Kelly the Culinarian: August 2007

Friday, August 31, 2007

Holiday weekend note

Hey everyone! I hope that you enjoy this Labor Day Weekend. My sister and I will be traveling cross country from Tucson back to Illinois. I will return to blogging on Tuesday. Have a good weekend and stay safe!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

100th post!

Yay! It's my 100th post. I have a few administrative tasks to take care of this evening. First, if you liked my recipe for cinnamon roll gnocci, please go vote for it. It was a part of the Hay Hay Donna Day contest and you can see the round up of entries and vote here.

Another thing to take care of is that I was tagged by David Hall at Book the Cook. You tag four people to reveal five points of interest with four answers. I can't remember who all has been tagged, but I would like to tag the folks at A Couple of Cooks, Crazy Curry and VeggieGirl.

Four jobs I've had:

1. Dishwasher/hostess at an Irish eatery and pub where my parents have a summer home. I rode my bike, worked ridiculous hours and got paid $3 per hour in cash under the table. I was exhausted and lost my appetite.

2. Cashier, JoAnn Fabrics. For three years, I cut fabric, stocked shelves and took people's money. I could only sew for about two of those years.

3. Copy girl for a patent attorney. I interned for a couple of summers for an attorney in an engineering firm. They treated me really well and I can't say anything but nice things about it, but I mostly made copies, scanned things and did general administrative tasks.

4. Reporting intern. I've covered murder trials, a major health care scandal and some cute features that people seemed to like. My specialties have been: night cops, circuit courts, business, medical, science, gender-specific health and next, politics.

Places I've lived:

1. North Carolina -- I was born in a county where you couldn't buy alcohol

2. Round Rock, Texas -- This was before Dell moved to town. Nice place

3. Buffalo, New York -- We were only there for nine months and all I remember was that it was super cold.

4. Dominican Republic -- We lived there for two years and I could write a book about it

Places I've been on holiday:

1. London -- Cool city, expensive food

2. Egypt -- I spent a month studying at the American University in Cairo. It's an amazing place, everyone should go and see it once

3. Slovenia -- What a beautiful city! The people are so friendly and it's a great place for younger people to go out. I hear there are great resorts there too

4. Belize -- I went on a cruise with my family and this was my favorite spot. We saw ruins and had cashew wine

Four of my favorite foods:
1. Chocolate, any form and I'll be there

2. Sushi -- I just discovered sushi recently and can't get enough of it

3. Tomatoes -- salsa, caprese salads, stuffed tomatoes, I'm all about it

4. Breads -- I am so glad this low-carb thing has passed because I'm a carboholic

Four places I would rather be right now:

1. Home! I miss my family, boyfriend and friends

2. Ireland -- I've never been, but I'd like to see the land of my ancestors

3. A chocolate factory -- lock me in alone and I'd consider it a gift!

4. Italy -- Again, I've never been, but I wouldn't mind eating my way through the countryside

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Tasty Tucson Tours: Mt. Lemmon, Part II

After the disappointment of the $7 pie, my crew tried some hiking. It was weird to running streams in the middle of the desert, but the elevation creates an entirely different climate. The trails are fairly well marked, but with the water, a sturdy set of hiking boots would have helped. A steady supple of water is essential. Another important note is to make sure you fill up before leaving town; there are no gas stations near the top.
After a nice little hike, we stopped at the Mt. Lemmon General Store. This is an eclectic shop with souvenirs, groceries and supplies. However, the place is famous for its fudge. It comes it all kind of flavors -- mint, cookies and cream, peanut butter, rocky road, orange cream and who knows what else. The fudge is $10.99 per pound or $2.75 for a quarter pound.

I opted for the quarter pound of cookie dough fudge. It was white in color with chunks of chocolate chip cookie dough chunks scattered throughout. The flavor was rich and creamy with a prominent sugar texture. The cookie dough hunks were sweet and had a distinctly different texture from the fudge itself, so the two elements had to blend together in my mouth. Delicious! The quarter pound serving was more than enough for two servings. Keep in mind that if you pay with a credit card, there's a $.50 charge for purchases more than $5.

It's a good thing the fudge was over the top excellent at Mt. Lemmon because if it wasn't, after the pie incident I would have had to write off Summerhaven completely.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Tasty Tucson Tours: Mt. Lemmon, Part I

Mt. Lemmon is about an hour and a half away from Tucson. It's in the middle of the Coronado National Forest and sits 9,000 feet above sea level. Mt. Lemmon is referred to as a dessert island because it's typically several degrees cooler than Tucson.

At the top, there was a cool, refreshing breeze that accompanied the pine trees and running streams. You can picnic, hike, rock climb and camp, but there's a $5 fee. Summerhaven sits at the top of the mountain and it a big tourist trap. There's a very limited amount of businesses there because a recent fire destroyed everything at the top -- the charred trees are immediately visible.

Beyond the beautiful vistas, the pie is kind of famous. There's a Mt. Lemmon Cafe in Summerhaven that people rave about. We sat down and were immediately taken aback at the prices -- $7 for a piece of pie?! And an extra $2 for a la mode? Seriously?

