Sunday, July 2, 2017

Week 22 - Thai

I generally try to do new things for the cooking challenges, but for the Thai challenge, I decided to just make larb again. It felt like ages since the last time we had made larb at home, and I was really craving it for dinner. It may not have been new, but it was definitely satisfying.


The ground meat challenge two years ago was the first time I had ever tried making larb, and it went pretty well. At that time, I made lots of notes about modifications that I wanted to make in the future, most of which I followed this time around. In addition to those, we used ground turkey instead of ground chicken because that is generally easier for us to find (and cheaper). We now also have Thai chili flakes that we bought after making that recipe, and one heaping tablespoon definitely made it hot.


But overall the method of making it was mostly the same, and by working together (A cooking the turkey while I continued doing more prep), it got done pretty quickly. It's such a simple recipe in concept - just cook the ground meat and when it's done and off the heat, mix in the roasted rice powder, chili flakes, sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, onions, scallions, cilantro, and mint, and adjust the seasonings until it tastes just right. We should definitely make this more.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Whole Foods Bryant Park

We were looking for a light dinner on Memorial Day (yes, this post is a bit overdue), and as we walked through the Herald Square area, started thinking about Chick-fil-A. It wasn't Sunday, unlike most days that we find ourselves thinking about Chick-fil-A, so we figured they would be open. Unfortunately for us, we got there about two minutes after they closed for the holiday, so no Chick-fil-A for us. Since we were close to the Whole Foods in Bryant Park, we decided to go there and finally try out the prepared foods in their "food hall." It wasn't really much of a food hall as there weren't any stalls, but instead you order from a menu with different themed options on some central kiosks.


We split two things. The first was a Korean hot dog which was topped with kimchi, a sweet and spicy sauce that looked gochujang-based, and scallions. We were pleased to see that the kimchi toppings on this hot dog were plentiful, and the toppings and sauce tasted good. The hot dog itself seemed fine but nothing extraordinary, but went well with the kimchi and sauce. However, the bread was not great at all. It was dry, crumbly, and cold, and really detracted from the rest of the hot dog. A griddled bun would have been much better.


The other thing we split was from the hot chicken menu - the Nashville-style hot chicken sandwich, a fried chicken thigh which came with slaw and some pickles on the side. We ordered it with medium spiciness, since we figured hot chicken would be hot and we probably shouldn't order it spicy because we might end up with something extra spicy (like saying spicy at a Thai restaurant). For hot chicken, it wasn't really very spicy at all. I think I got one bite with any kick to it at all, and A got none. Considering this was what medium was, we figured that if we had ordered it at the spiciest level (one above), it probably wouldn't have been that spicy either. The pickles and slaw were fine but nothing special.


We weren't that impressed with our first visit to WF Bryant Park's "food hall." The two things we ordered were just okay, and we probably wouldn't get them again. Also, considering how few other people were ordering at the same time we did, it took a very long time for the food to be ready. We might try some of the other options at some point -- they had Italian sandwiches, reubens, and Indian-inspired bowls as well, the last of which was probably the most interesting of those three -- but there are lots of other places we'd like to go in the area first. I also think we like the WF buffet bar better than what we got here.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Uwajimaya Food Court

When we got to Uwajimaya, we were pretty hungry. Although we wanted to investigate the store, we thought it would be a bad idea to do that on an empty stomach, so we stopped at the first stall in the food court that looked good to us. It happened to be the very first stall right next to the doors, but not that surprising that we stopped there since we like takoyaki.


We placed our order and then waited for a short time as they put together the takoyaki. Since they were freshly made, they were pretty hot when they got to us. We only had a thin stick to eat them with, which when combined with their temperature, made it more challenging to eat.


The takoyaki was good and tasted as we expected it to. The only problem was that not long before our trip, we had stopped by Otafuku in the East Village for some takoyaki, and we've never had better takoyaki than Otafuku (haven't been to Japan), so it suffered a little bit in comparison. The batter here wasn't quite as good as Otafuku, and the octopus came out a little on the chewier side, but as a pre-shopping snack, it definitely worked.


After buying some grocery souvenirs and snacks (probably too many, but that's the usual, and at least we did already eat most of the snacks), we were still hungry. We had planned on visiting Pike Place Market later in the afternoon and food crawling, but it was still a decent walk to get there, so we got one more snack from Uwajimaya.


