Thursday, May 31, 2012


We have seen quite a few kid-friendly movies the past few months as we spent some time with a friend of ours and his son who just turned 8.  Child and all adults agree that The Avengers was the most enjoyable of the bunch, which included Japanese animation Arrietty (better than Ponyo, but that wasn’t saying much), Mirror, Mirror (not bad if you go in with low expectations), and Men in Black 3 (fun while it lasted but seemed a little thin—at least to the adults in the audience).

While these child-friendly movies boasted some charm, perhaps most memorable movies I have seen in the last few weeks are two that did not involve animation or CGI effects: 2011’s The Way and the recently released The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  I should concede right away that the movies were not masterful works of originality.  I’m certainly not going to suggest that these were not predictable.  To wit: Will the Martin Sheen character eventually bond with other pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago and live a richer and fuller life for the better-late-than-never opening up of his mind and soul?  Will Maggie Smith’s character finally let go of Heinz brown sauces and Hob Nobs, along with her bigotry, and embrace—if not dal curry and pappadums—the warm-heartedness of the Indians?  (Never mind the natives' own prejudice against the "untouchables"...)  You guess.

Yes, both movies were predictable—and implausible when not strictly predictable.  But there were two important things in the plus column for these movies: 1) actors you want to watch and 2) locales you want to explore.  Few people have anything bad to say about Martin Sheen; most people adore Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith and the rest of the gang.  More importantly, we also want to be transported to another world, perhaps the world of northern Spain’s farmlands or of overcrowded but sun-kissed India. 

These movies belong in a class we can call Cinematourism.  The really not very good Under the Tuscan Sun (which wasted Diane Lane), BBC’s A Year in Provence (with the ever-irascible but spot-on John Thaw), the disappointing Eat, Pray, Love (that even Javier Bardem could not save), George Clooney’s little-seen The American (set in a sleepy Italian village) all had one thing in common.  These, and many like these, appeal to viewers like me drawn in even more by the scenery and the perspectives of a different way of living than the exposition and execution of plot or characterization. 

Normally, I would be all over a movie mis-step (see my review on Anonymous here:, overacting, producers expecting too little brain activity from the audience.  Yet I find myself loath to nit-pick, drawn into a mediocre movie despite my critical faculties, when they throw in eye candy of the landscape variety.  It’s not just that I swoon at the mere sight of lavender and poppy fields.  (Guilty as charged.)  In fact, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel seemed to avoid trying to show the majesty of some of the most impressive sights.  We more often heard, rather than saw, that characters visited a glorious temple or a palace, etc.  Yet such movies still offer up a new way of seeing if not the world around us then at least the people around us and the opportunities we are ignoring to connect with others.  In short, these movies gently nudge us to re-evaluate what is most important to us.

Even if a movie is not successful as a piece of cinema, such movies (and books and other forms of art) offer the invaluable service of letting us get outside of our routine and the comfortable confines of our little slice of the world.  That is, to get outside of ourselves.  I went to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in a room full of retired or soon-to-be-retired theater-goers (and it felt oddly comforting to be in the presence of such active and robust people who nevertheless qualified for the senior discount), and I could imagine that the movie might have started some people ruminating about what they want out of their retirement years—and what they want out of their lives.  I saw The Way on DVD with Will and our friend Laura.   We have since started discussions about when might be the best time to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.  My research tells me March or October, so perhaps we’ll get out of our working rut and go out walking the world.  

Who knows?  Come March, I might be crossing over from the French Pyrenees to Spain and blogging about the different goat cheeses I eat along the Camino.  I sure hope so.

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Break from Grilled Meats: Fresh Rainbow Vegetable Maki

By the end of the Memorial Day weekend, too many Americans will have consumed too much grilled meats.  Once we are tired of the requisite brats and burgers—or even taking a mini-break in between these same meals of brats and burgers—something like a fresh Vegetable Maki will start sounding pretty darn yummy.

For those who grew up with Japanese maki rolls or Korean kim bop, making these will be almost second nature to you.  I wasn’t an adult before I was rolling kim bop filled with my favorite meats and marinated veggies and pickled daikon.  (I promise I will later devote a post to filling, rolling, and cutting traditional kim bop!)  In case vegetable makis are not as familiar to you as apple pie, here is a recipe from Martha Stewart that is easy to follow:

You can print out Martha Stewart’s recipe and follow along with me as I suggest variations:

1) Don’t sweat the details about which veggies you will include.

