking forward to. They split us up into two lines for that, one for those of us who wanted to pick up our Skyy Vodka before mixing our drinks and the other for those who preferred a Virgin Mary. Fresh orange juice and coffee were also offered, in case folks weren’t too interested in the savory brunch drinks. The spread for the Build Your Own Bloody Mary bar was lovely, with ice cold pitchers of the most delicious Bloody Mary mix I’ve ever had (the whole spices and use of real ingredients truly made a difference), giant stalks of celery and every possible garnish you could wish for. My only wish would have been to have a Mimosa bar right next to the Bloody Mary’s, since some of the dishes would have paired nicely with a good Mimosa.

Our brunch buffet was sponsored by the folks from Nature’s Pride, so many of the dishes featured their amazing whole grain breads. On the brunch menu:

~ Frittata with Aged Cheddar, Whiskey & Mushrooms
~ Nature’s Pride Nutty Oak French Toast with Pear Compote & Whipped Cinnamon Butter
~ Croque Monsieur with Swiss Ham, Swiss & Truffle Mustard on Nature’s Pride 100% Whole Wheat Bread
~ Panzanella with Nature’s Pride 12-Grain & Nature’s Pride Country White Breads, Cucumbers, Baby Lettuce, Cherry Tomatoes, Olives & Ivernia Cheese
~ Pear & Bleu Cheese Salad
~ Bacon or Turkey Sausage/Yogurt

Ever the anthropologist, it was fun for me to watch all of us pile our dishes sky high with the great food choices, a sharp contrast to the dainty portions we were serving ourselves the night before. I made sure to try a bit of everything except for the sausage (my thick slab of bacon was more than enough), and I think everything was my favorite! The panzanella was excellent and I would have been perfectly content to eat a pound of that and the Pear & Bleu Cheese Salad if I hadn’t been so curious about everything else. As I just mentioned, the slices of bacon were cut so thick it would have been impossible for me to eat more than one, but I admired those that could. I was quite glad that it was very lean, meaty bacon, a welcome change from the usual greasy bacon they serve at most places.

The French Toast was cooked to perfection and accented beautifully by the Pear Compote and Cinnamon Butter. I was a little disappointed that the cinnamon butter was not as cinnamon-y as I’d hoped, but it was still nice to have that as an option in addition to the standard maple syrup. Though I enjoyed everything on the menu, the true star of the show for me was the Croque Monsieur. The entire combination was perfect for me, especially since I’ve become the hugest fan of Nature’s Pride Whole Wheat Bread (seriously – this is the best whole wheat bread I have ever tried). What really made it special was the use of the truffle mustard; it brought a certain earthiness to the tiny sandwich that rounded out the flavors of the ham, Swiss, and nutty whole wheat bread. I was SO glad I grabbed more than one piece before the rest was gone!

After saying my goodbyes (wish I could have seen my gals from dinner the night before!) and struggling to get a cab back to my hotel (SF cabbies are MEAN on Sundays! And there was some protest parade that blocked most of the routes that we needed to take to get back to the hotel! Snarf.), I headed back to Sacramento with a ton of great swag and memories of an incredible weekend. I’m sure it would have been even better to have participated in every event, but the ones I was able to experience were just fabulous. Foodbuzz really deserves all the thanks in the world for organizing a truly memorable event that I believe will only get better as the years go by. Between the seminars, the food, and the ability to meet and socialize with awesome folks who are just as crazy about food (and taking photos of it) as I am, the Foodbuzz Blogger Festival is a food bloggers dream! I mean, where else can you find 249 other food obsessed people with cameras ready to take pictures of anything they see? :)

Thank you, Foodbuzz!!! See you next year!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Butternut Squash Stuffed with Cauliflower & Cranberry Couscous

I have one more post to share with all of you regarding the Foodbuzz Blogger Festival, as well as a very cool review on Grange Restaurant in Sacramento, but I’ve been kinda antsy to share a recipe for my new favorite dinner this week (and my new dessert shots, and some more soup, and…). As I mentioned last month, I’m über-excited that there all sorts of squashes cropping up all over the place and I’m definitely making use of the few I have been able to afford. I had been craving some stuffed acorn squash from the Co-op, but since I’m still on these evil crutches (okay, only semi-evil because my triceps are getting really toned), I haven’t been able to go shopping anywhere except the mini-mart around the corner. As much as I love them though, they don’t sell squash, so this has presented quite the conundrum. Then I thought to myself, “Self: does it really need to be a stuffed acorn squash when you have a lovely butternut squash that’s just sitting there, alone and forlorn?” Of course not!

