Trouble With Toast

Quick update

March 30, 2009
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Hello friends, I hope everyone had a marvelous weekend!  Other than trying yet another decidedly mediocre Tex-Mex restaurant in Atlanta (oh, how I miss San Antonio), I don’t have too much food-related wisdom to pass along.  Stay tuned this week for an exciting interview AND my attempt at making cake with beer!

Just as an FYI, I’ve moved all training/triathlon links and pages to my new blog, The Hungry Triathlete.  There may occasionally be some nutritional crossover, like if I find a super duper recipe that is also great for an athlete’s needs, but I wanted a place where I could chat about my fitness journey and not sacrifice my ability to talk about food.  The new blog is still in it’s infancy, but I hope to beef it up over the next few days, as a lot has gone on already!

Have a great day!

Recipe: Grapefruit Cake with Grapefruit Cream Cheese Frosting

March 25, 2009

One morning during Lexa’s visit, we were all sitting around the TV (hungover from burgers and microbrews) making fun of Paula Deen.  The mocking was in love, I believe, but nothing was off limits–her exaggerated southern accent, her undying love of butter, her inability to make anything even remotely healthy, and her fuax-genteel sign-off tagline.  Suddenly, all of the jokes at Paula’s expense stopped, as she told us she was going to make a beautiful grapefruit cake.  We were intrigued and silenced.

The recipe didn’t look too difficult, so we headed out to get ingredients at the only place you CAN get ingredients when you have an out-of-towner in tow: the Dekalb Farmers Market.  Actually, the official name for this magical place is “Your Dekalb Farmers Market” (YDFM), just to give it a more friendly community feel.  If you’re from DC, don’t think it’s a farmer’s market in the same way that Dupont or Eastern Market are farmers markets.  YDFM is more like a warehouse of culinary goodies from across the globe.  They don’t allow cameras inside, but if you were to see photos, you’d probably have the same adorable wide-eyed expression as Lexa.

We made our way through the little snack shop (shock, we were hungry) for a quick homemade veggie samosa and some steamed broccoli.  We walked through the extensive dairy and meat selections.  We stopped at the seafood counter to procure giant shrimp, and we both lamented that we needed to buy a whole fish and learn how to take it apart.  We saw countless spices, pastas, legumes, flours (I swear, they have 15 different kinds), and baked goods.  The real kicker is the produce section, where they have every weirdo recipe ingredient that you never thought you could find, plus the “normal” stuff, at ridiculously low prices.  The market is pretty overwhelming in size and scope, and it was crowded on the Sunday we visited, so we only did one brief pass.  However, if you’re in Atlanta and you have some time, YDFM is definitely an interesting sight to explore.

With the grapefruits I purchased at YDFM, I made Paula’s cake.  It actually turned out very well, though it benefited (in flavor and texture) from sitting for a day before eating.  I tempted fate by making a meringue-based cake on a humid, rainy day, and it didn’t bit me in the ass TOO much, but I can’t help but wonder if it would have turned out even better had it been dry outside.  The cake itself is citrusy and slightly sweet, and I think it would have been delicious on its own as a pound cake, maybe just dusted with a little powdered sugar.  My only issue with the icing was that it wasn’t quite thick enough for my liking, but it had a wonderful tangy flavor.  Make sure you have a large serrated knife before cutting the cake in half for layering, or you’ll end up with a crumbly mess.  I don’t have any special cake decorating tools (I just used my knife and a stationary cake stand), and this still ended up as the prettiest dessert I’ve ever created.  Not sure what that says about me, but enjoy!

  • 1 1/2 cups cake flour, sifted
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons bakingpowder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon grapefruit zest
  • 3 tablespoons grapefruit juice
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 3 eggs whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

Preheat oven at 350 degrees F. Spray a 9-inch cake pan with nonstick oil.

Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into a mixing bowl. Make a well in the center for dry ingredients. Add water, oil, zest, grapefruit juice and egg yolks. Beat until smooth. Beat egg whites and cream of tartar separately until whites are stiff but not dry. Gradually fold egg whites into flour mixture with a rubber spatula until just blended. Do not stir the mixture.

Pour batter into prepared cake pan.