But we chose our pie anyways, we were already there, after all. And we waited. And we waited. And we waited some more. We watched the wait staff take a smoke break. This place was dirty. This place even smelled like wet dog. I shouldn't have ordered anything after watching this whole dialogue. But I was hungry.

This is what $22 worth of pie looks like. I got the chocolate cream pie, which is in the foreground. The one to the left is black cherry or sour blackberry, we think they swapped them. Then the one on the right is strawberry rhubarb. The fruit pies were tart and tasty, but would have been better with the $2 ice cream scoop. I liked my chocolate pie -- it was really creamy and had the consistency of chocolate pudding with a hint of coffee in the background.

Regardless, not worth $7 a slice and definitely not worth the crappy, dirty service. I guess if you're there, you might as well, but there's fudge that's fantastic, but you'll have to wait until tomorrow to hear about that!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Cooking with Kelly: Breakfast bite

I'm not much of a morning person, hence, I'm not a big breakfast eater. Usually, I have a piece of fruit to go or a bowl of cereal. After dragging myself out of bed, I don't want to sacrifice any time that I could have been sleeping making something to eat.

And then the weekends roll around. Inundated with the gift of time, I like to try different things. I was inspired by this New York Breakfast preparation by Ellie Krieger on her show, Healthy Appetite.

Because I don't like salmon, I went with my own combo. What you see is toasted whole-wheat sour dough break (yum!) topped with light cream cheese, fresh local tomatoes, carrot shreds and sliced cucumbers. It tasted delicious and gave me a little extra something with the crunch of the cucumbers and freshness of the tomatoes. Plus, I don't feel guilty about the carbs from the bread and the fat from the cream cheese since I had some veggies too. Happy weekend eating!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Tasty Tucson Tour: Colorez Arizona launch party

Another day, another free food buffet. Colorez Arizona is Southern Arizona's GBLT news magazine and it began publishing earlier this month. I wrote a story for the paper's first issue and I'm really proud that I contributed to a publication that gives a significant population in Tucson a voice. They have some really talented people working over there, so I was happy to be a part of it.
Last night, the newspaper had it's launch party at Woody's in Tucson. It's a cool gay bar with a lot of atmosphere. There's an outdoor bar with a patio and cute little cabanas. Last night it rained, but it was still a nice night to be out because of the cabanas. The rain also effectively cools down Tucson and unlike Chicago, we don't have a ton of mosquitoes out here, so we can actually enjoy a lovely evening outdoors of watching the lightning.
Anyhow, to celebrate the debut of Colorez, the staff had quite the shin dig. There was music, drink specials and a wonderful buffet. I got a plate of these tequila lime chicken wings, which appears as though they were baked or broiled because the flavor was really infused in the meat, but there wasn't a crunch. There were also these little ham roll ups with polenta, spinach and roasted tomatoes. They were delicious, I could have eaten 10 of them. Also offered was crudite and a fruit dish, sandwiches with ham, turkey and veggies, Swedish meatballs and candy bars, all of which I couldn't picture here.

Colorez knows how to throw a damn good party.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Food find: Tab energy drinks

When energy drinks got big when I was in college, I didn't think much of them. Red Bull was the big drink that was everywhere -- the Red Bull team even came on campus and left a can at every dorm and in the office of my newspaper, The Bradley Scout. I was never a huge fan of the flavor -- it was just too bitter and unfamiliar. Also, Red Bull and vodka may be a popular drink, but I just can't support mixing a depressant like alcohol with a stimulant like Red Bull. Jagerbombs are cool and dandy, but because Red Bull is a bit pricey, it's usually one of those overpriced drinks you only order if someone else is paying or for a celebration.

Red Bull was the beginning of the trend and now dozens of energy drinks exist. Even though this article says these drinks typically contain less caffeine than coffee, I really don't want to drink coffee in the desert heat of Arizona during August.

And sometimes, I need a little kick. I'm trying to savor my last few days in Arizona and I've been putting in some long hours, so I've tried a few. My new favorite is Tab energy drink. It's five calories and tastes like a Jolly Rancher hard candy. So delicious. It doesn't make me "crash" after a few hours like many high-caffeine products and there's no nasty aftertaste.

I'm not particularly thrilled that the company's Web site says they specifically market the product to "women with a sense of style and purpose." I had no idea a $2 drink could say all that. It's a good thing I only judge food by how it tastes.

Food find: Frost Gelato

Back when I studied in Slovenia at the University of Ljubljana, gelato was all the rage. Gelato is an Italian iced dessert that often gets grouped in with ice cream. In fact, gelato has a lower fat content and less air than ice cream, resulting in a creamier, richer flavor.

I haven't had any decent gelato since I left Slovenia, until I was working on a story about Frost Gelato in Tucson. As the story goes, one of the owners spent some time in Italy and wanted to enjoy the decadent and unique flavorings of gelato back home. As a University of Arizona student, he found a business partner and began importing all the necessary equipment. One of the owner's mother is a real estate agent here and found them a prime location in the Casas Adobes Plaza on the far north side. They also filed immigration papers and brought an Italian gelato chef to Tucson to help create the delicacies.

