Saturday, October 20, 2012

Demo by Shelley Lindgren and Matthew Accarrino, SPQR

This past week, I attended a cooking demo for the book release of SPQR: Modern Italian Food and Wine, by Shelley Lindgren and Matthew Accarrino, held in the beautiful Williams-Sonoma demonstration kitchen at their flagship Union Square location.

I've been to many demos there, and I'm always struck by how amazing the kitchen is.  It is obviously outfitted with all the latest and greatest gadgets, but it is also bright and airy, overlooks Union Square, and has mirrors positioned perfectly so you can always see what the chefs are doing.  Definitely the best demonstration space I've seen.

The demo featured both food and wine, just like the book.  Shelley was there to talk about the wine that she generously poured to pair with the food ... and sip beforehand ... and throughout the demo.  She provided a lovely gewürztraminer that was a special treat.  She talked about how she could have paired a red wine, but picked this one instead, as the sweetness matched that of the fruit in the entree.  I'm glad she did, as it matched the mood of the rare warm San Francisco indian summer evening.  She was incredibly warm and friendly, the perfect hostess!

For the food, Chef Accarrino prepared a farro stuffed quail with chestnuts, persimmon, and dandelion greens.  When I saw what he was making, I must admit I was a little sad.  Besides the persimmon, which I'm totally in love with, these don't fall high on my list of favorite ingredients.  Quail egg, sure, but quail itself?  It has always basically been a more annoying version of chicken to me.  Luckily for me, this dish changed my mind.

The demo was very informative and organized, with the chef giving substitution tips, technique pointers, and tons of general information as he went.  He talked about which parts of the dishes you could do ahead of time, and finish at serving time, so you could host a dinner party and still be present.  He also pointed out that if a recipe didn't seem approachable enough, you could just make a few of the components, and not do the entire thing.

The aromoas during the demo were incredible ... does it get any better than garlic, shallots, and butter bubbling away?

I've only been to SPQR once, over a year ago, and I was really sick at the time.  I don't remember much about the experience, besides the fact that our server incorrectly described a dish to us, so what we received was not at all what we thought we were ordering, and I was really upset by it.  I'd like to go back now though, as the chef is clearly incredibly talented and I'd love to see what else he can do!

I'm not much of a cookbook person, but if you are, check out the book.  It has some beautiful photography, and is designed to be part practical cookbook, part coffee table book, and includes a lot of wine pairing information.
Farro Stuffed Quail with Chestnuts, Persimmon, Dandelion Greens.
There was a lot to this dish!  It reminded me of a very sophisticated version of Thanksgiving.  Instead of a stuffed turkey, there was stuffed quail.  Instead of mashed potatoes, there was chestnut puree.  There was just something so comforting and classic about it, even though it was using far more interesting ingredients.

The quail was certainly the hardest ingredient to work with.  I haven't ever attempted to get it at home before, but the chef assured us that you can find it even at Whole Foods.  He was working with a semi-boneless cut, with the ribs and backbone already removed, forming a nice cavity for the stuffing.  He showed us how to fold the wings under to form a stable base for it to set on while it cooked, and how to form it back into a cute shape to serve.  He also browned it in a pan beforehand to get a nice color on it, and then finished it in the oven.

The quail came out beautifully.  The skin was amazingly crisp and buttery, and the meat stayed moist from the stuffing inside.  I still don't love quail, nor the work required to eat around the little bones, but this was really quite nice.

Speaking of the stuffing, the quail was stuffed with a farro and country bread stuffing, a great way to use up leftover grains and day old bread.  The bread also captures juices from the quail as it cooks, soaking up tons of flavor, and keeping the bird moist.  The stuffing also had sofrito (the italian version of a mirepoix, a great thing to always have on hand and use anywhere, recipe included in the book), garlic confitura (garlic slow cooked in oil to bring out the sweetness and mellow it out, resulting in a caramelized and nutty taste, another element to use anywhere, recipe in the book), and our seasonal features: dried persimmon and chestnuts.  He explained how you could sub out the persimmon for other ingredients you liked more or were easier to find, like apricot or cherries.  He also used pre-cooked chestnuts, which you can buy in stores, rather than raw, as those can be a lot of work.

