Thursday, December 31, 2009

Lucky Eats - New Year's Day feasts

I'm sure most people have some form of good-luck rituals they perform at various times of the year, but the most universal of all seems to be a special meal on New Year's Day.  A big one that seems to be widely known is black-eyed peas or Hoppin' John.  I have read several explanations of why this dish is lucky, but am personally content to just agree that it is.
    My own family, of Pennsylvania Dutch origin, always eats pork and saurkraut and mashed potatoes for New Year's Day.  Pork because pigs root forward, symbolizing moving forward or ahead, and also for health (I have also read and heard conflicting reasons on the health issues - it just is, OK?).  The saurkraut is, of course, cabbage, which = money.  Saurkraut is also healthy, probably because there are some vitamins rattling around in there.  And the mashed potatoes because they taste good with pork and saurkraut. :)   Here is how we make this meal.  Portions given are approximate - if you are feeding big eaters, increase portion sizes.  I wouldn't decrease them, though.  Leftovers will be even more tasty for lunch the next day.  Specific times and amounts are not given because this is a flexible feast, and assumes you know the level of doneness you like in various foods. 

PA Dutch Lucky New Year's Pork and Saurkraut
1 pork chop per person
1-2 bags of saurkraut (Do NOT use the canned kind.  If bagged, refrigerated saurkraut is unavailable, jarred is an OK substitute.) 
1 tsp. butter
1 potato per person

In a heavy pan or dutch oven big enough to hold all your pork, melt the butter and brown your pork chops on both sides.  If you can avoid it, try not to use nonstick cookware here, because the crusty brown bits will be an important component later on in the process.  Once the pork chops are browned, remove them from the pan.  Add your saurkraut to the pan.  If you like a bit less sourness, you can rinse the kraut off in a colander before cooking.  I like it vinegary, so I never do that, but suit your own taste.  It is important that there be a good bit of moisture in with your cabbage, so do not wring out too much.  When your saukraut has been added, stir to evenly heat.  The moisture from the kraut will deglaze your pan somewhat, so take full advantage and mix the browned pork bits in well.  Place your pork chops back in the pan, on top of the kraut.  Cover the pan, turn the heat to medium/low, and let simmer, stirring the kraut occasionally, until the pork chops are done.  Use a meat thermometer and make sure the pork is done to USDA recommended temperature.  If you need to moisten the kraut during the cooking process, you can use broth, water, or white wine if you would like a bit of sweetness in the mix. 
Meanwhile, make mashed potatoes however you like.  I prefer to peel and quarter the potatoes, then cook them, drain them, and mash them with an old wire masher.  I mix in milk and butter during mashing.  Other people like to do them other ways, and you should suit yourself in this matter.  When the pork chops are thoroughly cooked, serve each person a chop, a good helping of saurkraut and a mound of mashed potatoes.  Then you know that whatever else the future holds, you will be lucky enough to enjoy a great New Year's dinner!

And here's what my own lucky lunch looked like today :)  I wish you all healthy, wealthy, happy and wise!

Pho #1 the name of the restaurant and also what you will say when you eat there.
A little place in the Northway Mall near the JoAnne's, Pho #1 is unassuming in appearance, but has very good food.  During a visit yesterday to the Wednesday market, we were trying to decide between the Cajun place and Pho #1. We kind of wandered back and forth across the mall, trying to choose, when a freind whose taste we trust appeared and definitively recommended Pho #1.  He further recommended some dishes, not all of which we were able to try on this visit.
     We got spring rolls to start - which came out approximately the size the big cigars and sizzling hot.  They were tasty on their own, and were accompanied by an intriguing dipping sauce that made them taste even better - shredded carrot and some other veg in a sweet vinegar concoction.  The sauce made an intriguing contrast with the hot, savory rolls. I also got young coconut juice to try it out - very tasty and refreshing.  It has a definite coconut flavor (which it should, as there are hunks of coconut floating in it), but is not overly sweet.  It has a mild, vegetal sort of flavor - delicious!  I also got soup - mildly spicy and very flavorful, I got lemongrass and mushroom soup with tofu cubes.  There was ample tofu in the dish, and also lots of mushrooms - great big chunks of them, meaty and with a deep smoky flavor.  The broth itself was also delicious, complex without being overwhelming, layers of flavor developing with each mouthful.  This is a complex cuisine, and you can definitely taste it in this dish.  Mr. EA got pad Thai with tasty pork and noodles, and garnishes of crushed peanuts, cilantro, lime, and sprouts.  He enjoyed it very much - also a tasty dish.  The garnishes provide intriguing contrasts in flavor and texture, and it was a delicious dish. 
Sadly, we did not have anywhere near enough room to try one of their house special sandwiches, also recommended by our friend, but we'll be back!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Cake Studio and other downtown news

