Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My thoughts on beer + The easiest bread you'll ever make.

I apologize that I've been gone for so long! This last quarter has been devoted to a natural history blog that I'm working on for an internship. Please check it out and let me know what you think!

Back to food though! This quarter has been an experiment in breads for me with not as much time spent on real cooking or pastry baking. However, there is a lot to be said about the benefits of knowing how to make your own bread. Let's start now with a very simple and quick to prepare recipe.

There is nothing quite like the smell of bread as it is being baked in the oven. The whole house warms up and practically glows with comfort, even on the grayest of days. Lately in San Diego, we've seen our fair share of gray and sun, often in the same day, possibly even the same hour. Whatever the weather, this honey beer bread is sure to hit the spot and remind you that beer isn't just for college students on a Friday night.

But first! A discourse on beer...

I have this discussion with friends all the time. Beer simply has a bad rep. It's often associated with the images of red-cup-toting, hysterical college-aged kids, intense chugging contests out of glass boots, and middle-aged men with beer bellies who watch TV in their den with the lights off while slowly whitling away the night with a 6-pack of cans. We think of croaking frogs, impassioned debates over "less carbs" vs. "more filling" and silly marketing schemes involving color-changing cans. These tactics are great... when you're 6. Personally, I haven't taken an interest in temperature-activated food items since the early 90s when you could find a Lion King color-changing spoon in the bottom of your cereal box. (Prizes were better back then... the simpler things in life have cheapened over time.) Alas, I've digressed.

So what's the big deal with beer? In San Diego, there is in fact, an enormous beer and restaurant culture. Let's face it-- beer and food are perfect for each other. Much like the way wines can be paired with cheeses, chocolate, meats, and pastas, so can beer, with pizzas, burgers, other traditional pub fare, as well as more gourmet items. And around here, the beer can be as gourmet as the food itself. Brewery restaurants like Karl Strauss, Gordon Biersch, Rock Bottom, and the Coronado Brewing Company have cornered a market in local brews paired with stellar menu items. My personal favorite-- Karl Strauss' Sorrento Valley location, a sprawling restaurant complete with its own (man-made) koi pond and Zen garden. It's a gorgeous place for a date or a Sunday brunch with fantastic beers and food. My recommendation is the Amber Lager, the Portabello mushroom burger, and for dessert, the Beeramisu-- a decadent tiramisu made with Karl's signature Red Trolley Ale. Oh my... I'm getting hungry just thinking about it. Ahhh.

And now (finally!)-- to the bread!

I've heard of beer breads for quite some time now and finally decided to give it a try. With so many good beers out there though, it took me a little while to decide on which beer would be the star of my bread. Finally, I settled with Harvest Moon, the Blue Moon fall seasonal ale.

I am a big fan of Blue Moon and all of its seasonal ales. Harvest Moon is a particularly complex one with spicy notes and a hint of pumpkin. I've also used Sam Adams Oktoberfest and the classic Blue Moon in later breads-- all very good options.

Honey Beer Bread
3 C all-purpose flour
2 T sugar
1 T baking powder
1 t salt
2 T honey (I used blue agave nectar, which has a more molasses-like flavor without being quite as thick.)
1 bottle (12 ounces) beer
2 T (1/4 stick) butter, melted

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 7" x 3" inch loaf pan.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.  Using a wooden spoon, stir the beer and honey into the dry ingredients until just mixed.
3. Spoon the batter into the pan. This next part made me a bit nervous the first time I did it. Pour the melted butter over the top of the batter. It's going to pool and it's going to look a mess-- but trust me on this. This step is what makes the bread truly amazing.
4. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until top is golden brown and a toothpick/knife inserted in the middle comes out clean. 
If you're like me, you'll be watching that bread rise and start worrying about the pool of butter that it's being born in. Don't fret! By the time you take the bread out of the oven, the butter will have traveled to the bottom of the pan and your bread will have a buttery, crispy crust. Oh. Heaven. My recommendation is to serve it thoroughly cooled so that the beer flavor has some time to mellow out a bit (though, it's pretty difficult to not eat some right away out of the oven. Try both.)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Quick update...

Hey ya'll! Sorry I've been such a bum about updating. For now, just a quick post to show you guys what I ate tonight for dessert...

My parents grow dragonfruit in our backyard. Usually, it's pink on the outside and white on the inside, with black seeds very similar to sesame seeds. Yesterday my parents came to visit and brought a few dragonfruits, noting that this particular set of fruits came from our neighbor's plant. Much to my surprise and glee, our neighbors grow the variety with the dark pink flesh!