Even though it's out of the way, I had to try some. First of all, I find their flavors are far more original than any ice cream I've found -- strawberry and campaign, blackberry cabernet, bellini, amaretto -- the list goes on. It was a bit overwhelming. The place is also nicely decorated in a contemporary style with lots of stainless steel and blue glass. The employees' uniforms are T-shirts that say "Frost in Tucson?" I thought it was cute.

The presentation of the ice cream itself was impressive and appetizing as well. Instead of tubs of ice cream slapped in a freezer, the gelato looks like it was piped into the cooling pans. They are also garnished the gelato tubs with the fresh fruits, nuts and other decorations as an indicator of good things to come. The gelato is made fresh everyday, according to the company's Web site, so I'd like to know what they do with the leftovers ...

I decided on the tiramisu, but I could have stood there all evening eating samples. It was served with a little cookie and I found it delicious -- creamy, bold flavor of coffee with little bits of chocolate running throughout. The little cup that I got, called the piccolo size, cost $3.66 and was just enough gelato for me.

Really, choosing the flavor was so difficult. I wish they did something like an gelato flight (they have wine, beer and cheese flights, why not?) with like five little spoons of different gelatos. Yum!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Food find: Sweet things

During the weekend, I went to the Hotel Congress in downtown Tucson for an event for Tucson's birthday. The Hotel Congress was built in 1919 as a luxury destination and is still ranked as one of the coolest places to stay as well as party.

Anyhow, I ran across this wonderful cupcake tower by Jenny Kalpinski, owner of Sweet things. It's a Western theme with skulls and a cowboy boot. There were four types of cupcakes, each decorated differently for easy identification. I tried the dark chocolate cupcake with brown sugar icing and it was fabulous. The cupcake itself was fluffy and airy, yet filling. The icing was so rich and the fondant star was yummy. It was delicious and so filling that I couldn't imagine having more than one.

Jenny's Web site has an amazing portfolio with cakes, edible sculptures, cupcakes and a host of other yummy things. She doesn't have a storefront yet, but I'm guessing she's going to blow up the Tucson wedding scene. Her prices are so competitive that I don't know why every bride isn't getting a cupcake tower. Beyond delivery and the rental fees, her menu says basic flavor cupcake with sprinkles start at $12 per dozen with a 2-dozen minimum, going up in price from there depending on how fancy you want your cupcakes.

I just can't stop looking at the tower. I wish I had an occasion to order such a tower, but I think it would look awkward just hanging out on my kitchen table in my apartment.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Tasty Tucson Tour: Presidio and tortilla making

It's only fitting that at the end of my time here it Tucson, I go back to the beginning of Tucson's history. The Presidio San Agustin del Tucson was the original site of Tucson, built around 1775. The original Presidio was an 11-acre fortress that provided protection for the farmers who lived along the Santa Cruz River. Spanish colonist, Native Americans and later, "Yanquis" or Yankee soldiers occupied the land. Little did the original settlers know that they built their fortress over the remains on Native American pithouses dating back to 800 B.C.

The original fortress was lost long ago, but a small section of it has been rebuilt in what is now the downtown area of Tucson. I went over there to take a lesson in tortilla making from Beatriz Jimenez, who learned the art from her mother and has been perfecting her craft since she was 19. When we completed our try and the tortilla, we topped them with homemade prickly pear jam. It was delicious!

Her recipe for flour tortillas is below and the slideshow gives step by step instructions. You can try and make the tortillas by hand or using a rolling pin, although Beatriz scoffed at this method. Remember that the smaller you make the initial dough balls, the smaller your tortillas and therefore, the easier they are to form.

Flour tortillas, recipe courtesy of Beatriz Jimenez
3 1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup shortening or lard (she uses Crisco)
1 teaspoon salt
About 1 cup lukewarm water

Mix flour and salt in large bowl. Rub shortening with fingertips until well blended. Add water gradually, stirring constantly until mixture pulls away from side of bowl and forms a ball. Turn dough onto lightly floured surface, knead until smooth (about two minutes). Divide into 16 equal pieces, shape into small balls and cover with a damp towel.

Prepare as instructed in the slideshow. You can cook these in an ungreased cast-iron skillet.

*** This is my first slideshow, please let me know if it isn't working.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Food find: Sonic Blasts

As previously stated, I love Sonic. Sonic is a drive-in style fast food joint that we don't have in Illinois. The eatery's special is drinks -- they advertise that there are something like 119,000 possible drink combinations and I'd love to try them all. There are really tasty add-ons that you can put in slushes and drinks.

The other day I passing by and I was pretty hungry. And over heated. I noticed that they had Blasts, which are ice cream desserts with chunks of Oreo, Reeses peanut butter cups, M&Ms, or cookie dough. They appeared very similar to McDonald's McFlurries or Dairy Queen's Blizzards, but I thought they were worth a try. You can see my peanut butter Blast here.

The presentation was much better than that of other similar fast food dishes. It was topped with a dollop of whipped cream, pushed through a pastry tip of some kind. It also has little bits of peanut butter cups on top. The consistency of the ice cream itself was airy and lighter than a McFlurry. But my favorite part of it was the chunks of peanut butter cups. They were all different sizes and distributed throughout the ice cream, whereas with a McFlurry, you get a pulverized filling in only parts of the dessert. There were also little chunks of just peanutbutter or just chocolate. The texture and taste was interesting becaue every bite was different.

