Love in the Time of Coriander

Thoughts on food & more.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Making Time to Eat & Write

Dropping off the blogsphere is inevitable when one's job keeps her in front of clients and not computers. It's refreshing to be not so wed to the fluorescent glow of the computer screen, but it also means I lose touch with the world outside my tiny radius.

Starting school again is invigorating, but stressful in its many ways. Food making drops to the bottom of the list of things to do, and if I make time at all, my repertoire is reduced to large batches of things that can be consumed over a period of time. Like soup. I've become expert at tossing the contents of my fridge into a pot. Call it the "kitchen sink" approach to cooking. The good news is that the produce at Monterrey Market has been abundant and many of the veggies have been making it into my stomach. This is a feat, given that suddenly being transformed into a student usually results in poor food choices.

Amidst my frustration at the lack of food experimentation in my daily routine, I did manage to make an incredible pizza last week, using the remnants of fresh arugula, a small amount of a smoky blue cheese who abandoned its label in another part of the fridge, sliced fresh figs, and carmelized onions. Oooh, harmony!

I've also, as one might imagine, continued the tasting that one can do but not so generously on a student's budget. A recent trip to Universal Cafe with Sami and Hansa was a fun night out, but I'm not sure it's risen to the top of my favorites list. Another Pad Thai adventure in Cal's infamous Food Court on Durant Ave, which I will certainly include in an upcoming blog. And, yesterday, my first taste of the delights that Cesar has to offer. Let me just say, from the glass of moscato and the crisp bocadillo slathered with fresh aioli and filled with grilled eggplant, bacon, and lettuce, it's worthy of its reputation.

I've also paired with a friend, Therine, who is a fellow foodie. Together, we have other adventures planned for the upcoming months, including attending one of the Frugal Foodie events, organized by a Berkeley resident who opens his/her home to strangers who wish to come together to cook healthy veggie food. We're also on a french food-tasting trip, and hope to start with Clementine or Le Charm's (also frugal) prix fixe menus. But if you've got suggestions of places to try, please send them along.

Oh, and one of the most exciting pieces of news of all, I've been given a copy of Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking. I'm excited to start a self-education course in the things I've been ingesting since childhood . . .

Monday, September 05, 2005

I see . . . you see . . . Pad Se Ew!

Anne returned from her summer trip of canoeing in the border waters between Minnesota and Canada. She arrived leech-free, a little under-weight and ready to cash in on a promised birthday dinner.

I tried my hand at a few recipes in the September issue of Food and Wine ("Everybody Loves Asian!"). The recipes by Charles Pham of Slanted Door are written and edited well. The ground peanut sauce that pairs with the spring rolls turns out excellently. It's a really nice balance between sweet, salty and spicy. The only mildy disappointing thing was the Pad Se Ew recipe by a woman who runs a restaurant in Sacramento. Ever since the kiosk in Portland, I've been craving this dish. The sauce on this recipe just didn't materialize into anything that tasted like the real deal. Nor did it really embody a uniquely delicious flavor. Unfortunately, it was personality-less.

I wasn't aware that my next gratifying Pad Se Ew experience (to replicate the moment of love my tastebuds experienced in Portland) would happen so quickly after trying my hand at home. Pireeni, Neela and I met for a dinner-meeting at the new Thai House at 19th & Castro. The space used to be a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant with hardly any clientele save a few stragglers. But since I've left the city (my year anniversary just passed), it's gone through restaurant rehab and has emerged as kick-ass neighborhood Thai.

We ordered Chicken Pad Se Ew, Basil Eggplant and Green Curry with Tofu. Everything arrived in square white dishes in clean, modern style. Perhaps the decor leans a little too much in the direction of a college hub for the otherwise-hip Castro, with easy-to-mop white tiles and simple, plastic furniture. But the food was as good as Osha, my most recent Thai love in the City. An precise indication of the tastiness factor was that each of us kept sopping up whatever was left on the table, despite the fact that we were bursting out of our pants. And the prices? On the cheap. We emerged with a total check for about $25, $10 each with tax and tip. Not bad at all.

The noodles were a hit among the three of us. They had great consistency with a stellar sauce. Not too greasy nor too sweet, as Thai sauces sometimes are. The cooks also had a gentle hand with the spice factor, easing the foreign tongue into the merits of just the right amount of burn. Here's where I'm a bit dogmatic. I believe strongly that if one makes a commitment to trying a dish, it's not fair to try to amend it until all you're left with is a distilled version of what it might be. In the same way that I wouldn't ever call over a waiter to ask him to bring me a Tzaziki with no garlic (something my dad actually once did!), it makes me cringe to watch eaters "dumb" down Thai dishes by asking for spicy things to be made mild. I was glad to see that the Thai House shares my philosophy, too. Though Pad Se Ew is typically served mild, it came to our table in much hotter (and sexier) garb than usual. I wondered if this was the way it was really, by the Thai food police, supposed to be dished up.

As for the Pad Thai project, I've only abandoned it temporarily and will soon be restarting it. Don't worry. I haven't forgotten. In the meantime, I've been unfaithfully pursuing Pad Se Ew. But it's been worth it. I've been discovering the merits of "the other Thai noodle dish."

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Accent Aigu

A month ago, E went camping with his two "wild men" buddies. They take days worth of food and hike tens of miles into the mountains to set up camp. Though I'm finally coming around to the idea of car camping and hiking in the state parks, I'm nowhere near wanting to spend the night miles away from civilization on my own volition.

Similarly, E doesn't like the decadence of fine dining experiences. We have an ongoing fight that involves "you don't ever want to go camping with me" versus "you never take me out to restaurants." Thus, it was fitting that I decided to use the weekend to treat myself to some yummy meals.