On a rare solo expedition, I went downtown in Anchorage this past Saturday to roam around a bit, and in due course, eat!  Downtown was surprisingly empty - not too many citizens roaming around, and a surprising number of small stores and restaurants were closed.  Happily, The Cake Studio, a new bakery on 4th street, was open.  The bakery and boutique is a warm and inviting space filled with tantalizing smells and intriguing sights.  The first thing you will have to do is make some decisions - the long display case is full of gourmet candies, then there is a variety of baked goods and other sweets on display.  The variety makes it very hard to choose.  After quite a few minutes of dithering, I decided on a peppermint dome and a cup of plain coffee.  A note on the coffee - they serve Raven's Brew!  The peppermint dome was amazingly delicious - a tender cookie base with a mound of peppermint mousse and a coating of chocolate with a garnish of peppermint hard candy bits.  It was so delicious I think I briefly went into a trance.  It was not heavy or cloying - just perfectly balanced.  The mellow Raven's Brew was a wonderful complement to this mildly sweet treat. 
       After enjoying my treat, I wandered around a bit to check out the items on sale in the boutique.  There are a few cute tea towels and tablecloths, lots of fancy candles, some specialty baking supplies and some specialty candies.  I wouldn't count on  stocking up your kitchen with their supplies, but if you want specialty items (flavored extracts, fancy sugars, that sort of thing), I would definitely check them out!
On another note, Cafe Savannah (of earlier post fame) is gone - in it's place is a Wings and Things.  A sad thing for tapas fans. 

Friday, December 25, 2009

Eating Florida - or, Christmas for Big Eaters

This year Mr EA and I talked most of our loved ones in distant climes into exchanging family rather than individual presents, and we further talked them into exchanging local-food gifts.  I know the recent complaint has been that there aren't any local foods, and everything is all homogeneous and bland.  Food writers and locavores claim that nowhere in America is regional food prevalent. As a person who has travelled a reasonable amount and now been a local in two different areas of the country - I can tell you that's not true.  Oh, you can live your life like that if you want to.  You can eat only at McDonald's or TGI Friday's and never eat a bite of local food no matter where you go.  However, in most places, that's your choice.
     I cannot reveal what we sent out to our families, as most of the boxes have not gotten to their destinations yet, though they were sent weeks ago (damn you, USPS!).  However, I can reveal the care package we got from my family in Florida...

On the left and across the bottom are salt water taff and flavored coconut patties, the products of Anastatia Confections of Orlando. In the very center of the bottom is some Slim Jim-like devices made of gator!  You will not find this just anywhere - they are the specialy of Alligator Bob's of Thonotosassa, FL.  Mr. EA will be reporting back on those! The marmalade, honey, and citrus candy are from Davidson's of Dundee. Also present and accounted for are a bottle of key lime juice, which really does taste different(slight salty, and kind of musky - in a good way) than regular lime juice.  If you have never had any, I urge you to spring for the higher price and try some.  Last but not least is Pelican Poop coconut candies - the Alaskan analog is moose or reindeer poop. I already dug into these - they are full of coconutty goodness!
     As soon as our Alaskan treat packages arrive at their destination, I will reveal their contents!  So that's something to look forward to :)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Kebab and Curry