Bake for 25 minutes or until cake springs back when gently touched with a finger. Invert pan on cake rack to cool. Run spatula around edge of cake. Carefully remove from pan. With a serrated knife, gently cut layer in half.

  • 2 (6-ounce) packages cream cheese
  • 2 teaspoons grapefruit juice
  • 1 teaspoon grapefruit zest
  • 3/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted
  • Grapefruit sections, drained

Let cream cheese soften to room temperature. Beat cheese until fluffy. Add grapefruit juice and zest. Gradually blend in sugar. Mix until well blended. Crush several grapefruit sections to measure 2 teaspoons.

Blend into frosting. Spread frosting on bottom half of cake. Top with several grapefruit sections. Cover with second layer of cake. Frost top and sides. Garnish with remaining grapefruit sections.


Recipe: Tomato Tortilla Soup

March 24, 2009

Okay, let’s move from burgers to healthier fare.  Although true soup season is down the drain (at least here in Atlanta), I saw Elie Krieger preparing this recipe on her show over the weekend, and I decided to give it a try.  It just looked so easy, and I’m always a hit when I incorporate Southwestern flavors into my cooking (fiance spent a good bit of time stationed in San Antonio).

I adapted the recipe a bit, and it turned out pretty well.  I would have liked it a bit thicker, so next time I may add some beans (I suppose cornstarch would also do the trick, but I always feel like that mucks up the flavor).  Jason would have liked more spice, so I may also sub out the jalapeno for a serrano or other slightly hotter pepper.  Oh, and I overcooked the tortilla strips, so I’ll try to NOT do that when I make this again.  Otherwise, I was quite pleased with the results, and it was nice to have a light (but satisfying) dinner for a change.  You could certainly add some pulled chicken or pork if you wanted to give this soup a protein kick.  Enjoy!

  • 2 (6-inch) corn tortillas
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon canola oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 small jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 3/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 4 cups chicken stock (homemade, of course)
  • 2 (14.5-ounce) cans no salt added diced tomatoes, with juice
  • 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • Reduced-fat sour cream

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Brush both sides of each tortilla with oil, using 1 tablespoon of the oil. Cut the tortillas in half, then cut each half into 1/4-inch wide strips. Arrange the strips on a baking sheet, sprinkle with the salt, and bake until crisp and golden, about 12 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

Heat the remaining 1 teaspoons of oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft and translucent. Add the garlic, jalapeno, cumin, and oregano and cook for 1 minute more. Add the broth and tomatoes, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 10 minutes. Stir in lime juice.

Serve the soup topped with the tortilla strips, a dollop of sour cream, and a sprinkle of cilantro.


I’d gladly pay you tomorrow for a hamburger today

March 23, 2009

Firstable, sorry for the lack of regular posting–last week was the pinnacle of personal and professional failure, so I was tied up with real life and trying to save it from disaster.  Not sure yet if I succeeded.

Second, head on over to Lem’s place for her first post about her inaugural trip to the ATL.  It’s nice to know that my well-documented feelings about the Vortex are not merely due to nostalgia and inebriation.

Being the huge burger-monger that I am, I can’t believe I neglected to fill you all in on a few notable ones I had in San Francisco.  Most importantly, I finally got to visit In ‘N Out Burger and stack it up against East Coast fast food chains.  As much as I make fun of the granola-heads out west, they do make a damn tasty burger.  I ordered a double double (two patties, two cheese slices), “animal style” (which includes pickles, extra spread, grilled onions, and mustard fried onto each meat patty), and it was really really really good.  The bun was soft, but it was sturdy enough to handle all of the toppings.  The patties were flavorful on their own, and they stood up to the sauce (kind of like Thousand Island dressing), the onions, and the pickles.  The fries were hot, but they weren’t anything mind-blowing.  The verdict?  While I enjoy Five Guys fries, I think the In ‘N Out beats just about ANY fast food burger I’ve had.  I’d love to do a burger-off between In ‘N Out and Whataburger, as they are now, for me, the drive-through burger standard bearers.

