Middle Eastern Night at Home

Photo Oct 15, 9 01 35 PM

The other night I was thinking about what to make for dinner on my way home, when I passed by one of the ubiquitous Halal carts. I don’t know why, but whenever I pass a Halal food cart, I always take a big sniff…it just smells so good! It immediately made me think of Middle Eastern flavors with lots of spices, citrus, and conversation. That night I made chicken shawarma for dinner with fixings, and instead of using store-bought dips, I decided to make my own–and it was so easy! Rustic lemon hummus consists of a quick trip to the pantry for most of the ingredients, and roasted eggplant babaghanoush will make your fellow diners think you’re a spice savant! Try these Middle Eastern spreads at home and you’ll never feel the need to head to the grocery the next time you want to eat some hummus.

Rustic Lemon Hummus

  • 1 can of chickpeas—canned chickpeas are super easy and always in my pantry, but dried chickpeas that you soak overnight are really the best for this recipe and will give you a cleaner flavor
  • 3 tablespoons of tahini paste
  • 2 lemons—juice of both, and the zest of one
  • 1 tablespoon of fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon of salt
  • 1 teaspoon of black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons of ground cumin
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon of paprika
  • Olive Oil
  1. Rinse the chickpeas off under cold water until you get rid of all of the gunk from the can off of the chickpeas
  2. In a food processor or blender–I only had my KitchenAid mixer available, so that’s what I used–add the chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice and zest, salt and pepper4
  3. Start to mix all of the ingredients on low to slowly break up the chickpeas until it becomes a thick paste5Photo Oct 15, 7 45 21 PM
  4. Add in the rest of the spices, and gradually add the oil as you increase the speed to mediumPhoto Oct 15, 7 47 05 PMPhoto Oct 15, 8 17 59 PM
  5. The hummus is done when it gets to your personal consistency preference—I like mine a bit chunky—great for pita chips!Photo Oct 15, 9 01 48 PM
  6. Spoon out into a bowl and eat with chips, pita, or use it was a topping for your favorite falafel. Hummus is also delicious as a spread or used in place of mayonnaise or mustard on sandwiches

Roasted Eggplant Babaghanoush

  • 1 large eggplant
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon of smoked paprika—this goes well with the roasted and charred eggplant, but regular paprika works just as well
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon of cumin—add the extra teaspoon if you don’t have smoked paprika. The cumin has a natural smokiness that can compensate
  • 4 garlic cloves, grated
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt
  • 2 teaspoons of black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon fo fresh parsley, chopped
  • Olive Oil
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons of tahini paste
  • 1/4 of an onion, grated
  • Hot sauce (to taste)—I like mine spicy, but this dip is delicious mild as well
  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees fahrenheit1
  2. Cut your eggplant in half lengthwise—Resist the urge to peel it at this point! The peel will not only help keep moisture in the eggplant flesh, but also hold it together in the oven.
  3. Use a fork or sharp paring knife to poke holes into the eggplant skin all over2
  4. Rub the flesh side with olive oil and season with 1/2 tablespoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of pepper, 1/2 tablespoon of paprika and 1/2 tablespoon of cumin
  5. Roast the eggplant for 20-25 minutes until the skin is charred and the flesh becomes slightly creamy and the outside if browned—you want the skin to get black10
  6. Once the eggplant has cooled a bit, but still hot, use a knife or fork to remove the charred skin—it should come off very easily
  7. Discard the skin and spoon the flesh into the bowl of a mixer or food processor11
  8. Pulse together the eggplant with the remaining ingredients until it comes together in a thick dip—feel free to blend it as much as you’d likePhoto Oct 15, 8 21 40 PM
  9. Serve similarly to the hummus, and garnish with a squeeze of lemon juice and extra parsley, and enjoy—One of my favorite ways to consume the eggplant is to make sabich, an Iraqi sandwich that consists of hard boiled eggs and fried eggplant on fresh pita bread. Babaghanoush would be a wonderful substitute for the traditional fried eggplant, and maybe add some salty feta cheese to give the sandwich a rich umami flavor22

All I know is that both of these spreads are absolutely delicious, and are perfect for any dinner party or even an afternoon snack. You can also feel free to customize your hummus and babaghanoush—substitute cilantro for the parsley for a more Mexican version, top your hummus with some mushrooms sautéed with zhatar spice, or make a festive zucchini version of babaghanoush and spread it on some thick toast and top with avocado. Yummy! I love to simply serve them with some homemade pita chips!

Recipe: Roasted Vegetable Lasagna

Sorry I’ve been away for a few weeks, but work’s been crazy! This recipe is actually inspired by all of the craziness. I wanted something that was not only delicious, but also comforting. This lasagna is packed full of roasted vegetables, so it’s also a healthy dinner to serve your family. This recipe might seem like it has a lot of steps, but all of them are simple and can be multitasked. So if you want to feed a crowd, or have a lot of leftovers–which are delicious!–try this recipe for Roasted Vegetable Lasagna.DSC00340DSC00341

Ingredients:

  • 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes—my favorite brand is San Marzano for its inherent sweetness, but any brand should be fine
  • ½ teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 ½ teaspoons of dried oreganoDSC00369
  • 1 tin of anchovy filets—it’s important that the anchovies are packed in oil as opposed to water since you want to flavor and richness of the oil to help flavor the sauce. Flat filets are also easier for melting into the oilDSC00368
  • 4-5 medium garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 1 pound of grape tomatoes—quartered whole tomatoes or cherry tomatoes could work in this dish too, but grape tomatoes are a nice size and roast beautifully in the oven
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 pound of cremini mushrooms, halved or quartered depending on size
  • 2 small to medium zucchini, cut into half moons
  • 2 small to medium yellow squash, cut into half moons
  • 1 green pepper, sliced into strips
  • 1 large onion, chopped roughly
  • 1 pound of ricotta cheese—it might be tempting to use low fat here, but use whole milk ricotta—trust me, you’ll taste the difference!
  • 1 cup of Parmesan cheese—shredded or grated as long as you’d eat it on your pasta
  • 2 eggs
  • 10 oz package of frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained—Make sure you squeeze as much water out of the spinach as you can
  • 1 box of oven ready lasagna noodles
  • 1 bag of shredded mozzarella—one of those Italian blends works too
  • 1 small ball of fresh mozzarella (optional)
  • Olive oil