When it comes to stuffed squashes, acorn squash is the most popular choice because of its round shape. Using butternut squash requires a bit more effort but it’s worth it, especially when you consider all that extra squash that you get to play around with. I had thought about roasting the flesh from the neck of the squash so I could have my favorite fall snack, but decided to use the flesh in the stuffing I would make for the final dish instead. The possibilities for stuffing any squash are endless and after mulling it over for awhile, I decided to work with a savory couscous version that could incorporate the extra butternut squash flesh. Things just came together after that, and soon I had a wonderful bowl of lightly curried couscous, cauliflower, butternut squash and cranberries to stuff in my little “bowls”.

Now, I must point out that you will have more stuffing than your squash can hold (unless you’re using Charlie Brown’s Great Butternut Squash). Couscous definitely yields a lot more than it appears to, especially once you’ve fluffed it with a fork. Once you add the other ingredients, you’re left with a very hearty bowl of goodness that you can use as a nice side dish with chicken or pork. You could also serve it with some fresh baby spinach for a light, meatless lunch. Though it’s a bit more labor intensive than most of my recipes, it’s well worth the effort and it’s fun to watch it all come together. The beauty of all of this is that the entire recipe comes out to about $7.50, which not only gives you 2 lovely entrée servings or stuffed squash, but about 2-3 servings of curried cauliflower couscous, too. That’s quite a lot of food for such a tiny price!

Butternut Squash Stuffed with Cauliflower & Cranberry Couscous (makes 2 servings of squash & 2-3 separate servings of couscous; total cost per serving: ~$1.88)

1 large butternut squash, halved & seeded, with the neck flesh reserved
1/2 c dry couscous
1 c water
1/2 T butter
3/4 c cauliflower florets
1/2 medium yellow onion
2 T olive oil
1/3 c chicken or vegetable broth
1/4 c dried cranberries or raisins
1/4 c chopped green onions
1/4 t salt
1/3 t curry powder
1/4 t ground cumin
1/4 t ground ginger (optional)
1/4 t smoked paprika (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400°. Place the two round, seeded squash halves face down in an ungreased baking dish and add 1 tablespoon of water. Bake for about 25 minutes or until the squash has become tender. Remove from heat and allow to cool. While the squash is baking, peel and cut the neck of the squash into 1” cubes and set aside. Bring the water and butter to a rolling boil; remove from heat, add the 1/2 cup of couscous and cover for about 5-6 minutes. Fluff with a fork and set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the garlic and yellow onion and sauté until the onion becomes translucent. Next, add the butternut squash cubes, salt and all the spices, and sauté for about 6-7 minutes until the squash becomes tender. Toss in the cauliflower and sauté for about 2 more minutes.

In a large bowl combine 1 cup of the cooked couscous with the sautéed squash & cauliflower, green onions and dried cranberries, and fold together gently (NOTE: if your squash was really big and you ended up with more than 2 cups of squash cubes, set the rest aside for another dish). Set aside about 1 cup of the final couscous & veggie mixture in a bowl and moisten with the chicken or vegetable broth. Stuff each baked butternut squash half with a generous amount of the couscous (feel free to pack it in there!), place them in the baking dish and return to the oven. Bake for about 5 minutes. Save the rest of the couscous for lunch or to enjoy for a later dinner. Serve the stuffed squash with a nice salad or as a large side with a light meat dish, but most importantly, enjoy!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Foodbuzz Blogger Festival Recap: Day 2, Part 2: Outstanding in the Field Dinner

