Thursday, February 19, 2009

What the pho?

I'm sorry, I lost my camera today, so I'm going to have to put someone else's picture on here. but I think I have a sense of what Bourdain keeps raving about when he talks about his trips to Vietnam. The item in question: pho, pronounced "fuh." The concept: hot beef consomme' with thin ingredients that cook in your bowl. Easy, but really good! And, it forced me to experiment with the Asian market, which if you know what you're doing (which I rarely do) is the cheapest place to get awesome ingredients.


  1. 4 quarts of beef broth. You want to make your own right? How about oxtail, or neck bones or whatever. It looks more awesome if you make your broth clear. This can be done any number of ways, one of which is mixing a couple of eggs into the stock when it is cold and heating up, then straining. See Julia Childs Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
  2. Spices. I used a packet of Asian soup spice that had star anise, ginger, cinnamon, some weird looking red berries, and other powders and bark and roots that I couldn't make out.
  3. Beef. This can be either tri-tip, flank steak, sirloin, skirt steak. Something with a little marbling. Slice the meat as thin as possible.
  4. 1 cup of scallions, diced. If you don't want that, you can do thinly sliced onions marinated in a little vinegar.
  5. 1 cup of cilantro, diced.
  6. 2 cups of bean sprouts.
  7. 1/2 cup of minced jalapeno or some Asian chile.
  8. Vietnamese glass noodles. Can be vermicelli type or thin and wide. Whatever they are, they need to be able to cook super quickly, and this is enhanced by soaking in hot water for about 30 minutes before assembling the soup.
  9. 2 limes, quartered.

Assembling the soup
Bring the broth to a low boil and keep it there. The hotter and saltier the stock the better.
In a bowl place about 6 slices of beef, a small handful of bean sprouts, generous handful of noodles, small handful of onions/scallions. Ladle the piping hot broth in your bowl over the ingredients, and let the meat cook a little bit. Top with a generous sprinkling of cilantro and squeeze a couple of lime wedges into it. Optionally you can season with Sriracha or some other type of hot sauce. Eat with a wide Asian style spoon and chopsticks.

It doesn't sound like there's much to it, and there's not really. It's just an awesome thing to do with stock if you have some or want to make some. The broth with the combination of the flavors is really tasty! Once you make it, I'm pretty sure you'll try it again and go looking for it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I heart NY

I hate the Yankees (baseball, that is), but I love their city. Great restaurants are everywhere. However, I have yet find an online guide that gets me to the good restaurants without having to weed through the crap. It seems like most of them (Zagats, ChowHound, etc.) have crappy chain restaurants mixed in with the great ones. And the reviews - fugetaboutit! You get mixed reviews from a bunch of idiots like you and me.
I think the NY Times Dining Guide online is about as close as you get. The problem is filtering out the junk, in order to find a good restaurant in the vicinity of your hotel, that is native to NY, and has been reviewed by the Times. It sounds simple enough, but if you ever try it, you'll see what I mean. I managed to find a good restaurant near my hotel, but primarly by paying attention to the awning signs as I took taxi rides around town, then looking them up in the NY Times Dining Guide online. I can't stand their political bias, but the Times has excellent food critics, and have reviewed an amazing number of restaurants in NYC. Especially considering the fact that restaurants in NYC have a short life span (something like 3 years on average).

Anyway, I ate at Le Bernardin, which was a pre-meditated pick, and at a place called Pampano. Pampano is listed as a Mexican restaurant, and the NY Times gave it two stars. For the Times, two stars means Very Good. And it was. I've never been to Mexico, and have only experienced Mexican food at the local Vallarta's (which isn't very authentic), and at a few places in New Mexico (which is completely different). I'll write more about both of these in the coming days.