To Cook:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degreesDSC00345
  2. Toss tomatoes with 1 tablespoon of oil, 1 teaspoon of oregano and salt, and ½ teaspoon of black pepper
  3. Spread tomatoes on a sheet pan and roast for 15-20 minutesDSC00343DSC00344
  4. At the same time, use a second, larger sheet pan for the zucchini, squash, pepper and onion and increase to 2 tablespoons of oil, 1 tablespoon of salt, 2 teaspoons of oregano, and 1 teaspoon of pepper
  5. Roast the veggies for around 30 minutes, while you prepare the rest of the components for the lasagna
  6. Drop the heat to 375 degrees when the veggies come out of the ovenDSC00363DSC00362
  7. While the veggies are in the oven, add enough olive oil to a big sauté pan to coat the bottom and heat on medium-high heatDSC00370
  8. Add anchovies to the pan and break them up with a back of a wooden spoon—Don’t skip this step! Even if you don’t like anchovies, the high heat will melt the filets into the oil and it will give needed background and depth to your sauceDSC00371
  9. Once the anchovy is melted, add the garlic and brown for about a minute or twoDSC00372
  10. Add the mushrooms—it’s important for mushrooms to be spread out for them to brown evenly. If they’re too crowded in the pan, then they’ll start to steam and turn rubberyDSC00373
  11. Once the mushrooms have cooked, season with a teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon of black pepper,½ teaspoon of oreganoDSC00375
  12. Add the crushed tomatoes to the pan and stir—you want the seasonings to be evenly spread throughoutDSC00374
  13. Reduce the heat to medium low, and simmer until the roasted tomatoes are ready to come out of the oven, and then transfer tomatoes to the sauce
  14. Continue to simmer for another 5 minutes
  15. While the sauce is finishing up, you can work on the ricotta layerDSC00364DSC00365DSC00366
  16. In a large bowl, add ricotta cheese, parmesan, eggs, and spinach, as well as a teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon of pepperDSC00367
  17. Whisk all the ingredients together for about 3-4 minutes
  18. Time to assemble the layers! In a 9×13 baking dish, spoon a bit of the tomato sauce on the bottom of the dish
  19. Add the lasagna noodles to the dish in a single layer all the way across—I shingled a little and also got creative by using one noodle that I cracked to fill in empty crevicesDSC00378
  20. The next layer should be some more tomato sauce
  21. Next up is a layer of the roasted vegetables
  22. After the vegetables should be a layer of the ricotta mixture—don’t skimp on the ricotta!DSC00377
  23. After the ricotta comes the cheese layer—add about ¼ of the bag of mozzarella cheese over the ricottaDSC00379
  24. Repeat the layering another 3 times, and top with a layer of noodlesDSC00380
  25. For the final layer, add a thick layer of tomato sauce all over the top, followed by the rest of the cheese, and a handful of parmesan—for my top layer, I actually like to use some fresh mozzarella since it melts so beautifully and makes for a beautiful presentation
  26. I place the whole thing onto a larger sheet tray so that if there’s spillage, it doesn’t go all over the oven floorDSC00383
  27. Bake in the oven at 375 degrees, uncovered, for 30-35 minutes

DSC00384Let it cool for at least 5-10 minutes before you cut into it. In fact, lasagna is a great make-ahead dish that you can keep in the fridge for up to 2 days before heating it. If you plan to refrigerate, make sure you add an additional 10-12 minutes to the cooking time. Also, this makes for a pretty saucy lasagna, but if you want you can reserve some extra sauce and spoon it over the top of each piece as it’s served, and garnish with some extra parmesan. Now who wouldn’t want a piece of that beauty? Buon Appetito!

Seafood Bounty in the Pacific Northwest 

Shucker’s Oyster Bar
411 University Street
Seattle, WA 98101 2015-09-17 20.29.11

2015-09-17 20.29.28The Pacific Northwest is known for some of the freshest seafood in the world—it’s a fish lover’s paradise. In fact, at the famous Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle, many of the fish mongers will be happy to “throw the fish” for visitors, and I even got to sample some delicious and super fresh smoked salmon! Therefore, it was a no brainer on what kind of food I wanted on my first night of a foodie weekend in Seattle—seafood! At the same time, I wasn’t in the mood to walk very far and found Shucker’s, which had great reviews on both OpenTable and Yelp and was only a 5 minute walk—I was sold.

2015-09-17 20.30.16Located inside of the landmark Fairmont Olympic Hotel, Shucker’s seemed like an old school seafood joint with a heavy focus on fresh fish. The aroma of some sort of baked seafood dish—maybe Oysters Rockefeller?—hit me as I walked in the door with an amazing garlic smell. It was sweet, salty, briny and so tantalizing. As I sat at the table, I had a good view of the chalkboard where that day’s market pics were listed—another nod to old school seafood houses—and got comfy on my side of the booth.