My Mom and plenty of others assured me that my Dad would probably prefer it if I went to the big dinner rather than stay in a hotel and constantly call the hospital about his stauts, so I dolled up and headed to the Hotel Vitale to wait for our buses to pick us up. While I waited, I met up with Diana again and ended up meeting Jared of Entertaining Food, another very charming, interesting blogger. Eventually we all ended up on the same bus that would take us to our dinner - the very bus that was driven by the very driver who very swiftly got us LOST. !!!!!!!!!!!!!! I felt badly for him once he mentioned this was his first time as a bus driver, but I would have preferred it if the charter bus company had given us a slightly more seasoned driver who had been told it’s against the law to hold a cell phone argument whilst driving a bus in San Francisco. Regardless, we finally made it to the Greenleaf Produce Warehouse, cheering and applauding as we awkwardly found our parking spot.

If I’d been able to take more pictures or at least some video, I could have properly conveyed the first impression that this type of dinner makes. Presented by Outstanding in the Field and Chef Dennis Lee & crew of Namu, these folks transformed a cold produce warehouse into an elegant dining space filled with plenty of candlelight and conversation-worthy china. A long – and I mean 250+ people long – table casually snaked through the warehouse, dressed with lovely place settings that featured a variety of plates as unique as each individual blogger in attendance. After scoping out the place for a good seat and getting a glass of wine, Diana, Jen, Linda, Cindy and I settled in and awaited our feast. On the menu for the evening:

* Ahi tonnato on pain de mie with gochukaru and parsley (paired with a 2008 Ca’ del Solo Albariño)
* Mushroom dashi, maitake shimeji, enoki mushrooms
* Udon, grilled Monterey calamari in a browned butter ponzu reduction, cucumber, kairware, frisée & yellow pear tomato with chojang & sesame vinaigrette (paired with 2007 Le Cigare Blanc)
* Sea trout baked with dashikombu, fried garlic and Japanese curry powder
* Mushroom risotto with koshihikari rice, crispy maitake mushrooms
* Soy braised beef cheeks and oxtails, baby carrots and fingerling potato, OB Beer and denjang demi
* Roasted Brussels sprouts, ponzu fried garlic, guanciale, bonito flakes (paired with 2005 Le Cigare Volant)
* Koshihikari rice pudding, cookie crumble and warrant pear (paired with 2008 Vinferno, which was the only dessert I had; I think some of the servers forgot about those of us listening to the awards ceremony).

Words simply cannot describe the delectable meal we were served by friendly servers who knew how to anticipate your needs and tell you fun stories, so I thought I'd post these few pictures instead. Although everything was truly spectacular, my 3 favorite dishes hands-down were the Brussels sprouts, the sea trout (which most people thought was salmon, amusingly enough) and the Beef Cheeks & Oxtails (which brought on a hearty “BEEF CHEEKS” cheer from one of the diners at the next table). In fact, I think it’s safe to say that I enjoyed the Brussels sprouts the most! Diana told me she also roasts her own and I will have to follow suit and post a good recipe on PGEW soon, because I am now obsessed with Brussels sprouts (they can be YUMMY, I SWEAR!!!).

The awards ceremony was held during the dessert portion of the evening, and we were all called to the stage area to hear the results. As with all good awards ceremonies, they saved the most important categories for last, so my category, Food Blogger You’d Most Like to See Have Their Own Show on the Food Network, came quite early. Diana of A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa was also nominated in this category, but between us sharing such a great camaraderie and her insanely fast Twittering skills (I have NEVER seen anyone tweet on an iPhone quite like that), we both remained unfazed by the fact that someone else won. To those of you who shouted “Unfair!” via email at the fact that I didn’t win, don’t fret! There is always PGEW TV (which I need to update soon) and next year’s awards. For a complete listing of the winners, check out the following page, and for amazing photo coverage of all of Day 2's events, check out Dianasaur's recap of the festivities.

The ride back to Hotel Vitale was far less eventful but much more direct, for which I was incredibly grateful. I made my way back to my hotel where my Mom decided we should have even more food and we ordered some pretty decent 1 a.m. pizza from Mr. Pizzaman (delivery until 4 a.m. on the WEST COAST? They definitely have my vote). As I considered heading to bed with my impossibly full tummy, I vowed I would never eat again. At least, not until the Farewell Brunch the following day. ;) Stay tuned!

