Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I Heart Soup

Indulging in a spoonful of comfort

I've managed to avoid getting sick this whole winter, which is truly miraculous given my tendency to catch whatever bug goes around at least twice a season. Be it my diligence at washing my hands before meals or the plain fact that I live alone, somehow I've managed to escape illness up until now.

This morning, however, I woke up this morning with a frog in my throat; what felt like the very beginnings of a dreaded cold. I spent most of the afternoon bundled up in the house, and finally made it to the grocery store to get some Zicam (my friend swears by this stuff as a cold buster). I also thought of a recipe from the book I recently read, Comfort Me With Apples by Ruth Reichl. Throughout the book, she uses recipes in the narrative. It's a good device, though one must give a nod to Isabel Allende's Like Water For Chocolate for using recipes in storytelling.

Anyway, the chapter titled "Fall: Mushroom Soup" describes the soup as "the most soothing soup I know, with no sharp edges to jar the palate, no sneaky unexpected spices. It is the perfect prescription for those in need of solace." This sounded perfect to me. I prefer my soothing with a little "unexpectedness" so I added shallots and used the more savory crimini mushrooms over plain button mushrooms. I also whipped out the Microplane for grating whole nutmeg. It's truly amazing, the difference between freshly ground and pre-ground spices.

Soup has always been my go-to food for comfort, and every dinner at home as a kid involved soup of some kind. It wasn't dinner unless there was soup, usually something pretty basic, like an egg drop soup or seaweed and tofu. I didn't start using milk, cream, or half-and-half in hot items until much later, and when I first started cooking with dairy it seemed like such a foreign substance. Asians don't eat a lot of dairy anyhow, but now I readily embrace it (even if my digestive system doesn't, heh).

Something tells me that all this dairy isn't that awesome for my immune system, but it hit the spot, that's for sure.

Mushroom Soup
adapted from Comfort Me With Apples
1/2 pound crimini mushrooms, thinly sliced
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1 large shallot, diced
1/4 medium onion, diced
4 tablespoons flour
1 cup beef or vegetable broth
2 cups half-and-half
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 bay leaf

Melt the butter in a heavy saute pan. When the foam subsides, add the shallot and onion and saute until golden. Add the mushrooms and saute until brown.

Stir in the flour, and then slowly add the broth, stirring constantly.

Heat the half-and-half in a saucepan or in the microwave. Add it to the mushrooms (I used a whisk), along with salt, pepper, nutmeg and bay leaf. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes; do not boil.

Remove the bay leaf and serve. Makes 4 servings.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

New and exciting

I went back to Kenny & Zuke's last Wednesday for the buttermilk fried chicken daily special, and holy schmoly was it something...

Perfectly crispy skin, juicy-as-all meat, served with fresh green beans and mashed potatoes and gravy. That's what I call a meal.

While waiting for the chicken to fry, I had a nice chat with Nick Zukin, aka "Zuke" of Kenny & Zuke's, a long time Portland foodie and fellow blogger. He also pointed me in the direction of a Portland-based food forum that he and some peers created a few years back, now populated by the thousands, called I'm excited to get to know more about Portland through its cuisine, and it makes me feel even more secure in moving here and going to school in Portland.

Speaking of which, a few weeks ago I visited Oregon Culinary Institute again for lunch and a sit down with my admissions advisor. During lunch, which is made by the students of course, I got to chat with the awesome chef and co-creator of OCI, Brian Wilke, who has a big hand in my decision to go to OCI over Western Culinary Institute, Portland's other culinary education "powerhouse". The restaurant is a total steal; $9 for bread, appetizer, salad, entree and dessert. I know they do dinner too, and at something like $15 for a five-course meal, this may be the best deal in Portland.

Straight from the hands of the patisserie students, here are the two desserts that they offered (I couldn't decide so Chef Wilke suggested I try both). I love the piped chocolate and spidery sauce designs on the plates. The desserts were pretty awesome too.

Chocolate awesomeness:

Marbled cheesecake awesomeness:

Monday, February 11, 2008

Will suffer for food

Last night I decided to treat myself to a solo dinner. I grabbed the book I'm currently reading (Ruth Reichl's Comfort Me With Apples), stuffed it into my bag and walked the 20 minutes it takes to get to the Ace Hotel. My plans to sit at the bar at Clyde Common were sidetracked, however, when I got to Kenny and Zuke's. Located at SW 11th and Stark, on the opposite side of the Ace from Clyde Common, I've walked by Kenny and Zuke's many a time with the intention of visiting for lunch, and truth be told I read a recent review of the place in last week's Willamette Week. WWeek had mentioned K&Z's dinner as "Portland's best-kept secret," and being Sunday night at 8:30pm, the traffic was light. The sight of matzo ball soup on the menu pasted on the window was all it took for me to step in the front door from the chill outside.