The primary reason for this post is to follow-up on JW's pizza dough recipe. I know - what does this have to do with JW's pizza dough? Well, I'm getting there. At the end of my NYC trip last week, I met up with a college buddy that lives in Cranford, New Jersey. After college (back in the early 90's - or "back in the day"), he lived in a place called Rahway, New Jersey and had taken me to Rahway Pizza. More recently, he had been making the short drive from Cranford to Rahway just for the pizza, and bragging about how good it remains to this day. So we went there last Thursday nite. I didn't remember much about the place from my previous visits, but this time, it made an impact - primarily because I knew how difficult a thin crust was to achieve, based on JW's many experiments. The crust at Rahway Pizza was the thinnest I had EVER seen. You could practically see through it (after it was cooked). The three of us (forty-something guys) each ate a whole large pizza, had a pitcher of beer (each), and still didn't feel full, just satisfied. I haven't done that since my college days. We had garlic and sausage, garlic and onion, and just cheese. Garlic was emanating from my pores for two days, but it was excellent.

JW - your pizza is a winner. If you want to try for an even thinner crust, go visit Rahway Pizza. You won't be disappointed, and maybe they'll give you the recipe.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

JW Super Bowl Chili

There are 1000's of chili recipes out there, but for sporting events and cook-off purposes, I can't sway from Chili con Carne. No beans. If you want those I suggest cooking a few pounds of pintos for 45 minutes in a pressure cooker with an onion and a few pieces of bacon...but I digress...

If you want to try my method, be forewarned, it will take you a few hours. I suggest you begin by sharpening your best chef knife to a razor's edge. This will make your prep much easier.

Chili pot, mine is a Le Cruset 8 qt Dutch Oven
Stainless steel skillet or cast-iron
Chef's knife
Spice grinder (coffee grinder that you will never use to grind coffee)

2-chuck eye roasts to equal 4 or 5 lbs, trimmed and cut into 1 inch cubes
3 to 4 types of dried chili, 3 to 4 of each
3T cumin seeds
1 T oregano
1/2 lb bacon or if feeling spunky Mexican chorizo, cut into lardons
1 medium onion, chopped
1-8 oz can tomato sauce (I use El Pato spicy Mexican Tomato sauce for chili)
6 cloves garlic, minced
4 jalepenos, minced
2 limes
Masa Harina
Salt & Pepper

Preheat oven to 300 degrees and toast cumin and chiles for about 6 minutes. Cook briefly, deseed, then grind in spice grinder. Meanwhile render the lardons over medium heat in your chili pot. Remove about 1/2 of the bacon grease to use for browning your meat, leave the remainder in the pot to cook the onions.

In your skillet, heat 1 T of pork fat over medium-high heat and add meat in a single layer being careful not to crowd so the meat will brown, not steam (gray meat isn't very appetizing to me), about 3 minutes per side. After each addition of meat, wipe the pan clean and repeat until all the meat is brown. Set aside.

After softening the onion, about 7 minutes, add the garlic and jalepeno and cook until fragrant, about a minute. Then add the chile and cumin and cook stirring well for about 2 minutes. Then add the tomato sauce, meat & about 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for 2 hours. It will be and refrigerate overnight.

Next day, bring back to a boil and plan to simmer for about an hour. Taste adding salt and pepper as needed. 5 minutes before serving, juice the limes and mix about 5 T of masa in with the lime juice. Add the lime/masa mixture to the chili and the chili will thicken almost immediately.

Serve in bowls garnished with chopped onion, minced serrano, cheese, and Ole Mexican Crema.

Monday, February 2, 2009

CityZen, Washington, D.C.