Right near the registers, there was a deli-like counter with a bunch of different prepared foods from Chef Kenzo, including a bunch of different croquettes - shrimp, kabocha squash, and plain (which was potato). We decided to get one of the shrimp and one of the squash and split them. The croquettes came with a small sauce on the side. Not sure exactly what that was, but it tasted both a little salty and a little sweet. Neither of us really liked the sauce that much and preferred the croquettes without it.


Both croquettes were nicely deep-fried. Between the two, the shrimp one had more flavor and you could see the actual pieces of shrimp inside. The squash one didn't have a ton of flavor to it, but it was kind of comforting, sort of like mashed potatoes are.


There were a lot of stalls at Uwajimaya's food court that had more substantial food that would probably have been healthier than what we got, but we were just looking for something small for a snack. Overall, we had a nice visit to Uwajimaya. Not sure if we would go back on another Seattle trip, just because we have Asian grocery stores and food courts at home, but we're glad we went.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Uwajimaya

We only had one day in Seattle before leaving for Vancouver and so many places we wanted to go. We decided to start our wandering in the International District at Uwajimaya, the famous Asian grocery store and food court. For anyone coming from a New York point of view, think of a giant Chinatown grocery store combined with Mitsuwa, but more accessible by both public transit and walking to the center of the city, and that's pretty much Uwajimaya.


As we walked the aisles, we marveled at the selection. That store really seemed like it had everything, whether you wanted ube cheesecake or fresh Dungeness crab. The fish and seafood cases were especially impressive, with sashimi cuts of tuna and salmon, every type of seafood you could think of, and lots of fresh fish and oysters.


They had probably the biggest aisle of matcha we had ever seen, and so we got some as a souvenir. At the time, I was still operating under the assumption that, since coffee doesn't work, matcha was the only thing that might keep me awake when tired, but I'm not sure if that's the case anymore after I napped recently in the middle of a matcha latte.


Like any good Asian grocery store, they had tons of rice. If only we could take all this rice home with us and have somewhere to put it and a way to eat it all before it went bad.


We bought lots of snacks, including three bags of my favorite brand of shrimp chips that I could rarely find at home back then, and haven't seen at all recently, and some Hi-Chews that were discounted because of the store's strawberry fair. We also bought the special Japanese Kit-Kats but they were super expensive (and cheaper in Vancouver, but we didn't know that then).


We couldn't really take any fresh produce with us but we liked looking at all of it. So many choices, and like most produce on the West Coast, it just looked better.


We had a really good time "sightseeing" at Uwajimaya. We did investigate some of the prepared food options and the food court, but those are for another post. The only criticism we would have of Uwajimaya is that, while the selection is massive, the prices on non-sale items are a little on the higher side. (Still thinking about those Kit-Kats, but we wanted to try them!) Worth a visit though, especially if you don't have a store like this at home.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Flushing Food Crawl

Considering how many food options there are in Flushing, we don't get out there nearly as often as we should. It's only a (relatively) short trip on the 7 train, yet almost all of it has been unexplored by us. For that reason, for one of our dining resolutions for 2017, we decided we should go on a dumpling crawl in Flushing. Last weekend, we did just that (and can finally check off our first fully completed resolution!).


Our first stop was Tianjin Dumpling House at the Golden Shopping Mall in the basement food court. Out of all of our stops on the food crawl, this was the one we had actually been to before, grabbing some dumplings before a wedding a few years ago in case it was like a typical Chinese wedding and the food wouldn't be served for hours. Their specialty is the lamb and green squash dumplings, although the lamb/carrot and pork/chive ones we got the last time (because they were out of the squash ones) were good too. (Just as a side note, probably best to not think of this as your typical "mall" or mall food court; it's a bunch of stalls in a cramped basement that have been there forever just serving good food.)


Each order of dumplings at Tianjin has 12 dumplings, and they range in price from $4 to $7. Really inexpensive. The lamb and green squash ones were $6, which was a great price for 12 dumplings. They were cooked to order so they did take a little bit of time to get, but they were totally worth it. One of our favorite things about the dumplings was the nice chewy wrapper which had sort of an al dente texture to it. We assume that the wrappers are handmade because you can't get that type of elasticity from a machine-made wrapper, and also because the dumplings are all different sizes.