I know, this sounds soooo geeky. But look at how GORGEOUS this fruit is! It was super juicy and sweet. I sat and ate it on my bed with a spoon... is it bad that I didn't feel bad about being a little messy since the fruit was the same color as my sheets?

Man, I love summer. I hope everyone else is enjoying their summers as well!

Coming soon... breads!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Potstickers. With step-by-step photo instructions!

I will be the first to admit it: I am a horrific stress-eater, especially during finals week and especially when I'm not only stressed-out but tired as well. Now that the school year is over, I have time to breathe, cook, and feed myself right again after weeks of overindulging in comforting, yet hip-and-waist-bound meals. And phoooey, do I sure need some toning down! But believe you me, I hate running or doing anything that in general, causes me to sweat profusely. Luckily for me, DT bought me the Wii Fit Plus set as a "graduation" gift. Now, exercise is a lot less boring. I have to say-- Nintendo is doing their part in lowering youth obesity. Yaaay Nintendo. In any case, I hope you all have been eating well and keeping healthy. Hooray for summer! This looks to be a potentially productive time for my food blogging exploits. :-)

Most of what I make is based on whims stemming from cravings for foods I've recently tried for the first time or foods that I eat regularly and constantly crave. This long-overdue post is dedicated to my love of the potsticker. I just can't get enough of these!

Many Asian cultures have some variation of the potsticker or dumpling. I'm declining to state a particular culture for my recipe and am opting to just call it what it is-- a delicious side that can be found in almost every Asian culture and on just about every Asian-style menu in Southern California. Living in San Diego especially, there is a vast plethora of Asian restaurants, each offering a different form of goodies tucked in a wrapper. But in San Diego, there is only one king of the dumpling. Yes, my fellow San Diegans, I speak of The Dumpling Inn. The very thought of it is enough to make me start salivating. Alas, eating out as much as I tend to gets expensive. Now and then, we must make do with what we can get at the grocery store and put ourselves to work!

I got the idea to make dumplings one night when I had a terrible craving for a plate of sweet, juicy pan-fried dumplings in the middle of the week. Granted, I have only been to Dumpling Inn once ever, but the impression it has made is permanent. Nothing I have had post-Dumpling Inn even compares. Luckily for me, earlier that week, my friend MKS taught me how to fold potstickers, the way his mom taught him growing up. It proved to be much less difficult than I had expected and lo, after an hour's worth of catching up and occasional cursing over a broken dumpling skin, we had produced several trays of dumplings, ready to be cooked to our liking. Definitely a recipe that not only costs very little for ingredients, but yields a high volume of  product as well. More bang for your buck! If you study other similar recipes, you may notice that I have chosen to omit a few common ingredients, namely corn starch and water chestnuts. Quite frankly, I've never been a fan of water chestnuts and I've never really seen a use for corn starch. So what the heck, why not. They're my potstickers, I'll put what I want inside them! (You, my friends, are perfectly welcome to put whatever you want inside. Go crazy, get creative!)

After my first attempt at making potstickers (almost entirely) from scratch, I was pleased with the end result. They were juicy inside and a little crispy on the outside. It was also the first time I've ever dealt with cooking with shrimp (gasp!) so the experience was full of firsts. The method I describe below is simple yet still secure. Worst thing that can happen is that your potsticker tears open when you begin cooking it. The pleats I use, though not as nifty as many pleats in one direction, if done neatly, have a niceness all their own. If you want to be a real boss, try making your own wrappers from scratch. Personally, I'm a bad sport when it comes to making non-cookie doughs. Maybe someday! This particular dough recipe from Nyam's blog looks particularly promising. It's reassuring to know that I'm not the only one with a fear of dough...

Give this a try and make it a social activity! Gabbing and giggling over dumpling skins is half the fun!

Dumplings (or potstickers, gyoza, siu mai, wontons-- whatever you want to call them!)
1/2 lbs shrimp, shelled and deveined. (I used frozen, already deveined shrimp that I allowed to thaw and then chopped).
1/2 lbs well-chopped pork. (Not ground pork.)
2 c finely chopped Napa cabbage
2 green onions, finely chopped
1" ginger root, finely grated
1 t salt
1/2 t pepper
1 T oyster sauce
2 T soy sauce
1/2 t sugar
1 t sesame oil
1 package of frozen dumpling skins-- my instructions call for round ones.