I'm going to miss Sonic.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Food news: Gadgets to splurge on and proof Americans are cheap

Two more fun food news articles came out in the past 24 hours. The first is that U.S. restaurants are most likely to feature California wines that are less then $39 per bottle. This study conducted by Winemetrics LLC and the article doesn't comment on the voracity of the claims. This is an interesting finding because we know that Americans are drinking more and more wine, with Slate claiming that this is because wine has a better reputation. In 2005, U.S. consumers spent $24.3 billion on wine, $11.8 billion of that in restaurants and bars.

Apparently, the largest amount of wine consumed in eateries cost between $25 to $39 per bottle, which means they would retail for $13 to $19 per bottle. This isn't all that surprising because when I was researching a segment for Chicago Unzipped, retailers and sommeliers alike agreed in interviews that I conducted that it's not necessary to sink $300 into every bottle you own. One trained sommelier that I interviewed at Dolce Restaurant in Lincolnshire, Ill., for a food feature for The Lake County News-Sun told me that his favorite bottle of wine was a cabernet that cost $18. If it's good enough for his highly trained palate, it's certainly a stable start for the rest of us.

Another interesting story that I saw was this one about what items in your kitchen are worth splurging on. For me, there weren't a ton of surprises. After reading Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential (you can read my review here), I knew that knives and cookware is worth the cash. After meeting with Jennifer English at her Flavorbank spice shop, I knew the importance of a quality pepper mill, as well as a salt grinder, which this article didn't mention. But what did surprise me is that this article wants you to spend $30,000 on cabinets. I rent, I don't think so. They also say you should scrimp on your fridge. It's too bad, I really like those double-panel models with the freezer drawer. Oh well.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Tasty Tucson Tour: The TAMMIES

Last night I to the Tucson Area Music Awards, also know as the TAMMIES. In it's 14th year, the TAMMIES are a combination award show and concert of local bands. It's an annual event sponsored by my paper's sister publication, the Tucson Weekly, a highly respected alternative voice in the community. Readers vote for most of the awards, except for the critics' choice and the hall of fame.

But let's not forget the food! The TAMMIES fall right in the middle of the Tucson Birthday celebration, a month-long salute to Tucson's 232nd anniversary. Hence, a free buffet of the most popular local eateries offered up a taste of Tucson before the gig. It was a great way to try out a bunch of Tucson favorites from places like El Charro Café, Cushing Street Bar and Grill, Enoteca, Casablanca Mansion, Sports On Congress and Lindys o4th.

In this photo, you see a selection of pizza from Enoteca, hummus and falafel, a Mexican dish from El Charro and a chocolate mousse in that little cup from Cushing Street Bar. I love free food! It was so nice of the restaurants to participate in this event.
The hummus with falafal and pita was great and I'd eat it again. It wasn't quite as authentic as what I ate when I studied in Egypt, but it was still smooth and salty with a hint of olive oil. The pizza was a bit chewy and didn't pack a lot of flavor for as great as it smelled and looked, but it was still filling and nice to look at.The dish from El Charro, the place credited with inventing the chimichanga, was spicy and smokey and obviously made from scratch. I'll have to actually go to this place, their dish was so tasty. The mousse was very rich, yet still airy, even though the white chocolate portion didn't hold its shape. The flavor was smooth and delicious, but so rich that the little 1.5-ounce cup they offered was more than sufficient. There were also brownies, coffee drinks, buffalo wings and philly cheesesteak sandwiches, but I didn't get pictures of that and was too full to keep eating!

The musicians were a talented and eclectic bunch. The shot you see here is of Ryanhood, an amazing folk rock acoustic duo. I was seriously impressed by these guys because of their stage presence, audience involvement and skill in both instrumentation and lyrics. You'll have to go visit their MySpace page. As one of my coworker said about these guys, "With all respect to them and Tucson, what the hell are they still doing here? Shouldn't they be rich and famous by now?"

Food find: Guava yogurt

Perhaps this isn't earth-shattering, but while I was shopping in the Mexican grocery buying snack cakes the other day and this yogurt flavor caught my eye. I eat a lot of Yoplait because I think the flavor is better than most brands. But I have never seen a Guava-flavored yogurt. Let me know if your market carries this, I'm curious.

Again, this is another trip down memory lane because our housekeeper used to cut up guava for us when we lived in the Dominican Republic. So I decided to give it a try, despite the fact that the "May help aid in healthy digestion" tag creeped me out (exactly how does that work? Doesn't all yogurt have natural, live cultures? What makes this different?).

The texture was nothing out of the ordinary, but the color was. I don't recall guava being the bright orange color that this yogurt was. In fact, if remember correctly, guava was closer to a pinkish color. Plus, the flavor wasn't what I recalled either. It tasted similar to mango, which I am deathly allergic to, so I was quite worried. I checked the ingredients label and kept eating. It was a pungent flavor and taste that was very distinctive, and not necessarily in a good way. It also had a weird, low-fat/sugar-free type after taste that left a little grit in my mouth.