The stuffing was by far my favorite part of the dish.  It was incredibly moist and soft, had a nice crunchiness from the farro, and was just insanely flavorful.  I would have loved a giant bowl of it.  Probably the best stuffing I've ever had!

For the sides, he mostly echoed the flavors from the stuffing.  He stressed how he likes to add more textures and components, but not go overboard on adding too many flavors or too much complexity.

The first side was a salad, made from dandelion greens as a bitter contrast with the sweetness from the fruit and chestnuts.  To mirror the dried persimmon in the stuffing, he compressed persimmon slices, and added them to the salad, along with some bits of dried persimmon.  The compressed persimmon was made using a vacuum sealer, to remove the air in the persimmon and replace it with simple syrup.  You could of course just use fresh persimmon in its place.  I loved the compressed persimmon, but didn't care for the dried bits, as they were a little tough to eat and seemed a little out of place with the other fresh components in the salad.

The salad also contained sautéed chestnuts, again, mirroring a component from the stuffing.  They were ridiculously tasty, cooked in butter rather than olive oil, to give a fantastic nutty brown butter flavor.  Delicious.

There was more chestnut in the puree, my second favorite element of the dish.  He showed us how to make the puree using more liquid that you might actually need in the end, and strain it off, and then add it back in to obtain the viscosity and texture you wanted.  This made it easy to prepare without worrying about getting the ratios correct from the start.  He made the puree using a Vitamix, and like everyone I've ever heard talk about the Vitamix, he loves it.  He highlighted the variable speed control, allowing you to start off slow and then adjust so you could put in hot liquids and not have it splatter all over the place.  And he loves the wand that you can use to push down and stir while mixing.  It was clear that he wasn't trying to sell products or anything, just genuinely loves the machine.  Anyway, the resulting puree was creamy, smooth, and absolutely delicious.

The entire dish came together very well.  The moist quail, the amazing stuffing, the fresh salad, the creamy puree, and the harmony from the chestnuts and persimmon throughout was just perfect.  Like I said, Thanksgiving dinner, but about a million times more sophisticated.  A wonderful fall meal.  I suggest you get the book, make this, and invite me over :)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Dessert from Bang San Thai

I was in the mood for some mango and sticky rice, and I don't really have anywhere in SF that I've loved it at, so I decided to use GoPago as inspiration to try somewhere new.  I was in luck, as there are a zillion Thai places listed on GoPago, and pretty much every one that offered dessert has it.  I browsed through the listings, and settled on Bang San Thai, as their version was fairly cheap, it was nearby, and people seemed to like it.

I ordered while I was a few blocks away, and received the reply that my order was ready within a few minutes.  I was a little upset, since I didn't want it to be cold by the time I arrived, and powerwalked the rest of the way there.  Once I arrived I learned that it wasn't actually ready.  It took another 10 minutes. Not quite the ideal GoPago experience.

The staff was friendly, and offered me water and a seat while I waited.  They seemed to do a lot of take out business, with a steady stream of people coming through to pick up orders.  The food looked pretty good, and I'd consider going back to try non-dessert sometime too!
Sticky Rice with Ripe Mango.  $4.00.
As you know, I'm a big fan of desserts.  And I always look forward to mango and sticky rice at Thai restaurants.

Bang San Thai mixes things up a little and uses black rice.  It was inconsistently cooked, some of it mushy, some of it very al dente.  I actually kinda liked that, as it gave it some interesting textures, but I'm not sure that it was intentional.  It was warm and seemed decently fresh.

On top was a little bit of sweetened condensed milk, always one of my favorite parts.  There wasn't much of it however, and it didn't have any coconut flavor to it which I prefer.  There were also some sesame seeds.