Foodbuzz Blogger Festival Recap: Day 2, Part 1: Olive Oil Tasting & Other Fun Stuff

Day 2 kicked off with pastries and coffee before we were allowed to either roam free at the Farmer’s Market at the lovely Ferry Plaza building, or attend one of the informational seminars that were being offered that day. I opted to join one of the seminars, since sitting was a very, very good thing for me to do. The first session was the Farm to Table Discussion, presented by Chef Paul Arenstam of Americano Restaurant in San Francisco and Brian Kenney of Hearst Ranch in the Central Valley. They covered topics ranging from a basic background on sustainable agriculture, the processes involved in raising and producing grass-fed meats, to health benefits of these types of products and how social media is impacting the demand for humanely treated, hormone-free meats by bringing awareness these issues to the general consumer. I found the discussion to be extremely informative and enjoyed the exchange between the presenters and those of us in the audience; it’s good to know that food industry professionals are just as interested in what we have to say as we are in their knowledge and expertise.

Afterwards, I got to meet Diana from A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa and a few other bloggers who were in the seminar. Diana & I hit it off immediately and made plans to check out the produce at the Farmer’s Market before the Tasting Pavilion event at the Metreon. However, we were given the chance to participate in a second morning session on olive oil tasting which, unfortunately, conflicted with a book signing she wanted to attend. I decided to attend the second seminar and promised to take plenty of notes.

Now, you all know that I love my olive oil but up until last weekend, I didn’t know much about it except that it’s available in light and extra virgin varieties. Chef Michael Tuohy of Grange Restaurant in Sacramento changed that for us within just 50 minutes, and even though I’m not a connoisseur, I feel a lot more confident in my knowledge and what my personal olive oil preferences are. We were given 6 different types of olive oil to sample, all of which were coded with mysterious letter & number combinations rather than names (the big reveal was done after the tasting). Next to our little cups of olive oil were thin slices of Granny Smith apple and some crusty bread, along with plenty of water, all of which was available to help us cleanse our palates in between oil varietals.

As with wine tasting, olive oil tasting follows the 4 S’s: Swirl, Sniff, Slurp and Swallow. Chef Michael guided us through the proper methods of executing each of these techniques, and soon all you could hear was a lot of slurping and coughing. Why did we cough? Certain olive oil varieties are much more pungent than others, and that peppery sensation doesn’t really hit you until you swallow the oil. I didn’t cough, though; evidently I have the tolerance of a water buffalo when it comes to pungency. Still, I definitely preferred the milder, fruitier tasting oils over the super spicy ones. Luckily, one of those milder oils ended up being our little party favor: a great big bottle of 2009 Olio Nuovo from California Olive Ranch! This is the first press of the year, so this extra virgin oil is fresh and fruity tasting, with only the slightest peppery endnotes. (See what a good job Chef Michael did? I totally sound like I know what I’m talking about. ;) )

After taking some pictures of the incredibly gorgeous day, my mom & I headed to the Adagio Hotel to check in (major shout out to Mom for carting me around most of the weekend). Unfortunately, that was when I heard the scary news about my Dad, so needless to say I was too distracted & distraught to do anything but get all the details of his condition. I ended up missing the Tasting Pavilion at the Metreon, much to my chagrin, but the word on the street was that it was an amazing afternoon of almost TOO much food! My fellow bloggers got to try a multitude of different appetizers and desserts, from ceviche to pizza, mini cupcakes to impossibly rich gourmet chocolates. The afternoon was also set aside for some sparkling wine and Merlot tastings, as well as the chance to showcase some of the Foodbuzz blogger scholarship winners prepare their winning dishes in front of an audience. I was looking forward to catching one of my favorite blogging pairs, The Duo Dishes, do their thing, but I heard that all of the winners prepared some wonderful food. And, as if we hadn’t already gotten plenty of awesome swag, vendors were giving away all sorts of great products, from samples to coupons to some excellent wine and pilsner glasses (which Dorian at Foodbuzz so graciously saved for me to pick up when I can walk and carry things at the same time). Truly, Foodbuzz outdid themselves to make all of this happen for us.