This past Tuesday, Mr EA and I and some friends went to the newest addition to Anchorage's Indian restaurant lineup.  Kebab and Curry opened December 14th, according to their website - and still has a few new-restaurant kinks to iron out.  However, the food is delicious! 
   The building in which it is situated is smallish, and does not have acres of parking.  The interior is cheerful, with bright orange walls and a tasteful smattering of Indian art and posters of Beautiful India on the walls.  There are something like 12 tables, and the place was buzzing the entire time we were there, so their suggestion that you make reservations is a good one!  We hadn't, but by luck got seated right away. 
     Once you are seated, you will have some decisions to make.  The impressively hefty menus list an impressively large variety of delicious-sounding things to eat.  There are a good variety of vegetarian options for appetizers and main courses, but there's plenty for meat-eaters as well.  I sat looking at this menu for a good 15 minutes, paralyzed by choice - and that's a good thing! 
     In the end, Mr EA has machhi tikka, spicy catfish kebabs.  He said it was very flavorful, and the fish was perfectly cooked.  He had been hoping for the mixed grill, but they were out of some of the elements of it, so he tried the fish.  We already have plans to come back and the mixed grill is on his list for next time!  I had paneer korma, chunks of fresh cheese in a subtle cashew onion sauce.  The paneer was very good - firm and mild.  The sauce, of which there was literally a bucket, was delicious.  There was a very subtle onion flavor and a complex spice mix that tantalized but did not overwhelm.  The cashew element lent more richness than flavor, which was fine.  The sauce was so good I finished with a spoon and some of the naan we ordered on the side.  Our friends ordered chicken korma and a kebab that I am forgetting the name of.  They also enjoyed theirs very much. 
     The timing was a bit uneven, with things coming out to the table in a weird kind of way.  This is not unusual for new restaurants and is a minor issue but still something to be aware of if you intend to go - which you should if you like Indian. The food was wonderful, and there are so many choices there is sure to be something for everyone.  Go there, you'll be glad you did!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Yet another Locavore event post!

This past Sunday evening, Mr. EA and I attended a locavore soiree hosted by Spenard Roadhouse of earlier post fame. This shindig was in conjunction to the screening of yet another locavore film, Ingredients, which was shown at UAA earlier that day. We did not go see the film, as I feel I am already pretty well up to speed on local eating issues, and Mr. EA does not care.

Anyway, the context of the dinner was that Spenard Roadhouse‘s chef Shane Moore, in collusion with “Delicious” Dave Thorne, came up with a four course meal featuring locally grown and made foods. 25 spots were available, and they were all taken - hopefully this bodes well for more of this kind of thing. You could opt to have your dinner paired with Alaskan beers, or not. Since Mr. EA is always the designated driver, I let this be his turn to drink.

Since we skipped out on the movie, we got to the restaurant way early, but fortunately they were ready for the locavore horde, and let us sit right down. The rest of the place was packed to the rafters - I sincerely hope we made it worth their while to give up a whole section of the restaurant on such a busy night! As the rest of the crew began to arrive, we noted that the crowd seemed to be more hippies than foodies, which was kind of interesting and did not bode well for us having much to talk about with our table-mates. I heard a lot of complaints about how the food tasted as though it had salt in it (not too much salt, mind you, but any salt), which is pretty much the specialty of people who hate flavor. Indeed, this impression turned out to be correct, with the rest of our fellow diners talking more about whether or not the food was organically grown than about how extremely tasty it was.

The hors d’oeuvres was a large, seared scallop served on a disk of tasty polenta, topped with a dollop of onion relish, surrounded by a moat of tomato broth and garnished with house-cured bacon. If that sounds like there was a lot going on, that’s because there was. The scallop was meltingly tender and flavorful, the polenta was just seasoned enough to not taste like cornmeal mush, and the zingy tomato puree and onion relish really sparked up the dish. The bacon was bacon - 'nuff said! This course was paired with Kenai River Brewing Co Pillars Pale Ale, which Mr. EA did not like by itself but did like with the food.

Next came the Soup & Salad Trio. This consisted of a thin-ish slice of bruschetta with cheese curd, chopped tomato and basil, a marinated beet salad with goat cheese, and a small bowl of pumpkin bisque. I liked all of this quite a lot. The goat cheese was a good counterpoint to the beets, and the pumpkin bisque was quite complex with a variety of flavors complementing one another. Mr EA enjoyed the bruschetta, and said that the soup and salad were “not bad”. He is not a fan of pumpkin or beets, so that was high praise for him. The beer for this course was Denali Brewing Company’s Hibernale, which was his favorite of the evening.

The main course brought a surprise - braised bison agnolotti and roasted celery roots, carrots and Brussels sprouts with brown butter and au jus. For some reason, in reading the menu I totally ignored the word “agnolotti”, as did many of our fellow diners. We were all expecting a hunk of bison with some vegetables piled on the side and some au jus to dip it all in. Instead, we got largish pasta hunks ( shape is difficult to describe - kind of like a bishop’s hat, but not really) with minced bison in it, diced roasted veggies with Brussels sprouts leaves, and what I believe was a puree of the same veggies with the au jus and brown butter. This was all delicious, and had simply a bucket of sauce, which made me very happy - I loooooove sauce! A minor quibble I had with this course is that the pasta was perhaps a bit heftier than was optimal, but that is a very minor quibble considering. This was paired with Moose’s Tooth Prince William Porter, which everyone drinking agreed had an anise finish. So take note, liquorish fans! Mr. EA liked this beer better on its own than he did with the food.