The dumplings themselves had a mild lamb flavor but not an overpowering gaminess. The green squash added an interesting texture. We didn't get much flavor from the squash, but it added something of a "wetness" to the dumplings that helped ensure that they didn't get too dry. For dipping sauces, this no-frills place doesn't have any pre-prepared sauces available. Instead, they have bottles of soy sauce and vinegar and containers of chili sauce and a green-ish garlic sauce. We have no clue what made it green, but it was delicious and had a really nice sharp, garlicky flavor. This was our first stop of the day, but after discussing, we both agreed that it was the best.


Next up was probably the one we had been most excited about - White Bear. We had wanted to go to White Bear for ages, and every time we saw pictures of the wontons in chili oil, we wondered why we hadn't made it yet. These were also $6 for 12, and they came topped with scallions and some pickled vegetables along with the chili oil. (It's #6 on the menu if it's not obvious.) They were also supposed to have good dan dan noodles there, but we didn't want to overdo it and end our food crawl after two stops, so we didn't get those.


We liked the flavor of these dumplings, but we thought that they would be better. The way some people talk about White Bear, we expected this to be something like a life-changing dumpling experience, and it wasn't. It sounds like maybe our expectations were just too high, but while they were high, there was also the fact that we thought our first set of dumplings from Tianjin were better. The wrappers here were handmade and thinner, like a lot of wonton skins are, but that made them less chewy and in some cases, easier for them to fall off the filling. A couple of our wontons were either broken or broke as we tried to pick them up. Flavor-wise, we noticed that despite the chili oil, they weren't really very spicy at all. We've had wontons or dumplings like this before that were much spicier and thought those had more flavor. These were also on the salty side. The pickled vegetables here added some nice freshness and differentiated it from other dumplings we had in the past, but they also contributed to the saltiness.


We intended for our next stop to be more dumplings, but as we wandered around, we found ourselves in the food court at the New World Mall (this one, a more typical mall and mall food court). We walked around looking at all the stalls and all the many food options until we stopped in our tracks at Cheers Cut. When we were back in Vancouver, we had tried Taiwanese large fried chicken for the first time (post coming eventually in our trip recaps) and it was incredible. We had heard rumors that places in NYC were starting to make this, but didn't really know where to go yet. When we saw that Cheers Cut had large fried chicken, we had to stop the dumpling crawl and get some chicken.


Cheers Cut (apparently with two locations in NYC, as well as one each in Tampa and Philadelphia) had two sizes of large fried chicken - large (samurai) and extra large (ninja). We, of course, went with the ninja ($7.95) so we could try more, and in the choice between pepper and chili topping, went with pepper since it was closer to what we got in Vancouver. In style, it was very similar to what we got in Vancouver (and presumably what they serve in Taiwan, but A never had this there, and M hasn't been to Taiwan) - a chicken breast and thigh flattened into one large piece of chicken, breaded, and deep fried. The dark meat retained some of the bones, even in this flattened form, but there was a mix of white and dark meat in every piece.


While this chicken was good, we preferred the one we got in Vancouver. The breading on that one attached more to the chicken and didn't really get soggy and flake off at all like this one did in parts, there was a little more flavor in the topping, the breading, and the chicken itself in the Canadian one, and the chicken was a little juicier there. That said, until we hear about the location of another Taiwanese large fried chicken joint in NYC, we don't have anything to compare it to in this city, so guess it's the best one for now. Maybe someday there will be other places here to compare, but right now it's much cheaper going to Queens than flying back to Canada.


Our next stop we figured would be one of our last, since it was a full-service restaurant instead of a quick service place - Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao. We were going, obviously, for XLB, but we also heard that they made good scallion pancakes. Since we'd pretty much been eating heavy food without vegetables all day, we also figured we should balance that out with a plate of cucumber and garlic ($4.50). That was nice and refreshing with good garlic flavor, although a couple of pieces of cucumber were a little on the bitter, softer side. It felt really good to eat all those cucumbers though, since we were incredibly dehydrated.