1. Combine and mix your ingredients well. You should end up with something that looks like this. You can use a food processor to pulse your meats, if you have one. I'm a poor college student, so I just use my trust kitchen knife. Bwahahaha. Fear not the raw meats!

2. Once that's done, it's time to make the dumplings! Most store-bought wrappers are already pre-floured so flouring your hands isn't necessary. For my recipe, I chose to use round wrappers rather than square ones, for the nice half-moon shape you get at the end. Lay out one wrapper in your hand like so:

3. Next, spoon on a bit of your filling in the center of the wrapper. Using one or two fingers, gently spread a thin amount of water just on the edges of the wrapper. About the thickness of a fingertip should do.

4. Fold the wrapper in half over the filling, but pinch only the very top. This is very important if you're going for a nice pleated shape.

5. Now, pay attention! This gets a little tricky the first few times, but you'll get the hang of it as you keep going. With the pinched side still up, push in one of the sides so that it creates 2 new loose folds. Do not fold them down just yet!

6. Still with me? Good. Now, the 2 folds should be pointing to the side. For consistency's sake, I always do the right side first (you're seeing it as left, obviously). Pinch closed the fold pointing up towards you.

7. Ok! Now, with the fold pointing down, pleat it flat onto the top of the dumpling so that it creates two more folds. Check out the photo below, hopefully it helps...

8. After all that, you get something that looks like this. Repeat the above steps for the other side, making sure that the pleats all face up in the same direction. I know this would be much easier to explain with a video, but alas, my DSLR doesn't have video capabilities.

Don't worry if the first few look a little disastrous. It takes some practice. Once you get them all lined up and ready for cooking, they'll magically look a lot more professional  MKS cites this as "The Cheerleader Effect". I was puzzled at first when he said it but he explained, "Dumplings are like cheerleaders. One cheerleader by herself might be ugly, but when you put them all in one line, they look good."

Well said, M. Well said.

All right. Now that you have all of your potstickers made, it's time to cook them! 

1. In a large skillet, heat up about a tablespoon of vegetable oil on medium-high heat.

2. Lay the potstickers flat in the pan, pleated side up. You'll see that the pleats actually make it so that they sit nicely flat, ensuring a good, even amount of cooking. Cook for about 1-2 minutes and then add 1/4 cup of water. Allow to come to a boil and then cover. This will ensure that the meat is thoroughly cooked.

3. Allow another 1-2 minutes of cooking and then uncover to burn off the water, occassionally (and CAREFULLY!) lifting the dumplings so that they don't become flush with the pan. You'll just end up with exploded dumplings. No one wants that. 

4. Remove and drain on a paper towel. Serve immediately!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Spice Cookies-- Perfect for a Rainy Day!

Let me preface this post by saying that I am a complete nut over ebay's Daily Deals. A couple weeks ago, I got a pair of silicone baking mats for $7 (Prices start at around $10 a piece usually, so I was quite pleased with myself). And wow. I am IN LOVE. No greasing, no burning, no sticking and hardly any clean-up! Love, love, love. Anything to make my baking experience a little easier!

Anyway. Now to the good stuff!

Yup, that's my sorority sister and me, in our own homemade craft. It is sea-worthy! Yaaar! :]

My sorority had our first big philanthropy event last weekend-- a recyclable-material boat building competition with races across the campus pool. We invited all of the other Greek sororities and fraternities and with each invitation, we've been bringing cookies for their active bodies. The chapter that I coached, the Triangle fraternity, is actually my sororities's brother fraternity, a group also geared towards students in science and engineering. Since they're such a special group to us, I decided I wouldn't just bring them a package of store-bought cookies. They deserved something a little more thoughtful and unique!

Spice cookies are very reminiscent of ginger snaps, but with a lot more kick than just the usual snap. I made small ones, so there's more to "share" and you feel like you can eat more because they're so small (bwahaha, yes I know that's cheating). But they're wonderful with a cup of tea and when I made them yesterday, it was gloomy and grey outside, so the house seemed especially cozy with the smell of cookies wafting around. "But, Annie!" you say, "You live in San Diego, isn't it supposed to be sunny all of the time?" Ah yes. Thank you for this tremendous amount of abnormal rain, El Nino. Luckily, the day of the race was gorgeous and one of the first days of really good weather we've had down here for a while.