Martha Stewart’s recipe itself calls for asparagus, daikon, cucumber, scallions (and you can spot red pepper strips as well in the picture).  Really, use whatever you have around which you find harmonious to eat together.  My veggies (above) include cucumber, scallions, asparagus, and julienned carrots.  At the last minute, I discovered that I had an avocado, so I added that later too (which, by the way, was a great addition).  Just make sure that you slice your veggies such that they form long thin strips.  And make sure they are colorful and pretty.  Part of the allure of Japanese cuisine is the presentation, so you want to honor that.

2) Do include eggs.

I’ve seen non-Asian children dragged to Japanese restaurants ordering a whole plate of tamago “sushi,” and I can understand the appeal of a sweet omelet over white rice as the tastiest—certainly, the “safest”—option for those who are a bit leery of eating raw fish.  Egg dishes like tamago are very popular in Asia: another is a dish called om-rice which is essentially fried rice covered with a thin omelet and a gravy of some sort, or just ketchup in many instances.  In any case, while my vegetarian makis and meat-filled kim bops might vary in all sorts of ways, the one constant is the inclusion of strips of thin omelet (mine is savory rather than sweet like tamago). 

Just scramble two eggs with a bit of salt, pour it into a hot large sauté pan with a bit of oil in it, and watch it bubble away.  Flip to slightly brown the other side and then take off the heat.  Wait until it is cool enough to handle, and then cut into half-inch wide strips.  All done.   You get a little extra protein in your vegetarian maki, and your tastebuds will thank you.

3) There are variations on rice for maki/sushi.

Sushi rice has its own countless recipes.  Many involve soaking rice before steaming, and some include boiling rice vinegar with salt and sugar and then pouring the mixture over the cooked rice.  You might skip boiling the vinegar if you are short on time and patience.  Instead, you can dump the steamed rice into a (small-holed) colander or a sieve and then drizzle a mixture of rice vinegar with fine sugar and sea salt.  (Not using kosher salt allows you to skip the step of cooking the mixture to dissolve the coarse salt.)  Let cool a bit—but do not refrigerate your rice!—and then continue with the rolling of your own makis.

Constructing these handrolls is not exactly rocket-science.  Take half-sheets of nori, mound some cooled sushi rice in the center, place strips of vegetables and cooked egg.

Roll any way that is most comfortable for you to eat—log or cone shaped, whatever.

Dip into a bit of soy sauce with wasabi.  Eat.  Enjoy!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Restaurant-Worthy Dish: Roast Cod with Pistachio Sauce and Chive Oil

We started cooking a lot more fish once we discovered that we had great local sources for a variety of fresh fish.  Basic pan-seared salmon, with any number of sauces and accompaniments, is a go-to dish when we are short on time and creativity and energy.  When we want to venture beyond "simple"—that is, when we want something “restaurant-worthy”—a fish dish we often opt for is Roast Cod with Pistachio Sauce and Chive Oil.

We came across a recipe for “Roasted Cod with Steamer Clams and Pistachio Sauce” in Food & Wine Magazine’s 2002 Cookbook and modified it a bit since we didn’t always (almost never?) have fresh clams around when we wanted to prepare this dish.  Here’s a link to the original recipe for those who want to try it with steamer clams:

We decided to try this recipe because we wanted to expand our culinary horizons with something completely different--and we just happened to have cod and pistachios and chives and bottled clam juice (which we used liberally to substitute for any step that involved clams).  We initially sort of scratched our heads with the recipe, thinking that the dish did not sound particularly appealing, but we were so glad to be proven wrong.  Speaking from personal experience with a lot of new recipe disappointments, I have to say I really enjoy those rare instances when the surprise is pleasant!