2015-09-17 20.47.282015-09-17 20.50.57The bread basket was bountiful, though not the best bread I’ve ever had. The white sourdough had a subtle tang, the whole wheat was nice and fluffy, and the cracker had a good amount of black pepper baked in. The butter was delicious though, and super creamy. The breads were great for dipping in my huge bowl of Creamy Clam Chowder ($12). Accompanying the soup was a mid-sized beer mug of oyster crackers, which I thought was a nice touch, albeit a little weird. The soup itself was creamy with a nice velvety texture, and uber-filled with fresh, chunky clams. I think a lot of the creaminess came from the starchiness of the potatoes, as opposed to a super amount of cream, which kept it from being too heavy. The whole bowl had an undertone of seafood flavor from the clam juice and it was a great way to ease into a seafood dinner. The waiter’s designation of it as a house specialty was spot on. It was very filling with such well cooked clams, but I soldiered on to the next courses.

2015-09-17 21.03.472015-09-17 21.04.10Up next was the Dungeness Crab and Artichoke Gratin ($17). This dish seemed a little different from the oft-ordered shrimp cocktail or crispy calamari that are so common at fish restaurants. Compared to the chowder, this appetizer was much more petite, but with a beautiful presentation. The gratin had big chunks of chunky crabmeat juxtaposed with the salty and tangy artichoke hearts. The top crisped up under the broiler and gave it some nice texture. It was garnished with a long, thin focaccia crisp, which was tasty but I wish was slightly chewier. It was a great vehicle for shoveling more crab and artichoke creaminess into my mouth though—so mission accomplished!

2015-09-17 21.23.072015-09-17 21.23.52Finally, was the main event that I had been waiting for—and salivating over—since I saw it on the menu: Shucker’s Seafood Paella ($41). Though it looks like a pretty steep price tag, there is so much seafood in this paella, and it was so delicious that it’s worth it. Plus, my waiter was so nice that he substituted a big scallop for me instead of clams in the paella, since I’m not a big fan of clams in their shell (plus already had clams in the soup). He didn’t even give me an up charge! To go through the long list of seafood in this dish, we can start with the huge quarter of a Dungeness crab atop the bowl, along with some crabmeat running throughout the rice. The crabmeat—after I used the seafood cracker to break the shell—was nice and sweet, and gave this dish such a level of elegance that many paella dishes are missing. The prawns and scallop were perfectly cooked—juicy and moist on the inside, with a slight acidic crust. The scallop specifically was gigantic with a wonderful, slightly acidic char on the outside. This dish also had plenty of meaty calamari flavor bombs and fresh, delicious mussels that absorbed flavor from the traditional saffron paella broth. The chorizo, chicken and andouille sausage were rendered down, and lent this dish a nice level of spice and bumped up the meatiness of the creamy rice. The saffron gave it not only a wonderful red-orange color but a depth of flavor that helped bridge the gap between the seafood and meats. Served in a mini-paella pan with a wedge of lemon to squeeze over the top, this dish was awesome, and such a great way to try a variety of fresh seafood in one dish.

2015-09-18 08.58.26Unfortunately, at the end of this deliciously decadent and unbelievably rich meal, there was absolutely no room left for dessert, though they sounded delicious. Regardless, this dinner was absolutely amazing, and the perfect gateway to the plethora of fresh seafood available in Seattle, and a wonderful “stick to your ribs” meal. I also have to mention that the servers at Shucker’s were very knowledgeable about the menu and attentive throughout the night. So, next time you visit Seattle and want to sample the bounty of the Pacific ocean, I recommend a pitstop at Shucker’s Oyster Bar! And, if you want to make your own fish dinner at home, check out my recipe for Sesame Crusted Tuna with Peanut Noodles 🙂

Recipe: Sesame Crusted Tuna with Peanut Noodles and Spicy Cucumber Salad

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Having eaten such fresh and delicious seafood in Seattle a couple of weeks ago, especially at Shucker’s, I was inspired to make my work fish dinner at home. Everything that comes out of kg kitchen has a twist though, so here’s my idea of a delicious fish dinner for company or family. Sushi grade tuna is marinated in a salty, spicy mix of soy, ginger and chili, then crusted in sesame and seared. To go with the tuna is a spicy cucumber salad, and peanut noodles that are so easy to make, you’ll be wondering why you’ve ordered them from takeout all these  years.

Sesame Crusted Tuna:

  • 1 tablespoon low sodium soy sauce—the fish sauce is already salty, so a lower sodium soy is better. A sweet soy sauce like tamari would work nicely too
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 1/2 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon of rice wine vinegar
  • 1/2 tablespoon of Sambal Olek—an Indonesian red chili paste flavored with salt and vinegar. It is very spicy, without the sweetness associated with sriracha sauce
  • 1/2 tablespoon of fresh ginger
  • 1/3 of bunch of scallions, sliced
  • 3-4 large sushi-grade tuna steaks–I recommend you splurge for the high end tuna. Trust me, you’ll taste the difference
  • 2 large bulbs of baby bok choy
  1. Combine soy sauce, fish sauce, rice wine vinegar, sambal, ginger, and scallions in a medium bowl
  2. Add the tuna to the marinade, and let the fish sit in the marinade for 1-2 hours to absorb the flavors of the sauceDSC00301
  3. Remove the fish from the marinade, and shake off excess liquidDSC00313
  4. While the fish is slightly wet, drip it into sesame seeds and crust both sides with sesame
  5. In a sauté pan, heat up some vegetable oil on medium heat, and get the tuna ready
  6. Cook the tuna steaks for about two minute per side—pay attention because it cooks fast, and higher quality tuna is best cooked rare
  7. Sauté some baby bok choy with garlic and excess fish marinadeDSC00317 DSC00319
  8. To serve: lay the bok chy on a big platter, and then set the sesame crusted tuna atop the bok choyDSC00327

Peanut Noodles:

  • 1 tablespoon of toasted sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons of vegetable or canola oil
  • 1 tablespoon of low sodium soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon of fish sauce
  • 3 heaping tablespoons of (crunchy) peanut butter
  • 1/2 cup of warm water
  • 1 box of angel hair pasta
  • 2/3 bunch of scallions, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon of white sesame seed
  1. Combine the first 6 ingredients and whisk together until it becomes a thick, homogeneous sauce—a blender or food processor works as well, but I like the texture that the nut pieces give to the sauce when it’s hand mixedDSC00303
  2. Chill the sauce for at least 20-30 minutesDSC00318
  3. Cook the pasta according to package directions, and drain wellDSC00320 DSC00321 DSC00322
  4. Toss the hot pasta with the sauce, sesame seeds and scallions
  5. Chill for 15 minutes in the refrigerator
  6. Serve in a big bowl, garnished with chopped scallions, and some chopsticksDSC00329

Spicy Cucumber Salad

  • 2 hot house cucumbers–also known as English or seedless cucumbers. I like this variety of cucumber since it’s longer and the skin is much thinner, so you can eat it easily. Plus is has much less seeds and comes prewashedDSC00307
  • 1 tablespoon of sambal olek
  • 1/2 tablespoon of toasted sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon of soy sauce
  • 1/2 tablespoon of rice wine vinegar
  • 1/2 tablespoon of white sesame seeds, for garnish
  1. Chop the cucumbers—skin on—into half moon piecesDSC00304
  2. In a bowl, combine the sambal, sesame oil, soy sauce and vinegarDSC00312
  3. Toss the cucumbers with the sauce and let sit for at least 20 minutes—the longer it sits, the more the cucumbers will expel liquid, and absorb the flavors of the sauceDSC00315
  4. Serve garnished with sesame seeds over the top on a bright plateDSC00316

This is a wonderful meal to serve for dinner to your family–like I did–or use it to wow your dinner guests as you take them on a culinary tour of Asia. Leftovers from all three of these dishes will taste even better the next day!

DSC00326

Vietnamese Fusion in Downtown Seattle

Stateside
300 East Pike Street
Seattle, WA 98122

IMG_4796IMG_4786It was the end of my first official day at the International Food Bloggers’ Conference in Seattle, and I was too lazy to walk very far from the hotel or cab it to the international district, and needed a break from the rich and heavy seafood that Pacific Northwest is known for—though it was delicious! I found Stateside, which had great reviews on both OpenTable and Yelp and made a reservation for later that night. I was seated at a high top table with bench seating on one side and a view of the rest of the restaurant, and look out onto Pike Street through he large glass windows. The space was very hip with a great downtown location, and you would never know this was a Vietnamese restaurant without looking at the menu. Stateside is known for its unique and modern fusion approach to traditional Vietnamese flavors, while also incorporating bits and pieces from Chinese and French cuisines. You won’t find any pho here, but rather dishes like crispy duck or mushroom fresh rolls bursting with fresh herbs, chili cumin crusted pork ribs that melt in your mouth, heirloom tomato salad dressed with rice wine and black garlic, and more. The place was crowded and hopping, and I’m glad I thought to make a reservation ahead of time. The uphill walk built up my appetite, and the smells of fish sauce and lemongrass as I walked through the door made my mouth water.

IMG_4787I started out by ordering a cocktail because that’s just what I do on vacation. No judging! The Viet Milk Punch ($11), which had recently moved to the dessert instead of cocktail menu is a modern twist on the classic sweet iced coffee drink available at many Vietnamese and Thai restaurants. It features cold brewed coffee—it’s Seattle, isn’t coffee appropriate?—condensed milk, egg white and dark rum. The condensed milk made the drink sweet, but not over the top, and the rum helped mellow our the sweetness and the egg white gives it a lovely frothiness. It was served in a pretty petite wine glass, and definitely fits on the dessert menu. Either way, it was delicious and a refreshing way to start the meal.

IMG_4789The Chili Cumin Pork Ribs ($13) seemed to be very popular on Yelp, and came highly recommended by the waiter, so made an appearance for the appetizer course. The ribs, of course, came with wet naps—how classy! lol—which just added to the charm of the place. Right away, the smell of chili came wafting from the ribs. The meat itself was practically falling off the bone, and had an intense smoky flavor from the almost whole cumin seeds. The slightly charred meat was garnished with scallions and herbs with a nice spice level—didn’t even have to ask for it to be spicier—and they were surprisingly meaty. These are not your mama’s spare ribs! Towards the bottom end of the rib is a fat cap that basted the rest of the meat—it made it so succulent and delicious.

IMG_4788Along with the ribs I had the Crispy Duck Fresh Rolls ($9)—a twisted mashup between a fresh summer roll and a crispy spring roll. The rolls were served with a mild dipping sauce made from a blend of oyster sauce, soy sauce and scallion oil. The rolls were filled with shiso leaves, Thai basil, spearmint, vermicelli noodles, and crispy duck. The roll is then flash-fried. As you bite into it you get the crunch of the duck skin, the chewiness of the fresh roll wrapper and noodles, the sweet herbaceousness of the basil, and the refreshing many flavor fo the shiso leaves. The sauce wasn’t too salty and balanced from the sweet oyster sauce and spicy scallion oil.

IMG_4792For the main event, I had my eye on one dish and with another recommendation of the waiter, I got the Bun Cha Hanoi ($19). This dish took a classic Vietnamese noodle bowl to the next level. It came in three separate bowls that I was encouraged to mix together and enjoy. Pork sausage patties that were super moist with great grill marks were served in a delicious broth made with caramelized fish sauce that flavored and tenderized the meat. The broth had an amazing umami flavor—I could drink it. Throughout the sauce there were small pieces of pork belly that provided a nice texture contrast with slight crisp on outside corners of the pork. The lemongrass shavings and palm sugar in the sauce also helped soak up fish sauce caramel so it wasn’t too salty, but there were plenty of “salt bombs” in the best way. The noodles were garnished with  scallion oil and a ton of fresh herbs that perfumed the whole dish. The third dish was a plate of pork and shrimp imperial rolls that were crispy on the outside and meaty inside. I tossed a couple of these with the sauce and noodles, and the rest I dipped into the broth. The waiter was very knowledgeable about the menu and very nice. He brought me a Fresno chili sauce (made from Fresno chili peppers, water, oil, vinegar, garlic, ginger, scallion and a bit of sugar) to go with the imperial rolls that really made them pop. This dish was not only filling, but also so creative. Yum yum!