The other California landmark I visited was Taylor’s Refresher.  This drive-in style restaurant is a beacon of burgery goodness in the middle of wine country (it’s actually in St. Helena).  Despite the fact that we had French Laundry reservations at 6:30 PM, we stopped at Taylor’s at about 2:30 PM to get some food in our tummies along with all of the wine.  The line was long (which I took as a good sign), but I was pacified by the sweet smell of fried potatoes and grilled meat.  As a “base layer” for Thomas Keller’s culinary masterpieces, I opted for a patty melt, some onion rings, and a half and half (chocolate and vanilla) milkshake.  Yes, I ate all that and THEN finished a tasting menu at the French Laundry–what’s it to ya???  Ahem.  The patty melt was really tasty, but I actually preferred Jason’s cheeseburger because you could taste all of the elements better.  The onion rings were crispy and not too greasy, and the shake disappeared in a matter of moments.  There’s a Taylor’s Refresher in the Ferry Building in San Francisco as well, but I really enjoyed the vibe of the Napa location.

That’s probably all the burgerrific-ness that you can stand for a while, so I promise now I’ll lay off the cow and post some recipes.  Happy Monday!

The French Laundry: Simplicity, Perfected

March 17, 2009

I knew that the culinary highlight of my California trip would be my dinner (with Jason, my sister, and Mr. Barzelay) at Thomas Keller’s world-reknowned restaurant.  But I had been looking forward to the meal at The French Laundry ever since we scored reservations (two months prior), and I had built it up so much in my head that I figured it would NEVER live up to my lofty expectations.

Why I doubted, I will never know.

The French Laundry was perfection in almost every way imaginable.  It was worth the hype (and, clearly, there is a lot of it).  It was worth the dollar signs (and, clearly, there are a lot of them).  It was worth the transcontinental flight, and the hour-long drive from San Francisco to Yountville.  It was worth snaking into my sleekest, classiest dress, even though I knew I’d be busting at its seams by night’s end.  It was, without a doubt, the most amazing and complete dining experience of my life.  Yet, somehow, magically, there was no pretention to be found within its hallowed walls.  Here is the menu I enjoyed, with my thoughts about each dish:

Before the official start of the meal, there were two amuses: a gougere (warm pastry filled with cheese) and the signature “cornets” of salmon tartare and sweet red onion creme fraiche.  The former were light, tasty, and a warm and inviting start to our four-hour dining adventure.  The latter were mind-blowingly delicate, yet intensely flavorful.  If there had been any questions before, they instantly evaporated–we knew we were in for a real treat.

“Oysters and Pearls”–“Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and California Sturgeon Caviar.  This is another Keller signature, and there’s a reason why–this dish is out of this world.  Somehow, the saltiness of the oysters and the caviar combine with the buttery sabayon to transport you to a beautiful French seascape.  No ingredient overpowered the dish, which is quite something considering that two of the components are oysters and caviar.  Magnificent.

Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm–Cucumber, Radish, Cilantro and Avocado Puree.  Compared with the foie gras that was also available for this course (for a $30 upcharge), this salad may seem unremarkable.  However, I found it really satisfying and interesting and balanced, particularly each time I got a burst of flavor from a cilantro shoot.  The avocado puree was also impressive in its smoothness and intensity.

I believe it was during the salad/foie course that we experienced the first pass of the bread service.  The tray was enormous and full of many lovely carby varieties, including mini-baguettes, sourdough, multigrain, and ciabatta.  I personally tried the sourdough and the multigrain, and they were both incredible (as were the other choices, according to the peanut gallery).  The breads were made even more special and delicious by the availability of salted and unsalted butter, both from small, artisan dairies, and both served at the appropriate temperature.

“Tartare” of Japanese Bluefin Tuna–Sacramento Delta Asparagus, Navel Orange, Perilla and White Sesame.  This was one big bowl of concentrated flavor.  The tuna practically melted in my mouth, and was really fishy…in a good way.  Because it was so rich and velvety, the oranges provided a welcomed acidic punch.  The asparagus and sesame had a touch of bitterness, so the entire course was really well-rounded.