By the way, my team took second! I'm so proud of my Triangles. Good job guys. Maybe it was the bacon cookies I made for them on the day of the race, but they definitely showed everyone what they were made of that day! Can't wait to see how things go at next year's race! :D

And OMG go buy a silicone baking mat soon if you haven't already! A definite MUST for the baking enthusiast. I really can't stop raving about them! *squee*

Spice Cookies (adapted from Martha Stewart)
3 c all-purpose flour
1 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
2 c unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 c packed dark-brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 t ground cinnamon
1 1/2 t ground ginger
1/2 t ground nutmeg
1/4 t ground cloves
1/4 c sliced almonds

1. Line 2 mini loaf pans with plastic wrap.
2. Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt. Beat butter and sugar with a mixer on medium speed for 4 minutes. Reduce speed to low. Add eggs and spices. Beat in flour mixture in 3 additions.
3. Press cookie dough into pans, and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Freeze for 1 1/2 hours (or up to 1 month).
4. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove dough from 1 pan. Let soften slightly. Cut eight 1/8-inch-thick slices with a sharp knife. Cover remaining dough, and freeze in pan until ready to slice and bake.
5. Place slices 1 1/2 inches apart on a cookie sheet lined with a nonstick baking mat. Top each with 2 to 3 almond slices. Freeze until firm, 5 minutes. Bake until dark golden brown, 10 minutes. Let cool on sheet on a wire rack. Repeat.

* I made a batch without almonds. Still yummy!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Time to Get Crackin'!

The new quarter has started-- after a realization last quarter that this will in fact, NOT be my last year of college, I am definitely resolving to make the most of my remaining time in San Diego. That is, I will go forth and eat as much good local food as I can between now and the next year.

This blog so far has been mostly recipes, but it is supposed to be a record of my adventures in San Diego, after all. This should absolutely include the food that I didn't make myself!

Last night, D and I went to Crab Hut, your typical Vietnamese-Cajun dive where crawfish and shrimp are served by the pound in plastic bags. I'm told it's rather reminiscent of LA's "Boiling Crab" or OC/LV's "Rockin' Crawfish". It may seem kitchy at first-- fake netting and fish all over the walls, and the servings can be hardly attractive in appearance, especially once you start cracking and peeling those little guys open with your hands. But the mess and the work is all worth it!

We started off with some oysters and garlic bread. Tuesdays are $1 oyster days, so come have your fill of creamy, succulent bivalves!

This is not Man vs. Food-- do NOT power-shoot your oysters!

D and I got one pound of crawfish and one pound of shrimp in medium-spiciness "Full House"-- which just means, a combination of all of their sauces. We were skeptical at first, when we saw the steaming hot bag with its murky-reddish contents full of claws and tiny legs, but Yelp recommendations have rarely steered us wrong. Once we dug in, it was all over! And literally... all over our hands. They give you a bib for a reason-- so make sure you use it!

We're so ready for this!

The sauce was mind-blowing-- such an amazing blend of flavors! The heat was surprisingly stronger than expected for a "medium" level dish. I really enjoyed the familiar Asian flavors and the way that the Cajun tones mixed in so well.

I think part of the enjoyment of this kind of place is a security in knowing that EVERYONE AROUND YOU is eating just as messily as you are. There are no plates-- there are just tables covered with butcher paper with a giant roll of paper towels. Definitely not a great place for a first date (unless you like that sort of thing, of course). Be prepared to feel somewhat savage, peeling and sucking on seafood shells, but it's all a part of the experience...

"Holy Crab!"

All in all, a great adventure was had and many napkins had to die at our service. Apparently you can ask for gloves to wear while you eat, but where's the fun in that? I hope we get a chance to go again soon-- I think I found a new food addiction!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Carrot Soup - Good and Good For You!

When I was a kid, one of my favorite TV shows was "The Magic School Bus". I remembe one episode where one character ate nothing but carrots for a week and so, his skin turned orange (a condition officially called "carotenemia"). In truth, this can actually happen (mostly in your palms), and it can take up to 30 days for your skin to return to a non-carrot color. (Fellow fans -- did anyone else feel bad that ALL of the bad stuff always happened to Arnold? Seriously. The kid was just the show's whipping boy.) But don't let this possibility deter you, folks. Carrots are so nutritious and naturally packed with so much flavor that cooking with them hardly requires anything fancy to make something delicious.