The scallion pancakes ($3.50) came first, since soup dumplings take a little bit of time to make. These were crispier and flakier than the scallion pancakes we're used to getting. Despite the crispy exterior, though, the insides were still soft and chewy just the way we like them. While these were quite good, the ones A's mom makes are better.


The last thing to arrive was the steamer of six pork soup dumplings ($5.95). These were quite delicious. The soup inside was rich and flavorful without being too scalding. The filling was also flavorful and soaked up a lot of the flavor from the soup. The really nice thing was that the wrappers were thinner than most versions you get in NYC. That was always our gripe with the offerings in NYC. While in overall rankings we'd rank higher the ones we got at Din Tai Fung in Asia and others we got in Vancouver, these are probably our favorite of the ones we've tried in NYC. We haven't tried everywhere in NYC though, so we're open to further comparisons, but so far, these are the best we've had here.


After all of that savory food, it was time to end the day with some dessert. We headed back to New World Mall to the food court, as we had been hearing a lot recently about some stall there named Erqal that served Uyghur ice cream. When we went on our walk through the food court earlier, we had seen it and mentally bookmarked it for dessert. With tax, a regular ice cream was only about $3, which was pretty good for such a large cup.


The first thing we noticed about the ice cream was how it was made. There was a giant whirring motor spinning a frozen metal bowl holding the ice cream base. In the bowl was also a large wooden paddle that provided the aeration required to make the ice cream. When it's fully frozen the wooden paddle is then used to scoop out the ice cream into another container so that it resembles a large clump. The ice cream definitely had a different texture from most of the ice cream we usually eat. It had hints of brown sugar and caramel in the flavor, and texturally it wasn't as creamy as any other ice cream we had ever eaten. It was more icy and watery for lack of a better term, and it lent itself to being eaten very quickly. It was an interesting experience, and we really enjoyed the ice cream.


We had a pretty productive day exploring Flushing, trying different foods from all over China, checking off our resolution to go on a dumpling crawl, and even seeing bits of history from the colonial era on our walk, like the Kingsland Homestead. We should definitely explore more neighborhoods in the city more often.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Raspberry Earl Grey

We continued our Cronuts adventure on Memorial Day since we were very excited about the May flavor - raspberry earl grey with earl grey sugar. We got it as an afternoon treat, and it attracted a lot of attention as we sat at one of the front tables since so many people were wondering how we managed to get one in the afternoon. A lot more people know about pre-ordering because of that, so guess we'll have more competition in the future!


M's review: Having just recently done the tea cooking challenge at the time we got this, I was curious to see how the tea would combine with the raspberry here. The two flavors seemed like they would go well together, but unfortunately, I didn't get any tea flavor at all. The raspberry though was very sweet and so good, but I love raspberries so I could just be biased. I thought it was a really good raspberry jam filling. I was happy with the raspberry flavor, but had just been hoping from more from the tea.
M's Cronut rankings: 1) blueberry elderflower, 2) raspberry earl grey, 3) lychee rose jam, 4) golden honey vanilla


A's review: In my opinion, this really should have just been called raspberry. I got no tea flavor at all, and it reminded me of my failed Earl Grey cupcake idea. I don't know, maybe Earl Grey just isn't strong enough of a flavor to come out when used in cooking. Regardless, the raspberry jam was delicious, and I would definitely eat any donut concoction filled with that again. I don't know that I would need to get another Earl Grey infused donut, though.
A's Cronut rankings: 1) blueberry elderflower, 2) lychee rose jam, 3) raspberry earl grey, 4) golden honey vanilla

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Week 21 - Presentation

Around the time that I started looking for something to do for the presentation challenge (one which I was not really looking forward to as I'm not really great at plating and most food I make for dinner doesn't lend itself well to good plating), the buzz about cloud eggs started heating up. These eggs have been around for a while with recipes going back years, but apparently there was an Instagram craze at the time. The Washington Post even did a piece on cloud eggs. What would be better for presentation than making something that was really all about how it looked? I decided to pair the eggs with corned beef hash and some roasted potatoes, sort of a "breakfast for dinner," until I saw something about the Pinterest popularity of a recipe for Southwestern roasted potato salad. Might as well make it an on-trend presentation challenge meal and just incorporate that too.

