Sunday, June 20, 2010

Pho Report #3 - Miss Siagon

Miss Saigon gets it’s own entry in Pho report.

This is really more of a love letter than a review.

The reasons that Miss Saigon occupies this place are only in a small way about there Pho’ but since that’s what this series is about I’ll go over that first.

The Pho’s here is just on the earthy side of perfect. The noodles are always well cooked, the broth is deep and meaty and the beef is a fine, fresh cut. The noodle soup served here is completely satisfying for any Pho’ aficionado.

Pho aside what keeps bringing me back here (besides it’s nearness to sleepwalkers rehearsal space) is something much more ephemeral. I have spent many a lunch and dinner sitting in the open dinning room of this peaceful oasis on the gritty corner of sixth and mission. Something about the fact that they fill the air with a CD of muzaked American folk songs that have animal sounds for interludes while an old MGM musical plays silently on the TV makes me never want to leave. In fact this restaurants is one of the few places in the city I feel at ease. Somehow when I sit there with my bowl of soup the chaos outside slips away and time stops.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Of Ruebens, wheat and Jews

I may be vehement anti-Zionist and a borderline self-loathing Jew, but still one of the things I miss most since realizing I couldn’t eat wheat is the Reuben sandwich.

The Reuben, for those of you who don’t know, is a hot corn beef sandwich on rye bread with Russian or thousand island dressing, Swiss cheese and sour kraut. Incidentally, much like myself, the Reuben is often thought of as Jewish although in reality it isn’t. In the Rueben's case it’s not Kosher because it’s against Kosher law to have meat and cheese on the same plate. In my case, I’m not Jewish because my mother wasn’t and that’s what counts.

Anyways, I’ve been missing Rueben's for the past few years until something hit me the other night while watching the sandwich obsessed TV show Chuck. I can make a Reuben I can eat! My favorite non-wheat bread, after all, was a rye. How this had never occurred to me before I’ll never know.

So I assembled my ingredients, made a quick thousand island dressing (ketchup, pickles and mayonnaise) slapped that thing and a frying pan with a little butter on the outside sides of the bread and before I knew it I was reading eating a Reuben and reading about how Jew’s can be stupid too in the New York Times.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Pho Report part 2: Saigon Express and Le Regal

These two Pho’ joints are less than a block apart in downtown Berkeley. On the surface they couldn’t be any more different. Le Regal is a medium scale Vietnamese restaurant with a pleasant interior, nice for a sit down meal, whereas Saigon Express is, as the name suggests, basically a fast food joint complete with a chafing dish buffet and faded illuminated photos of the food. Imagine my surprise when there pho’ had more than a few things in common.

Le Regal

The soup here, delivered by a fairly pleasant if hands off waitstaff, was perfectly decent. The broth was a little thin but not altogether unpleasant. The addition of little bits of fried garlic was welcome and It came with a huge heaping mass of the standard garnishes.

The one part of this bowl of soup that was definitely sub par was the meat. It wasn’t necessarily low quality meat it just wasn’t the right cut for pho’. It was too meaty and chewy when served partially raw.

Saigon Express

The broth here was again thin and lacking in the beefy depth I’d come to expect. The noodles where all clumped together at the bottom of the bowl. They seemed as if they’d been cooked the day before then let to sit. The meat, once again, was the main disappointment. It was the same cut as usual but it was so overdone that it had basically the same texture as the cut used by their neighbor across the street. The one pleasant surprise about this place was the addition of cilantro to the garnish plate.

A Side Note
For some reason every place I’ve been to recently has come with lemons instead of limes. Is there some shortage of limes in the bay area?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Salmon Risotto A la Cooks Illustrated

This recipe is a hybrid and a variation of two of my favorite recipes from cooks illustrated. It’s a tribute in a way to one the greatest aids I’ve ever had to my cooking. A magazine who’s incredibly thorough process of finding the perfect recipe for each dish manages to be, more often than not, a lesson in cooking technique as well as a set of directions for a perfect meal

Enough of this gushing.