So that you don't go blind or fall asleep, I'm splitting this post in two (a lot happened on Saturday). Day 2, Part Deux coming right up!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Foodbuzz Blogger Festival Recap: Day 1

Before I launch into the recap of the festivities this weekend, I feel I should mention that I was unable to attend every event of the festival, so this is not a reflection of everything that went on! I will be sure to include links to some of my favorite recap posts done by other amazing bloggers I met at the festival, so you can see the other amazing giveaways and food tastings that were offered. Okay, disclaimer time over!

So last week finally marked the arrival of the much-anticipated 1st Annual Foodbuzz Food Blogger Festival, which was being held in beautiful San Francisco. Armed with plenty of ACE bandages, my crutches, and the determination to have fun regardless of being a gimp, I hopped on Amtrak and headed into the city. My first stop: the lovely Hotel Vitale for our Welcome Happy Hour.

I was greeted by Alexa from Foodbuzz, who immediately recognized me because of the crutches (and that’s how I was recognized by everyone that weekend. “Poor Girl? Oh, she’s the one on crutches!” lol…). After being given my swanky little badge and my giant bag of swag, I made my way to the outdoor terrace where Happy Hour was already in full swing. The fine folks from SKYY Spirits teamed up with some outstanding San Francisco chefs to provide us with a fabulous spread of signature cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. On the menu for Happy Hour:

~ Angry Mac & Cheese Poppers
~ Gruyere, Bacon and Mascarpone Gougeres
~ Pork Rillettes Crostini
~ SKYY Spirits “Autumn Apple” and “Citrus Collins” cocktails
~ Iron Horse 2002 Brut LD
~ Speakeasy Big Daddy I.P.A.
~ Tea’s Tea
~ Twelve Beverage Sparkling Juices

I made sure to try both of the vodka cocktails (don’t worry; I made sure not to end up with a Crutching Under the Influence citation), as vodka is one of my favorite spirits and I never say no to a good martini. The Autumn Apple was made with fresh apple juice with a large slice of fresh apple for garnish, which I definitely preferred over standard apple martinis. I’ve never been a fan of the artificial green apple liqueur that will go into other apple martinis because they’re too sweet & syrupy tasting, so having fresh juice was a welcome change. However, I actually preferred the Citrus Collins, the other signature drink for the evening. It was a perfectly balanced and refreshingly tart cocktail that can be enjoyed year round.

The appetizers of the evening didn’t disappoint, either. Though the Gougeres with gruyere, bacon and mascarpone were good, the Mac & Cheese Poppers and Pork Rillettes Crostini were by far the real stars of the hors d’oeuvres show. The jalapeño and bacon of the mac & cheese poppers added a fun kick to the rich creaminess of the little dish, but my favorite appetizer was definitely the Pork Rillettes Crostini. I am still not 100% sure what went into this pork mixture, but it was full of flavor and went beautifully on top of the crispy crostini.

The next stop for everyone was the Street Food “Fare” at the Ferry Plaza building. Logistically, it wasn’t going to be possible for me to enjoy this part of the evening (imagine trying to carry plates of food, wine and crutches at the same time), so much to my chagrin I had to call it a night. I wish I could have stayed because the choices sounded fantastic! Representatives from 4505 Meats (home of the best chicharrones in SF), Alive (raw vegan cuisine that I heard was pretty amazing), Hog Island Oyster Co., Mission Minis (tiny gourmet cupcakes), The Pie Truck (mini PIES!!! Oh, how I wish I hadn’t missed those), Pizza Politana, Roli Roti (organic, sustainably-farmed rotisserie meats & veggies), Spencer on the Go (SF’s only French Bistro on wheels), Straus Family Creamery (organic ice cream – yum!), and Tacolicious showed off their best eats for a fabulous tasting menu that everyone raved about the following day.

For a great wrap-up and pictures of the awesome spread from the Street Food Fare, check out Linda’s post on the first day’s festivities. Stay tuned for Day 2!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Recipe: Spicy Red Lentil Hummus Sans Tahini

Remember when I posted the French Green Lentil & Israeli Cous Cous Salad recipe last month and I mentioned there were some red lentils I ended up using in something else? Well, they eventually became a very quick and easy type of hummus. This is their story.