IMG_4795After an already filling two courses, the question was this: dare I go for dessert? I was on vacation, so the answer was of course: yes. The Vanilla Goose Egg Custard ($8) had an aroma of Jackfruit when I lifted bowl to my nose, which might have come from the inner layer of the fruit inside the dessert. The top layer of the bowl was a tuile cookie in the shape of a Thai flower. A tuile is a thin, crispy wafer like cookie that’s originally from France and named after the shape of a tile. The cookie has a very slight sweetness to it that reminded me of a fortune cookie. I used my spoon to crack down through the crunchy layer and encountered a layer of Jackfruit, which is prevalent in Southeast Asia, and has a mild taste between a melon and a peach. Underneath the fruit was a layer of the goose egg custard, which was soft with an almost yogurt-like consistency, but slightly richer than everyday custard or pudding. It was nice to end the meal with a light dessert, since the rest of  it was so heavy. It actually reminded me of a breakfast parfait that I’d order with yogurt, fruit and vanilla. Some of the other desserts like the Vietnamese Coffee or Tea with Condensed Milk Creamsicles sounded delicious and uber-creative, but I had already had my Viet Milk Punch. Next time I’ll definitely try them though.

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Key Lime Pie

I learned pretty late in the day that people were coming over for  offer and dessert after dinner. I didn’t want to just serve them fruit or store bought cookies, and decided on one of my favorite pies–key lime pie. This recipe is derivative of many other basic key lime pie recipes, so I can’t take credit for the idea. Sometimes you just don’t want to mess with a classic. I made 2 pies, so the ingredient amounts were doubled, but I’m listing it as a single pie recipe. This dessert is delicious all on its own, but tastes even better with a big dollop of homemade whipped cream!

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Graham Cracker Crust:

  • 1 sleeve of graham crackers
  • 6 tablespoons of melted butter
  • 1/4 cup of white sugar

Filling:

  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 whole eggs
  • Lime zest—zest the whole lime, but reserve a few pinches for later
  • 1/2 cup of key lime juice—I might have to turn in my foodie card, but I actually like the sweet tanginess of bottled key lime juice. Just make sure it’s a quality brand!
  • 14 oz can of sweetened condensed milk

To Make the Pie:

  1. Mix together the crust ingredients until they take on the texture of wet sand
  2. Press the mixture into a pie tin or dish and bake at 325 degrees for about 10-12 minutes
  3. Let the crust completely cool before proceeding to the next stepDSC00282DSC00284DSC00285DSC00286
  4. For the filling, combine the remaining ingredients in a large bowl and mix until it becomes a homogenous blendDSC00291 DSC00292
  5. Pour into pie crust so that it goes almost to the top edge, but leave a slight border all around so you can see the crust. Plus it saves room for whip cream!DSC00293
  6. Chill for 10 minutes to slightly set, and preheat the oven to 325 degrees
  7. Bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes—make sure it doesn’t brownDSC00333
  8. Immediately transfer from the oven to the fridge for at least 3 hours, and up to overnightDSC00339
  9. Garnish with whip cream, a sprig of mint, and a sprinkle some reserved lime zest before serving

Homemade Pita Chips

One of my favorite things to do in the kitchen is to experiment, and, of course, make my own version of restaurant dishes at home. Earlier in the day, I had gotten some Indian food for lunch, and of course eaten some fluffy, warm naan bread. The best part of naan—for me at least—is that you can use it to mop up the delicious curries and sauces. So, I asked myself, “What can I dip into my leftover lamb sauce?” Then it hit me—pita! But, plain pita is boring, so what about pita chips? These were so easy to make it’s ridiculous. Make these pita chips at home, and you’ll never feel like buying them at the store again. This recipe yields 18 chips, but feel free to make much, much more!

  • 3 whole pita breads
  • 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh parsley–I happened to have fresh herbs for another recipe, but dried herbs would work just as well
  • 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
  • 1 teaspoon of black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil
  1. Cut each pita in half lengthwiseDSC00243
  2. Cut each half into 3 equal sized wedgesDSC00242
  3. Mix the parsley, rosemary, lemon zest, salt and pepper with the oil
  4. Let the herb oil mixture sit for about 15 minutes, and set the oven to 300 degreesDSC00246
  5. Toss the pita triangles with the herb oil to lightly coat, and arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet
  6. Bake the pita chips for about 20-22 minutes, or until they are browned and crisped upDSC00256
  7. Allow the chips to cool before consuming with hummus, guacamole, onion dip, or delicious braising liquid from lamb shanks!DSC00259

Recipe: Braised Lamb Shanks with Moroccan Lemon Couscous

I recently attended the 2015 International Food Bloggers’ Conference in Seattle, organized by Foodista. Until I actually got on the plane, I was waffling back and forth on whether to actually go. I kept thinking to myself—will they like me? Does my blog have a relevant and unique voice? Will I learn anything? As a matter of fact, I had an amazing time and learned so much. So much so, that you should expect to see a major uptick in the frequency of blog posts 🙂

2015-09-19 16.37.06One of my favorite sessions was all about lamb. We got to hear all about the versatility of lamb, the variety of cuts available, insider cooking and butchery tips, and even got to sample some delicious lamb pate, lamb’s cheese and cold smoked lamb loin. Yum! So, when I got home, I was inspired to put my own spin on a lamb dinner. While lamb chops and rack of lamb might be more prevalent, and often seen on your favorite steakhouse’s menu, lamb shanks are the unsung hero of the lamb family. All they need is a little TLC and time, and they become tender, succulent and out of this world delicious. My version of braised lamb shanks is great for entertaining guests at an elegant dinner party, impressing that special someone, or even cooking for your family—perfect for the slow cooker! I serve mine with Moroccan inspired, lemon couscous and homemade pita chips (see recipe here), but feel free to substitute mashed potatoes, creamy polenta or any number of sides. Enjoy!