This weeks recipe is quite long and involved so I’d like to get to the recipe as soon as possible.

A few notes first though:

First: The two recipes I took this from are Spring Vegetable Risotto and Poached Salmon with Herb Caper Vinaigrette. I definitely changed them a bit but the cooks illustrated originals are pretty bad ass. You usually need a password to get these recipes on their website but I think they’re both free right now.

Second: I had tons to do the day I cooked this one so naturally I made it as complicated as possible to aid me in my procrastination. There’s no need to put to caramelized onions in per se’ or use so many different veggies but you know… that’s the way I roll. Plus this makes tons of really good food that you can eat for a week.

Third: This is really based mostly on what I had in the fridge that day. The risotto part of the recipe is actually a pretty good way to get rid of all the stuff in your crisper. Most of the stuff in step three of the Risotto section can be replaced by any moderately firm and hardy vegetable.

Four: When your cutting the vegetables remember to put aside all the best scraps (the woody ends of the asparagus, the green parts of the leeks, the carrot tops, the basil stems, the onion skins and such) as you’ll need them later.

So before further ado…


For the Salmon
2 Salmon Filets weighing about 1 ½ pounds.
2 Lemons cut into ½ inch think rounds
½ Basil Leaves, Chopped
1 Clove Garlic, minced
1 cup Dry White Wine
Salt & Pepper

For the Risotto
2 cups Water
4 cups Vegetable Broth (or Chicken if there’s no vegetarians eating)
1 Tbs Olive Oil
1 Yellow Onion halved and sliced thin
1 Tsp. Brown Sugar
4 Tbs Butter
½ Pound Asparagus chopped
1 small bulb Fennel trimmed and chopped
1 Carrot chopped
1 Leek (white part only) halved length wise and chopped thing
4 Cloves Garlic minced
1 ½ cup Arborio Rice
1 cup Basil Leaves, chopped
½ cup grated Parmesan Cheese

Poaching the Salmon

1. Arrange the lemon slices evenly in single layer across the bottom of a medium size pan. Sprinkle with garlic and basil. Pour on the wine until it just covers the top of the lemon slices. Salt and pepper the salmon filets and place them on the lemon slices skin side down.

2. Bring wine to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Cover and cook until salmon is just done, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove Salmon to a plate and set aside.

3. Strain the poaching liquid into a bowl through a mesh strainer pressing on the lemons to extract as much flavor as possible. This should produce about a cup of liquid, if it doesn’t add a little more wine to it until it does. Set aside for later.

Making the Risotto

1. Place all the scraps you’ve set aside from the vegetables in a dutch oven with all the water and broth. Bring to a very low simmer. Cook for about 20 minutes. Strain liquid through mesh strainer into a large bowl, pressing on the veggies to release flavor. Cover liquid and set it aside.

2. Wipe dutch over clean. Heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions, sugar a pinch of slat and pepper. Cook stirring often until onions are dark and almost caramelized. Remove to a plate and set aside.

3. Wipe dutch oven clean with a wet paper towel. Add 1 tbs. butter heat over medium heat until foaming subsides. Add asparagus, carrots, fennel and a pinch of a salt. Cook stirring regularly until asparagus is bright green and slightly tender and fennel is just beginning to brown. Remove to a plate and set aside.

4. Wipe the dutch oven clean one last time. Melt remaining butter over medium heat until foaming subsides. Add leeks and cook until soft, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 30 more seconds. Add rice and gook until edges of the rice are translucent.

5. Add wine/lemon mixture from salmon poaching. Cook stirring frequently until all the liquid is absorbed.

6. Add 3 cups of the broth/water mixture you’ve set aside from step one. Lower to a simmer and cook stirring fairly regularly until all the water is gone about 12 minutes.

7. Now comes the time of repeatedly adding water and stirring. Add ½ cup liquid at a time and stir constantly until it’s absorbed. Repeat this as needed until the rice has the right consistency. Creamy but still slightly al dente. Usually this will mean using all the liquid.

