Monday, February 20, 2012

The Big Easy, Mint Juleps & Hurricanes

With Mardi Gras starting tomorrow, I am reliving my Christmas vacation with my favorite people in New Orleans this past year.  Usually around the holidays, we find ourselves hankering for a beach vacation laying under the sun and getting away from the cold of the Northeast.  Unfortunately, it seems that most of the US had the same thoughts.  So our plans for a siesta in Mexico was panned for this year and we turned our sights on cities that were less coveted around this time of the year.

A few places were thrown around, but we all agreed wholeheartedly on New Orleans.  It was somewhat warm (so we thought) and lots of nightlife and great food. For most of us, it had been our first trip to New Orleans so we had no idea what to expect. We discovered it was the land of food porn. Yes, that's right. You heard porn!  From charbroiled oysters to po' boys to gumbo and $0.25 martinis at the stately Commander's Palace....the Big Easy is a great city to head to if you love food.  We definitely came away from our trip about 10 lbs heavier, but man did we enjoy ourselves!

The slower pace of life took a bit of getting used to coming from the Northeast.  There is a reason why it is nicknamed the Big Easy after all.  Once we did though we were really able to enjoy ourselves and see the tidbits of what makes New Orleans and its inhabitants so special. A combination of genteel Cajun French charm, voodoo superstitions, ghostly traditions and a joie de vivre that trickled down to every aspect of their lives from music, arts, architecture into their cuisine, New Orlean-eans embrace their colorful history. Creole cuisine is literally an amalgamation of everything good that Cajuns took from the various influences that touched their part of the world. 
My liquor of choice these past few months is anything bourbon based. With the resurgence of old school and innovative cocktails popping up at various bars in New York like Employees Only, PDT or Death & Co it has been really easy to find some really fantastic drinks using it and, my other new-found love, bitters.  To me, bourbon is featured best in the mint julep.  This old fashioned drink is nothing more than muddled mint, sugar and simple syrup served with good bourbon in a chilled glass of crushed ice topped with a sprig of fresh mint. While traditionally, a mint julep is associated with Kentucky and the Kentucky Derby, the origins are actually unknown; though it definitely surfaced in the South during the 18th century. 

Bar Tonique
My first (and last!) hurricane.
You will see mint juleps abound in various bars and restaurants in New Orleans.  Though some say Pat O'Brien's (home of the original hurricane) has the best in town, I found myself sipping an amazing glass at Bar Tonique on a quiet residential street close to the edge of the French Quarters. 

A few blocks away from Bourbon Street, it is a haven away from the general rowdy tackiness of Bourbon Street.  While we did enjoy ourselves a few (bad!) hurricanes on Bourbon Street and found ourselves in a "club" dancing and drinking at 6pm, sometimes you just need a nice place to park ourselves and just enjoy a well-made cocktail. With pages of finely honed cocktails, Bar Tonique definitely offers that to their discerning customers. 

In the summer, there is nothing better than a glass of strong mint julep to while away a lazy, muggy afternoon hiding away in your air-conditioned home.  Though it is definitely winter here in NYC, I found myself this weekend with a craving for some mint julep to bring back those hedonistic memories of New Orleans. The smoky honey flavor from the bourbon mixed in with the refreshing mint juices makes for one of the most perfect drinks. There is a certain Southern charm in drinking a mint julep the proper way, straight from a silver pewter cup.  Unfortunately, after checking my neighborhood Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma and failing to find what I wanted, a friendly employee guided me towards a tall tumbler in replacement. 
While there was no silver cup, my mint julep was the perfect way to end the weekend and console myself with working on President's Day. In the words of one smart Cajun Frenchman, "Laissez les bon temps rouler!" ("Let the good times roll!")

Makes 1

1/2 tsp granulated sugar
1/2 oz simple syrup *
12 fresh mint leaves
2 oz bourbon
Crushed ice

1. In a tall tumbler, add sugar, simple syrup and mint leaves.  Using a muddler or the end of a wooden spoon, muddle everything until natural juices are released.
2.  Add ice and bourbon. Top with a sprig of mint and serve immediately. Using a swizzle stick, gently mix it together. 

See below for my photo montage of all things good in New Orleans and a mini-index of some of the places we found ourselves in a few short days.

Turtle Soup and $0.25 martinis at the legendary Commander's Palace.
Scenes from the French Quarters and Bourbon Street. 
Cracklin' duck confit at Cochon.
Pan fried rabbit at K Paul's. 

