Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Home Cooking - Cherry Cheer

Why is it that fresh fruits are so expensive? :( I utterly adore them, but the ever-rising prices make it hard for me to purchase them, much less stuff them into recipes where they lose their individual brillance, crisp juice, and full firmness due to exposure to high temperature cooking.

I've had a craving for this sophisticated-but-simple Cherry Clafoutis ever since reading about it in the June Food and Wine issue, so when I found frozen, pre-pitted (score!) cherries at Trader Joes, I knew I had to try it out.

This turned out to be pretty much what I expected it to be: a homey, not overly-sweet, but casually elegant dessert. One that would be perfect served in the French countryside, but similarly enjoyable while illuminated by candlelight in a not-so-rustic neighborhood. To my delight, my place also smelled exactly like a French patisserie after making this, which I attribute to the magic of egg, butter, and caramelized sugar proudly puffing up in my oven. Two tips to distinguish this clafoutis are 1) letting the batter sit for at least and hour and 2) not adding any sugar to the egg-milk batter, which weighs it down and prevents it from puffing up as much while baking (although the cake deflates as it cools down anyway).

Sweet Cherry Clafoutis

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 3 hours

Most chefs in France's Limousin region say that this creamy cake tastes best made with unpitted cherries. If this is too rustic for you, pit the cherries, roll them in sugar and freeze them; the frozen sugar grains seal the fruit, so juice doesn't stain the batter. Purists insist on local black cherries, but I think you can use any bold-flavored fruit, like apricots or plums.

1 pound sweet cherries, pitted and patted dry with paper towels
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 cup flour, plus more for dusting
Pinch of salt
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups milk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the dish
2 tablespoons Cognac or brandy (I used a combination of rum and amaretto instead)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Confectioners' sugar for dusting


In a bowl, toss the cherries with 3 tablespoons of the granulated sugar and the lemon zest. Spread the cherries out on a baking sheet and freeze for 1 1/2 hours.
Meanwhile, in another bowl, whisk the 1/2 cup flour and salt. Whisk in the eggs. In a small saucepan, heat 1/2 cup of the milk with 3 tablespoons of the butter until the butter melts. Whisk the warm milk into the flour mixture just until smooth. Whisk in the remaining 1 1/2 cups of milk. Add the Cognac and vanilla, cover and let rest at room temperature for at least 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 425°. Butter a 9 1/2-inch deep-dish pie plate and dust with flour. Spread the cherries in a single layer in the pie plate, adding any sugar from the baking sheet to the cherries. Whisk the batter again and pour it over the cherries.

Bake the clafoutis just above the center of the oven for 20 minutes, or until the top is just set and golden. Top with the remaining 1 tablespoon of granulated sugar and 1 tablespoon of butter. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes longer, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer to a rack to cool. Dust with confectioners' sugar, cut into wedges and serve.

Happily, I think that frozen cherries work just as well as their fresh counterparts! Besides, they were going to be frozen anyway... I was a bit more generous with the vanilla extract, sugar, and alcohol (purely by accident) than the recipe called for (I think, at least; I just poured instead of measuring), and the results didn't seem to suffer.

I really had no idea how this was going to turn out, as I've never seen a clafoutis before, much less heard of one, so I was a bit surprised to find that the dense flour in the batter sank to the bottom during the baking period, to form a toothy, chewy-soft 'crust' that rather reminded me of baked mochi. The remaining egg-milk (I used nonfat, so this is a pretty healthy dessert!) suspension yielded a mildly eggy, quite soft custard. (Oops, I just realized that perhaps my heavy hand with the rum could have been the reason for that.)

Dessert by candlelight... for my all-purpose guinea pigs, my parents. :o)

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Monterey Park, CA - New Concept

One of the most famous chinese restaurants in California's southland lies in Monterey Park. This fabulous restaurant with highly regarded food (justifying the lofty prices) is hidden in a little city that has been overrun by the likes of communities such as San Gabriel and Arcadia. But when it comes time to impress with a wine-and-dine experience, whether for business or pleasure, New Concept Restaurant is one of the very top choices around.

Consider yourself forewarned: be prepared to pay money. You can easily spend $500 per person, depending on your order. Even humble items cost an arm and a leg. A single duck foot, for example, currently costs $4.80 there. (Generally, one should be able to purchase 8/$1.00.) Tonight, the group of us opted for a relatively inexpensive feast, settling on the set banquet menu shown below (exchanging baked lobster for the baked abalone, and a hand-ground walnut dessert for the steamed hasmar). The total cost was slightly over $700 including tip and excluding drinks.