The mango was perfectly ripe, but somewhat sour.  I don't blame them though, good mango is very hard to find in the US.  I was spoiled by living in Sydney for a while, where the mango was incredible, so no mango here ever really lives up to my expectations.

Overall, this was ok, but not great.  $4 is probably the cheapest I've ever seen mango and sticky rice listed though, so it was a good value for the money.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Nick's Crispy Tacos

I've been hearing about Nick's Crispy Tacos for ages.  And I've been on a bit of a taco kick lately, after having some pretty good tacos from Rubios on multiple occasions and Tropisueño.   And of course, they are on LevelUp, which finally encouraged me to journey there.

Now, being the LevelUp pro I am, I waited until their famous Taco Tuesdays, where tacos are only $2, which just happens to be how much they seed LevelUp with.  Taco Tuesdays begin at 5pm, and I'd read that it gets crazy there fast, so people recommend going right at 5pm.  So I did.  There was already a line out the door, but it moved pretty quickly, and I was able to get the last table.  I can't imagine what the place is like at 7pm on a Tuesday!

You order at the register, and then they give you a number to take back to your table.  They are cash or LevelUp only, a strange combo, but it was nice to be somewhere where they weren't annoyed that I was using LevelUp, and rather were happy that I wasn't yet another person in line trying to use a credit card.  I've been really shocked by how many places use LevelUp, but act like you are causing the biggest inconvenience ever when you go to pay with it.  Or how many places have dead batteries on their LevelUp phones, or have them turned off, or worse, have just given up and stopped accepting it all together.  I must say, the LevelUp experience usually is pretty rough.  At Nick's, that part went smoothly.

The food came quickly, I had just enough time to use the not so clean bathroom before settling into my seat when a server arrived, snatching up my number and placing my basket of food in front of me, wordlessly.  Well, it is a casual place, so service isn't really part of it.

The majority of the establishment is actually a bar, and apparently a nightclub after 7pm.  I was gone long before the transformation occurred.  The crowd at 5pm was pretty strange; I saw more babies and small children in the 20 minutes or so that I was there than I do in an entire week normally.  I have no idea why people would bring their kids here, perhaps its just an easy dinner option, and 5pm is when families dine?

Anyway.  It wasn't very good.  And not even worth the Taco Tuesday prices.  I won't be going back.
Pollo Taco: Seasoned, simmered chicken in corn tortilla with pico de gallo & pinto beans.  $3.75 ($2 on Taco Tuesday)
For Taco Tuesday, the seafood tacos are not included, and are still full price.  Since I'd normally get a fish or shrimp taco, this meant I had to either pay double or get something I am less into, but I decided to branch out and do that, as it had worked out at Tropisueño, and I do like trying new things.  The selection for tacos isn't large: carne asada, pollo, pollo asado, carnitas, or veggie.  All include pinto beans and salsa fresca.  For $0.95 more,  you can make it "Nick's way", adding cheese and guac, and wrap it in a crispy shell.  Since I'm allergic to avocado and wanted to stick to my "budget", I didn't do it Nick's way, even though the Yelpers all say that is how they are good.  I don't like pork, the veggie one didn't actually contain any extra veggies so is just beans and salsa, and I wasn't in the mood for steak, so I went for chicken.  I asked for a recommendation between the pollo and pollo asado, and the person taking my order said without a single moments hesitation to get the pollo.  So I did.

The taco came in a plastic basket, that wasn't entirely clean.  Oh well, that is why it was lined with paper right?

It was wrapped up in a handy paper as well, different from the way most tacos are served, but really quite convenient and made it much easier to eat.

It was a heafty taco.  The difference in taco sizes everywhere continues to surprise me.  Somewhere like Pancho Villa they are basically bite sized, and it takes three to really make a meal.  At Rubio's or Tropisueño, one is a good snack, but two would be a dinner.  Here, one was incredibly filling.  Although, unlike most places, they do not include chips and salsa with your order, they are an additional $2.

Like Tropisueño, it was double wrapped in corn tortillas.  They were soft, and had a better corn flavor than those at Tropisueño, but not as much flavor as those from Rubio's.