Some notes about this dish after having attempted various modifications:

1) Pistachio Sauce
The sauce is a nice, salty, briny, nutty accompaniment to the cod.  Make sure you do grind the roasted pistachios very fine (as pictured below).  If you are like me and want to skip the additional step of steaming clams, you can simply use some bottled clam juice for the pistachio sauce without any loss in flavor.  In the picture above, you can see the pistachio sauce peeking out a bit from under the cod.  At first we were a bit skeptical about having the pistachio-clam sauce as well as the chive oil (seriously, did we need two sauces?), but the two complement each other nicely.  The earthy nuttiness of the sauce gets balanced by the fresh herbiness of the oil.

2) Potatoes
The original recipe called for fingerling potatoes, but we now use medium-sized peeled Yukon Gold potatoes sliced about 1/3 inch thick.  For presentation, we fan the potatoes around one side of the cod.  We skip the recipe step of simmering the boiled potatoes with the clams and the reserved clam liquid since we do not use clams in the dish.  On our first attempt, we did simmer the boiled potatoes with a small amount of bottled clam juice and butter (thus modifying the recipe a bit), but we have since then opted for purity (or laziness).  It’s actually quite nice to have the buttery taste, the yellow color, and flaky texture of just-boiled Yukon Gold potatoes dipped into the chive oil that surrounds them.

3) Chive Oil
The oil is our favorite component of this dish!  It turned out once that we did not have chives after all, and so we substituted some chopped green onions and parsley.  The result was passable but a bit bitter and not nearly as flavorful as using chives, so make sure you do have chives before you prepare this dish for the first time.  Pour through a fine-mesh sieve (pictured below) and then take a spatula to scrape down every last bit of liquid.  Don’t forget to salt the oil since the salt minimizes the bitterness you might initially taste.  Do dip both cod and potatoes in the chive oil!

In the picture at the top of the post, you can see the pistachio sauce forming a bed for the roast cod (which should be pan-roasted to a nice golden brown), the potatoes fanning around one side of the fish, and the chive oil surrounding the perimeter of the entire dish.  Will baked some fresh (yes, from scratch, with chilled dough rolled over and over again!) home-made croissants, so that provided a special accompaniment to a dish that was already restaurant-worthy.   

Friday, May 11, 2012

Chocolate Comfort, Part 2: Chocolate Desserts Extravaganza

Last week, I shared our newest chocolate find—Callebaut Dark Chocolate Callets—and presented a simple no-frills recipe for the perfect hot chocolate.   This week, it’s everything else chocolate!

First, a note about couverture chocolate.  The bag of Callebaut callets that we purchased through Costco advertises that it is a “couverture” chocolate, meaning simply that it’s used in all sorts of chocolate desserts that require a higher fat content.  Yes, especially for coating or "covering" (thus the name "couverture").  Couverture chocolates must have somewhere between 32%-39% cocoa butter and must contain at least 54% cocoa solids.  (Click here for more information on “couverture chocolate”:  Our Callebaut just barely makes it in there with its “55% cacao,” but you definitely do notice the higher fat content when you make desserts with these callets.

Molten Chocolate Cake:

At the top of this post, you can see the Molten Chocolate Cakes that Will baked using the recipe (halved) that was on the Callebaut bag (click here for the recipe:  We would recommend baking the cake for the longer time period as its “molten”-ness was a little too alarmingly lava-like (though attractive) at the shorter baking time. 

The recipe was super-simple, and the only other thing we might do differently next time would be to use darker chocolate for a more intense chocolate flavor.

The rest of the items on this post are even simpler, requiring no baking with the chocolate at all.

Chocolate Frosting:

Bon Appetit’s April 2012 issue included a pared-down recipe for a “Luscious Chocolate Icing” that needed only 3 ingredients: ½ c heavy cream; 2 T hot espresso or strong coffee; and 8 oz semisweet or bittersweet chocolate.  The recipe wanted you to chop the chocolate, but you can even skip that step if you are using callets since their thinner profile results in fast melting without preliminary chopping.

All you need do is to heat cream, stir in espresso or coffee, and then pour the mixture into a medium bowl containing the callets (or chopped chocolate).  After letting it sit 1 minute to melt the chocolate a bit, you stir until the frosting is smooth and glossy and then wait a few minutes for the mixture to solidify to your liking before using.  The frosting will definitely get harder, so you either want to ice right away or chill and re-warm later.