Roasted Potato Salad


I went with the recipe for the Southwestern roasted potato salad as a starting point and inspiration, and used the following ingredients:

- about 1.5 lbs of small red potatoes ($1.79)
- 2 green bell peppers ($1.78)
- 1 red bell pepper ($0.99)
- 1 large onion ($0.50)
- olive oil ($0.50)
- salt and pepper ($0.05)
- cumin ($0.10)
- dried dill weed ($0.10)
- chili powder ($0.15)
- 1 can of corn ($0.70)
- 1/2 batch of scallions ($0.65)


The steps for the potatoes were pretty easy:

- prep (scrub and chop potatoes into quarters, chop peppers, chop onion)
- grease 2 baking sheets (was going to use one but ran out of space) and put potatoes and vegetables on the sheets
- cover in olive oil, salt, pepper, dill, cumin, chili powder and mix well with hands
- bake in 400 degree oven for 50 minutes, stirring once in the middle, until potatoes are fork tender (these are basically all the same steps I would done for the roasted potatoes anyway)
- remove potatoes to a bowl and add the corn and chopped scallions
- mix together well and season to taste (didn't really do much seasoning as the bowl was a little too small for easy mixing)


Considering all the ingredients that went into the potatoes, they weren't amazingly flavorful. With chili powder, cumin, dill, we just thought there would be more to them, but after they came out of the oven, they mostly just tasted like lightly seasoned potatoes. You couldn't really detect the chili powder or the cumin in the flavor even though I used a fair amount. They were fine, since we like the taste of potatoes, but no different from normal. In general, this really just seemed like a roasted potato dish like we would normally make for the most part. The only thing that differentiated it and "freshened it up" a little bit was the addition of the crisp corn and the scallions. That was nice for making the dish a little less heavy. It was good overall and the flavor grew on us after a bit, and it was also a good accompaniment for the rest of dinner. Just don't know that I would call this a salad. I do like the idea of adding in the corn and scallions to lighten the flavors though.

Corned Beef Hash


Not much to say here, as we basically just emptied the can into a skillet and let it brown, but it added another $2.09 to the total and lots of flavor.

Cloud Eggs

For the "main event," the cloud eggs, we separated 4 eggs. The yolks all went into separate bowls, and then all the egg whites together in one bigger bowl. Adding the 4 eggs to all the other components of dinner, the total was about $9.80. Not bad considering how much food there was.


Making the cloud eggs was easy in theory. Whip the egg whites until they form stiff peaks, scoop out in four "clouds" with little nests for the yolks, bake at 425 degrees for about 3 minutes, add the yolks, and then bake at 400 degrees for another 3 minutes or so. It sounded easy but whipping the egg whites by hand took forever. We both took a turn at it and did about half the work. It did look hard in that mise en place challenge on Top Chef where they did this, but definitely not as hard as it felt for us amateurs.


The eggs were interesting. The texture of the egg whites when baked was light and fluffy, kind of cloud-like, also a little spongy. The yolks were still runny after the 3 minutes of baking, except the one that broke when it was going into the oven and spilled over like an egg volcano. The eggs generally were fine, but taste-wise, nothing special. Kind of amusing to look at, although questionable whether it's worth the work if you do the egg whites by hand.


Since it was a presentation challenge, I tried to make a landscape design on my plate and have it look nice, but it didn't really work. At least the cloud eggs still were presentation-worthy.


I'm not sure we would make the cloud eggs again. It was fun to try, even if just for the novelty of it, and they were pretty healthy as there wasn't really any oil or grease involved in cooking them, but they're a lot of work.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Week 20 - 5 Ingredients or Less

My plan for the 5 ingredients or less challenge had originally been miso soup, but after I saw that someone else made a frittata, I threw the original plan out the window. Instead of making a dish that wouldn't be substantial enough for a whole meal, a frittata or an omelette or a scramble could be. We ended up eating some bread alongside it, but it didn't necessarily need the bread, so it qualified as 5 ingredients or less to me.


The 5 ingredients (since salt and pepper didn't count) were:

- mushrooms ($1.90)
- sliced leeks ($0.75)
- 4 strips of bacon, sliced ($1.92)
- 6 eggs ($0.60)
- shredded Mexican cheese ($0.95)

All of those ingredients, plus salt, pepper, and the bread, put the total for dinner at approximately $7.37. Not bad for dinner for two. It helped having ingredients like bacon and cheese that packed a lot of flavor in for minimal cost.


It was pretty easy to prepare - frying the bacon, cooking the mushrooms and leeks in the bacon fat, and then adding the eggs and making a scramble. I always forget how much I like making this for dinner, and should definitely do it more.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Week 19 - Tea

We have a lot of tea at home, but when the tea challenge came up, I really wasn't sure what to make. I didn't want to make dessert, and nothing really inspired me until I looked through what other people submitted for the challenge and saw something I had never heard of called ochazuke. A simple Japanese dish, it's made by pouring tea (or dashi or a combination) over rice and savory ingredients. After reading more about it, it reminded me a lot of a dish we had gotten in Vancouver, but we just hadn't known this was what it was called.


Since ochazuke is usually made with green tea, I decided to use genmaicha, in part because it's one of my favorites and in part because I thought the roasted rice flavor would go well with the cooked rice. (If you're unfamiliar with genmaicha, it's green tea combined with roasted brown rice.) Apparently the other common teas used besides genmaicha are sencha and hojicha, and I'm not sure if we even have either of those at the moment. I wasn't sure how the savory ingredients would go with the tea alone, so I decided to experiment and for each of our two bowls, make one with just tea and one with a tea/dashi mix.


The ingredients for the ochazuke were:

- 2 cups (uncooked) brown rice ($2)
- smoked salmon ($7.26)
- 3 green onions ($0.30)
- 1 package of Maui onion seaweed snacks ($0.33)
- 1/2 tsp of sesame seeds ($0.10)
- 3 genmaicha tea bags ($0.50)
- small spoonful of Hondashi mixed with water ($0.15)


On the side, I also made sunomono (based on a Japanese Cooking 101 recipe) because I wasn't sure there would be enough vegetable matter in the ochazuke alone. Unfortunately, the time I went to Trader Joe's they were out of the non-organic Persian cucumbers, so I had to go with a regular hothouse cucumber, which probably contributed to this not being as good as we had hoped. I probably also made too much sauce for it and should have drizzled it in instead of pouring in the whole bowl at once, as the salad was a little too drenched. It tasted fine, but just like cucumbers with soy sauce and vinegar, nothing we need to do again. I mention all this now because I was so unenthused about it that I forgot to even take a picture of the finished product. Anyway, the ingredients were:

- 1 hothouse cucumber ($1.29)
- about 1 tbsp sugar ($0.10)
- 3 tbsp rice vinegar ($0.25)
- splash of soy sauce ($0.05)
- a few shakes of sesame seeds ($0.10)

Combined with the ochazuke, that put the grand total for dinner at approximately $12.43, but that wasn't surprising since smoked salmon isn't cheap. We need to eat more fish on a regular basis though, so no complaints.


The first thing we did for this was start the rice since that would take the longest to cook. While the rice was cooking, I made the sunomono and also did prep for the ochazuke. The prep steps were to chop the scallions, tear up the sheets of seaweed, toast the sesame seeds, make the dashi, and of course to steep the tea.


I remembered one of the sites that I had looked at about ochazuke talked about cooking the rice so it would get some nice browning. We tried doing that with some rice patties, but it didn't really make much difference so we only did it for the first bowl.


This dish was basically all about prep, and once everything was prepped, it was easy. A ball of rice at the bottom, and then layer on the toppings of salmon, scallions, seaweed, and sesame seeds. (I just realized those all start with S!)


After everything is in the bowl, you pour over the tea (and/or dashi) and then let all the ingredients soak in the broth. It ends up being kind of like having soup.


The ochazuke wasn't bad - very light and healthy tasting - but also not amazingly flavorful outside of the delicious smoked salmon. The tea didn't have as much flavor as we thought it would, and it definitely tasted better once we added the dashi. It was good though to have such a healthy, simple dinner.


I don't know that I would plan to make this again since it was good but not amazing, but outside of the smoked salmon, we have pretty much all the ingredients on hand most of the time, so it might work as a good way to use up ingredients sometime. What this dinner really did more than anything else was remind me that I should incorporate smoked salmon into more dishes. So much flavor, and a little bit goes a long way. It's basically the fish equivalent of bacon.