The taco contained a ton of chicken.  Shredded chicken, mostly white meat.  It actually seemed fairly good quality.  It wasn't very flavorful however, not much seasoning.  It tasted very ... chicken-y.  Which is fine, except I just don't really like chicken that much.  Oops.

They only offer whole pinto beans.  Again, not something I like that much, I prefer refried, and not black beans.  These were cooked well, not too mushy nor undercooked, but meh, I don't really like this type of beans.  Double oops.  Although, had I left them out, there wouldn't have been much to this taco.

There was also some pico de gallo.  The tomato was fresh tasting and looked ripe, although not particularly flavorful.  It was the best component of the taco.

Overall, I was impressed with the size and quantity of chicken in here, but I really didn't like it much at all.  Partially my own fault since I don't care for the main ingredients, but also, there just wasn't really any seasoning or flavor to it.  Very unremarkable, even when I added tons of salsa to it.  Meh.

I knew tax would put me over my LevelUp budget, but for some reason I was charged $2.25.  Perhaps Healthy SF was included?  Anyway, this taco didn't really seem worth that price, and I can't imagine paying the regular $3.75 price for it, particularly when you can get a far higher quality and tastier taco from Tropisueño or Rubio's for less.

I wouldn't get this again.
Salsa in squeeze bottles on the table.
Rather than a salsa bar, Nick's has two squeeze bottles of salsa on each table.  They were both sticky, and I felt gross eating with my hands after touching these.  But tacos and chips are finger foods ...

Niether one of these salsas was notable in any way.  The green one didn't have any heat to it, was just a salsa verde.  The red one had a tiny amount of spice, but not much, and not in an interesting way.

Weakest salsas of anywhere I've tried.
Nick's Crispy Tacos on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 15, 2012

4505 Meats

4505 Meats is one of the food vendors at the Ferry Building Farmer's Market, there every day the market is open (Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays).  They offer cooked to order items, but also have most of their products available to take home and cook as well.  Back when I used to cook more at home I enjoyed many of their products, particularly the bacon studded hot dogs.  Probably my favorite hot dogs ever, and perfect with a brioche hot dog bun from Acme (also located at the Ferry Building).  And some fresh corn on the cob on the side.  I have many fond memories of these magical summer dinners!

They also offer up insanely delicious sounding weekly specials, most of which I haven't tried, but drool over the descriptions regularly.

I recently learned that they also do catering, as I discovered them at an event at work, where I got to try a few more of their items.  And, before the foie gras ban, I discovered at last minute that they make some amazing foie gras pot de cream.  I hope that someday soon they are able to offer that again, as it is a tragedy that I only had it once!
Cheddar bratwurst: 1/4 pound sausage made with pork, Tillamonk cheddar, chilis, touch of heat.
Wow, they really know how to cook a brat!  Perfectly crispy outside, ridiculously juicy inside.  It squirted all over the place when I bit into it, creating a huge mess, but I gleefully ignored this until I was done.  At which point I realized my shirt was oil stained forever.  Whoops.

The cheese was melted inside, gooey and delicious.

I don't generally like brats, but this was very good.  If I were in the mood for one again, I'd certainly get it from them.
Frankaroni: mac and cheese with bacon, deep fried, on a stick.
Yes, you read that correctly.  Let's just say I was excited to try this.  Seriously?  Deep fried mac and cheese?

Unfortunately, I didn't like it very much.  Although the inside was creamy and decent, it was just too oily and greasy for me.  I did like the crunch the deep frying provided.

Wouldn't get again, but I'm glad I finally tried it.

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I think this is their most popular item, so I had to eventually try it.  People rave about it, but I really wasn't impressed.

The bun was very oily.  The patty was thin, cooked medium-well, and wasn't very juicy.  The melted gruyere was really good though.  There was also a lot of special sauce that reminded me of McDonald's.