8. Finally add the onions, veggies you’ve set aside along with the cheese and chopped basil stir to combine. Remove from heat. Crumble in the salmon and continue stirring. Stir in juice from half a lemon.

Serves many and keeps well.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Inkas - Peruvian Food. Who Knew?

I think I need to get a world map and put thumb tacks on all the places who’s cuisine I haven’t tried. Then spend my life trying to remove all the thumb tacks. Every time I try a new nationalities food (usually one I’ve never even considered before) it’s always a sort of culinary revelation. I feel as though I’ve been cheated out of something I never even knew I was being cheated out of. Last time it was Indonesian food, this time it was Peruvian.

Apparently I’m not the only one upset about the lack of Peruvian food awareness. The second I arrived, with my partner in eating Kirsten Goldberg, at Inkas in the outer mission our server began working hard to get us aqainted with the ways of Peruvian cooking. After perusing the menu for only a few minutes he came by to make his suggestions. He suggested we start with a ceviche then went on to recommend and describe not one, not two but six different entrees leaving us much more informed but not all that much closer to a decision.

We ended up ordering the mixed ceviche for a starter. For our entrees Kirsten settled on “Aji De Gallina”, strips of chicken simmered in chile sauce with boiled eggs and potatoes and I had “Combinado De Cabrito” lamb stew with cilantro sauce. served with rice, beans and “salsa criolla” .

The ceviche was, for me, the star of the show. It was a simple mix of shrimp, mussels, squid and some sort of white fish marinated in a lime dressing with onions and cilantro. Served along side it was some marinated yucca, some sort of yam and a small pile of hominy corn kernels. The seafood was great, I have no idea what kind of fish it was but it was meaty and firm without being at all fishy and the dressing although very simple still had some unidentifiable quality that made it better than any lime dressing I’d ever had. Still it was the hominy corn kernels marinated in the same light lime dressing that I, for some reason, keep thinking of every time the meal comes to mind.

The entree’s where no less impressive, even if in my mind they’re a little over shadowed by the kernels from the previous course. Kirsten’s chicken was succulent in a nice orange sauce, both spicy and creamy. My lamb was both tender and juicy. Served in a dark greenish cilantro sauce it almost tasted like a curry. Our exuberant waiter, who returned a number of times during our meal to share tidbits of information about Peruvian cuisine, informed me that the sauce for my lamb contained a spice made from a ground squash that was not found anywhere outside of Peru. He even went as far as to explain that the only way the restaurant’s owners could get it here was in a dried form because of the ban on carrying fruits and vegetables across the border.

Finally at the end of our meal our server returned again to get to know us a little. I told him I lived in the East Bay and he excitedly went and got me a post card with dancing girls on one side and a list of Peruvian restaurants on the other. He suggested that I try La Furia Chalaca in downtown Oakland. I probably will end up checking that one out but if your looking for a introduction to Peruvian food I’d suggest you head out to Inkas. That way you can get great food and have it served by a true ambassador of the culture.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Artichokes Stuffed with Quinoa

On Artichokes
The artichoke is one of the central objects of my existence. It’s my favorite food and has been for as long as I can remember and to me that means quite a bit. In a way I practically worship it the way ancient cultures worshiped wheat. I seek it out on every menu. I’ve spent my life experimenting with every possible way to cook it. I even considered getting an Artichoke tattoo on my belly.

Being fixated with cooking and in love with the artichoke makes for some interesting, and sometimes frustrating, experiences. It’s not like being in love with the beet or the potato (both of which I’m very fond of). The artichoke proves quite a challenge every time you try a new technique of cooking it. After all there’s just as many ways to make it inedible as there are to make it edible.

On Quinoa
I am not a hippie nor a vegetarian. In fact I eat meat at pretty much every meal. I didn’t want to like quinoa. When someone tells me that there’s a grain out there that you can eat pretty much on it’s own for a meal and get everything you need my response is “Why the hell would you want to do that?”. After all variety is the spice of life and definitely the spice of the culinary world (actually I suppose spice is the spice of the culinary world but that just sort of drives my point home).