They were supposed to go into that salad, actually. My vision was to create a dish of tasty food confetti made with red & green lentils and pearl-shaped Israeli cous cous. However, I was in a rush and when you rush, you tend to lose a little bit of focus. Because I was rushing, I forgot that red lentils are far more delicate than green lentils, so they ended up slightly overcooked and had split in half. This would not have worked well for the salad, so I omitted them from that recipe. But I didn't want to waste the poor lentils either! It wasn't their fault their cook was trying to work on two recipes at once before heading to work (I'm dedicated, yo). As I hurriedly covered them and stuck them in the fridge before rushing out the door, I thought to myself, "Hummus. They will become hummus."

Traditional hummus is usually made primarily of garbanzo beans and tahini, with lemon juice and spices added according to one's personal taste. Like with many of "hip" foods du jour, several new hummus variations have cropped up, from spicy to sundried tomato, edamame to black bean. The one ingredient that's usually featured (aside from the obvious legumes) is, of course, the tahini. But what if you want to make your own hummus but can't find or afford the tahini? What if one is allergic to sesame seeds and just can't have the tahini without some serious consequences? Should one be left with nothing but visions of hummus dancing in one's head? Of course not! You just make the hummus sans tahini. Plain & simple.

Naturally, the flavor will be a bit different from traditional hummus because this is made with red lentils as opposed to garbanzos and no tahini. But with the use of aromatic spices like cumin & paprika, plenty of spicy cayenne and a generous drizzle of olive oil, this hummus is still rich & flavorful and will have a similar texture to traditional hummus. This can certainly be used as a spread on sandwiches like the H.S.A.T., on pizzas like my Roasted Eggplant & Hummus Pizza, or just by itself with some crackers or pita bread. Making your own hummus at home is also slightly more economical than buying it at the store. Most 8 oz. tubs of hummus will run anywhere from $3-5 (unless you’re at Trader Joe’s where it’s still pretty inexpensive). If using garbanzos when you make your own at home, you can save up to $2.75 on 8 oz., and if using lentils you can save about $1.50 for 8 oz. This can really add up after awhile, especially if you're a big hummus eater like I am. And now for the quick and simple recipe.

Spicy Red Lentil Hummus Sans Tahini (yields 8 oz.; total cost: $2.25)

1 c red lentils
2 c water
2 T olive oil
1 T lemon juice
1 t cumin
1/4 t paprika
1/3 t cayenne pepper
Dash of granulated garlic
Dash of salt

Bring the water to a rolling boil, reduce heat to medium and add the lentils. (NOTE: Do NOT salt at this point, as this will only toughen the lentils.) Cook for about 15-20 minutes, or until the lentils have split; they will look mushy at this point. Place the cooked lentils in a fine mesh colander and place them under cool running water to stop the cooking process. When they have cooled, allow them to drain completely.

Using a food processor or a hand blender & bowl, combine the lentils with the olive oil, lemon juice, spices & salt, and puree until smooth. Check for flavors and adjust according to your personal taste (I like my hummus rather lemony & garlicky, while others may prefer a smoother flavor). Use as a sandwich spread, as a base for a Mediterranean style pizza, or serve with crackers or pita bread triangles. Either way, enjoy!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Recipe: Shrimp in Smoked Paprika-Tomato Sauce

It’s been an absolute roller coaster of emotions for me these past few days. Though I was completely stoked about the Foodbuzz Food Blogger Festival, it was a little difficult to enjoy all of the events that were offered because of my new role as the house gimp (some of you may recall that I sprained my ankle last Monday – the worst possible timing in terms of the festival). I was not about to let that ruin my entire weekend though, and made sure to participate in everything I could, so stay tuned for the write-up on that in the next few days. However, a brief check-in with my email on Saturday morning brought me some terrible news: my Daddy, my king of everything, suffered from a stroke last Friday. He is still in serious condition but seems to be stabilizing, thanks to what seems to be a decent team of doctors (he lives overseas with his 2nd wife, so I have to take everything on hearsay) and the prayers and good vibes of anyone I can think to ask for help. Needless to say, it’s messed me up a little on the inside, especially because I can’t be near him right now. So if I am not as brilliant and witty as I normally am (at least I’m still modest, right? Hahaha), you know why.