DSC00271DSC00209Ingredients:

  • 4 medium to large lamb shanks—you should be able to find these in the meat section of your grocery store, but if not, then you could just ask your butcher. Short ribs could be a good substitute, but they won’t have the same presentation
  • 1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon of AP (all-purpose) flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried sliced onion—minced onion works fine too
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 6 sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • 1 bunch of fresh Italian parsley
  • 1 package of fresh mint
  • 2 large Spanish onions, chopped
  • 5-6 large carrots, cut into chunks
  • 5 medium garlic cloves (or 4 large cloves), chopped
  • 1 can of chickpeas, drained
  • 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1 lb. package of cherry tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 cups of red wine—use something you’d drink, since the flavor will end up concentrating as you cook out the alcohol
  • 4 1/2 cups of chicken, veal or beef stock—I only had chicken broth, but veal or beef is really the best to use in this recipe
  • 2 lemons
  • 1 teaspoon of paprika
  • 1 teaspoon of garlic powder
  • 2 cups of couscous
  • 1/4 cup of slivered almonds
  • 1/2 cup of dried dates, halved or quartered

Lamb Shanks:

  1. Pat the lamb dry, this will help them stay moist when you cook itDSC00218
  2. Mix the flour, cinnamon, pepper, salt, turmeric, dried parsley, dried onion, cumin, and a teaspoon of chopped rosemary (about 1 sprig) in a medium-sized bowl
  3. Coat the lamb in the seasoned flour mixture—this will do double duty for you by helping make a crust on the lamb, and also thicken up the braising liquid into a sauce later on
  4. In a dutch oven or heavy bottom pot heat oil—use a neutral oil since you’ll require a very high cooking temperature to sear the outside of the meatDSC00220
  5. Add the lamb shanks—in batches if necessary—and brown for a few minutes on all sides. Contrary to popular belief, the sear does not “lock in the juices,” rather it helps make a great crust and caramelizes the spices on the outside of the meat DSC00223 DSC00224 DSC00225DSC00226
  6. Once the shanks have browned take them out and put aside on a plate—don’t clean out the pot. All of those delicious drippings and brown bits on the bottom of the pan = flavor!DSC00227 DSC00228DSC00229
  7. Add a bit more oil and add in the chopped carrots and sauté for another couple of minutes, then add the garlic and one onion to the potDSC00230
  8. Cook for a few more minutes, and then add the chickpeasDSC00232
  9. Once the veggies have started to brown, it’s time to deglaze the pan—deglazing means you add liquid (in this case tomatoes, wine and broth) in order to scrape up the browned bits on the bottom of the pot
  10. Add the crushed tomatoes, and bring to a simmer
  11. Add about 1 1/2 cups of red wine and 1 cup of the stockDSC00239
  12. When it starts to bubble slightly, it’s time to add the lamb back in, and don’t forget the meat juices DSC00235Add the roasted tomatoes, as well as a few sprigs of rosemary and parsley to the pot and give it a big stir
  13. Let the pot simmer on medium for about 20-25 minutes uncovered—this helps cook out the taste of raw broth and wine. Give it another big stir and move the lamb and veggies all around the pot
  14. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, reduce the heat to medium low and let it braise for at least 2 hours—you should stir the pot every 25-30 minutes, but don’t mess with it too much. This is important spa time for your meaDSC00263
  15. After a couple of hours, the meat will super tender and following off the bone—In fact, your shank bones should look like they’ve been frenched, which means the end of the bone is cleaned of meat so you can hold it like when you order rack of lamb at a fancy restaurant DSC00265
  16. Remove  the lamb shanks, and crank the heat back up to medium to medium high for another 5 minutes uncovered. The sauce will continue to thicken a bitDSC00267
  17. Plate the lamb shank with the bone prominently displayed, and smother the meat with the braising liquid that’s chock full of carrots, herbs, onion, garlic, chickpeas and meat that’s fallen off the boneDSC00269
  18. Garnish with the gremolata, and serve alongside some couscous and some homemade pita chip for dipping

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Gremolata:

  1. Mix together about 1 tablespoon of chopped parsley, 1 teaspoon of chopped rosemary (about 2 sprigs), and zest of a lemonDSC00245 DSC00254
  2. Use as garnish for heavy dishes, and add when it’s still hot—the gremolata will not only help cut through the richness of the dish, but also perfume the plate as the heat slightly cooks the herbs and lemon peel

Couscous:

I like my couscous a little more moist and stuffing-esqe as opposed to many recipes that like each of the couscous pearls to be separate from each other. Try it my way, and if you don’t like it, then go back to the other way next timeDSC00255

  1. In a medium-sized pot, add some oil
  2. Add the remaining onion to the pot and start to sweat the onions
  3. Season with salt, pepper, garlic powder and paprikaDSC00258
  4. Saute the onion until it starts to brown and caramelize
  5. At this point, add 3 1/2 cups of chicken stock and the juice of both lemons to the pot. Increase the heat to medium or medium-high
  6. Bring the liquid to a boil, and then add the couscous. Stir to make sure all of the couscous is covered, and not sticking together
  7. Turn the heat off and cover the couscous
  8. After 4 minutes, add the dates, slivered almonds, as well as the remaining parsley and mint
  9. If the couscous seems dry or not soft enough for you after 5 minutes, add some more stock or lemon juice, stir and cover again for a few minutesDSC00261 DSC00262
  10. Serve the couscous garnished with some lemon slices and a squeeze of lemon over the top