Dessert was a tender and mildly sweet almond buttermilk biscuit with strawberry and wild blueberry coulis, fresh currents and cranberries, and real whipped cream. It was paired with Kassik’s Kenai Brew Stop Imperial Spiced Honey Wheat. Overall, a great finish to a great meal.

In keeping with the theme of the evening, the menu listed the ingredient sourcing as follows:

 Vegetables and fruits from VanderWeele Farms

 Bison from Pitchfork Ranch

 Dairy from Matanuska Creamery

 Scallops from Kodiak

 Bruschetta from Fire Island Bakery

In all fairness, this dinner cannot have been created solely from local product - I am fairly sure we don’t produce any cooking oils, salt, or flour. However, it was close enough to make a point.  While I certainly support local agriculture and hope that others here in Alaska do as well, there's no point in being a nut about it. The chefs put a great deal of care and thought into a creative meal that was extremely tasty as well as illustrating a point. There were some elements of surprise, and a good deal of inventiveness. I don’t mean inventiveness in the form of molecular gastronomy or anything of that sort, but simply taking local ingredients to a higher plane than might usually be the case. The chefs came out at the end of the meal, and I’m glad to say we gave them a rousing chorus of applause, which they surely deserved. I hope all the other attendees enjoyed it as much as we did, and I hope the Spenard Roadhouse runs more of these dinners. If you get a chance to attend such an event in the future, go and don’t look back. You’ll be glad you did!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Firetap Alehouse

Thursday night we finally made it out to the Firetap Alehouse - it's been open for a few months but a series of misadventures kept us from trying it out.
We went on Wednesday night, and the place was hopping.  The interior is very nice - very modern alehouse with an uncluttered decor.   The hostess and our waiter were both excellent - on the ball, but not overly so. We still got seated right away, and were immediately confronted with a mid-size food menu and an equivalent beer and wine menu.  Passing over the sandwiches and pizza, Mr EA got Cajun Fettucini and I got Melanzan al Parmesan.  We declined beer, although it was tempting.  The next table got some nifty beer sampler sets that looked pretty interesting.  However, we were grocery shopping after dinner, and friends don't let friends shop drunk.
     We started off with a garlic bread appetiser with marinara sauce for dipping.  Rather than traditional bread, it was slices of pizza crust with garlic and oil and an herbal mix.  This was a delicious and different appetizer, which was nicely complemented with the marinara.  Mr EA's pasta was very good, rich with chicken and sausage and featured a spicy, creamy sauce.  My meal was supposed to come with a side of pasta, for which I substituted a small chopped salad.  The salad was delicious and fresh with a good mix of veggies.  My eggplant, however, was somewhat unfortunate.  The cheese and sauce parts were very good, but there was very little eggplant.  What there was quite a lot of was breading.  Lots and lots of soggy breading.  I found myself wishing that I had ordered a sandwich or that we had split a pizza, as had everyone at the surrounding tables.  Everyone around me was enjoying good-smelling and delicious looking sandwiches and burgers and pizza and appetizer, which was kind of dispiriting. On the whole, it was a middling experience.  We will probably give it another try, but next time we'll go for the pizza. 

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Cheesecake - Alaskified!

Mr EA's birthday was this past week, and in addition to cooking a favorite meal, I also made him his favorite cake for desert.  As it happens, his favorite cake is cheesecake, and his favorite form of it is little mini individual cheesecakes.  We arrived at this conclusion after years of me making a cheesecake, then him not eating it quickly enough, and me having to throw 1/4 of it away, followed by weeping and lamentations.  By making the little mini cheesecakes, I can freeze most of them, and he can thaw them out and have one whenever he wants. 
     The recipe I use is from an old recipe book I got from Kraft/Philadelphia Cream Cheese, entitled Ultimate Philly Cream Cheese Cheesecakes.  Guess what it is about! I will go ahead and post the recipe, because this book is at least 1.5 decades old, and possibly older. 