The waiter walked me to a two-top, and I took the seat with my back to the door. I ordered a glass of tempranillo (I'm kicking myself for not writing down what it was because it was excellent), and after careful deliberation I picked the pot roast sandwich, subbed mashed potatoes for fries and added a bowl of chicken soup with matzo balls to start. While waiting for my soup, I pulled out my book and continued reading Ruth Reichl's account of her affair with... wait for it... Colman Andrews. As in Saveur Magazine's editor-in-chief Colman Andrews. It's a foodie's version of US Weekly, I'm telling ya.

The soup was homey and hearty, with savory bits of onion and veg swimming in the mostly-clear broth. The sandwich was served open-faced and slathered in a tomato-based gravy, with full cloves of garlic and chunks of stewed tomato swimming over a ridiculous stack of thick-sliced, perfectly fatty pot roast. All on house-baked rye bread, might I mention. Ugh. Is there such a thing as too much deliciousness?

I devoured what I could and asked for a to-go box for what remained of my massive plate of pot roast. I was in the mood for something sweet, so I got up to look at the baked goods in the display case. I chatted with the guy behind the counter, who told me "Everything is terrible" with a laugh. He casually pointed out the cheesecake in the fridge behind him, which immediately caught my attention. Cheesecake it was.

Now, I am and have always been somewhat lactose intolerant. By "somewhat" I mean I can usually have a cup of yogurt with no problem, and ice cream is hit-or-miss: sometimes my body rebels, sometimes it doesn't. If I were smart, I'd avoid all dairy, but what fun would that be? My plans last night were to eat half of the huge slice of cheesecake and save the rest for later.

Unfortunately no one warned me exactly how retardedly delicious Kenny and Zuke's cheesecake is, and I gobbled down the entire thing before I realized what I had done. The guy from behind the counter came over to check on me, and while I raved about the cheesecake, further chatting revealed that he was Michael Zusman, a food writer for the Oregonian and that many of the bread recipes at Kenny and Zuke's belong to him. I envy anyone whose paid job it is to write about food, and he kindly offered to take a look at ye humble blog (Hi Michael!).

A little tipsy from the wine, I gathered my things and left, but not before my super-friendly waiter had invited me out with him and the rest of the K&Z's staff to go to Touche for a service industry party. I told him I'd think about it and headed back to my apartment...

Which, upon entering, my lactose-intolerant intestinal tract threw a fit and I spent the next 45 minutes between the bathroom and huddled under the covers in my bed suffering cold sweats. Blasted cheesecake! No Touche for me. Sorry waiter!

The saddest part of this all is I'll never learn: I'm definitely making my way back to Kenny and Zuke's for the cheesecake (and the rest of the menu). Yessir, I am definitely willing to suffer for cheesecake that good.

(Sorry no photos--left the camera at home. Next time!)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Waiting and moving forward

I've just spent way too many hours reading the archives of my new favorite blog, Waiter Rant. The author is a perfectly snarky veteran New York City waiter, in the process of finishing his first book based entirely on his waiting experiences. I have to say his writing hits really close to home for me, and for the past few hours I've been swimming in uncomfortable memories from my table-waiting and hostessing days. It's been quite some time since I though about my very first day waiting tables for the all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch fatties at my aunt's old restaurant in Gastonia, NC, right after which I called my mom and cried for half an hour.

Yet I just can't stop reading. It's masochism, really. I've always maintained that every single person should try their hand at a customer service job, only if for just a day. It'll change your whole view on consumerism, manners and the public in general.

Speaking of which, I've been thinking about getting a part-time job hostessing or waiting tables again, as (big news!) I've secured my place in the spring entry date for the Culinary Arts Diploma at Oregon Culinary Institute. I'm really, ridiculously excited about it because I've been toying with the idea for much too long and I figure that three years from now, I'd be thinking 'Why didn't I go three years ago when it was perfect timing and I had the chance?' There are benefits to having no mortgage, pets, significant other or car payment after all. And besides, despite the drippy weather and overcast skies I'm kind of in love with Portland at the moment. It's nice.

rose at Clyde Common
A glass of Oregon's own Adelsheim Rose at the delicious Clyde Common