But the fact is, despite my reluctance, I do like quinoa. In fact I like it quite a bit. I like it’s chewy texture and slightly tangy taste. I like that a basic Quinoa salad can be eaten just as well either hot or cold and yes, despite myself, I like that this basic salad, eaten on it’s own for lunch, will leave me totally sated.

Stuffed Artichokes
If I was somehow in the position to have a signature dish the stuffed artichoke would be it. I’ve made it over a hundred times with probably just as many variations.

My father and step-mother were big foodies before the term foodie existed. I began teaching myself to cook shortly after I moved out in order to replicate all the amazing things I’d eat with them. One of the first of these things was the stuffed artichokes I used to get at Il Fornaio in Corte Madera.

Originally I based my recipes off the ones from that restaurant. The stuffing from these was based around the use of high quality bread chunks placed in just the cavity of the artichoke as opposed to the traditional roman way with bread crumbs between all the leaves. Recently however I’ve developed an allergy to wheat and can no longer eat the bread part. This put a major crimp in my style.

I’ve tried wild rice and glutton free bread to varying degrees of success. I figured, with my new conversion to Quinoa, maybe a marriage could be made.

The Results
In the end. The marriage was successful if not harmonious. It was a decent meal for two, both components came out nice on there own, but in the end it wasn’t quite what it could have been. When using bread somehow the juices from the stuffing manage to seep a little into the artichoke leaving the meat of the heart with a pleasant garlicky, herbal flavor. For some reason this never works with any of the substitutes I’ve tried. Perhaps rice and quinoa somehow keep more of the flavor to themselves. Who knows.

I’ve included the recipe for the bread stuffing as well as the quinoa one:

2 Medium to Large Artichokes (preferably organic they’re much better)

1 cup quinoa any color (I prefer red!)
½ onion sliced
3 gloves garlic minced
1 medium carrot sliced
1 cup sliced crimini mushrooms
2 sprigs thyme
2 ribs celery sliced
½ pepper chopped
1 tomato chopped
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup some sort of wine vinager (I like champagne vinager but any type will do)
About 8 oz. blue chees

Prepping the Artichokes
Cut off the top 1/3 of the artichokes and the stem so it’s pretty much flush with the base of the vegetable. It’s good to err on the side of cutting less of the stem off than more as you don’t want them to come apart when you stuff them later.

Boil or steam the artichokes for about 25 minutes in a large stock pot or dutch oven. The simple rule to seeing if an artichoke is done is to use tongs and pull on the lowest leaves if they come off without any resistance there done. For this recipe it’s better to have them a little underdone since they cook more later when you put them in the oven.


1. Rinse quinoa thoroughly using either a very fine strainer or a courser one lined with a paper towel or coffee filter.

2. In a medium size dutch heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add onions and cook stirring often until onions just begin to brown. Add garlic and saute until just fragrant, about 30 seconds. Mix in quinoa then two cups water. Bring to a boil then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook until all the water is gone or at least until the quinoa tastes done. About 15 to 20 minutes.

3. While quinoa is cooking saute mushrooms in a large pan with ½ Tbs. olive oil until just starting to turn brown. Add another ½ Tbs. oil to pan along with green garlic and carrots. Saute until the green garlic just starts to get brown stripes on it, about 2 minutes. Stir in leaves from one sprig of thyme. When quinoa is done add this mixture to it.

4. Mix together in a small bowl the olive oil vinegar and remaining thyme. Stir into the quinoa.

5. Mix into the quinoa mixture the peppers, celery, tomatoes and cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Putting the Artichokes Together

1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Once the artichokes are done cooking drain them in a colander and put them under cold running water. When there cool enough to handle use our hands or a spoon to remover the spikey purple leaves and the choke. I prefer to use my hands to pull out the inner leaves then push out the choke with my thumb. A lot of people prefer to use a spoon which works well also just be careful not to scoop up too much of the heart with the choke.