CityZen, Washington, DC (
November 13, 2008

Bar Tasting Menu (prix fixe)
Wines (paired with courses for an additional prix fixe)

Amuse Bouche
Mushroom Fritter with white truffle oil

First Course
KABKABOU - Sautéed Filet of Mediterranean Rouget with Saffron Braised Potatoes, Picholine Olives, Spanish Capers and Salted Lemon
W - Sauvignon Blanc

Second Course
Braised Duck Breast and Duck Sausage with lentils, caramelized onions, carrots
W - Grenache

Third Course
CityZen Dreamsicle – Fromage Blanc Soufflé Glacé on an Almond Biscuit with Naval Oranges and Orange-Licorice Emulsion
W - Desert Wine from Virginia (like a Riesling, but not – and I can’t remember the name)

Another trip to DC. Another meal sans friends and coworkers. C’est la vie. I decided to scratch another chef off my ever-growing bucket list of restaurants. Tonight I chose CityZen, home of Eric Ziebold, who previously worked with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry and helped open Per Se in NYC. Chef Ziebold won the 2008 James Beard Award for Best Chef – Mid-Atlantic region.

I checked for a reservation on Wednesday nite. No luck. Checked again Thursday after my meeting. Again, no luck. I decided to test fate and pay them a visit anyway. I noticed a bar menu online, and I figured I could get there early enough to beat the crowd and get a seat at the bar, where I would feel more comfortable as a single, and be able to test the waters for less than half the regular fare. You see, the Chef’s tasting menu (6 courses) is $110 per person, plus $75 for the wine pairing. You can taste three courses for $50 at the bar, and $25 for the wine pairing. Not cheap, but worth a shot, based on the reputation of Ziebold.

So I thought I would leave my suburban VA hotel (not staying there by choice, but out of necessity) arrive around 6:30pm, and cozy up to the bar. The traffic Gods had another idea. So did the navigation Gods. It seems that traffic INTO Washington DC from VA at 6pm is just as bad as traffic OUT of DC at the same hour. And when you turn on 14th street from Constitution, instead of 12th street (as you should have remembered from the Google directions that you chose not to write down, because they were SOOO EASY) it happens to put you onto Interstate 395, where it also happens that 2.5 million other people are making their mass exodus from downtown. Traffic tip of the day: Just head to the airport and make a U-turn if you find yourself in this situation. From there, I have no idea how to get to 12th and Maryland Avenue SW, except to ride around the Smithsonian a few times, make three U-turns on some lettered streets (G and C – I think), then happen upon the correct right turn into the Mandarin Oriental hotel, where it happens that the street sign is no larger than a license plate.

Then there’s the parking issue. The adjacent public parking closes at 8pm. When you are planning on a tasting menu from a guy who used to work at the French Laundry, and you think about how long it took you to eat 9 courses at the French Laundry last year, you don’t expect to be done in an hour and fifteen minutes at this place. The public parking wasn’t a safe bet. I kept my cool long enough to get a curbside spot on 12th, and walk the ½ block to CityZen.

Décor. Very modern chic. Lots of metal, wood, and fire – something about the elements is the intended theme. No wind, thank God. It works, although I’m not a theme person. History suits me better than PoMo (Postmodern) theme design.

The food was pretty much what I expected. Intense flavors, great presentation, and portions large enough to not make you need to stop at Krystal on the way home, even after only three tasting courses. I imagine the six course Chef’s Tasting Menu has smaller portions. I tried to peek over someone’s shoulder to see, but my perspective was skewed from the bar area, and my 40-something eyesight is apparently failing.

Amuse Bouche, Mushroom Fritter. The mushroom fritter wasn’t fried, but rolled in what appeared to be dried mushroom crumbs. It was served on a three-inch square white plate with a bit of mushroom sauce enhanced with white truffle oil, tailed on the top edge like a Nike swoosh. The fritter itself looked sorta like a mini-wheat without the cross hatching. One bite. It wasn’t intensely mushroomy. I imagine the mushroom-hating segment of the population would have been inclined to try it, and probably would have liked it.

First Course, Kabkabou. The Kabkabou would have been sufficient as a main course. The fish was Mediterranean Rouget, which I had never tried, or really ever heard of before. It was filleted, cut into a uniform rectangle, and placed crispy-skin side up over a bed of thinly sliced fingerling potatoes, and a very small bit of olive slivers – which was all it needed. The fish reminded me of Sea Bass – slightly sweet and buttery. Olives can be overpowering, but these were perfectly proportioned.