“Beets and Leeks”–Maine Lobster Tail “Pochee au Beurre Doux” with King Richard Leeks, “Pommes Maxim’s” and Red Beet Essence.  Jesus H. Christ on a cracker, this course was INCREDIBLE.  I am still thinking about it, salivating with joy each time I remember the tender, butter-poached lobster…the sweet and oniony leeks (which almost had a consistency like dip)…the beet essence that was exactly that…and the pomme that was the crispiest, most decadent example of a potato chip I’ve ever tasted.  As with each preceding course, the components were delicious on their own, but they reached their peaks when combined as a cohesive whole.

Sauteed Veal Sweetbreads–“Chou-Fleur a la Grenobloise.”  Okay, I have no idea what that French gobbledy-gook means.  All I know is that I gobbled up these sweetbreads.  It was funny, actually–there was a choice for this course, either sweetbreads or Pekin duck.  As a couple, Jeanette and David’s strategy was, wherever there was a choice within a course, they ordered one of each.  Jason and I, on the other hand, ordered what we pleased (meaning that neither of us ate the foie and both of us opted for sweetbreads).  We were given endless shit about how that wasn’t enabling us to try as many things, we were missing out, blah blah blah.  But when this course arrived, there was no question that the sweetbreads were the superior choice.  And Jason and I each had our own portion.  Hey, I learned to share in kindergarten, but all bets are off when it comes to thymus glands.

“Navarin d’Agneu”–Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Rib-Eye with French Laundry Garden Vegetables.  I am not normally a huge lamb fan (I’ll eat it, but I rarely make a point of ordering it), but this dish was the pinnacle of lamb deliciousness.  There were two thick, perfectly cooked (rare to medium rare) slices of meat, accompanied only by their own jus and some colorful, adorable baby vegetables.  This course represented, for me, the height of culinary excellence–no frills, no foams, no fancy-shmancy distractions.  Just meat, cooked properly, with vegetables.  Never underestimate the power of the basics.

“Zamorano”–Globe Artichokes, Iberico Ham Croquette, Black Truffle and Mache.  This was the cheese course, and I was so very thrilled that we weren’t presented with something from the blue family.  Instead, we were served a delicious Spanish cheese–it had more bite than a manchego but not as much funkiness as cabrales.  I guess it reminded me most of an idiazabal.  In any case, yum!  The cheese paired beautifully with the artichokes and the ham croquette (which was delicate yet powerful in flavor).  And my mushroom-hating fiance even tried the truffle and declared it “not bad.”

I believe at this point, we were presented with the second bread service.  This time, there was crusty white bread and a couple of different types of sweet slices (with dried fruit and nuts).  I opted for the plain, and I only took a few bites because I was really starting to feel full, but everyone seemed to enjoy their selections.

Andante Dairy Yogurt Sorbet–Cream Scone, Sour Cherry and Black Tea Foam.  This was technically the palatte cleanser, but it was like an extra dessert.  The sorbet was perfectly creamy and had an amazing yogurty tang, and the sour cherry was the perfect accompaniment.

“Mousse au Chocolat Amedei”–Toasted Cashews, Curry “Arlette” and Gros Michel Banana Ice Cream.  Originally, I did not order this dessert, instead opting for the citrus parfait.  However, Jason and I switched after a few bites and decided we liked each other’s better than our own.  This dish was the definition of decadent–rich chocolate mousse, thick banana ice cream, and some wonderful nuttiness from the cashews and the little curry cookie.  Even though I was pretty darn full at this point, I was quite tempted to lick the plate.

Mignardises–While I knew that little candies would be part of the end-of-meal service, I had no idea that we were basically in store for two more desserts.  First, the server came around with a beautiful silver container full of homemade sweets like meringues, salted caramels, nougatines, pates de fruits, and caramelized macadamia nuts dusted with powdered chocolate.  Everything was just wonderful, but the table seemed particularly fond of the macadamia nuts.  THEN, the server appeared with a huge tray of homemade truffles–in SIX different flavors (salted caramel, lime, white chocolate yogurt, peanut butter, praline, and one more that I simply don’t remember).  My sister asked how many she could take, and the server said, “As many as you want!”  Music to our ears.  Not surprisingly, the truffles were absolutely fabulous–my personal favorite was the white chocolate yogurt, though the lime and salted caramel were also superb.