I don't think it aided in any digestion, other than keeping me hungry, but it was different taste. I'm also curious as to why the guava flavor helped digestion but my regular strawberry or key lime pie flavors don't. Oh well, at least it didn't make me sick. I call this a success, but the flavor was so strong and unnatural, I don't think I'd try it again.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Cooking with Kelly: The super sandwich

A few weeks ago, I grabbed a bite to eat at the The Planet Cafe on Fourth Avenue here in town. It's a hipster kind of place with cafe offerings and I got the cheapest thing on the menu because let's not forget, I'm a starving student. One of the cheapest sandwiches was the veggie dee-lux and it came with sliced tomato, romaine, avocado, red onion, cucumber, sunflower sprouts, carrot shreads, cream cheese and vinaigrette served on toasted wheat bread.

It was a phenomenal sandwich, but it was $4.75, so not exactly an everyday lunch. So I decided to make my own at home. I used neufatchel cheese instead of cream cheese. I added slices of avocado, a romaine lettuce leaf, two sliced roma tomatoes, shredded carrots, sliced green pepper and a little bit of paper-thin sliced red onion. I also put it on toasted wheat bread.

It wasn't quite like the cafes version, but it was darn good. Very filling with lots of flavors. You don't even miss the meat. The creaminess of the neufatchel along with the that of the avocado is really quite filling. Also, everything in the sandwich has a nice crunch, except the juicy tomatoes, which just happen to be in season. The whole thing could had used a dash of salt, but otherwise, I kind of impressed myself with my ability to mimic the cafe food.

Not only was this sandwich cheaper to create with plenty of stuff for leftovers, but it was bigger too and far more filling. Also, I know exactly how much of everything went on there and yes, I used half of a small avocao and perhaps a half of a tablespoon of cream cheese substitute. But I also got a ton more veggies than I would have at the cafe.


Monday, August 13, 2007

Food find: Gansito snack cakes

I really love shopping at ethic supermarkets because it brings me back to my childhood when my family lived in the Dominican Republic for two years. It was certainly shocking to see a whole skinned goat or flies crawling all over everything we were about to go home and cook. My dear mother washed everything we ate in a bleach and water combination, but one Easter my mother reached her breaking point. We were going to have ham in order to have some semblance of normalcy, despite having no family near by.

My mom never saw the ham, our housekeeper picked it up. It came in a burlap sack that she empty over the kitchen sink. She had her back to me and I hear the ham "thud" into the sink. My mother didn't move, then reached for the phone to call her mother. Turns out the ham still had skin, hair and hooves. We had pizza that night -- It was a tough two years for my mom.

Anyhow, I wandered into a Mexican grocery store tonight and the selection of produce and goods was fabulous. Even though it was an indoor establishment, they still had a fly problem in produce. A little icky, but oh well.

I got some general groceries on the cheap, but I saw these little guys and I had to give it a try. Another odd memory of my childhood is of this candy seller who hung out just outside the gate of our Carol Morgan School in the DR. Today in America, he'd be shooed away or labeled as a creep. He always had foreign-sounding candy that was much sweeter than anything you could get in the United States.
These were snack cakes called Gansito and it advertised itself as "caked filled with strawberry jelly and cream." I checked the expiration date and jumped in.

And it was delicious. The cake was moist and the cream kept everything together. The chocolate on top was super rich and tasted a bit like coconut. I didn't see or taste any strawberry jelly, but that's OK, it was still yummy and filling. It really took me back to the candy stores of the Dominican Republic and the treats my mother allowed us to indulge in, even if we couldn't find the tastes of home.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Cooking with Kelly: Cinnamon roll gnocchi

I'm trying to branch out in terms of cooking, so I decided to participate in this round of Hay Hay It's Donna Day by cooking an original gnocchi recipe. Instead of going with typical potato dumpling with a sauce, I made a gnocchi that was a cross between potato gnocchi and cinnamon rolls. This is a dessert gnocchi and it smells amazing!

So for the actual gnocchi, use:
3 large potatoes, about a pound each
2 eggs yolks, room temperature
1 and 1/2 to 2 cups flour
Pinch of salt

The fillings is everything you'd find inside your cinnamon roll and you mix it into the gnocchi dough. For that, you need:
1/2 cup melted butter
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

And then there's the glaze. Instead of sauce for this gnocchi, you use the same glaze you'd get for a cinnamon roll.
4 tablespoons butter
2 cups powdered sugar
3 to 6 tablespoons hot water (enough to achieve the right consistency)

Making this dish takes a little practice and it's not a process that is conducive to writing out instructions. Instead, I took pictures along the way and I made this gallery with instructions in the caption. I think it's easier to understand the process with photos. Please feel free to contact me with any questions about this recipe, I love to talk!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Food find: La Salsa

My apologies for no blogging yesterday, another big storm rolled through Tucson last night and took out my Internet. The wild west ...

