Thursday, July 30, 2015

Interlude: Avec, Chicago

A few weeks ago, I was in Chicago for a week-long work trip. My head was so far immersed in Linguistics! the whole time that I barely pulled out the big hunk of a camera I insist on lugging around with me whenever I travel (hey, it's good exercise?), despite how beautifully green and vibrant and wonderful Chicago is during this time of year. Hydrangeas everyone! Flowers abloom! The riverside teeming with picnic blankets! The cityscape shimmering in a post-thunderstorm glisten! Intricate American gothic architecture! Fireflies at dusk!

I was so distracted that here are the only photos I managed to get at the Art Institute (which, by the way, was wonderful, and felt like I had stepped into Musée d'Orsay's sibling museum. 

On one occasion, I did manage to get my head screwed on straight enough to get my camera out, and boy, am I glad that I did. A good linguist friend of mine, who happens to also be an expert foodie, took a a few of my colleagues and me to Avec near downtown Chicago. Tucked away in a small storefront that is reminiscent of a hipsterised, wood-paneled version of a shipping container, the tapa-s style French/Mediterranean fusion was so, so good. I have major respect for restaurants that can put together flavor combinations that surprise, and there were definitely several fun moments for the tastebuds throughout the evening.

Above: bacon-wrapped dates and a watermelon-jalapeno-cheese salad.

Below was one of our favorite salads, with season-peak stone fruit and fava beans and this uber-creamy, light, fluff of cheese. We also had this sort of fantastical roasted cauliflower dish, where the top of the cauliflower was encrusted with whole mustardseeds and baked until black, The whole thing was sauced in this sweet honey glaze and layered upon a foundation of something like yogurt or cheese (I can't remember the details). This is a dish I'm soooo going to attempt to replicate at home. I'm thinking Thanksgiving.

To fill out the meal with a substantial "main", we decided on the freshly-made, nice and sardine-y squid ink pasta, coasted with panko crumbs. The sardine-lover in me adored the fishiness, though it proved too much for some others in our party. But hey, more pasta for me! :D We finished up the evening with a cheeseplate, of which I was most excited by the mounds of bright pink, translucent quince paste. Ah, sign this girl up for good quince paste any day.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Postcards from Paris: Let them eat cake, Part I.

Happy belated Bastille Day! I meant to take advantage of Bastille Day celebrations to finally post about all of the food moments that I had in Paris in April, but of course work and travel got in the way, so here it is, a week late. (Also, the soundtrack for this post.) But I hope that's okay, because oh there are so many good food moments to share, ranging from the planned to the surprising to the serendipitous. I've gone back and forth on how to order this post--savouries versus sweets, neighborhoods versus cuisines--but in the end, I decided to tell my story chronologically, because the stories, the context--that's what makes the food truly memorable, for me. So here's Part I of my Paris food adventures. Part II to come, because there's just too much for one post!

In Paris, I based myself in Upper Marais, on the recommendation of a friend. I swear I picked this AirBnB on the sole criterion that it had beautiful plant life. Green!

After I checked into my place, I met up with a colleague of mine who was attending the same conference, and we went wandering around Paris, getting our bearings. For dinner, we went with a recommendation from another colleague of ours who works in the city: Szechuan hot pot at 蜀九香 Fondue 168. I have to say that I'm pretty excited that this place doesn't even really have a Western name. I know it's a bit unconventional to go to Asian food in Europe, but some of the best food that I had on my Paris trip was Asian-influenced (see below, too!). The hot pot came with so many dippables, from veggies and tofu and mushrooms galore to more unusual meats that I'd never had, like a shrimp/fish cake with an egg inside. Then, we hit up the Experimental Cocktail Club down the street, where I had a cocktail that was garnished with a whole radish at the bottom, which cleverly soaked up a hint of the drink! Talk about experimental!

Of course, when in Paris, one has to get serious about the pastries. Because Paris. Because cake! Luckly, several of the patisseries that I wanted to visit/that were recommended to me were in a similar area, so I got to hit several in efficient fashion. My very first stop (pictured in first photo above) was a pilgrimage to Pierre Hermé, naturally. Like, one of the greatest patisseries. Ah, be still, my heart! Behind the modern, streamlined case were rows and rows of impeccable and beautifully made desserts, in flavor combinations that my puny brain (however creative I pride myself to be) has yet to fathom.

Then it was off to a Japanese-French fusion patisserie, Sadaharu Aoki, that a good friend of mine recommended highly before I left on my trip. It's sort of an out-of-the-way bakery that isn't on a lot of the "top bakery" lists, but in my book, it's one of the most creative places I've seen. I snagged a small layer cake for myself, which had layers of black sesame cake, matcha cake, and vanilla-cognac mousse, and also picked up some gifts for others, in interesting Asian-fusion flavor combinations. All of the matcha things here that I tasted were amazing.