The first night I took myself out to O Chame (accent aigu over the e), where I sat at the bar and made a dinner out of appetizers.

Grilled Eel with Belgium Endive
Blanched Spinach with Sesame Dressing
Tofu Dumplings with Hijiki Seaweed

I remember a kooky (and famous) poetry teacher I had at Iowa, who commented on how complicated it was to read nouvelle cuisine menus. Instead of the way old dishes had been named for their wholeness, to her they had become a postmodern sum of their parts. Pizza Margherita was all of a sudden "a flatbread, topped with extra virgin olive oil, tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and herbs."

In modern cuisine, it seems difficult to become something whole again when the entire movement of food has been to return to the consideration of how carefully chosen the parts are. Spaghetti with red sauce can be good or it can be bad. It all depends on whether the spaghetti is homemade or a delicious import (or from Market Hall!). And of course, "red sauce" could be anything from jarred Prego to an organic tomato concoction with fresh oregano. Besides, menus that list their ingredients make me salivate. And they force me to learn about the ways that food combinations are made. We are now activate participants in our food experiences.

But, back to O Chame! In case you hadn't noticed, the food is Japanese inspired. Actually, that might suggest that the food is "fusion." I suppose there are certain items on the menu, such as the steak, which nods to the fusion end, but the rest of the food, I'd say, is delightfully California Japanese. The eel married so wonderfully with the fresh, lightly dressed endive. The spinach was refreshingly simple and its sesame flavor paid its respects to one of my sushi-joint favorites, the seaweed salad. The tofu dumplings, however, were not what I expected. I imagined them to be more like Chinese dumpling that come encased in a gyoza wrapper. Instead, they were just firm slices of homemade tofu in a clear broth. Very subtle but nice.

I debated on dessert but the dinner was so light that I went ahead with a sherry custard. This is not, mind you, for the non-alcohol types. The flavor of the sherry, which was rich and spicy, infused the entire custard. As if that weren't enough, more sherry had been drizzled atop the dessert for good measure (alcoholic breath). The texture of the custard was so soft and slippery. It was like biting into a little bit of a cloud. Well, a cloud with a shot of sherry on top.


The next day, I had another one of my wandering East Bay Saturdays, stopping by the downtown Berkeley farmer's market to pick up a bundle of peaches and heirlooms. On my way back home, I also swung by the Cheese Board for a slice of pizza, but the pizza operation was on vacation for the week. I grabbed a Provolone and Olive Loaf and headed out. On NPR, I caught the tail end of This American Life. The story was about a young boy whose mother was struggling to help him keep the memory of his father, before he fell ill, alive. I thought of my own struggle to replace the man who tossed and turned in the hospital bed with the one who smiled (with the straightest teeth on earth) and cupped my cheeks every time I came home to visit. My father, whom I still miss dearly.


How we ended up having a multi-course dinner at A Cote (accent aigu over the e as well as a few more accents, too) is beyond me. I think I was blessed with not having eaten a terribly large amount of food earlier in the day, and both Sami and Elise were amenable to changing our plans from a movie to dinner and conversation.

It was Sami who suggested the restaurant, having touted it as "the best thing ever." Her friend, Jeff, is also the General Manager there. We weren't sure he'd be working that night and were prepared to be disappointed when we asked the hostess about him. Instead, we were so pleasantly surprised and truly blessed to have him around. From the start, he was incredibly gracious to us. Just as the hostess had laid them on the table, he snatched the menus away from us and said--if we trusted him--he'd do the ordering. We let go of control and conceded to the full food experience.

First, a selection of house cured olives. Then, a simple and delightful caprese salad. Then, fried squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta and pesto. (These were incredible!) Prawns and baby artichokes with a saffron aioli. Gazpacho with a small dollop of crab on top.

In the middle, more substantially, there came the meats. Grilled halibut on a crispy, fried fig leaf. Tender, roast chicken with garlic mashed potatoes and carrots. A flatbread with fig and pancetta, which is one of my favorite flavor combinations that I had hoped it might replenish itself endlessly (and miraculously).

A cheese plate -- and by this time I am such bliss from the wines that Jeff has been bringing us to try that I am too stupid to do anything (like take a photo or write down the names of the cheese) that might actually be edifying for me as a food-learning experience. Perhaps what I am learning is simply how to succumb to a multi-course meal. I do remember, however, that I loved the cheeses, that the roasted nuts that accompanied them were paired marvelously, and that we might have even gotten a treat of apples along with it. Is any of this true anymore? I wonder . . .

Then, the finale. A dessert port with Coupe a Acote, described on their website as "Triple Bittersweet Chocolate Ice Cream, Hot Fudge, Caramel Chantilly and Pecan Praline with Caramel Brownies." Let's face it, it's just a grown-up version of a Sunday with EVERYTHING GOOD on top! Admittedly, it's in a galaxy beyond the Baskin Robbins or, even, Cold Stone variety . . . but it calls on the kid in each of us who still wishes for brownies, ice cream, and hot fudge (albeit, a stellar version of them) in the same dessert. You can imagine that by this time, I had a grin on my face from Tokyo to New York.

And just when we thought we were done, that there was nothing more, that the meal had finally ceased, a simple and elegant shot of Calvados. A perfect finale to an incredible meal. I kept thinking how lucky I was to be alive, to be surrounded by people I admire deeply, and to be fortunate to be welcomed so hospitably with gastronomic splendor. I was born in the right time period, in the right place, to the right people. Our chances of having been treated thusly (like royalty) have only become more abundant. The lucky stars above.