Second course, (menu description not available). The second course was a thick slice of duck breast, accompanied by a duck sausage link, on a bed of lentils which appeared to be cooked with a standard Keller 1/16th inch mirepoix (carrots, onions, leeks) and a veal stock (or maybe duck stock) as a base. The reason I say “appeared to be” is based on the fact that the mirepoix carrots stood out, not for the flavor, but because of the contrasting color with the leeks. Caramelized onions were also involved. Like the first course, this dish was also quite tasty; however the duck breast had a layer of silverskin, which I found a bit tough, and not very Kelleresque. I made mention to the barkeep re. the silverskin, and he let the kitchen know. When he returned from the kitchen, there wasn’t a “yeah, I mentioned it to Eric, and he admitted that they screwed up” moment. The kitchen and barkeep seemed indifferent to the silverskin. I enjoyed it, regardless.

Third course, CityZen Dreamsicle. The Dreamsicle was a Fromage Blanc Soufflé Glacé (a frozen crème fraiche mixture with the viscosity and texture of ice cream) on an almond biscuit (kinda like a round lady finger) topped with naval oranges, a paper-thin slice of candied orange, sitting in an orange-licorice emulsion. It was not too sweet, very satisfying as a dessert and the barkeep obviously had experience pairing with the Virginia wine, which really opened up after tasting the dessert. I intend to try this one at home.

Overall, I enjoyed the food, wine, and the environment. I especially appreciated the fact that the kitchen was completely open to the dining area, without much more than a counter-height wall for a barrier. I have been to a number of “award-winning” restaurants, none of which open the kitchen to the dining experience the way Ziebold has done. The lasting impression I will have of this design is the frequent, amazing, and surprisingly loud whisk scraping against a stainless steel bowl at the speed of light that occurred in the most visible (and audible) compartment of the kitchen. It wasn’t unnerving, disturbing, or chalk-board dissonant. It was like a muffled helicopter rotor. I think I was simply surprised at the speed at which one can whisk without the assistance of a product made by KitchenAid.

Travel. EAT. Write

First, I’d like to thank ya’ll for letting me contribute to this informal, and so far, informative blog. I intended to start my own food blog, but hey, this one already has a captive audience.

Since this is my first post on FTCTTM (yep - when do we vote on the new name?), I need to provide the following background information before I write about food. I am not, nor have I ever claimed to be, a food critic. I enjoy well prepared food using fresh ingredients, time-consuming processes, and ridiculous techniques that I might actually be stupid enough to try at home.

Since I’m not a food critic, I doubt I’ll provide you with any earth-shattering information about these meals, nor will I be the reason any restaurant achieves sudden fame. I simply want to record the positive experiences I have had at the many stellar restaurants that my job takes me near (on a much too frequent basis). I have a pseudo-government job, which takes me to Washington, D.C. 4 to 5 times a year, so many of the restaurants I will write about happen to be in the Washington, D.C. area. I can’t complain about that, since many of the great chefs in this country have opened an outpost in DC, after perfecting their craft in NYC or elsewhere.

When I eat alone, I don’t believe in taking notes, or pictures (well, maybe one or two with my phone) while I’m eating. I don’t want to appear to be a restaurant critic, and I don’t want to appear to be a know-it-all foodie. I try to write this crap as soon as I return to the hotel from the restaurant, or at least shortly after I return home from a business trip, since I choose not to take notes. You may notice that some items lack the menu description, or some ingredient details, but I do my best to look back at the menu provided online to get as much of this as possible. In some cases, the online menus are not up-to-date, or don't have the tasting menu options that I was offered. I do my best. Feel free to ask questions.

There. You have been warned. I’ll post my experience at CityZen shortly. I’m in New York City right now, and I have reservations at Le Bernardin tonight. I’ll try to post that one this week.

UPDATE: And, BTW, I usually write about the entire experience, not just the food, so you'll have to suffer through some annoying non-food detail at times.