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Scrumptious Italian Sandwiches in Astoria

Il Bambino
34-08 31st Ave
Astoria, NY 11106

My brother recently moved to Astoria in Queens, NY. Being the awesome, amazing and caring big brother that I am, I was helping him move some things into his new apartment, until we got hungry for some lunch. I think Astoria is a great neighborhood, and it’s a super hotspot right now. While it might have once only been known for Greek restaurants—of which there are still many—it is now a haven for artists, musicians, foodies and hipsters. All over Astoria there are gourmet eateries ranging in cuisine from spicy Thai cook shops, to brick oven pizzerias, gourmet grilled cheese, barbecue smokehouses, big beer gardens, Japanese ramen shops, and many, many more.

Photo Jun 20, 1 28 07 PMOne of these unique restaurants is Il Bambino, which opened in 2006. It is a cute, little hole in the wall place on the 31st Avenue block, specializing in old-school panini, and other Italian fare, with a second location in the West Village as well. It has a casual atmosphere with a big selection of panini and crostini, as well as salads, antipasto, and a special brunch menu on the weekends. It has an open kitchen in the front where there are multiple panini presses working at once sending out creative meat, cheese and veggie combinations. They use ciabatta bread that is freshly baked daily, local produce and handmade condiments. There’s also a great meat a mind cheese glossary available for perusal of those that aren’t familiar with some of the selections.

Photo Jun 20, 1 06 03 PMWe got there during the weekend lunch rush and luckily were able to snag a small table near the front. Everything on the menu looked amazing, and even though I was somewhat distracted by the giant salad being eaten by the woman next to me, we decided to save time and each went with a panini.

Photo Jun 20, 1 19 47 PMThe Bacon Butty ($12) has a powerful and pungent blue cheese flavor. There is a good amount of moist, chewy bacon—it had the perfect texture and amount of smokiness that have some oomph to the sandwich. The combination of avocado, scrambled eggs and blue cheese made for a great combo, and the creaminess from the spicy mayo added a certain level of unctuousness to the sandwich as well. The hot bread was nice and crusty, with a wonderful crunch as it was bitten into. It was also a pretty big panini—perfect for a filling brunch or lunch.

Photo Jun 20, 1 19 40 PMIn contrast to the Bacon Butty, which was slightly more traditional American, the Pass the Hash ($11) was very, very Italian. The eggs were cooked well and not dry at all. The garlic roasted potatoes provided some needed heft and the chorizo bumped up the meatiness of the panini. The whole sandwich had a great truffle flavor from the aioli that also perfumed the filling. The addition of Parmesan made the panini luxurious and really elevated the rather simple ingredients to something special, and tied it all together. The inside of the panini was creamy and contrasted with the crustiness of the grilled bread.Photo Jun 27, 1 27 15 PM

Photo Jun 27, 1 28 35 PMThose two panini were super filling and so delicious that a couple of weeks later we decided to pick up a panini to share as an afternoon snack—alright, I’ll admit…a big snack!—and it was the best takeout ever. The Porchetta ($11) panini was definitely made for the carnivorous at heart. Porchetta is a boneless pork loin that is stuffed with herbs, garlic, then rolled and roasted with the skin still on to keep then meat moist and delicious. In the Porchetta panini, the meaty pork loin was fatty with juice gushing out of the meat. It was topped with a fresh and spicy slaw that was definitely helpful in cutting through the rich, fatty meat. The pickle slaw were a nice surprise hidden in the middle of the panini, and the rosemary aioli also gave the sandwich a nice earthiness and deep woody flavor. The bread soaked up the pork juices and it was mouthwateringly delicious.

Photo Jun 20, 1 27 57 PMIl Bambino is the perfect spot for some lunch, brunch or anything in between. It has a ton of great Italian panini available and great beers and wines to pair with them. While the restaurant might be small in size, it makes up for it with big played and bold flavors. Buon Appetito!

Mouthwatering Mexican in the West Village

La Loteria
Cocina Mexicana Moderna
29 7th Ave South
New York, NY 10014

New York City is expensive—there’s no arguing with that. However, it is still possible to dine out at delicious restaurants while sticking to a budget. One of the best times of the year to sample the city’s plethora of eateries is NYC Restaurant Week. Over the course, in actuality, three weeks, over 300 restaurants throughout the boroughs create special three-course menus ($25 for lunch, $38 for dinner) in addition to their regular offerings. It’s a great way to try a new place or enjoy a high-end meal, for a more affordable price tag.

We ventured down to Bedford Street for some modern Mexican fare at La Loteria. The name of the restaurant is a play on the popular Mexican game, la loteria, which is similar to bingo. While the game might be based on luck, the food and service here are always a sure bet. Under the creative helm of co-owners, Executive Chef Julieta and Managing Partner/Owner Jaime Herrera, La Loteria has become a hotspot in the chic dining scene of the West Village.

Our night started fittingly with some classic Mexican cocktails—margaritas and sangria. The Margarita Tradicional Loteria came in a glass tumbler garnished with a salt rim. It was tart, with a good balance between the heavy tequila and sweet agave nectar, and super refreshing–really hit the spot. The red Sangria del Cantarito wasn’t too sweet and we appreciated that it didn’t come with a whole fruit basket as a garnish. It was no frills, but made with a good wine and tasty.

The Guacamole Tradicional was served in an authentically Tex-Mex stone bowl, which I love and came with a generous portion. It was chunky, so you could still taste the individual pieces of avocado, and mixed with hot chili peppers, juicy tomato chunks, highly acidic lime juice, and rough chopped cilantro that was still visible throughout the dip.