Will baked a simple one-layer yellow butter cake, and then we spread some frosting on top.  You can frost the whole cake at once, but we actually enjoyed having the unfrosted cake and spreading the frosting on when we felt like having some chocolate cake.  (Another time, we used the cake as a base for strawberry shortcakes.)  The flexibility of such icing use enables you to frost-as-you-go.  Store the unused frosting in the refrigerator and then microwave (and stir) in 10-second intervals until you like the consistency.

Chocolate Cream Crepes:

One day at the grocery store, I found some unfilled frozen crepes that were versatile enough for both savory and sweet dishes.  When I’m not using them for honey ham and gruyere main course crepes (which make nice weekday dinners with the addition of a side salad), I’ve been using them for dessert crepes.

Melt ½ teaspoon of butter in a crepe or shallow omelet pan over medium heat.  Place crepe down and warm for a minute before turning.  Spread about ¼ cup of chocolate callets on the second side and let it melt slightly before folding over the two outer edges to form a filled crepe.  Because of the higher fat content in these callets, they melt beautifully and result in a smooth and creamy filling without adding any cream. 

When serving, I would add a side of ice cream or gelato (in the picture, it’s a vanilla and cherry gelato) to—believe it or not!—cut the richness of the dessert a bit.

Tip: Any of the above will make an easy and impressive dessert for Mother's Day...

Friday, May 4, 2012

Chocolate Comfort, Part 1: Perfect Hot Chocolate

This being finals week at my university, I’m inundated with nearly a hundred final papers and a hundred final exams, along with all the (not very creative) emergency emails about why papers are not able to be delivered on time.  In short: not the week for unique and elegant meals.  On the other hand, this is definitely the week for seeking refuge in sweets as a treat after slogging through another round of grading.  This is where chocolate comes to the rescue.

While we prefer our bar chocolates to be of the caliber of Scharffen Berger or Vosges—or at least Ghirardelli or Godiva—our chocolate chips for cooking rarely ventured far above the heights of Nestle.  Then we discovered Callebaut Belgian Dark Chocolate Callets (callets apparently being flatter, thinner disk versions of “chips”).  Initially we feared that we might not be able to go through the 3.5 lb bag that we purchased at Costco (where else do you find “finest Belgian Dark Chocolate” in massive pouches, at a steal?).  Now, Will wants to go back and get another bag so that we would always have reserve quantities of Callebaut callets around the condo.  You know—just in case…

It’s true what the bag advertises: these callets are “perfect for baking, cooking and snacking.”  More than once, I’ve spotted the bag on the kitchen island, apparently having been pulled out by Will just for random munching purposes.  I try to exercise more restraint and have attempted to use the callets more for cooking, in something.  Luckily, there are a myriad wonderful ways of using Callebaut, and—during this hectic finals week—I’d like to share with you one of the simplest methods.  In future posts, I’ll reveal more simple recipes and techniques for using these callets, but for now, one of our favorite chilly weather treats and comfort drink extraordinaire:

Perfect Hot Chocolate:

1/4 c Dark chocolate callets or chips (preferably Callebaut)
1/4 c half and half or whipping cream
3/4 c milk (2% or whole)
cinnamon and/or red (cayenne) pepper (optional)
(This recipe serves one.  Just multiply for more servings.)

1) Start with a small saucepan and melt ¼ cup of chocolate callets over medium-low to medium heat.  Whisk, and don’t let it burn! 

2) When the callets are almost completely melted pour about ¼ cup of cream or half and half and whisk (with a flat whisk to get to the edges of your pan) into a smooth and creamy consistency.  The mixture should resemble a runny ganache (pictured below). 

3) Let the mixture be completely mixed before you pour in ¾ cup milk (at least 2% fat, no less), whisking all the while. 

4) Once the chocolate mixture is fully incorporated with milk, raise the heat to medium-high and let heat up completely, whisking all the while and frothing up the mixture a bit.  No sugar is needed, but I like to sprinkle a dash of cinnamon and a tiny pinch of cayenne pepper.

Yes, of course, you can top with whipped cream, but that’s perhaps even a bit of an overkill.  The hot chocolate is very rich (like you’d get at a cafe where you pay $5 a cup).  If you like your hot chocolate less rich, just use fewer chocolate callets.

Now back to grading.