3. Stuff the cavity of the artichoke fairly full. Be careful not to break the them open. Set aside any extra stuffing.

4. Arrange the artichokes in a medium size baking sheet. Place a small sliver of the remaining cheese on top of each one. Sprinkle extra stuffing around the bottom of the pan using it to help keep the artichokes upright.

5. Place them in the oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. The cheese should melt and form a crust.

Serve with dipping sauce, mayonnaise or a simple vinaigrette if desired

Bread Stuffing
4 cloves of garlic coarsely chopped
Kernals from 1 ear of fresh corn
¼ Bulb of fresh Fennel, ¼ Red Onion or ¼ Leeks
1 Green Onion Chopped
1 Cups French or Italian bread cut into 2 inch Squares
1 Medium tomatoe chopped
Blue Cheese or parmesan
¼ cup Olive Oil
½ cup Red Wine Viniger

Making the Stuffing
1. While the artichokes are cooking heat butter until foaming subsides then add half the garlic, the fennel (or red onion or leek). Sauté ingredients together shaking pan a few times until a few pieces of corn start to get dark spots on them. Remove from heat and set aside.

2. In a large mixing bowl mix together bread cubes, tomatoes, remaining garlic, 1/3 of the cheese, green onions, corn mixture oil and vinegar. Salt and pepper it to taste.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Pho' Report Part One- The Friendliness vs. Quality theory

The Pho’ Report: In which I set out to review every Pho restaurant in the bay area (well really San Francisco and the East Bay)

Part One- The Friendliness vs. Quality theory

Pho’ Hoa - This small fast food looking place semi-chain in downtown berkeley was where I first fell in love with Pho’. I’d always liked Asian noodle soups but never really understood all the hubbub over this particular one until one rainy afternoon last year when I ducked in here after buying comic books.

I can’t really explain what happened. It was cold out so I figured soup would be good. This was the nearest place so I figured “what the hell”? I ordered the basic Pho’ Tai (vermicelli noodle soup with rare beef) and sat back with my comics. Sometime mid-meal a switch flipped in my brain. Afterwords I found myself craving Pho’ for nearly every meal.

So now a year later as I set out to write a bit about all the Pho’ I’ve eaten I figure this is the perfect place to start.

The Pho’ here could be describes as average but I tend to think of it like this:

Pho is a food for which there is only so much you can do. It has a sort of glass ceiling but one too many places either can’t manage to reach or try too hard to break through. There is an ideal thing that you want when you order Pho. The noodles must be cooked just right, the beef must be sliced right and rare (or raw), the garnishes should be fresh and most importantly the broth should be simple but still extremely deep in flavor. Get all this right and you’ve satisfied most Pho eaters. This one for sure.

Too many places try and do too much with their Pho. This is not one of those places. Pho Hao manages to give you exactly what you crave when you order Pho’. Their simple noodle soup has sublime perfection to it. There’s something so great about getting exactly what you want when you want it.

On another note the people who work here range from completely uninterested in you too downright hostile. This is a central part of my “friendliness vs. quality” theory that I’ll talk about more in the next review.

7 - Mission - The people working at this tiny little Vietnamese place (on 7th at Mission of course) are beyond nice. Not only where they extremely pleasant with me they were patient above and beyond the pale of duty with, not just one but, all three crazy people who wandered in while I was eating.

Unfortunately their attitude did nothing for the Pho’ which is what I’m primarily interested in. The noodles where overdone and chewy which was bad enough but beyond that there was something seriously wrong with the broth. It took me a few minutes to put a finger on what was so familiar about the rather bad soup. Finally I realized it had the distinct taste of Top Ramen flavor packets. Could this really be how they made it???

My experience here combined with all my former experiences at Pho’ Hoa was what led me eventually to the following theory about Pho’ restaurants:

“Quality of the Pho’ gets worse in direct proportion to how nice the people are serving it”.

Top Ramen Packets????