I've made a variation of this soup before, with potatoes and ground ginger. Personally, I'm not a big fan of potatoes, so I like this version best-- the carrot flavor is perfectly balanced with the creaminess of the soup, and it's only made better with crispy ginger on top. C.Ly, DT, and I feasted last night on this soup and it was supposed to just be the appetizer!

Thanks to my good friend Bill for the photo-- I didn't have my camera with me when I made the soup, but luckily he decided to try it and took a picture of this half-eaten bowl. Yoink! :]

Carrot Soup (serves 6)
2 lbs carrots, peeled and chopped
1 medium onion
4 c vegetable stock
1 c half and half
1/4 c butter
1 t ground cumin
1 tablespoon fresh ginger (optional, but so worth having!)
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Put the vegetable stock in a large pot and bring to a low boil. Drop in your carrot pieces and let that simmer for a while. The softer the better, so there's no such thing as "too much" for this recIpe.

2. Chop your onions and sauté in a bit of oil until they become slightly translucent. Add the cumin powder and some salt an pepper slightly before you take the onions off the heat.

3. Add the onions to the simmering carrots and broth. Simmer some more.

4. Heat up oil in your skillet again and drop in julienned ginger. Fry until golden brown and let that drain on a pape towel. Sprinkle a little salt on top for extra flavor.

5. Once your carrots are nice and soft, pour the broth and vegetables into a blender. Add in the half and half and purée the mixture until it's a smooth, gorgeous orange color.

6. Put the purée back into your pot and add the butter. Stir until melted and well-integrated into the soup. Heat to desirable temperature again (if necessary).

7. Serve with the fried ginger sprinkled on top.

Be careful-- this soup is so good, you just might turn orange from eating too much!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bacon is nature's perfect food.

Last week was DT's birthday, so as a present, I made dinner for him! Bacon wrapped asparagus and crispy garlic-ginger fried rice. The rice didn't turn out as well as I had hoped it would, but the asparagus was absolutely divine! But whatever does one do with all of that bacon grease after cooking? The plumbing at my place is shoddy as it is, so there was no way I was dumping any of that down the sink. I poured the fat into a jar and saved it until I could think of something appropriate to use it in.

A couple of days later, I remembered a fairly recent trip to the La Jolla Farmer's Market with CB and NV. A local bakery was handing out samples of gourmet cookies and I was pleasantly introduced to the "Morning Pancakes" cookie-- an innocent looking cookie that tasted just like a fresh stack of pancakes with bacon on the side. I was enthralled! And so, with the reemergence of this food memory, I decided to make cookies with my leftover bacon fat. Definitely crack the windows open for this recipe!

I apologize to my friends who have given up both meats and sweets for the Lenten period-- I promise to make another batch after Easter. :-)

Morning Pancakes Cookie
6 strips of cooked bacon -- crispy, but not cardboard-like in texture.
1/4 c BACON GREASE (oh Lord help us.)
1/2 c butter, softened
1/2 c white sugar
1/2 c brown sugar
1/2 c maple syrup -- do yourself a favor and get yourself a bottle of the REAL stuff.
2 eggs
1 T vanilla extract
2 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1 t baking powder
1 1/2 c chocolate chips (optional-- but why wouldn't you??)

1. Fry up the bacon. Honestly, every stove is different. Bacon is just one of those things that can go very wrong very quickly, so keep a good eye on it and don't try to multi-task while it's cooking (ie, talk on the phone, feed the cat, do the dishes... like me). When it's a nice, light crispiness, remove the bacon and let it drain on paper towels. Save the grease in a separate container and let it cool in the refrigerator. Chop your bacon into small bits and set aside to continue draining.

2. After the grease has cooled, add it to the butter and cream until they are nicely integrated together. Once that's done, beat in the eggs, sugars, maple syrup, and vanilla.

3. In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder. Slowly mix in the not-quite-liquid mixture and work it until well-combined. Fold in the bacon bits and chocolate chips and distribute evenly. Let the dough cool in the refrigerator for a while. These cookies bake best if the dough has been thoroughly chilled, otherwise you'll end up with a very flat cookie. 

4. Once the dough is ready, preheat your oven to 350°. The nice thing about this dough is that there is no need to grease your cookie sheet beforehand (myself, I like to use tin foil just to reduce cleanup). Yay for self-greasing cookies! 

5. Drop the dough onto the sheet with a tablespoon and space them approximately an inch apart. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown. After baking, remove from the oven and allow to cool before serving.

Close your eyes. It's breakfast time!