Fluffy beignets at the legendary Café du Monde.

Amazing charbroiled Louisiana shrimp at August
Cruisin' down the Bayou.
One of the unusual, new solar homes being built in the Ninth Ward post-Katrina.

301 Tchoupitoulas Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 299-9777

Café du Monde 
800 Decatur Street,
New Orleans, LA 70116
(504) 525-4544

930 Tchoupitoulas Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 588-2123

Commander's Palace
1403 Washington Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 899-8221

Felix's Restaurant & Oyster Bar 
739 Iberville Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 522-4440

K Paul's Louisiana Kitchen
416 Chartres Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 596-2530

Willie Mae's Scotch House
2401 St Ann St New Orleans, LA 70119
(504) 822-9503

Bar Tonique
820 North Rampart Street
New Orleans, LA 70116
(504) 324-6045

623 Frenchmen Street
New Orleans, LA 70116
(206) 337-3273

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Double Coconut Brownies

Readers, as promised! My Valentine's Day dessert post...a treat for your sweet that should satisfy all cravings.

A wise friend once told me that all good things come from Portugal. He made some good points and to this day I will still argue with him that all things good are actually from China. Of course, that's because he's Portugese and I'm Chinese. However, in this case he is correct and I will give him his due (as much as it pains me.) The origins of coconut, it appears, is derived from the Spanish and Portugese word in the 16th century "coco" meaning grinning face for the three holes resembling a smiling human face. And after taking your first bite of this light, yet rich, double coconut brownie, that is exactly what your face will look like.

The thing I love about cooking is experimenting. I've always found that that is when you make the best discoveries.
Last week, I had a craving for brownies. But I got home and found that I had no milk or vegetable oil. Pretty important ingredients next to the chocolate. I could have gone around the corner to the supermarket to pick them up, but I was in one of those moods where walking 500 feet was too difficult. I was a little down and rethinking my dessert when I stumbled upon a can of coconut milk in my pantry. Score!

Coconut milk is so creamy and luscious that I thought it would be a good replacement for the milk and oil. What I discovered was that the coconut milk gave the brownies a refreshing and moist texture. In fact, why hadn't I had a brownie made with coconut milk before??  The unusual finish to the brownie with the addition of the coconut milk will definitely have your guest trying to capture and identify that elusive flavor. I love the warmth contrasting the coolness with the subtle hint of cinnamon and cardamom.

I finished it with a dark chocolate glaze and some toasted coconut to add another dimension and texture. It gave it a decadence that was tempered with the coconut milk. Delicious!  It is the perfect dessert to finish your Valentine's dinner with your loved one. Nothing shows love better than some chocolatey goodness!

Makes 16 brownies

4 tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup granulated white sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup white flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp ground Saigon cinnamon
1/2 tsp kosher salt
14 fl oz (1 can) coconut milk
1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
1 cup coconut flakes, toasted

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, baking powder, salt, cardamom, and cinnamon.

3. In a mixer on medium, cream sugar and butter until it has come together. Add vanilla and one egg at a time until fully incorporated. Add 12 oz of coconut milk and mix for a few minutes.

4. Bring mixer speed to low and slowly add the dry mixture to the wet. Mix until fully incorporated for several minutes.

5. Pour into a buttered/oiled 8x8 baking pan. Bake for 30 minutes until it is set. If you use a toothpick and stick it in center of brownie, it should come out clean. Remove from oven and let cool.

6. In a double boiler, add chocolate and remaining 2 oz coconut milk over medium-low heat. You can also put it in a microwave and in 15 second intervals slowly melt the chocolate and mix together it smooth and velvety.
7. Pour the chocolate over the brownies and smooth evenly. Top it with the toasted coconut. Refrigerate for about an hour for the glaze to harden a bit.

8. With a sharp non-serrated knife, cut into 16 pieces or 12 pieces if you want it bigger. Serve slightly chilled.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Espresso-Cocoa Short Ribs: You Had Me At Hello

Annually, over 141 million people trade Valentine's Day cards with each other. This weekend, millions of couples worldwide will be celebrating Valentine's Day. Many others will be waiting to pay a ridiculous amount of money for a Valentine's themed dinner on Tuesday, February 14th. I have always found it so outrageous that on this one day, a person feels that their love for their significant other can only be expressed through an overpriced dinner.