Throughout the evening, the service was formal, but somehow it felt accessible and friendly rather than stiff and stuffy.  We were dining for approximately four hours, but it didn’t seem overly drawn out or like there was too much pomp and circumstance.  The staff took great care of us (our server even took David and Jeanette into the kitchen and chatted with them for a while after the meal), but I didn’t get that sense of fakeness and butt-smooching that I’ve felt at some other restaurants.  Just like the food, the service was simultaneously intricate and straightforward.

As we drove away from The French Laundry, full of food and good cheer, it was hard to believe that such a “bucket list” experience had come and gone.  Thankfully, everything about the night will remain in my fondest of memories.  I may never again visit Chef Keller’s flagship restaurant, but I feel lucky to have had one singularly perfect meal at what seemed, strangely, yet somehow unexpectedly, like his home.

San Francisco: Absinthe, Monks, and Cancun

March 9, 2009

Whew.  We crammed so much into our short trip to California, it took me almost a whole week to recover and even THINK about blogging.  Obviously, The French Laundry will get a post of its very own (and that one may take a while), but while you patiently wait, here are my thoughts on a couple of local places we visited in San Francisco proper.

After our flights landed (at about 10 PM), we were definitely ready for cocktails and snacks.  Enter Absinthe, a cool little brasserie in Hayes Valley whose executive chef is Jamie, from this most recent “Top Chef” season.  We were too late for full dinner service, but they have a fairly extensive bar menu and a VERY impressive selection of spirits.  I opted for the Croque Monsieur (with an added egg, of course), with black forest ham, gruyere, and Dijon mustard.  Served with a large green salad, it was a LOT of food for $12.50, and it definitely hit the spot.  Jason had the house-made hot dog with Guiness mustard, chili ketchup, sauerkraut, and yogurt-dill potato chips.  The hot dog was tasty, but the chips were really the star of the plate–crispy and full of flavor.  The fries were just okay, but the cocktails were all really interesting and tasty.  Service was attentive and friendly.  Our experience was somewhat marred by our fatigue and the incredibly loud and annoying middle-aged women cackling at the bar, but I still left with a positive impression of the place.

Toward the back end of our trip, we had lunch at Monk’s Kettle, a cute little joint in the Mission with a great beer selection and an interesting take on bar food.  We had wanted to visit on a Friday night, but we were told that it was WAY too small for four people to get in (without waiting for a long time) during busy times.  After walking right by it a few times (the signage is not terribly obvious), we entered and were greeted by a warm atmosphere and a friendly bartender.  It IS really tiny, with a maximum occupancy of no more than 50 or so, but it was lunchtime on a weekday and we practically had the place to ourselves.  We started off by sharing a soft pretzel, served with house-made beer cheese sauce (drooooool) and stone ground mustard; it was a chewy, salty, perfect start to the afternoon.  Jason opted for the grilled chicken sandwich with house-cured pepper bacon, herb aioli, and brie.  It was HUGE, but it was so tasty, it disappeared in no time flat.  I chose the lamb burger, which came with lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, and a cucumber tzatziki sauce.  YUM.  The meat must have had some cinammon in the seasoning mix, as it had a sweet-salty-spicy taste that really wowed me.  The fries that came with both sandwiches were excellent–crunchy, hot, tender, and well-salted.  We really enjoyed our experience, and we had a great time talking to the bartender about the various beer offerings.  No wonder this place gets so crowded on the weekends!

On our way back to the airport after a lovely trip, we had to stop for some tacos and burritos in the Mission.  Every San Franciscan has his or her preferred Mexican joint, and I find that folks are pretty loyal to their favorites.  My sister and her boyfriend swear by Taqueria Cancun.  The first time I went, I really didn’t enjoy my burrito–I asked for a lot of modifications (my fault), and most of them got screwed up (their fault).  This time, I opted for marinated pork “super” tacos, served on corn tortillas and topped with salsa, sour cream, fresh avocado, and cilantro.  Much better!  The meat was tender, the salsa was spicy, and the balance of flavors was spot-on.  I don’t usually love corn tortillas, but these were obviously homemade and delicious.  What I found was that, unlike a burrito (which can get stuffed in such a way as to segregate ingredients), the taco allowed me to taste every component in each bite.  I enjoyed it mucho.

Frighteningly, this represents only a fraction of the food consumed while we were away.  Stay tuned for more…