We also got a trio of salsas for the table. These salsas seriously heightened La Loteria from solid Mexican food in NYC to modern and gourmet. The tomatillo avocado salsa was sour from the fleshy tomatillos with a wonderfully bold flavor. It was pulpy from the tomatillos, and strongly acidic, with a nice bite, that was tempered by the creamy and rich avocado. The vibrant green color was also great. The peanut salsa was definitely funky and tasted like a Mexican version of an Asian sate sauce. The sauce was earthy, slightly spicy, nutty with some smoky notes to it, and garnished with chopped peanuts. Yum! The third of the trip was the more traditional chili de arbol salsa. The bright reddish-orange color contrasted beautifully with the green of the tomatillo salsa. It was also super creamy and unctuous, and had a background taste of roasted red peppers. The building heat from the red salsa played nicely with the hidden spiciness of the guacamole, and the mild taste of the peanut salsa.

To scoop up the guacamole and salsas, there were homemade corn tortilla chips. The chips were crunchy and still warm from the fryer, but not greasy. We ended up getting a second bowl of chips since they were so dippable.


The Ceviche de Pescado appetizer featured the catch of the day, which was sea bass, a meaty fish that has steadily been gaining popularity as an alternative to tuna or salmon. Sea bass was a great choice for the ceviche, since it can stand up to the strong flavors in the marinating liquid. The fish was mixed with tomatillo, avocado, and pickled cucumber. The base sauce was made with lime juice, but wasn’t too overpowering. The plate was garnished with mini corn tostadas, pea shoot tendrils and an edible flower—the flower seemed to be a theme, which is popular among many Mexican restaurants. It had a very rustic chic feel to it, and the freshness of the sea bass, almost sushi-grade in its texture, really heightened the flavors.

Ensalada de Betabel, translated to “beet salad,” was not super Mexican, but seemed very appropriate for a downtown Manhattan restaurant and tasty. The salad was a good mix of textures—the meaty grilled beets, soft goat cheese spread, creamy avocado, crunchy caramelized nuts, crunchy spinach leaves, and chewy radicchio. The beets were also the right temperature; often, kitchens serve beets that are ice-cold, which I think dilutes the sweet flavor of the beets, but here they were served room temperature.

The Quesos Flameados, or melted Chihuahua cheese baked casseroles, was also a great dish. This dish is hot in comparison to the others, and made for a nice change from the previously cold appetizers. The cheese was cooked in a cute little cast iron skillet along with some onions for both flavor and texture. The cheese ended up all melted and crusty along the outer edges. It was served with hand-pressed tortillas to scoop up the cheesy goodness, almost like a deconstructed cheese quesadilla.

The second course Enchiladas Callejeras—“street style” enchiladas—were stuffed with panela cheese that has a meaty texture and much higher melting temperature. Therefore, the cheese maintained its shape and very much stood up to the rest of the dish. The enchiladas were smothered in a mouth-watering mole sauce, and rested atop adobo fried potatoes. The mole was very earthy, with sweetness and a slight fruitiness that made it a nice contrast to the spicy, smoky potatoes. The potatoes on their own reminded me of a dish I had when I was in Spain called papas bravas, typically served as a tapas dish in Spanish restaurants that consists of fried potatoes garnished with a spicy tomato sauce or creamy aioli. We requested mushrooms instead of one of the meats available on the menu and they were cooked perfectly and formed a semi-permeable layer between the mole sauce and the enchiladas.

The fish tacos, Tacos de Pescada Baja Style, were also made with sea bass, and the dish was super crispy from the beer batter. There were three big tacos tightly wrapped with flour tortilla filled to the brim with hot fish and a crunchy, sweet and tangy jicama slaw. There was also a creamy and spicy aioli garnish that was tasty, but the taco was already so moist that it wasn’t even needed.

The meal’s final entree was Barbacoa de Arrachera. The barbacoa consisted of skirt steak braised with banana leaves, tequila, Mexican beer, oregano and salsa verde. Using skirt steak was an unusual, but smart choice–it’s a cheaper cut of meat, but the other ingredients elevate it to the fine dining level. The meat was smoky and slightly sweet from the banana leaves, moist from the beer, woodsy and deep flavors from the oregano and tequila, a nice pop of tanginess from the salsa, and fall apart tender. It was garnished with lime and a duo of sauces. The presentation was clean with the meat served in a big bowl along with some hand-pressed tortillas.


At this point, we were all pretty full, but who can say no to dessert? The Flan Napolitano was unbelievably creamy and the custard was set, with the spoon cutting through it like a panna cotta. It was sweet and tangy from the cream cheese, with a layer dulce de leche caramel and topped with some toasted walnuts flavored with cinnamon. The plate also had a raspberry garnish.

The Churros, which are always a personal favorite of mine, were fried perfectly–crispy on the outside and still eggy in the middle–and lightly dusted with cinnamon. The lack of sugar on the Churros was actually a welcome surprise, since the other desserts were uber sweet. They were served with dark chocolate and dulce de leche dipping sauces. Only thing I would change was I wish there was a little more sauce–I’d drink it from the container lol.

Last, but certainly not least, was the Pastel de Tres Leches (aka Tres Leches Cake). The cake was, as expected, super moist from the three kinds of milk–cream, evaporated milk, and condensed milk–and the sponge was slightly grainy. It’s a classic Mexican dessert and this one was a great take on it, especially with the great presentation. The plate was garnished with a small cup of milk. Not only was the white milk in sharp contrast to the dark plate, but I also love when food is garnished with what’s in it! A quality I share with Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa.

So if you’re in the mood for some delicious Mexican food in NYC, head downtown to La Loteria, but make sure you’re hungry! Everything is fresh and tasty, and it’s always service with a smile. Dustin, the manager, took such great care of us and really made the whole night special. Can’t wait to come back for Happy Hour and dinner again.