Today I went over to La Salsa, a Mexican-style fast-food franchise chain with holdings mostly in Southern California. The cafe itself has outdoor seating and high, bar-style tables. The food is made fresh at a bar in full view. There is also a salsa bar with a variety of chip accompaniments from mild salsa to hot habanero sauce and an avocado dip.

What I ordered you see here, which is the steak taco plate. I got two tacos in corn tortillas topped with steak chunks, tomatoes, lettuce and cheese. I also added some mild salsa and sour cream later on. It came with black beans topped with what I think was Parmesan cheese and a side of rice. There were also chips, which are fried on site in plain view, to scoop up some salsa choices. I went with the avocado dip and fresh salsa.

The tacos were great. A little messy, but the steak was tasty and the toppings fresh. The beans were nothing special in terms of taste -- no smokiness or anything else in the beans. The rice was about the same. It almost tasted like instant rice that had been darkened, but nothing was wrong with it, just a little plain.

As for the salsa, I chose wrong. The fresh salsa was too bland. The avocado dip had a runny texture. If the little cups were bigger, I could have mixed some stuff together, but they were 1.5-ounce cups. Ick. I tried to salsa bueno, which was medium, and that was a little better. If I had more time, I'd try more stuff, but that didn't happen today.

I'd definitely come La Salsa to eat again, but I think next time I'll just order a single item, not a platter, because the side dishes weren't so great. It's worth trying, though, because everything is fresh-tasting a semi-healthful.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Food flash: Great American Bake Sale

More than 12.4 million American children will get tucked into bed and try to sleep with an empty tummy tonight. I was approach by a public relations person at this organization to help share a little bit of their message. You've probably seen commercials for the Great American Bake Sale on Food Network featuring my favorite celebrity chef, Rachael Ray. Hey, if Rachael Ray is pushing it, I'm behind it ...

But seriously, this is a great cause. We've all attended or organized a bake sale at some point in our lives to fund everything from a band trip to sewing up the church's deficit. This Share Our Strength-backed event follows the same premise. You get your friends together and whip up some baked goods, then tell everyone you know to come on by and pick up their favorite sweet treats. At the end of the day, you gather up everything you made and donate it to Share
Our Strength, which uses the money to combat childhood hunger.

Volunteers can organize an event in your community any time that's convenient for you. Through this effort, about 1 millions volunteers have raised $3 million since 2003, according to a news release.

Out here in Tucson, I caught up with Melissa Markel, a working grandmother who organized a bake sale June 30 at her church.
"I just happened to find the national bake sale web site and I have grandchildren and I hate to think they would ever go hungry so I thought I would like to help someone else’s grandchildren to have food," Markel said. "Basically I contacted some of the people in my church and also have some family who live here in Tucson and asked them to help."
Markel said she made cookies, cake, doughnuts, baked lemon tart, quiche, cupcakes and muffins, mostly from mixes. She said she planned for about a month and baked for two evenings beforehand.
"I just used cake mixes and stuff like that since I work," Markel said. "I wanted it to be fresh. I had some people bringing things in like cookies warm."
She said the planning was quite simple and she raised about $100. Markel said she would try it again perhaps next spring.
"I’d schedule it when it was a bit cooler outside and try to get more public notice out there, maybe put an ad in the paper," Markel said.
So now that you know a little bit about he organization, I hope you'll choose to host your own bake sale to help feed hungry babies that could be just down your street. In addition to helping out a great cause, it would be a fun way to spend time with your neighbors or a social group. The reason why so many schools and organizations hold bake sale fundraisers is that they're easy, fun and inexpensive. Most newspapers have a community calendar and there's always your church's newsletter, craigslist or your children's PTA groups that can help you with publicity. This is also the kind of feel-good stories that smaller newspapers love. When you're ready to host an event, you can register your bake sale here.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Food find: eegee's subs and shakes

Everyone in Tucson raves about eegee's, a sandwich and shake chain based here in town. Many people have told me I simply must try it. My boss said their shakes, which are a bit like Slurpees, are the best part, but his favorite flavor is black raspberry and they chose not to feature it this August. The eatery has some standard shakes year round like lemon, strawberry and pina colada, then a featured shake each month. This month is tangerine breeze, last month was watermelon.

In fact, the eegeee's across the street from our office had a sign up last month "Now hiring/watermelon." It was a spacial thing our office found hilarious.

My other coworker said they also won an award for their french fries. The sandwiches are apparently nothing famous, but the fries and shakes are what keeps it on the map.

So I ordered a turkey sandwich, grinder style, which meant it came with seasoning and some kind of dressing. I also got the small fry and a strawberry shake. The whole meal cost about $7, which I thought was a bit pricey for what I got.

Let's go item by item: the sandwich was exactly like they told me -- nothing to write home about. In comparison to subway, the bread was a little more bland, but the lettuce on the sandwich was seasoned and tasty. It was topped with a peppercino, which I didn't eat. It was a standard sub sandwich.

Then there was the shake. I don't care what the locals say, I wasn't a big fan. It was like a slushie with chunks of fruit. It was so frozen that I couldn't use a straw on it, but I wouldn't want to eat it with a spoon because it was so sugary. I only finished half of it, very slowly, because it was so sugary.