Life does continue in the midst of pained anxiety over loved ones, and that includes the need to eat. It also includes the need to keep one’s previously made appointments, and I had one today with Luis, photographer for our Diocesan newspaper, The Herald, where yours truly will be featured in a couple of weeks. Because of time constraints and feeling so preoccupied and worried, I decided I ought to make something super simple and quick. But I also wanted to use this new smoked paprika that I’m trying for a certain cool project that you will all be privy to soon (such mystery, my goodness!). And I hadn’t had shrimp in forever and just had to have them tonight. All that and a can of diced tomatoes ended up becoming one of the most delicious, super quick dishes I’ve ever made.

Fresh tomatoes would be even more wonderful in this case, naturally, so you should definitely use them if you have the chance. With a sprained ankle, my only reliable means of transportation (my feet) has been put on hold, which means I haven’t been able to go grocery shopping for awhile and that fresh tomatoes are out of the question for now. That didn’t stop me, though! With the shrimp I bought at Save Mart during my last $25 Shopping Cart trip and the diced tomatoes I also purchased that same day, not to mention the smoky, peppery goodness of that smoked paprika, this dish was simple, flavorful, and impossibly easy to prepare. Now, I normally wouldn’t be able to justify the cost of such a generous amount of smoked paprika, so I understand if you can’t come by this remarkable spice. However, even regular paprika will work with this recipe, giving a little something extra to the simple and classic combination of tomatoes and shrimp. This can be served with rice, noodles, or even on a nice toasted roll for a nice change. I’m sure you’ll find yourself returning to this one regularly because of its simplicity and flavors. I know I’m going to! :)

Shrimp in Smoked Paprika-Tomato Sauce (serves 2; total cost per serving; $2.45)

1/2 lb large fresh (or thawed, fresh frozen) shrimp
1/2 can diced tomatoes (with juice)
2 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped
1/4 t granulated garlic
1/2 t smoked paprika, divided (regular paprika is also OK)
1/4 t salt
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 T olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper (optional)

Peel and devein the shrimp under cool running water (I’ve found this makes it a bit easier to get all the shells off), then drain & pat dry. Season with the salt, granulated garlic, cayenne pepper and 1/4 teaspoon of smoked paprika. Allow to sit for at least 5 minutes. In a medium skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the garlic and cook over medium high heat until it begins to turn golden brown and fragrant. Add the shrimp and sear for about 2 minutes. Next, add the diced tomatoes in their juices, along with the ground black pepper and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of smoked paprika. Reduce heat to medium and cook for about 3 more minutes, or until shrimp are no longer translucent on the inside. Serve with rice or noodles and a nice salad, and enjoy!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Review: Hot Italian - Sacramento, CA

Hot Italian on Urbanspoon     On the corner of 16th & Q Streets in Midtown Sacramento, in its very own LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified building, sits a restaurant you have to love if only for its name: Hot Italian. An interesting restaurant-bar-gelato-and-motorcycle shop (yes, motorcycles: beautiful, shiny, Italian motorcycles and their fashionable gear call this restaurant their home) hybrid, Hot Italian has become quite popular in its short time in Sacramento, offering a great spot for dining, meeting, or just having some quality gelato. This was where my little power lunch with some great Sacramento bloggers took place last Friday. After hearing that I’d been to Hot Italian about 4 times already with not a single review to show for it, it was unanimously decided that I write one based on this particular trip.

I have a lot of love for Hot Italian for a variety of reasons that don’t immediately make sense. The first couple of times I went there I was completely torn because I was so into their food and atmosphere, but not so much into their service. Those of you who have gone out to eat with me know how I feel about service – I’m very picky about it and will usually give restaurants (or any business, really) with sub par quality a second chance if their service is stellar. The exact opposite is true if the service sucks and I do let staff know either way if the experience is on either extreme. The thing about Hot Italian’s service is that it isn’t awful, it’s just…. inconsistent. My general impression the few times I’ve gone is that they’re a little unorganized and a tad rushed. The staff is really quite friendly, so that’s never been a problem; it just seems like they could do a better job of tightening things up logistically.