Armed with my various pastries, I headed off to the nearby Jardin de Luxembourg to find a sunny bench on which to dig into my stash. It was really funny, on a Sunday morning, to see so many people out and about, playing ball, jogging around the fields, or practicing taichi--all while my own, personal form of Sunday morning "exercise" was enjoying the hell out of a magnificent piece of cake. Only in Paris.

After pastries, it was time to seek out bread, at Eric Kayser, of course. Ah man, I swear I don't think I'll ever be able to have a baguette anywhere else again. These baguettes have ruined me forever! Accompanied by cheese from a local fromagerie and tapenade from a deli in the Jewish Quarter, this bread constitued many breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and dinners for me while I was in Paris. Because with bread and accoutrements this good, who needs to go out for restaurant food?!

Okay, Part II of Paris food adventures coming soon!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Blackberry, Peach, and Corn Cobbler, and 24 hours in Sacramento

This past weekend, I took some time off to head north to Sacramento and visit foodwriter Garrett McCord of Vanilla Garlic and Melt fame. Garrett's been trying to get me to visit, and finally thanks to the flexibility of summertime, our schedules synced up. I've also been meaning to check out Sacramento for some time now, since recently its food and arts scene has sort of been exploding. Of course, it's always been the California state capital and home of some awesome Gold Rush era sights that I visited on school field trips as a little kid, but other than that, in the past while I was growing up in the Bay Area, Sacramento as a town was never particularly a destination (especially to us snottier SF Bay folks). But all that has been changing recently, and after hearing so much buzz about the town, I was really excited to be able to see it for myself. And Garrett, who knows the food/arts scene there really well, was the perfect guide. I was only in Sac for about 24 hours, but I already can't wait to go back again.

I kicked off the weekend by doing some cafe writing at Chocolate Fish Coffee Roasters (waiting for Garrett to get off of work) so that I could try the new "nitro coffee" craze. Nitro coffee is cold coffee served out of a tap, and it has this ultra clean taste with tiny bubbles. It's not at all bitter and doesn't have any of that deep roastedness that regular coffee has, and it was an interesting experience to drink coffee that texturally felt like beer. Then, Garrett took Sabrina of The Tomato Tart and me to this amazing Thai restaurant called Thai Basil for dinner (pictured below). It takes a lot to impress me with good Thai food because there's so much of it where I live, but Thai Basil did not disappoint at all. There's this amazing seasonal menu that had dishes I've never seen before at a Thai restaurant, like this nam prik ong dipping platter, of ultra fresh veggies and rice crackers, with a meaty, tomato, chili-y sauce. So. Good. We rounded off the night at B Street Theatre, watching the current production of The Explorers' Club, which has this awesome mix of high society British colonialization comedy and unexpected slapstick. We sat in the dark, popping Andy's Candy chocolate-covered salted caramels in our mouths between laughing, and all in all having pretty rollicking good time.

The next day, I spent quite some time hanging out with Garrett's adorable menagerie of pets. I travel too much to have animals of my own, so I try to spoil my friends' pets with all the love and affection (and camera stalking) that I can whenever I get the chance. ♥

Then, we headed to the farmers' market to pick up some ingredients for a potluck that we were attending that afternoon. Garrett and I waffled back and forth about what we wanted to make...a salad? a dessert? It had to be something that would be delicious and simple but stand up well in the heat outside. And it also had to be something that struck the right balance between light and heavy, since no one would be wanting to eat a triple-layered cake in 100 degree weather under the afternoon sun on a dusty, drought-parched hillside. Finally, inspired by what looked best that day at the market, we settled on a blackberry, peach, & corn cobbler.

Garrett has a beautiful section of thyme in his garden, and so I chose some silver thyme, which has bright lemony overtones to throw in with the sweet yellow peaches and inky, midnight-black berries. For the biscuit topping on the cobbler, we added plump kernels of fresh yellow corn for a natural sweetness and gritty cornmeal for extra texture, and used sour cream instead of butter for a lighter tang to the biscuits. The overall cobbler was not very sweet at all, and allowed all of the market-fresh summer flavors to shine through in their unadulturated glory.

(Also, may I say that I am now sooo lusting after Garrett's beautiful Le Creuset oval baker that we used.)

The cobbler was a hit at the potluck. Someone else brought orange blossom meringue cookies, and we discovered that in breaking up some of the sugary sweet, floral meringue cookies and mixing them in with our rustic, fruity, earthy cobbler upon serving, together they made an even better dessert. It was like the best of potluck kismet.

Thanks once again to Garrett for the wonderful (and naturally, delicious) Sacramento weekend!

Read on for recipe...
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