Philly 3-step Mini Cheesecakes
2 packages (8 oz. each) of Philadelphia Brand cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup of sugar
1/2 tsp. of vanilla
2 eggs
2 packages (4 oz each) of Keebler Ready-Crust single serve graham cracker Pie Crusts (total of 12 crusts)
Optional: whipped cream, little candies, whatever other junk you like to put on cheesecake. 

Special New Alaskan Addition:
1 Tbsp. birch syrup

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Mix cream cheese, sugar and vanilla until well blended.  Add eggs, mix until blended again.  Pour mixture into pie crusts.  Divide the birch syrup between the cakes, pouring a little into each. When the birch syrup has been poured over the pies, swirl or stripe it in, using a table knife to create whatever patterns you like best.  Bake for 20 minutes or until centers are set.  Cool cakes and refrigerate. 

Result, 12 delicious little single serve treats!  Also, we like to use the lightened cream cheese to make it a little less fatty, but you know, sometimes you have to live a little. 

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Local - Chips!

Like any sector of America with the slightest hint of local pride, Alaska is home to its own local brand of chips.  Chips are usually the tip of the local-snack iceberg, so I'll be keeping an eye out for other Alaska snack opportunities (other than jerky - been there, done that). 
  Alaska Chip Company is based here in Anchorage, and proudly uses Mat-Su Valley Potatoes (of earlier, eating-local-post fame).  They come in a variety of flavors, each with a cutesy Alaska-y name.  Chilkoot Chips, pictured here, are sour cream and chive.  Grizzly is barbecue flavor, which although tasty was briefly disappointing, as I had hoped they would be bear flavored.  Tragically, not so.  But the barbecue is pretty good, even so.  They have four flavors, all of which are available at various places in the area.  They also sell popcorn, but I don't generally like bagged popcorn, so haven't tried it.  The chips themselves are kettle-style, with a good solid crunch and a nice potato flavor.  Also, the humorous origin story on the bag is something fun to read while you crunch your tasty chips.  The flavors are not crazy, like Pennsyvania' Herr's brand, which basically sells itself on its willingness to give its snack products wacky flavors like pickle or ketchup. If eating local and patronizing a quirky hometown manufacturer is something you believe in, the Alaska Chip Company will amply reward your civic vitue. 

Coming in from slightly further afield, from our suburb to the southeast (Washington State), we also have Tim's Chips.  Tim's is a bit more established and has a wider variety of product, with both Tim's and the Hawaiian Chips lines to their name. Both lines feature good thick kettle style chips with impressive crunch and good flavors that don't overpower the deep-fried potato flavor.   The Hawaiian line features slightly more exotic flavors, and different bag art, but otherwise are the same chips.  The Tim's flavor I like best so far is the Johnny's Seasoned Salt flavor.  Which reminds me I've got to track down some of that salt!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

I try to buy King Arthur Flour - Denied!

Well, OK, not denied, but grossly overcharged. 
     I am originally from the Mid-Atlantic states, and used to occasionally buy King Arthur Flour co products - they have pretty good stuff, and it's hard not to be carried away by their enthusiasm.  So I need some baking supplies, and naturally turn to their website. 
     I'm going along, blithely putting purchases in my cart, until I had everything I wanted plus a few things I didn't even know I needed until I got to their site.  At this point, shipping charges are $8, which seemed fair enough.  Then I get to checkout and put in my address, and the shipping changes to $17.50!!!
     I know Alaska's far away and all, but seriously?  We're not on the moon, you know.  Also, the post office has those awesome new flat rate shipping boxes - there's no reason for this.  It's an outrage!  Or a cause for slight pique, at the least. 
 This is the sort of thing that kind of reminds me why there are so many independent providers of goods and services here - shipping has always been a big expense for this state.  So anyway, I am just going to do without my special flavoring things and boiled cider.  For those prices, I will just boil my own darn cider! 
Does anyone know of a west coast provider of baking supplies?  One that understands that AK is part of America?

Sourdough Chronicles - Fail II

Ok, so I found another way that won't work.  It looked so lively for the first few days, then it lapsed into unconsciousness, then it began to decay.  I just washed the terrifying murky liquid down the sink and escorted the rest out to the garbage. 
Well, back to the drawing board!  I have another method in mind to try, so later this week we'll see if it leads to brilliant success or to the senseless waste of another 2 cups of flour and water!