That being said, the rest of the Hot Italian experience is worth checking out. Though they specialize in pizza, most of their menu items are offered in panini, salad and calzone versions as well, so there is quite a bit to choose from. Their pizzas are made with a more traditional Italian-style crust that is thin and crispy but sturdy enough to hold a multitude of rather unconventional toppings. With choices ranging from the Murino (gorgonzola cheese, pears and honey; I have yet to try this but it sounds incredible) to the Gattuso (pumpkin puree, smoked mozzarella, parsley, sage oil and shaved ricotta salata; perfect for this time of year), you’ll surely end up having a unique kind of pizza that you won’t find at any old pizza joint.

This time around we decided to get a few different flavors so that everyone could try a piece of each. Steve gave the Magini a try, which is topped with smoked salmon, mozzarella, mascarpone and fresh dill. I’d never considering ordering it before but after trying it I definitely will; the flavors were fresh and light, complemented beautifully by the signature crust. Alejandro and Steve are also huge fans of the Bellucci, which features slightly more traditional pizza toppings like fresh tomato sauce, mozzarella, spicy sausage and ricotta cheese, and this pie definitely didn’t disappoint. Tim definitely had the most interesting pizza of the afternoon. The Stella comes with prosciutto parma, crescenza cheese and a wonderful mushroom medley, but it also comes with the option to order it with egg. Egg on a pizza? Yep. Our server assured us that it was a good combo so Tim decided to go for it. I have to say it was surprisingly good! One solitary egg is added to the center of the pizza before it’s baked, and when the pie comes out the egg is perfectly cooked. Since there is just one egg used on the whole pizza, it adds just a little something extra without overwhelming the flavors of the other toppings. So what did I order? I went with the same pizza I’d ordered when I had my birthday dinner at Hot Italian: the Fiori. Topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella, fresh arugula, mushrooms and prosciutto, then drizzled generously with truffle oil, this pizza is beyond amazing to me. The spiciness of the arugula and the earthiness of the mushrooms and truffle oil go so perfectly with the salty prosciutto that I almost wish I’d thought of this combination myself.

But Hot Italian isn’t all about pizza. As I mentioned earlier, they do offer some great salads, and Kari ordered the one I had the first time I visited, which was the Sozzani. A generous amount of baby spinach is topped with dried cranberries, walnuts, pears and gorgonzola dolce cheese, making this a great accompaniment to a pizza or a nice light entrée salad for lunch. They have a nice wine selection at their bar and serve some wonderful Prosseco cocktails, the Peach Bellini being an absolute favorite of mine. I think the use of peach nectar as opposed to some random concentrate makes all the difference in this one. My only complaint about the cocktails is that they’re not very consistent in size or amount filled. When I had these for my birthday I ended up with about 3 different sized glasses, all filled with different amounts of bellini, all in the same night! I am still not sure what size they’re supposed to be, but they sure are tasty.

Lastly, their gelato is not to be missed. Their separate gelato bar (with a window to serve customers outside, for those who want their gelato to go) offers traditional ice cream flavors like chocolate and strawberry, but their specialty flavors are the real stars of the show. I highly recommend the Ferrero Rocher flavor, which is absolutely dead on when it comes to imitating the fabulous little candy. The caramel salato is another sinful confection that puts a lot of dulce de leche ice creams to shame. For those who don’t want to go overboard with the fat & calories, their fresh fruit sorbets are great healthy options too.

So what does all of this cost, Poor Girl? Well, I won’t lie and tell you it’s the best in bargain eating, but the value makes up for what you pay. Most pizzas are in the $12-14 range and are big enough to be shared, but light enough to be enjoyed by one person with a healthy appetite. This is one of those cases where you’re also paying for the general atmosphere and vibe. From the eclectic mix of diners to the simple, modern decor peppered with all those cool motorcycle-inspired details, this is not your typical eatery and that’s a good thing. I’d say Hot Italian is a good place to come with a bigger group so that you can try a couple different kinds and keep your costs down. That is, if you can resist taking home that Vespa that’s in the window…. ;)


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