This year, I am challenging you to create this decadent, over the top espresso-cocoa short rib for your loved one. The thought, care and effort that goes into this dinner will be so much more special and memorable than paying $100 a head for dinner at a public restaurant. And honestly, how can a dish that has the trifecta (espresso, cocoa, and beef) be anything but amazing.
It may not be the prettiest dish. But the bitter sweetness from the espresso and cocoa paired with the outrageously succulent short rib makes for a standout dish that will make you say, "Wow." Braised in a smooth, berry pinot noir broth for several hours over low heat, this is a great dish to cook the day before and then reheat it an hour before you want to serve it to your special guest. It only gets better as it sits in the fridge overnight!

I made a creamy, purée potato to lay the short rib on and spooned the remaining sauce the short rib braised in over the entire dish. When you take a bite of the beef with the potato drenched in the sauce, you can't help but close your eyes in orgasmic delight. It is just that good. It is a time intensive, but relatively painless, labor free dish. However, I promise the effort will be well worth it when you see the blissful look on your partner's face.

Toast the night away with the remainder of the red wine that you used for the short rib....and then finish it off with a glass of bubbly. It's a night for indulgence!

Hope everyone has a great Valentine's Day weekend with your special someone! Make sure to come back on Monday for dessert. See you then!

Serves 2

1 1/4 lb beef short rib
2 tbsp instant espresso granules
2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tbsp canola oil
2 cloves whole garlic, skin removed
6 pearl onions, blanched and skin removed
1 bay leaf
1 cup red wine preferably Pinot noir
1 1/2 cups beef broth
1/4 tsp unsalted butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Remove short rib from fridge and bring to room temperature for an hour.

2. In a small mixing bowl, mix together espresso and cocoa. Coat all sides of short rib with the mixture.
3. In a large braising pan, heat oil over medium high heat. Add short rib and sear each side for approximately 5 minutes per side. Then, add garlic, onions, and bay leaf to beef for a few minutes. Do not let garlic brown.

4. Slowly pour in wine and broth to the pan, bring to a boil. Then bring heat to low, cover and simmer for approximately 2-2 1/2 hours. Just leave it alone, nothing needs to be done. In the meantime, you can purée the potatoes or whatever side you choose to serve it with and decorate the table.

5. The short rib will be done when you see the meat start pulling away from the bone. It should literally be falling off the bone.

6. Remove short rib from pan. Add butter to remaining sauce over medium high heat, season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and then tyrn off heat.

7. To plate, spoon purée potatoes on center of the dish, top with the short rib and pour reduced sauce over the entire dish. Serve immediately.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Spicy Sriracha Wings

For those of you who know me, it should be no surprise that I will probably NOT be watching the Super Bowl this weekend.  I am just not that "sporty" girl and you are lucky that I even know who's playing in the game this weekend. (Okay...I only know the Giants are playing. Some help on opposing team please? For those of you rolling on the floor right now, please spare me the grief.)

However, I ALWAYS like a reason to cook up some wings!  And with my love of sriracha in everything, I will definitely be enjoying these spicy wings come Sunday night watching whatever else will be on TV that night.

Feel free to adjust sriracha to your own spice-level.  I find the amount I listed below to be enough to give a nice zing, but not burn your tongue.

To serve on the side, the cilantro-lime raita offers a bright, tangy relief to the heat.

Serves 4

2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup sriricha
1 1/2 tbsp honey
Juice from 1 lime
Zest from 1 lime
2 garlic clove, peeled and minced
1 tsbp cilantro (optional)
1 tbsp scallion (optional)
3 lb chicken wings

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For cilantro-lime raita:
3/4 cup yogurt
1/4 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
Juice from 1 lime
Zest from 1 lime
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper

  1. In a large mixing bowl, add all ingredients except the chicken and whisk together. Add salt and pepper to taste. Reserve 3 tbsp of sauce for later. 
  2. Add wings and toss until they are all covered in sauce.  Marinade in fridge for several hours, minimum one hour. You can do this in the morning and then just toss them into the oven an half hour before your guests arrive.
  3. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Lay flat on large baking sheet and bake in preheated oven for approximately 30-35 minutes until golden brown.
  4. Remove from oven and plate.  Drizzle reserve marinade over the wings and top with cilantro and scallions.
  5. For raita, mix all ingredients together and in a small bowl and serve alongside wings and a few beers!  Have a fun & safe Super Bowl everyone!!