Overall, it was just very oily and greasy.  It has its place for sure, but not that great of a burger, and not one that really fits in with being at the Ferry Building, enjoying the farmer's market.  More fitting perhaps for a late night diner, with a milkshake on the side :)
Foie gras pot de creme, foie gras boudin blanc.
My last foie goods, purchased the final Saturday before the ban went into effect.  I stored the sausages in my freezer, to enjoy a few weeks later once I was foie-deprived.

The foie pot de creme was fantastic.  It had a good, strong foie flavor and was incredibly creamy.  It clearly contained a lot of foie and was well made.  The stone fruit compote on the bottom was perfect with it, but I would have preferred if my entire jar was filled with the foie :)  I enjoyed this slowly over the course of a couple days, sometimes just by the spoonful, but sometimes jazzing it up some.  The best pairing I found was slathered on some hot brioche.  Swoon.  I really, really wish I could get another jar of this goodness!

The foie gras boudin blanc was good, very juicy, but I didn't really taste a lot of foie.  I'm sure the foie added to the juiciness and richness of it though.  We cooked them up, slathered on some of my cousin's homemade nectarine jam and some grainy mustard, and attempted to eat them inside of Acme brioche hotdog buns, but the sausages were soo fat that they split the rolls open immediately.  The rolls were just too puny to hold up to these monsters!

I felt like these elements all should have come together better than they did - foie, stone fruit, brioche ... those should be a match made in heaven, but I was disappointed.  I think some of it was our cooking method, and perhaps they suffered from being frozen.  I wish we had done something different with them, particularly, I am imagining a risotto with bits of this cut up in it.  Sorta like a very gourmet version of rice-a-roni with hot dogs in it like I used to eat ... now this would be a real San Francisco treat!  But ... unfortunately, I'll never get a chance to try out that idea :(

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Bacon Studded Hot Dog.

Yes, they take a hot dog, and very generously stud it with bacon.  Like the brat, the moment I bite into this thing, juices went squiring absolutely everywhere.  It was so oily.  I wanted to dislike it.  But, alas, it was delicious.  The bacon and insane amount of fat just keep the whole thing so moist and juicy.  Yumtastic.

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I think the chicharrones may be 4505's most famous product.  Described as "irresistible clouds of puffy pork magic, seasoned with only the finest chilis, sugar, and salt".

I laughed when I read the description, but, it was fitting!  Super crispy.  Such intense pork flavor.  So delicious.  You probably shouldn't eat many of these, but a few is quite the treat :)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Chocolates from Garoto

Garoto is one of Brazil's largest chocolate manufactures.  They have a large variety of chocolate, all of which seems about in quality of Hershey.  I haven't really liked any that I've tried.
  • Bonbon Recheado Sabor Gianduia: Tasting notes: Milk chocolate coating, smooth filling, can’t really tell what the taste is.
  • Surreal Amendoim: "Ball bonbon stuffed with creamy peanut butter, wrapped with a layer of wafer biscuit and covered with a layer of milk chocolate."  Tasting notes: Crappy milk chocolate with no flavor, totally lost.  Wafer layer is really nice, crisp wafer.  Most of it is just peanut butter filling that isn’t really creamy nor flavorful.  You don’t get the pb and chocolate awesomeness like a pb cup, but crunch from wafer is awesome :) [ Wafer tastes stale, peanut butter filling has decent flavor, chocolate generic.  Meh. ]
  • Amendium: “Peanut filled bonbon”.  Tasting notes: Like the Surreal Amendoim, but without the biscuit.  Not very good chocolate coating.  Peanut butter is creamy, with little bits of peanut, but not very good.  Meh!
  • Torrone: “Peanut torrone filled bon bon”.  Tasting notes: Milk chocolate coating again generic, filling is just super sweet, I see the little bits of peanut but do not taste them.
  • Opereta: "White chocolate with cashew nut blend".  Tasting notes: Bad white chocolate, no flavor.
  • Mundy: "White bonbon with coconut flavored cream." Tasting notes: Thick white chocolate shell, bad white chocolate.  The inside did have coconut flavor, but it wasn't good.