The fries did live up to expectation. They were crispy, but not overcooked and still golden brown. There was just enough salt and I like this style of fries because they hold more ketchup, too.

Maybe I'll go back and try their "premium" fries, which come in ranch-style, chili cheese or pizza style. Their menu is quite extensive, so I'm sure I can find something else. I'm not sure I'll get the sandwich or shake again.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Cooking with Kelly: Giada's recipe is a miss

During the weekend, I tried this recipe from Giada De Laurentiis. It's whole-wheat pasta, ricotta, grean beans, tomato and lemon. I also added some Rose Peppercorns from Flavorbank. Otherwise, I followed her recipe to a T.

And it was awful. There was barely any flavor except the overwhelming nature of the lemon. Gross. I think I've decided I just don't like ricotta. It was tasteless. I should have foregone the recipe and used feta or cream cheese or something with a little bit of richness. I love pasta, but I expect the sauce to have some flavor, some tang, maybe a little richness. If I wanted to eat baby food, I would have.

Instead, I had a little bit so as not to waste and threw the rest out. Giada, you failed me.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Food news: Coffee is good for ladies, cheap wine is bad for the environment

There's some interesting food news that came out today. First, drinking three cups of coffee per day appears to decrease age-related memory loss. It appears as though it's the caffeine that has this effect, as tea had the same effect, but men didn't enjoy this benefit. There's speculation that the caffeine blocks proteins that cause memory decline, but researchers don't offer up reasoning as to why only women get the memory boost.

But think about what effect all that coffee would have on the rest of you. Because it's a diuretic, you're more likely to get dehydrated and will have to go to the bathroom all the time. Also, it erodes your enamel and presents unnecessary calories. Caffeine can give you the shakes too -- not cool at all.

Another interesting article is about how wine with screw tops or plastic corks could lead to the decline and destruction of cork trees. As long as there's a demand for cork, there will be farmers who tend to these trees. It takes 40 years before a cork tree produces a harvest suitable for wine corks and there are plenty of other, more profitable crops.

I don't really care what stops my wine from pouring out. I personally like synthetic corks simply because I feel like the wine lasts a little longer and it eliminates the possibility that a bad cork could ruin good wine. However, with all the issues we have with global warming and such, do we really need to wipe another plant off the face of the earth?

So remove your stopper of choice and sip your beverages over these media meals.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Kitchen gadget: Silicone bakeware

I've been house sitting this week for a friend, which gives me the opportunity to cook and bake to my heart's delight. Joanna has many a fun kitchen toy, but the most interesting to me was her silicone bakeware. I've seen the late-night infomercials for this stuff, but I am leery of stuff that they have to take a half an hour to sell me on. Plus, I couldn't imagine how anything that flimsy could make a hearty dish.

But I gave it a try anyhow. She has a silicone potholder and a silicone baking mat. The mat was really interesting. I used it to mix dough on and it didn't stick at all. I also used it when I made cookies and warmed up pizza in the oven. The melting cheese didn't stick and burn as it usually does and the cookies didn't burn around the edges at all. They easily peeled away from the sheet, unlike when I use parchment paper or aluminum foil.

Then there's the potholder. It's shaped like a mitten and made out of super thick material, so it's a little hard to handle. But it's completely effective. I was able to lift the lift on a metal pot that had water boiling in it for 30 minutes with ease. Then, I used the potholder to grasp a baked potato just out of the oven and was able to hold it long enough to peel the potato.

On top of everything, the bakeware washed up well too. With just a little soap and water, melted cheese and chocolate or whatever can off easily enough without staining.

I'm not a big fan of infomercials or the products they pitch with nauseating enthusiasm, but this product it worth looking into.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Cooking with Kelly: Spice-rubbed turkey

Earlier this week, I wrote of the glories of visiting Flavorbank's Tucson store. The owner of the establishment, Jennifer English, was kind enough to give me a sampling of spices to try. The spices start at $5, but the tubes are generously sized and you will find uses for them. I never claim to be an awesome cook, but these spices certainly make it appear as though I am.

My visit to Flavorbank really was a turning point. What I've learned is that you don't have to change the way you cook at all. I've made a turkey breast before. I've made green beans and mashed potatoes hundreds of times and probably will a thousand times more. But with just the simple addition of spices, I was able to bring these dishes up to a gourmet level. I didn't even do anything special with presentation, but I think it turned out looking mighty tasty.
The spice-rubbed turkey turned out moist and flavorful throughout, even though it wasn't marinated. The habanero wasn't hot, but instead a complex bouquet of flavors that had both sweet and tangy notes. The salt and pepper used on the potatoes and green beans add smokey depth to the all-American dishes.
If you wander on over to my photo gallery, I posted photos with captions that walk you step-by-step through this little meal. It took me about an hour; turkey takes a little while cook with the bone and skin. But, it wasn't very labor-intensive and could easily be made on a weeknight.
If there's anything I've learned from spices, it's that everyone has the time to cook like a chef -- just use the right tools and ingredients and it will come to you almost effortlessly.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Cooking with Kelly: Icing help!

I'm still on the comfort food kick. I made cupcakes for my coworkers this week to say thanks for putting up with my hyper-emotional state this week. Something about two car accidents and getting yelled at by a jackass of a vice president of communication really got to me.