Or, in English (not a literal translation):

I would advise making reservations beforehand and arriving early. When we arrived at 6:30pm, we were initially told that there was no space. A number of well-frequented, popular chinese restaurants seem to say that so frequently, it might as well be their greeting. But, if you say the right things or enter with the right people, miraculously, they will have space. Perhaps they'll open up the back room or set up an entirely new table. Why in the world they choose to be so exclusive, I don't know, but it seems to be a trend, unfortunately.

This foodie was a bit disappointed in the food. No doubt it was one of the best chinese meals that I've had, but given New Concept's preeminent reputation, I had expected just a little more. It ranks in reputation a bit higher than Seafood Village Restaurant and much higher than CBS Seafood Restaurant, yet the latter two prepare better food and/or offer better values for the food.

Praise goes to the chef(s) for taking an experimental take on traditional dishes. Many chinese chefs seem unwilling to explore fusion concepts, or if they do, don't entirely succeed. New Concept Restaurant showed promise with culinary explorations, and we admired some new food preparations we've never had before. The pate with sliced roast pork and the deep fried battered scallop dish were subtle twists on traditional fare. They didn't reach perfect harmony (although the roast pork by itself was exquisite), but the effort to create something new was a welcome experience.

The best-made dishes of the menu by far were the flavorful and tender House Special Deep Fried Squab, and the Egg-wrapped Special Fried Rice. Fried rice is one of those classic dishes that in theory, anyone can make. But mastering it is quite another accomplishment. New Concept pulled this dish off with flying colors
through the use of fresh, high quality ingredients and skillful culinary expertise. Their homemade XO sauce was particularly flavorful compared to that of many other restaurants.

On a general scale, the meal was good; it's definitely a restaurant worth visiting. However, I found the food unbalanced. It was a bit too flavorful at times: the walnut dessert was too sweet, the Sheephead Fish too salty, and the Deep Fried Battered Scallop clashed with a funky sauce that just didn't win me over. The Braised Shark's Fin Soup with Fish Stock was deemed "very mediocre" by our party as a whole, although I individually found it rather satisfying. My best guess is that the others were unaccustomed to shark's fin being served with a white fish broth.

The restaurant excels in their attention to detail and service. Many of the dishes were wonderfully presented (a trait uncommon to many chinese restaurants) and the wait staff came often to change our plates and tea cups and otherwise attend to our needs. They even noted personal drinking preferences so that, by the end of the meal, they were able to accurately pour the tea in stronger or lighter concentration to the individual's unspoken preference.

If you're looking to experience some of the best chinese food you can find, New Concept Restaurant should definitely be in your book. As mentioned before, it has a reputation which outclasses the likes of 888 Seafood Restaurant, CBS Seafood Restaurant, NBC Seafood Restaurant and even Seafood Village Restaurant. As a general note, CBS Seafood and NBC Seafood tend to have solid food with less emphasis on creativity. 888 Seafood and Seafood Village are a little more creative with their cooking as is New Concept. But truth be told, you can't really go wrong with any of these picks, so please do stop by and check each of them out!

New Concept
700 S Atlantic Blvd.
Monterey Park, CA 91754
(626) 282-6800

Friday, June 17, 2005

Woodland Hills, CA - Western Bagel

Bagels; the beloved comfort-food of the east coast. I once remarked that you go to the west coast for fluffy, finger-sticky doughnuts, and the east coast for hearty bagels with satisfyingly elastic skins and yeasty, plump interiors. Put another way, the Dunkin' Doughnuts in Boston is not a place that you want to frequent. If you have an irrepresible sweet-tooth craving, a triple chocolate chip bagel from Finagle-A-Bagel more than does the trick!

Every now and then, though, there are exceptions to the rule. I believe Western Bagel is one of them. I haven't sampled enough of their bagels to know if it is the bagel itself that is successful, or if it's the toppings that steal the show. I'm inclined to lean towards the latter because even though each bagel had the requisite toothy outer skin (created by a quick boiling process before the bagel is finished off in a baking oven), the interior dough was still on the lighter side. A nice piece of bread, true, but lacking the density of a New York bagel.