So I made these lemon cupcakes from a mix and tried to top them with piped cream cheese icing. I used a size 18 star tip. First, I think the tip was too small. Second, I think the icing had a poor consistency. It was just too soft to hold a shape. Maybe if I put the icing in the fridge first, it would have held up better, but in this case, the icing was so soft that it just ran off the cupcakes.

Does anyone have tips as to how to make my cupcakes look cute? I want to make little icing swirls on top.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Food find: Baby Ben and Jerry's

I was in dire need of some comfort food today. My bad weekend translated into a worse week. On Tuesday, I got in another traffic accident during the monsoon rain. Again, no one was hurt, but my car didn't fair as well this time. You can see a photo here.

During the same time as my accident, many transformers and utility poles were damaged throughout the city because the storm was quite intense. The local power company is struggling to repair the damages and are asking us to use electricity judiciously this week as they work through it, but there's no real crisis at the moment. My boss wanted me to get a story for it that wouldn't be done and over with when we come out Monday, because the repairs are not supposed to last that long. This is the time when everyone and their uncle is running fans and AC, so a huge usage time and hence, a profitable time for the company. He wanted me to find out what the financial impact to the company would be because of this incident.

So I called the company's PR person. He was kind of curt on the phone and called my boss because he didn't want me to make the company look bad (his words, not mine). I called him again today and he flew off the handle. He told me he wanted nothing to do with the story. He added that if something detrimental about the company was printed in the paper, he'd call my boss about it again and make sure I was reprimanded. He said asking questions like that during a time of crisis was irresponsible and I was a "stupid, sophomoric amateur."

Jeez. I'm not sorry, I was just doing my job. Silly me, thinking he was going to do his job as the vice president of communications. I cried, which is the only part of this story I'm embarrassed about because he was the one acting unprofessional.

Anyhow, after feeling quite defeated by the PR guy and having my car looking like I've been through a demolition derby, I needed some comfort. I found these little gems in the grocery story and they did the trick. They're single servings of Ben and Jerry's ice cream, maybe about a cup total, and even have a little spoon in the lid. They didn't have my favorite flavor, chocolate therapy, but the fudge brownie served the same purpose. Don't worry, I only ate one, at 220 calories a pop. Who knows when I might have another bad day. I've been seeming to have a lot of them lately.

I'm still upset and I hope I never have to speak to this gentleman again, but at least my stomach is full of something yummy.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Media meal: "The Making of a Chef" by Michael Ruhlman

In my leisurely summer (something like that) I've been getting to some long-awaited reading. After Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential," I had to read Michael Ruhlman's "The Making of a Chef."

The first couple of chapters were hard to get through. Where Bourdain was to the point and very nonchalant about his food, Ruhlman's account of his time at the Culinary Institute of America was filled with flowery language and unapproachable food terms that need explanation (I looked up several terms. I am not an educated foodie, just an enthusiast).

Ruhlman is a journalist by trade who entered the CIA as such in order to document what it's like to go through the program. While he took many of the classes, he simply observed others. At one point in his skills class, the initial indoctrination into the CIA, Ruhlman decides he transformed into a cook when he trekked out in a New York blizzard to be at his course's final exam, despite the 25-mile drive.

But there is more practical information to be gleaned out of Ruhlman's book. For example, there are four dimensions to a good palate: acid, sweet, sour and bitter. Knowing how to play with these elements and how they interact is key to developing your palate. There are also great tips and recipe ideas scattered throughout, such as this vegetarian quesadilla pizza: flour tortilla smeared with goat cheese, roasted garlic, rosemary and black olives, then topped with roasted red, yellow and poblano peppers, cheese and a sundried- and roasted-tomato sauce. Sounds good to me, I'd order it.

There's also presentation tips that Ruhlman writes about when he was working in the CIA's restaurants, like piping hot mashed potatoes on a plate or arranging steak fries like Lincoln logs. He notes that they arrange items on a plate based on numbers on the clock according to the china pattern. Customer service is king here and what the diner wants, they get.

Another fascinating point is the descriptions of the professors he encountered along the way. The portrait Ruhlman paints of CIA President Metz is rich in detail, taking into account his dress, demeanor, background and the general sense of respect people have for him. Most professors are analyzed in detail so that readers get the sense that the CIA is really presenting the best of the best, through their professors, execution of the food and flow of coursework.

The only thing that I found irksome was the self-congratulatory tone Ruhlman took at parts of the book when he discusses his own performance on exams and practicals. He notes his own progress and the compliments peers gave him. I assume his did this to try and build up his own credibility on the subject, but I think that would have been best addressed by talking about his background in food rather than his successes in an insulated school.

I still don't know if I can tell you exactly what makes a chef or why the CIA is the foremost cooking school in America, other than the fact that they're meticulous and teach every facet of cuisine, even the out dated ones. It would appear that the basic training each student receives in skills give them a base, while their externships in which they work in real kitchens polish them off.

It opens the door to the question of is the CIA really necessary to be a great chef. Maybe, maybe not. The same has been said about journalism schools, but that's another debate for another day.