We had a quick and dirty snack affair with an 'everything cheese bagel' that was microwave warmed (you can also get your bagel toasted) before being delivered into our hungry hands. We tore into its warmth, taking care not to dislodge the mounds of soft, sweet chopped garlic, crunchy poppy seeds, yellow onion, cornmeal, and sesame seeds hiding under a rather greasy blanket of cheese (mild cheddar, mozzarella, and monterey jack jalapeno cheese). It was so delicious, that it wasn't until we were halfway through that thoughts of pictures belatedly popped into our mind. I paused, considered, and quickly (but carefully) wiped my hands of garlicky cheese grease before taking photographic evidence. Looking back at the picture, I'm glad that I did.

The next morning, I also nabbed a package of 10 bagelini's for approximately $3.50, 4" miniatures of their bagel siblings. They retained a high level of edibility over the course of the next few days, after a 10-second zap in the microwave. We also tried a jalapeno bagel (spicy without flavor depth; quite bland), jalapeno cheese bagel (a plain bagel with some spicy salsa slopped on top of it and finished off with cheese, resulting in a super-messy concoction that anyone could easily replicate at home), and a chocolate chip bagel (chewy verging on overly-tough, and the chocolate chips seemed like an after-thought).

Verdict: Try the everything cheese bagel and get a bag of bagelinis to eat the next morning before you run out of the house.

Western Bagel
21749 Ventura Boulevard
Woodland Hills, CA 91364

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

LA skyline

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Woodland Hills, CA - Poquito Mas

Poquito Mas. The name is one that's fun for me, a non Spanish-speaking individual, to say... and pretend that "si, hablo espanol". :)

So this isn't an 'authentic' Mexican place by any means; I'd compare it to your typical Baja Fresh. But on a whim, we decided to eat there, and it really hit the spot. Their motto: "We don't serve fast food. We serve fresh food as fast as we can".

This was one of the most fun, interactive meals I've ever had the pleasure of simulaneously giggling and noshing my way through, but that was the company. It's great when you can eat with your hands, getting intimate with your food.

We tried a little bit of everything, which made for a vivacious spectrum of foods.

We noticed a 'special' written up on the chalkboard: Mucho Mas Sopitos. For a $1-something each, these were appetizers with a burst of flavor. The pancake-like corn tortilla base was tenderly soft, the steak was well-marinated and juicy, and the flurry of lettuce and cheese on top added textural interest. It came with an enchilada-like sauce, which we kicked up a notch with some tobasco sauce. Mmmmmmmm~

Vegetables. Meat. How to get both, while getting the most variety possible? My companion and I soon found out (happily!) that we have pretty similar interests in Mexican food. One dinner plate (your typical combo), and one tostadas. ... Iceberg lettuce does count as a vegetable, right? I know, barely any nutritional value. I really chose the tostada salad because I'm addicted to the flaky, crisp shell container and less because it was our source of 'vegetables'.

At $7.25, the dinner plate offers your choice of chicken, steak, or carnitas (pork), and comes with salsa (of which you can get your own at the condiment bar), guacamole, rice, beans, and homemade corn or flour tortillas. We went for the flour tortillas, which seemed to be a bit lopsided just to prove that they were lovingly made by hand. I was pleased to find them to be a tad bit thicker than the store-bought ones, and we happily scooped a little bit of everything into them to make bulging burritos. Lovely, sauce-dripping things, we had much fun customizing each bite with our spread of salsas and hot sauce. The carnitas, I might add, was decent; well-seasoned and not fatty, yet tender. The rice and beans were pretty bland, and were improved once within their flour blanket.

This was your typical tostada salad, which meant huge, and piled with the usual suspects. We ordered a chicken tostada so that we could try all three types of meat. In hindsight, the beef was the best, so we'll know to get that the next time around. They were generous with the chicken breast, but it was over-cooked and lacked flavor (besides salt), and was again best eaten in messy mouthfuls of tostada 'nachos'.

With all the food we ordered, there wasn't enough room in our tummies for it all, so we left the tostada salad looking quite ravaged. We left contented and stuffed, and with smiles on our faces. This is one notch above a fast food restaurant and one notch below El Torito and Chevy's. For the convenience, cost ($6-8, for the most part), and variety/quality of food, it's worth a return visit.

Poquito Mas (chain)
21049 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills